PERSPECTIVE: Ad agencies need to adapt or die to work in the new economy

A fascinating debate opens on our pages this week (Feature, p30). It's about the future of creatives and how they can be encouraged to get out of the rut of conventional thinking. Leading the charge is Robert Campbell, the executive creative director of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R and the leader of the IPA Creative Forum.

At present, major advertising agencies are process-driven companies in which the distinguishing factor is the creative intelligence that clients cannot find within their own ranks. But they've been organised for decades into departments and ways of working that have remained largely unquestioned.

Now a new breed of agencies has emerged to challenge the traditional agencies and they are winning business from big clients. At a quick count there are seven excellent start-ups (aged five or less) in London who work on the premise that clients want to get straight to the creative ideas and do not have the time or the patience to deal with the surrounding paraphernalia. Their health suggests there's plenty of oxygen around in the business for those prepared to find it. Can you remember a time when there was a greater threat to London's establishment?

There are disturbing parallels to be drawn here between advertising and other creative industries. While publishers are users of the same kind of suppliers as agencies, the price lists are disproportionate. Photographers, for instance, have one rate for papers and magazines and another, much higher, for agencies. The work is different, of course, but not that different. Then there are matters such as speed. Publishers are used to making and remaking complex pages in half an hour; it's easy to lose patience when it takes an agency a week.

Television is also a world where ideas move faster because the concept of the creative "department" cuts no ice. In TV, the teams are bigger, more co-operative and work faster. The best people, as in advertising, are practical thinkers who think beyond the idea to its execution and promotion. Advertising agencies, by contrast, pass work from department to department with only those with the word creative in their job title credited with having creative empathy.

Agencies perform incredible feats of balance behind the scenes. Pleasing client, regulator and consumer and cramming the end result into exactly 29 seconds of airtime is not easy. But it's hard to think of a business that has responded with less imagination than advertising to the challenges of today's economy. Maybe a handful of reckless visionaries dared to tweak the commission system a couple of decades ago but all available brainpower still goes into the ads while the creative structures of the agency organisation itself lie bereft of imaginative thinking. Hopefully, these IPA debates will encourage advertising to look at itself, rather than its clients; in the long term it will be worth it.