It sounds like the plot of a bad film. Crisis comes, people realise what really matters to them, they pull together and forge a bright new future. Corny but true. Business crises don't come much bigger than the mayhem of the past couple of years. And most businesses have looked good and hard in the mirror. Motor cars, airlines, oil companies, tech companies, communications, FMCG, brewing and banking, no sector has been exempt, but crisis has often brought a new realism and, for many, such as the rejuvenated Ford, Shell or HSBC, they are building new momentum and profits.
Some in the marketing world would say that many agency businesses were a disaster waiting to happen before the recession hit and the pressures to restructure have been accelerated with head-spinning speed.
Interestingly, the major outcome of agencies refocusing has not been new business models, new styles of remuneration or even new technologies. The new answer is the old answer.
Creativity. The desire to imagine new and better things done in new and better ways. The transforming power of creativity has never been more in demand. Agencies up for the task should be glad about that.
Of course, the demand for new creativity comes from the place it always did. Clients are demanding it. Look at the sort of pitchlists clients are putting together where brand experience businesses are rubbing shoulders (in competition or collaboration) with social media, PR and traditional ad agencies. The creation of compelling brand content is being pursued like the Holy Grail: Unilever notably tore up the agency rule book to put Peperami out to pitch to the creative juices of the social web. Smaller budgets, fragmented channels, more demanding consumers. Everywhere we look there are industries looking for new, more "magnetic" creativity. Creativity that is not just on demand, but in demand.
So what should an agency do to answer this cry for new creativity? Three things seem more important than everything else.
The first is simple: more, better creatives. Agencies should be fuller of them than ever before. All different shapes, sizes and disciplines. Content, copy, 3D, 2D, social, salesmanship, directing, designing, thinking and doing should be encouraged to mingle as freely as possible across projects and across ideas. Too many old agency business models spend too long servicing clients and not enough surprising them with different sorts of ideas. Too many agency financial models seek to keep creatives separated rather than connected. Creative integration starts with integrating the creatives.
Second, more collaboration inside and outside the walls of the agency. Medicine, web development, film production and so many more businesses besides have thoroughly embraced the principles of co-creation and co-competition to creatively answer the challenges they face and keep their industries growing. Crucial within this seems the ability to work creatively with clients themselves. Greater integration of the creative thinking within client businesses and within their agencies is a necessary and modern response to the market and stakeholder challenges they face. Apple and Honda are using creative innovation as their direct, go-to-market strategy. Many of the most creative marketers, such as Nike and Red Bull, are marketing from the inside out. In all these cases, agencies need to be creative collaborators as well as creative originators. The old idea of "give us a couple of weeks and we will blow you away" misunderstands how central creativity now is to marketing businesses and how integrated it needs to be.
Third is the idea of strategic creativity. There are those who think this is anathema. But they are wrong. There is an old joke old creatives tell: "What do you do if a strategic planner falls off a cliff?" Answer: "Who cares?"
Now the joke is the other way around. If you think you can be a successful creative business without being a strategically creative business, then you really are having a laugh.
The pace of market change and the measurability of return mean that strategically motivated creativity is more important than ever before. That's not a creative handbrake but it is a creative challenge that often only the best creatives can rise to.
If you read about Saatchi & Saatchi's 40th anniversary, you may have run across its old mantra: "Simple. Arresting. Advertising. That. Creates. High. Impact. SAATCHI." Brilliant. But we all know that simple impact is not the true modern marketing currency. Engagement and interactivity are now also required. The old world of simple, message-based brand ideas has passed away in favour of experience-based brand ideas. The "ultimate driving machine" has given way to the "joy of driving" experience, whether the advertising juries like it or not. The requirement for creativity that strategically understands a more connected business environment is clear. If you can't help clients with their business, you won't be in business very long.
So, if all this is true and creativity is more important to marketing businesses than ever, where does that leave agencies? For Imagination, it has led us to re-imagine how creativity is important in transforming our own business, as well as that of our clients. For a company whose chief executive is also its global creative director, it is perhaps not surprising that more than half Imagination's staff are creative people. We are constantly adding new and different talents to what is an already eclectic mix that includes architects, designers, content creators, film directors, theatre producers, copywriters, web developers and art directors.
We have introduced "Creative Strategy Partnerships" where every senior creative has a strategic planning partner on every piece of work. We have also successfully introduced "The Imagination Experience" (a respectful cross between What If and TBWA Disruption days but with more creative output) - an innovation workshop process where we co-create with client teams. At Imagination, creativity continues to be the answer, whatever the question, but a creativity that is constantly evolving to support the business transformations on which our clients depend.
- Creativity remains the most demanded commodity in business
- But creativity needs to embrace a level of diversity, collaboration and co-creation that few agencies have dreamed of
- Business transformation depends upon a more imaginative integration of creativity ... new sorts of ideas, from different sorts of creative teams, produced in different ways to get different better results
Julian Baker is the European creative director, Douglas Broadley is the chief executive and Paul Simonet is the European creative strategy director of Imagination Europe
(From Campaign's "What Next in integration" supplement, December 2010)