The easy way to judge a creative agency: look at what's on its walls
A view from Russell Davies

The easy way to judge a creative agency: look at what's on its walls

If this sentence doesn’t grab you, then I’m wasting my time. That seems to be the general rule with articles – we use the first sentence to determine whether the whole thing’s worth reading.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’ve been doing training for young planners, trying to explain how to be an old planner. Lots of my "wisdom" boils down to me saying: "Well, isn’t it just obvious?" – especially when judging strategies or creative work. Obviously, it’s not obvious, or it would be, well, obvious – so I’ve been trying to notice the little heuristics I use, the shortcuts that indicate whether something’s likely to be any good or not.

For instance, Tyler Brûlé – the noted international traveller of Wallpaper* and Monocle fame – claims you can determine the quality of a hotel by ordering its club sandwich. It’s a basic thing, the formula is limited, so how well it does it – the attention to detail, the quality of the ingredients – is probably a good indicator of how well it does everything. I’m the same with cafes. If it leaves the brown sauce and ketchup on the table, in the original bottles, then that’s a place for me. Anything else indicates a place that’s either too pretentious or too penny-pinching.

And I’m convinced you can judge the creativity of a business by looking at the walls. The most creative businesses I’ve ever visited have walls covered in stuff: pictures, words, things, everything. Not in a corporate art kind of way, but stuff that has been Blu-Tacked up as part of their process – as inspiration or work in progress or stimulus. It’s a sign that the wider world of ideas and culture is being dragged into their environment, being made practical.

Conversely, all of the least creative businesses I’ve visited are draped with elegantly framed examples of their own work. Designed, I suppose, to impress but, unfortunately, simply catching them in a self-reflective loop. I guess it’s the difference between a showroom and a studio – both have their place. But, as a quick way of deciding whom to work with, I’d start with a business that would rather live in a studio.

Russell Davies is a creative director at Government Digital Service