Opinion: Perspective - Why creativity still needs to shine in a recession

So, there they were, in a meeting with the chief executive of one of the world's biggest advertisers. The topic of discussion: a new advertising strategy.

Now, it has to be said that the agency in question very rarely gets to meet the chief executive. Hardly ever. So this was something new. And something really positive: advertising sitting at the top table. That's recession for you; stakes are raised.

Except that everything the agency came up with during the course of the meeting was instantaneously, via video link, assessed by a management consultant bigwig. Which might not necessarily have been a problem, except that rather than firming resolution, this third-party guru just seemed to confuse the decision-making process. In the end, the meeting was aborted without conclusion and the new advertising strategy delayed.

That's the thing about economic uncertainty. Clients can lose their balls. Even big clients, with big balls. And a new, thick layer of second opinioners is emerging, those comfort-blanket consultants, ever ready to catch the buck ... before passing it on to someone else.

In a climate where every pound of marketing budget spent needs to deliver maximum return (though that should, of course, always be the case), calling in a cavalry of independent experts to evaulate decisions is, in theory, prudent. And if the end result of all of this is to give clients the confidence to buy advertising or commit spend levels that they otherwise might dodge, no problem. The trouble is that whenever decision-making is predominantly undertaken by committee (particularly one largely comprised of independent advisors with a vested interest in sustaining nervousness), blandness is surely the more likely outcome.

In that spirit, are we already seeing the sacrifice of the highest creative standards in the scramble for survival? I only ask because I've recently spotted a couple of real turkeys from beleaguered advertisers who you'd normally expect to produce some of the best work around. I'm not going to name names, because I am pretty sure the agencies that produced them hate them too and are creative victims of nervous clients who have taken the safe, bland route.

It's early days, of course, but consensus among creatives seems to be that briefs are already shrinking in their creative ambition and that price and promotion are becoming key drivers in the creative approach. In short, they reckon creativity is already becoming less important than ROI.

It's hard to argue with. Creativity should always be tied to ROI, otherwise what reason does it have to exist in an advertising context? But if agencies are prepared to sacrifice a focus on great creativity, they're in danger of offering little more than that army of advisors our big client at the beginning of this column was using as a crutch. And where will that leave them once confidence returns?

History would suggest that it doesn't have to be this way. Some wonderful, enduring campaigns came out of the last great advertising recession of the early 90s. How about Tango's "orange man", by Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury? Or BMP's "dog tricks" for John Smith's? Or Lowe's "flowers" film for Stella? The best agencies like a challenge and producing brilliant work in the teeth of depression is one challenge met with aplomb last time round.

Perhaps the upside to all of this is that some great creative agencies now seem to be scrambling for accounts that they otherwise wouldn't touch with a yellow Pencil. Perhaps some small brands will actually see their advertising improve as a result.

But, rock bottom, it's vital that the ad industry doesn't allow its collective creative standards to slip next year. Because transformational creative ideas are the one thing adland offers that other suppliers (like the management consultant on the video link that I mentioned earlier) don't. Economic crisis or not, that's crucial for the future health of the industry.