How should the industry create space for more original thinkers?

A damning report on how advertising talent really feels should provide pause for thought.

How should the industry create space for more original thinkers?

For a people business, questions remain as to whether the advertising industry is doing enough to protect and promote original thinkers. A new report into how the top 1% of talent at ad agencies really feel suggests that free thinkers and craft skills are under-valued by the industry.

As one respondent to the research noted: "Advertising isn’t full of people with big personalities and big opinions any more. We’re not hiring enough people with an original point of view."

These brutal words form part of The Truth About Talent by The Blueprint that highlights the challenges of the legacy ad agency model. One participant said: "Advertising is supposed to be a creative, fun business. Increasingly, however, it feels like creativity is no longer as valued. Rather than rewarding innovators and mavericks, conformists are rising to the top."

The decline of craft

The report suggests that uncertainty can catalyse creativity or kill it and, for many parts of the industry, the latter is the common outcome. And, in turn, this risks killing people’s spirits. As one respondent said: "There is a lot of fear at the moment. The rhetoric and the narrative around the industry is incredibly doom and gloom. I fear that is permeating into everyone not listening to their instincts or intellect. Fear means you act out of paranioa and desperation – those are not the attributes that create a culture where creativity can flourish and we can be adventurous."

Another interviewee noted: "The industry has literally stripped out most of the innovation. Most of the people at an ad agency – they don’t make anything any more. There’s no making; it’s just sitting around, coming up with concepts and then talking about it. There’s not as many doers as one would imagine in the big agencies. A lot of meetings, a lot of covering-your-arse kind of stuff."

Hiring for potential

Furthermore, the report underlines the need to hire on potential and urges agencies to think harder about the skills that they need to thrive in the future. One participant said: "Our industry isn’t always good at giving people opportunities and at trusting people. We need to be empowering people for their potential, not their past. We need to bring together different kinds of people to produce different kinds of work. My agency is currently addressing that in terms of how we’re recruiting. So we’re recruiting for people’s vision and for what they think our industry needs to do, and we’re recruiting people who want to go on a steep learning curve."

The report highlights the benefit of hiring creative people: "They think differently, they work differently and many of them want to be rewarded differently."

With that in mind, we asked a selection of industry experts about how the industry should create space for more original thinkers.

Sam Brookes

Global managing partner, The Blueprint

Let’s be frank. The industry can only continue to utilise creativity as a meaningful value proposition if it allows that creative talent to be monetised. In my view, there are five critical areas that need to be addressed: adapt your business model to allow original thinkers to operate profitably – without this, you don’t have a sustainable future; focus on creativity – this sounds obvious, but our industry needs to allow creative thinking to occur at every level; make this happen via flexible incentives that focus on both the individual and the team; hire for attitude and aptitude, assess not the past but the future potential; and finally, if we are to create more space for original thinking, then let's hire more original thinkers from diverse backgrounds to allow creative and original thinking to flourish once more for clients. 

Of course, to do all of this, you will need a new leadership model, operating in new ways, which I predict the industry will be addressing. Because, to survive, it has to.

Cindy Gallop

Founder, MakeLoveNotPorn

It’s really easy. The industry – and by that I mean white men – need to do just two things. First, actively welcome everyone who is "other" and therefore bring the fresh, original, innovative thinking and creativity that spring from a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, perspectives, mindsets and world views. And by that I mean women. People of color. The disabled. LGBTQ. Older people. We’re out here thinking originally, thinking in a way you don’t. Hire us, welcome us in, promote us, put us in leadership.

Secondly, stop shutting down our original thinking by talking over us in meetings. By ignoring our ideas in favour of your mates'. By telling us we’re "too much". By saying we’re not a "culture fit". By sexually harassing us and retaliating when we reject your harassment. By bullying us. By forcing us out of the agency. If you want to know the experience of we "original thinkers" on a daily basis, just read Kai Deveraux Lawson’s "Why I quit my job"

Stop doing all that and you’ll be amazed by how much original thinking is set free to flourish and to turn the industry into somewhere you and everyone else will find much happier, more rewarding and more lucrative to work in.

Mark Evans

Group marketing director, Direct Line

Steve Jobs said that the ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do. Personally, I believe that original thinking is the lifeblood of the marketing industry – yes, consistency and single-mindedness are important, but without creative spark how are we ever going to truly engage with consumers?

There are no silver bullets in providing a context in which people who think and act differently are able to be the best version of themselves. There are some obvious levers such as training in unconscious bias to democratise difference and using assistive technologies to tailor an individual’s work environment. But the greatest possibility lies in making reasonable adjustments in recruitment processes whereby people who think differently are not disadvantaged on the way in by traditional approaches. Auticon (which only acts on behalf of autistic jobseekers) is a fantastic example of this; it has ditched CVs and interviews and instead uses skills-based tests to match people to roles.

Sereena Abbassi

Worldwide head of culture and inclusion, M&C Saatchi

When did original thinking become a revolutionary act? It’s essential. We need to foster cultures and build teams which actively promote free thinking, being brave – surely the stakes are too high for us not to. This requires risk, and we as an industry have become too risk-averse. Have we forgotten the very reason that our clients come to us? Embracing difference asks of us that we leave fear at the door.

We need to move past relevance, as this cannot become the new brave. It’s about us going outside of our organisations, our industry, and it’s also about us letting the outside in. It’s about us as an industry collaborating and innovating with people who have journeyed through this world in a completely different way to us. It’s about letting new people into the industry who ask different questions and approach challenges differently. It’s about us placing value on their experiences, rather than just their industry-based credentials, as this is the only way that we can breathe new life into our businesses.

Ana Balarin

Executive creative director and partner, Mother

No idea, but let’s not let the uncertainty paralyse us. Any small step or change will take us closer to a more open, inclusive and interesting future. So let’s start by talking with pride about what we do. Let’s promote our industry the way we promote our clients. Let’s get into schools and let’s bring schools into our agencies. Let’s invite back the people who have left. Let’s make advertising a better place for everyone, especially the ones who happen to already be here.

James Hilton

Chief creative officer, Native

You can’t create space for original thought; you have to be the space for original thought. And inspiring that thought takes everyone. So, hire polymaths. Fire drama kings and queens, no matter how good they are. Understand and champion the notion that compelling creative thought is not pulling rabbits from hats. It takes time and, more importantly, diversity of thought. Realise that diversity is not a tick-box ratio split of women to men, or black to white, or straight to gay. Diversity is an abundance of difference where the only metric is contribution and is only meaningful when inextricably linked to equality. Don’t pitch. They dishonour your team and their skills, and as Mum always said: "No-one respects anything they get for free." Instead, work with your client to understand their problem ("agency" means "to have understanding" – but you knew that).

Protect your talent. Nurture them, they are your athletes. Give them the time and ability to train their minds on things other than the brief – they will flourish. Don’t motivate new-business people with financial incentives and put everyone else on salary. And while we’re on the subject, new-business people: don’t sell in what can’t be delivered. Talk to your project managers and the people who will actually do the work to see if it can be done. They’ll make you look good. Then you can set up projects with the relevant resources and skillsets, because availability is not a skillset. Spend your days with people you love and respect, and who love and respect you in return. Do not tolerate bullies. Be the evangelists of each other’s abilities, work hard together and strive to improve every life you touch. It’s not impossible, it’s just not easy.

Jonathan Emmins

Founder, Amplify

Agencies need to be culturally strong, live by example, nurture and inspire their talent. Interesting things happen when worlds collide, talents blend and ideas mix freely. So we need to look laterally and hunt talent from unusual places. Amplify’s most exciting people are hybrids or from untraditional backgrounds. It’s absurd to ignore talent that doesn’t fit the standard box, simply because they don’t yet know or understand the opportunity or can’t "intern" indefinitely. 

Once in, we need to nurture and support in individualised ways and prepare to be challenged to do our best work. Although younger talent – who live and breathe culture first hand and with the freshest of eyes – often bring in inspiration, creativity and collaboration; we mustn’t write off others. It’s only through a mix of ideas and values that the best campaigns are shaped. 

In an industry that doesn’t always reward creativity and entrepreneurialism as it should, we need to raise the bar and be clear about what "good" looks like. Our clients should expect it. And so should our talent. 

Kathleen Saxton

chief executive and founder, The Lighthouse Company

In these transformational times, we have a duty of care to discover, attract and grow original thinkers within our organisations – they will be our future leaders. If you find yourself always attending the same industry events or using traditional industry headhunters, you risk a limited and myopic outlook. Break your networks – be ambitious to ensure you are introduced to alternative, original or lateral connections. New networks and lateral thinkers will provide you with a whole new showcase and access to original thinkers and talent. Go find some professionally social fresh air.

Creating a culture that encourages your leadership team to fiercely disagree in the knowledge they are held in a psychologically safe environment is imperative. Healthy teams who are successful at originality and co-creation are those who are egotistically comfortable to suggest the brave and alternative ideas, safe in the knowledge their opinions are welcome.

You should make a promise to yourself in 2019 to break your networks and to spend time each week with leaders from alternative industries and be willing to be a novice again for a couple of hours per week. Stay curious.

Paul Frampton Calero

Chief executive, EMEA, Hi Inc; chair, Big Youth Group

If ever there was a time to encourage reimagination, it is now.

Unlike the frivolous 1980s, when advertising was all the rage, agencies are facing an onslaught of disruption from all sides – consumer behavioural change, oversupply of agencies, in-housing enabled by martech. I could go on. 

For an industry which considers itself part of the creative industry, too much time is spent on milking the old model, rather than considering how to build a new one. It is a rarity to find people in an agency group who are solely focused on innovation, as every FTE [full-time equivalent] is expected to deliver revenue. To future-proof themselves, agencies must invest in more of these individuals from multiple disciplines and empower them to create sandboxes. They must also be allowed to fail in order to learn and evolve.

With the benefit of insight from a start-up, I can now genuinely say that the approach is radically different. Every day, we create new hypotheses and set live experiments to see what creates more audience engagement on our platform. Agencies must also take a leaf out of the start-up book by creating and shipping product, rather than relying on being paid for advice and consultancy.

Sam Hawkey

Chief operating officer, Saatchi & Saatchi London

If originality is all about the ability to think independently and creatively, we need to build environments where our talent can do just that. Too many agencies talk a good game, but don’t step up to actually change the working environment, processes and policies to let talent off the leash. Things like flexible working, collaborative technologies (that actually work) and the need for a truly diverse workforce in the first place should be givens not just rhetoric.

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