James Hilton: the more diverse the cultural and experiential background, the more chances there are of surprising connections being made
James Hilton: the more diverse the cultural and experiential background, the more chances there are of surprising connections being made
A view from James Hilton

The path to brand enlightenment follows the course of love

Segregation benefits neither culture nor communication. But where the lines blur between client and agency, between one department and the next - that's where extraordinary happens.

When you get a chance to start again, you get an opportunity to change the rules. Not simply the grubby issue of how much you charge, but a philosophical view that can be summed up in the less-than-philosophical phrase: "How can I have as much fun as possible?" It seems like a simple enough question, but break it down and you have to think about it a bit harder: Why do you work? Who do you work for and with? Why them? What will you do for them and they you? How much time do you want to give to it? What are your values? What don’t you want to do?

I asked myself these questions when I reconfigured AtelierStrange. I looked at the work I’d been doing for the last six months and, instead of seeing what I’d come to know as a fairly random bunch of clients, all with personally interesting businesses, I saw a pattern. But a pattern by mistake.

The pattern was this: none of the people I dealt with worked in departments. They were mostly founders who were growing successful organisations and still rolled their sleeves up and got in there. They deliberately avoided the need to create "marketing departments". They employed hybrid people who could move effortlessly between roles and who also rolled their sleeves up. Through this, they all naturally understood that "brand", "product", "marketing", "HR policy" etc were all the same thing that all needed to be intimately understood by everyone in the team. They knew that their brand was their product. That their product was their marketing. They didn’t know this because they’d read books on it, they knew it instinctively because it seemed the obvious way to structure a business whose product was its identity.

"Advertising is the price you pay for a poor product," so the saying goes. This is true if your product is poor, but why then do so many great products and brands have such bad advertising? The problem isn’t the people, for there are many smart people on either side of the client/agency coin – the problem is that these people are, largely, segregated. Look at any culture or state where groups of people are split up: nothing good happens. Look at cultures where people from all sorts of backgrounds come together for a common purpose: good things happen. It’s a simplification, but this is the point of diversity: the more diverse the cultural and experiential background, the more chances there are of surprising connections being made – surprising connections being the catalyst of creativity.

The problem comes down to structure: the structure of the client business vs the structure of the agency. Both are departmentalised. Product departments and marketing departments. It isn’t a recipe for extraordinary. As product can be marketing, marketing so too can be product. Some of the most interesting work I’ve been involved in came about from a marketing brief but where the opportunity was found to create something bigger, something with potential and longevity. Client-side, this is more often than not championed by an individual – someone who wants to innovate, someone who wants to grasp the opportunity presented by a marketing budget and a personal desire to change the record. An issue with innovation, though, is that it’s expensive, and often the potential outcomes are not known. This is understood in product land, but not in adland. Product people see the longevity and potential of their creations. They see the world in long-term, always thinking: "How can we improve?" Marketing people see the immediate opportunity, the trend to exploit. They see the world in short-term, always thinking: "How big can we make it?"

"The more diverse the cultural and experiential background, the more chances there are of surprising connections being made"

Neither group is entirely right or wrong, they’re just looking in different directions. The path to truly extraordinary work follows the same course as that of love. Love, it is said, is not staring longingly into each others eyes, but is instead standing together and looking off in the same direction. Nothing could be truer of the most successful client/agency relationships.

When such relationships get to work, they look collectively upon what they are producing as a product. Agencies find this enormously exciting because, whether they admit it or not, they all become frustrated by only ever providing the veneer. Pretty veneers. But veneers all the same. At last they can help the client create things of worth to make their customers’ lives easier/better. The lines between who is client and who is agency blur, so that it becomes about a small team of diverse craftspeople working together, sharing roles, figuring out the solution.

I started all this by saying that you could change the rules when you start again. But what if you’re not starting again? One rule I more amplified than changed was this: total honesty with clients. That’s not to say I was previously dishonest, but I certainly wasn’t as free with my opinions as I am now. I explain to my clients when we agree to work together that they will only receive the truth: the good, the bad and the ugly – undiluted and unbiased. In essence, I’ll tell them what others might not for fear of loss (client, material, standing or otherwise). It’s a two-way street. It serves me no good having feedback diluted or fogged with pleasantries – I want to hear it straight so the issue can be resolved. The thing I found most surprising about this "rule" was that, while I considered it obvious, clients said they found it "refreshing" and "liberating". People don’t say those things if it’s normal. I’ll leave you to come to your own conclusions about that.

The point of this is that, in order to change the rules and structures to produce better work, you need honesty. When you have it, you’ll be able to have those potentially damaging conversations in a safe environment. The idea is to get everyone standing together and looking in the same direction. Start small. I’ve always liked the "skunkworks" approach when it comes to changing rules in environments that resist it. Take one or two really smart people from both the agency and the client and set them up in a space together with a problem to solve, free of the historical, political or policy constraints of their normal environments. Then expand the experiment again and again until it becomes the new normal.

As a wise woman once told me: "A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money." New rules and principles mixed with ruthless honesty can come at a price – some people won’t appreciate it – but I believe it’s the  best way to soundly blur the lines between clients and their agencies and, in turn, produce what may well become extraordinary.

James Hilton is the founder of AtelierStrange and co-founder of AKQA