Greg Milbourne, creative director, The Next Door
Greg Milbourne, creative director, The Next Door
A view from Greg Milbourne

Think BR: Agency conflict is stifling creativity

It's time creative agencies lived up to the name and applied more creative thinking to the way they do business, writes Greg Milbourne, creative director, The Next Door.

The explosion of communications opportunities created by the internet, entertainment technology and mobile devices means there has never been a better time to be working in a creative agency. It is also true that the recession and growing client focus on ROI means there’s never been more pressure to deliver ideas that work: creative thinking that enhances clients’ businesses.

I believe these dual trends have profound implications for the future shape of advertising and marketing agencies of all types. While British agencies still foster some of the best creative thinkers and communications planners anywhere, there is a growing sense in the business that something is holding back progress. Perhaps recent British performances at Cannes could be an indication of this.

I don’t believe it’s the quality of our people that’s the problem, I think it’s that the conventional creative agency business structure is stifling great creativity and thinking. In short, old fashioned agencies with expertise in silos attached to separate P&Ls are hindering our industry’s progress.

So why is this so?

Clients naturally want to take advantage of all new opportunities. They expect ideas that deliver seamless creativity across a multiplicity of new disciplines such as mobile, social media and interactive content platforms, PR, etc. What they don’t want is to have to marshal an army of different creative teams to achieve that goal.

Procurement managers are becoming increasingly aware that on any multi-agency campaign, a significant amount of time, and therefore cost, is spent on managing inter-agency relationships, or even disputes; time and money that could and should be spent on thinking and creating. Let’s face it, no client likes spending a quarter of a million a year on inter-agency arguments.

But these conflicts exist within single agencies too.

Every agency will naturally claim it can create and execute campaigns effectively beyond the traditional advertising channels if a brief requires it. But in reality those claims can be hobbled because in many agencies or groups, different skill sets will naturally compete to protect their financial performance by pushing their own ideas and interests. Getting the best results for the client doesn’t necessarily come out on top. Instead, you end-up with a situation where ideas can be diluted, poorly executed or taken in unnecessary directions.

Clients may think they’ve bought a full-service or integrated solution, but in effect they’re still working with a roster; a bunch of different companies, albeit housed under a single business brand.

It’s also true that a great creative idea born in a conventional agency will only travel as far as the range of expertise that agency possesses or feels it can profit from. Business priorities or plain ignorance of opportunities can often stymie creativity too.

Is the solution simply to become an 'integrated' agency as some shops, particularly occupying the direct marketing/sales promotion space have done?

My view is that the issues affecting traditional ad agencies are just as pertinent to integrated shops, which may be tempted to present a solution using unnecessary channels as proof of the integrated model. In addition, most of them won’t have talent in every discipline, so end up outsourcing anyway, therefore creating multiple P&Ls on a campaign.

Now, obviously not every campaign ends in failure because it had a raft of different teams and business units working on it or a roster of different agencies. Some clients have the skills of a Patton or Montgomery, successfully managing complex agency relationships and are single-minded enough to ensure great ideas survive. But it’s also true that many campaigns do not significantly budge the sales or brand awareness needle. They simply pass consumers by.

I believe it’s time our industry applied more creative thinking to the way we do business. There is already a growing willingness among agencies to be more creative when it comes to remuneration. More agencies are opening up to different remuneration models, such as project fees rather than retainers, intellectual property rights and payment by results systems. Clients like the Central Office of Information may force the pace in this area anyway.

When it comes to unleashing creativity from the burden of financial structure, it’s also clear that our industry is in the grip of change. Full service agencies that have centralised P&Ls and strategic planning control across different expertise have emerged and there is more experimentation going on. Not for Profit agency Creative Orchestra and Nude, based on the belief that a better work-life balance delivers better creativity, stand out as great examples, as do The Assembly, Droga 5 and Anomaly.

A good idea should go wherever it works and not be forced into specific media or platforms, so the approach we use is to focus on delivering ideas and think about channels afterwards. To retain sole control over the creative concept we outsource specialist production and expertise: there is one P&L and no politics.

We don’t expect to be the only agency to operate in this way in the future; nor do we think this is the only solution that works. But what is clear is that change to the old agency business world is coming. You can hear voices from across the industry questioning the status quo, even from within large agencies that on paper have the biggest headache to cure.

We expect to be part of a wave of transformation that will gradually wash across the industry, changing the way it does business with clients and, critically, unlocking even more creative potential, thus helping our sector deliver against the promise of a thriving ideas-driven economy. 

Greg Milbourne, creative director, The Next Door