Time to regrow some cojones

Andrew McGuinness believes adland needs to conquer some basic fears if it is to rediscover its creative mojo.

Old Spice: W&K’s ‘muscle music’ embraced uncertainty and experimented with new technologies
Old Spice: W&K’s ‘muscle music’ embraced uncertainty and experimented with new technologies

Where has all the great work gone? It’s been a tough few years for our industry, which has been undergoing exciting but, nonetheless, seismic change. As we’ve hired coders, content creators and big data crunchers, we collectively seem to be producing fewer pieces of extraordinary creative work. At least, so conventional adland logic would have you believe.

Let’s look at the data. Over the past five years, UK agencies have won only half the number of Film Lions they were awarded in the previous five years at Cannes. Equally revealing is that the public seem to have noticed: only one of the top ten ads among The 100 Greatest TV Adverts (Channel 4) was created in the past ten years.

This is despite all the evidence that suggests that other areas of creativity – most notably the visual arts – actually thrive in recession, with necessity being the mother of (over-)invention in hard times. Hence, the Sex Pistols sneered out of the 70s recession, just as the Young British Artists emerged in the 90s.

But in advertising, challenged by the changing shape of industry, fractured budgets and time scales, and the understandable conservatism of clients, we have collectively lost our creative confidence. Blinded by channel opportunities and technological possibilities, we started doubting our ability to have big, business-changing ideas.

So how can we regain our creative confidence? In a Harvard Business Review article on this issue David and Tom Kelley describe four fears that need to be overcome if we are to rediscover our creative chutzpah: fear of the unknown; fear of being judged; fear of taking the first step; and fear of losing control. Let’s take each in turn.

Uncertainty and the unknown is, in that horrible Americanism, the new normal. Rather than fear it, we need to embrace it – hurtle towards uncertainty at breakneck speed and enjoy the journey. This is what Wieden & Kennedy Portland’s Old Spice "muscle music" work did last year, as did our mobile interactive work for Grolsch. Both built on new and unproven technologies.

Being judged is nothing new for creative thinkers, but now the number and range of potential "judges" is far broader. Modern comms demands broader mixes of teams to provide input, but we need to structure these teams to be cheerleaders to one another, not naysayers.

A blank piece of paper, a blank screen – both are as scary as one another. We need to foster a creative environment in which those who have the courage to "begin" an idea are encouraged and applauded. There are many of us who can help make an idea better, but fewer who are capable of starting the process.

Finally, control. This is probably the biggest single adaptation we are all having to make. Ideas now are rightly "born" multifaceted and multimedia and they are as likely to come from a writer-developer-creative-tech team as they are from a conventional creative team (whatever that is). Add in a passionate planner, an entrepreneurial account man and a client or two, and control of an idea can feel very dissipated. Our challenge is how we embrace this "team-game" approach, with all its inherent benefits, without responsibility for the integrity of an idea becoming so dissipated that the core idea disappears one crumb at a time.

I believe we have the people, the passion and the energy ?to consistently rediscover the creative highs of the past but, to do so, we need to look at our businesses, assess the challenges we face and deal with them. We cannot and should not excuse ourselves on the basis of the recession, tough though it may be. Our clients need our business-changing creative ideas now more than ever. We are better-equipped than ever in terms of the range of skills and resources available to us. Now, for ourselves and for our clients, we need to convert that into the best creative work ever.

Andrew McGuinness is a founding partner of Beattie McGuinness Bungay