THE GREAT DIVIDE: Why are creatives still pigeonholed as crazy mavericks and not allowed to interact directly with clients?

Emma Barns reports from the second of the IPA creative debates, convened by RKCR's Robert Campbell.

When it comes to agency-client relationships, it's the account man who is usually handcuffed to the marketing director. Creatives, on the other hand, are shielded from exposure to the hard-nosed world of marketing.

And, it must be added, marketing departments are protected from the complex world of the creative department.

But as traditional agency structures are breaking down and clients are ever-more demanding of their agencies, the disconnect between client and creative seems old-fashioned and unhealthy.

In the second in a series of IPA debates on creative issues, some of the industry's key figures gathered to discuss the creative/client conundrum.

Robert Campbell, the executive creative director of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, steered the debate between Tiger Savage, the head of art and deputy creative director at M&C Saatchi; Chris Thomas, the chief executive of Proximity; Dave Alberts, the creative director at Grey; Mark Wnek, the chairman of Euro RSCG Group, and Peter Stringham, the group general manager of marketing, HSBC Group, and the former chief of Young & Rubicam North America.

RC "The debate today is about what we think is going on in the relationship between creative people and the client community at the moment. What are the good things about it and possibly the bad things and how we think we could change things?"

MW "Our industry is in turmoil at the moment and there are a whole bunch of disciplines that are all struggling for oxygen. Never is it less likely for a creative to come in touch with a client than now."

RC "I have long felt that creative people have turned into mushrooms in the dark - creative people seem to have marginalised themselves from the centre of business."

DA "But I think there's a fine balance about what role you play as a creative. The minute you lose that ability to throw your toys out of the basket then you lose that objective ability to solve problems."

MW "You have to ask yourself what kind of career can a creative have these days unless they have a broader understanding of the business and can make a broader contribution - the answer seems to be not much. There will be lots of young creatives on the scrap heap without work if we are not careful."

TS "Young creatives do understand that they do need to make a role for their clients in order to keep their jobs."

RC "The depressing thing as they progress up through the machine is that they lose this ambition."

CT "How does the client/creative relationship here compare to the States, Peter? Do creative people have a different role there?"

PS "In north America, creative people interact with clients a lot. I think almost everywhere does except here. I think this is very much a UK phenomenon, creative people hide in a tower somewhere and what I find really fascinating is that most north American creatives wouldn't stand for having an account person to present their work. Here it's exactly the opposite and I'm not sure why, it has just always been this way."

CT "What about in Australia?"

DA "I'm staggered by the amount of surprise when I turn up at the briefing. I think it's because of the amount of levels on both client and agency side. In other parts of the world there doesn't seem to be as many levels so people working on a project can all get around the table together from day one. The creative/client issue here staggers me - why wouldn't you have everyone that's going to have some involvement in the project at the table at the beginning, to make sure everyone has a common agenda? I've never seen it before where the client gives the brief to an account person, who gives it to a planner, who then eventually hands it to a creative. It means you tend to have three times the amount of up front time before anything is done."

CT "I think historically the argument here is that it's not the best use of the creative people's time."

TS "We are all under time pressure and I think creativity has changed over the past ten years in that there is no time for craft, our timings are cut down. I would love to do all those things such as focus groups; I used to do all those things but I have clients saying they need to turn something around really quickly - what do you do? I think the interesting thing is the role of the account men and how that's changed. Agencies, such as Mother, that don't have any account people at all seem to work really well and they produce a lot of the best advertising in London."

MW "I think the reason account men have traditionally had the monopoly on clients has its roots somewhere in the class system, in that a businessperson should brief a businessperson. There are lots of account men out there and the idea of a smelly, long-haired creative meeting their beloved clients is an anathema. I think there's also a problem in that account people have to be 'nice'. This is a major reason why creatives aren't allowed to go and meet clients."

PS "Then that means the clients need to be educated. If you want greatness, it comes from extraordinary places."

RC "We're all guilty of talking to clients as if they were straight and dull, but they are human beings too."

MW "They treat us like Martians too. It's a real chicken-and-egg situation."

PS "One of the things I've noticed, especially with young creatives I've met, is that they're not very well-rounded and I expected a lot more from British advertising. I meet creatives and they're incredibly one-dimensional. It comes from the fact that a young person coming to the industry only knows how to write for trainers or beer."

MW "There's no doubt in my mind that D&AD is responsible for this because it only gives awards for beer and trainers, so the idea that you're a modern-day David Abbott who understands 55-year-old women and can speak to them in a way no-one else in the world can speak to them would win nothing at D&AD ever. It should be renamed the youth, clothing and beer awards."

DA "I think as a creative you need to try to break the 'crazy creative person' mould and make the client think that you're the most sensible person in the room. Maybe you do want to go in there and be a wacky guy, but going the other way and saying 'trust me' isn't a bad starting point."

MW "It's a big burden on some brilliant creative people who have no interpersonal skills, though, and I'm not sure they should have to carry that burden."

DA "I don't know any creative person, even the wackiest, who wouldn't have the confidence to sit down and talk to a client. We're really trying to open things up at Grey and get creatives and clients talking. We're all new to Grey and to fast-track our understanding of our clients, we've organised awaydays. We said we're going to fill six hours and put a client, senior client and anyone he wants to bring, one account director, a creative team, a planner and myself in a room. The client gets six hours of undivided attention and you achieve so much in that six hours. You walk out of there with such a clear understanding and agenda of what you're trying to achieve. Creative people like it because it becomes a conversation between a client and a creative. It takes out any second guessing. The worst thing is to have an account person come back from a meeting with the client saying what the client wants is 'this' and you don't really know what 'this' is. I think what is slowly happening is that creatives don't really know what they're trying to achieve if they don't know the people they're talking to."

MW "It's interesting that arguably the current two most successful agencies in the business, Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners and Clemmow Hornby Inge, do precisely that because they have a system of profound collaboration."

PS "I think there's more. It's the creative people not being involved in the entire process of creation that's the problem. How can you write for a consumer you haven't seen? It makes no sense. You have to know who you're talking to. Someone I worked for used to say that it doesn't matter who you are but you have to be able to write for 'Marge', you have to be able to understand her. The client spends hours, days, months with that consumer at focus groups and why as a creative would you ever just trust an account person to go to focus groups for you? You just go round in a circle where the account person comes back and gives you their interpretation."

RC "I think it's one of those 'not in front of the children' things."

MW "Some of the most successful and most famous creatives in this country's history, such as John Webster, live and breathe the focus group way. It's exactly how he works. He gets his own groups of little old ladies and asks them everything and researches them perfectly. Everyone reveres him and yet no-one does what he does."

TS "I think it's because the lead times have been cut and budgets have been cut and we have cost controls over everything now that we never used to. The pennies are being counted and clients still want the same thing they had three years ago, which was four times the budget, and it becomes an impossible task. You have to produce work in a finite amount of time with no money."

DA "I don't think it's to do with time. I think it's about respect for what we do, in the sense that if you respect the contribution that you make and the job that you do, you will make a point to go to focus groups, you will make it your point to be there and meet the client and you will make it your point to make sure you have enough time to do things. I think that the only way we get respect at the moment is by awards and you don't get self-respect out of this. Self-respect is about giving something to the client and looking him in the eye and saying 'I respect this solution', rather than thinking you have another agenda. There is no doubt that things have changed - the world is moving faster and the triangle quick-fast-cheap doesn't work anymore. I think the danger is if you work to the old system of waiting until the client gives the account man the brief, who will eventually pass the brief to the creative. Now you've got five minutes instead of five hours."

TS "There's still no time for focus groups in that, though - there's no time to get to know the consumer, you have to get the work out."

MW "If you imagine the time available is a cake, there is a fight over who gets the biggest slice and creatives do get a sliver."

PS "Well then, creatives need to be centrally involved in the entire process. You can't sit back and let all of the resources you have do everything and then come into the process three-quarters of the way through."

RC "Things have got faster and faster; we need to decide what to do to come out of this greater and greater. What we and clients are bad at identifying is that agencies should get more involved upstream. We always view ourselves in the same way when, actually, when a car manufacturer starts thinking about designing a new car, maybe that's when they should start talking to agencies, rather than waiting for two years. Creatives should always get involved at the front of the process rather than at the end and clients and creatives should both insist on that."

PS "I can't think of a client who would object to this - they would think it was an interesting idea."

DA "The more you're upstream, the more chance you have of understanding what the real problem is."

CT "So why don't we get involved earlier? Is it because the client community has put us in a box that is 'TV ads here', rather than calling us in 12 weeks before? We'd love to try and do this but I don't think, as an industry, we are creating enough opportunities, or maybe we're too busy, but we are in that box. We need to be more experimental about how we work as it seems like we've got quite stuck in our disciplinary silos."

DA "Also, what agencies also have to remember is that anyone who sits around the table can have an idea, not just the 'creatives'. You should accept that there are great people out there. Procter & Gamble has some of the smartest people you've ever met but nobody ever asks their opinion. I think it's true that we've been put into a box, but we've designed the box."


'The creative/client issue here staggers me - why wouldn't you have everyone who's going to be involved in the project at the table at the beginning?' - Dave Alberts, Grey

'Clients need to be educated. If you want greatness, it comes from extraordinary places' - Peter Stringham, HSBC Group

'Creative people seem to have marginalised themselves from the centre of the business' - Robert Campbell, RKCR/Y&R

'There is also a problem in that account people have to be "nice". This is a major reason why creatives aren't allowed to go and meet clients' - Mark Wnek, Euro RSCG Group

'There's no time to get to know the consumer, you have to get the work out' - Tiger Savage, M&C Saatchi

'I don't think, as an industry, we are creating enough opportunities, or maybe we are too busy' - Chris Thomas, Proximity.


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