Claire Beale: To play it safe is to play a very dangerous game
A view from Claire Beale

Claire Beale: To play it safe is to play a very dangerous game

Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO's Craig Mawdsley is right - the ad industry needs more mavericks, more provocateurs and more people who are going to force change if we're all to escape oblivion (page 22).

The problem is that finding room for the difficult, the annoying and the dangerously brilliant isn't easy in the service culture that dominates the way most agencies work. As Mawdsley points out, "those we reward the most are presentable and friendly" with good people-skills and engaging faces to put against the fee charges.

Yet this model of selling a service rather than a business-defining product is compromising agencies' ability to adapt and drive through the necessary innovation that can transform their own business and that of their clients. And it's made worse when agencies are encouraged by their clients to deliver success models based on what has worked in the past; this requirement to take the safe, proven route reinforces the ever-decreasing circles of the status quo.

Take the whole issue of advertising research. Mawdsley reckons focus groups and pre-testing are simply no longer up to the job and prohibit new learnings. Yet while more and more clients are rushing to talk about risk-taking and the right to fail, they still incentivise their brand managers against pre-testing scores on ad campaigns. It doesn't add up; it would take a foolhardy ad agency to accept the invitation to be provocative and experimental from clients who were themselves bonused on playing it safe.

(As an aside, when Dare presented its creative strategy to Gocompare earlier this year, the marketers liked the idea so much, they decided to run with it without any pre-testing, even though Dare was proposing an all-out assault on their loathed brand icon, Gio Compario - page 6. So far, I think the Gocompare marketers were right to trust their instincts, but few marketers have licence or confidence to be so bold.)

But agencies, too, are happy playing it safe on their own business development. Mawdsley points out that every other industry that has any kind of exposure to technology is putting time and money into research and development, yet agencies are too slow to embrace R&D to explore new business models for themselves.

Albion's Jason Goodman nails one interpretation of this in his piece on page 14. The democratising effects of technology should be opening up significant new opportunities for agencies to build products not just for their clients, sharing the IP, but also for themselves. Yet many agencies simply aren't agile enough, or visionary enough, to adapt to the new ways of working (removing the creative department!) that these opportunities might demand.

Which brings us back to the mavericks, the scarily challenging people you might not put in front of the client, but who might just save us all.