Close-Up: Live Issue - Do agencies undervalue creativity?

Andrew Cracknell argues agencies should aim to supply ideas, not to be clients' business partners.

As an example of the medium being the message, I'd like to start with a chart.

Along the bottom, it marks decades from 1965 to 2005; up the side, it shows minutes from zero to an hour. A line runs from five minutes in 1965 to 60 in 2005 and the chart is snappily titled: "Historical pictorial of the length of time it takes to get to the creative work in a creative presentation."

If, as the latest IPA figures show, only 12 per cent of the salary bill is going on creative people, it means that 88 per cent isn't - and that 88 per cent have to justify themselves somehow. I once went to a run-through for a new-business pitch where the planner turned up with 80 charts for presentation. On another occasion, another very senior planner, when asked to clarify a brief, loftily replied: "I don't have time for that - advertising is only a small part of what I do."

Now he may well have been right, but how did we ever get to that state?

Why is the investment in the people who do the one thing for a client they can't do for themselves being run down? Meanwhile, armies of ancillaries advance, trampling the true purpose of the ad business: to supply ideas.

The figures for the creative people were never that good and they are dropping year by year. My belief is that, along with short-termism and the paranoiac atmosphere engendered by the big conglomerate agency heads, too many agency management people are uncomfortable with the inchoate nature of their product, the fact judgment on it is often subjective and the people at the heart of it are weird and "unbusinesslike".

"Painters and decorators", they affectionately but tellingly call them, and slide away from the source of their discomfort as their careers develop, towards territory where they feel more at home and "grown up". Hence the planner who thinks he works for McKinsey, the managing director who thinks he's running a Fortune 500 company. A client once told me her spirits sank when her agency said it wanted to be her business partner. "I don't want a business partner," she thought. "Why can't you relax in the knowledge that simply giving me ideas is priceless?"

Ah, price! Is this why agencies are undervalued? Because they've been less than clear and thus less than robust about exactly what it is they expect to be paid for? Clients aren't free from blame either. Too often, they're disingenuous at review time when it comes to assessing what the agency has done for them, conveniently forgetting the mass of their own marketing department's work that they have dumped on the agency.

The role of the agency should be that of the fool in the corner of the clients' offices, an objective, realistic voice. But agency management don't want to see themselves as fools; they'd rather don suits and get serious. And as soon as a fool puts on a suit, he's no longer a fool but isn't taken seriously either.

That's what's happened to agencies; they are not seen as serious consultancies but their true product isn't valued because it has been subsumed under a mess of other stuff that takes up 88 per cent of the fee. There is a misapprehension that to be taken seriously you have to be earnest and take yourself seriously. You don't - you just have to be very, very good at what you do.

The agency is the idiot savant. But if you want the savant bit, you have got to embrace the idiot.

CREATIVE DIRECTOR - Gerry Moira, executive creative director, Euro RSCG London

"It has been a glacial movement. Slow but inexorable and, quite possibly, irreversible. The drift from 'Big Idea' to 'Big Show'.

"Creative departments have slowly marginalised themselves, moving from original, conceptual thinking to obsessing about execution. There was a time when inventing ideas such as After Eight or Mr Kipling were all in a day's work for our creatives; now the rewards are there for 'best rip-off of a pop promo'.

"Clients don't see themselves as being in the mini-movie business; they see themselves as being in business. If you really want to make movies, go and make a real one. If you want to build brands through big ideas, stay and fight."

MEDIA AGENCY - CEO - Phil Georgiadis, chief executive, Walker Media

"When I was a lad, creative people were famous, which reminded us all of their importance to an advertising agency. I was jealous. They were the Mick Jaggers to the Bill Wymans of media.

"But now it's my view that there are fewer creative people around and certainly less value placed on the individuals who make up the function.

Consequently, it has been devalued, which is insanity.

"It appears now creatives are not the stars of the playing staff but the grey, anonymous members of the non-playing staff, on the bench.

"Perhaps victims of past excesses or of tough times, creatives must reassert their role for the benefit of us all."

- Feature, p22

CREATIVE AGENCY - CEO - Andrew McGuinness, chief executive, TBWA\London

"The industry's been through a crisis of confidence in the past 15 years but we'd be wrong to doubt the power of our creativity. Too many have succumbed to pressures exerted by parent companies. The pendulum has swung too far away from creativity.

"It's particularly worrying at a time when creativity within client companies is becoming greater. We must never become just a proxy for another member of our clients' teams. We must maintain a little distance between client and agency, to bring our creativity to bear on their problems objectively. As agents, the question we have to ask ourselves is: 'What can we do that they can't do themselves?'"

CLIENT - Jon Florsheim, managing director of sales and marketing, BSkyB

"Generally it's true that the main difference between agencies is creative output and that's usually why they win or lose business. And the first step to good creative work is good planning. That could be because creative people aren't involved directly enough with the client at the briefing process and the planners clarify what everyone's supposed to be doing.

"We increasingly use more, different agencies and involve our branding agency more and more. Which means that the money we spend with our advertising agencies is supposed to be predominantly on creative work. So the salary figures do seem to be imbalanced."