Asked by a reporter to explain the concept of American jazz, Louis
Armstrong was reputed to have said: ’If you gotta ask, you ain’t never
I veered towards the same conclusion last week, when the conversation
with an eminent advertising personage turned to what makes some ad
agencies ’better’ than others. What makes the agencies that swamp the
awards books different from others? When an agency consistently churns
out effective advertising, what accounts for that? And when an agency
consistently churns out dross, what accounts for that?
Is it simply that the agencies with the best creative talent have the
strongest cultures? Well, it’s probably not that simple - and hasn’t
been since CDP’s Collin Millward became the first creative director to
raise the status of his department by paying them more, fighting for the
budgets needed to employ world-class photographers and directors, and
then insisting they earn every penny.
The proof that agency culture is not just down to the creative talent is
in the varying performance of some creative people before and after
their stints with the agency. And where do account people and planners
Is it because some clients encourage their agencies to do better
Partly. But how do you explain the fact that some Unilever shops produce
ads that have you reaching for the remote control, while others produce
sparkling work that stands out a mile? And sometimes after account
reviews we see work get dramatically better (eg the Times, Impulse) or
dramatically worse (eg the Guardian, Wonderbra). So it’s not solely down
to the client.
Is it that some agencies simply have a better handle on what it takes to
do great work, and to keep churning that work through the system, year
in, year out? That’s the closest thing I can find to a true common
denominator between BMP DDB, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Abbott Mead Vickers
BBDO, Leagas Delaney, Lowes and those newer agencies that consistently
do admirable work - Mother and St Luke’s, for example.
Think about what makes these agencies interesting places to work for and
work with. At the older agencies, many key staff have come and gone.
And many clients, definitely, have come and gone.
So what remains? There are some common characteristics. Strong desire
from all. Strong relationships with clients. Encouragement from creative
management. Genuine support of top management. Tolerance for risk
High standards. Investment in technology. Ability to make tough
Account people and creatives that believe in each other’s ideals. In
other words, culture.
If you gotta ask, you ain’t never gonna know? Only when it comes to