The ad village provides continual proof of the old adage that "success has many fathers". Or, as JFK put it, "victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan". I have lost count of the number of people who claim to have played an integral role in creating the original "You know when you've been Tango’d" spot . It certainly exceeds JFK's threshold of 100 (and, I might add, is still rising), even though there were fewer than 100 people working at Howell Henry at the time.
Equally, whenever a turkey is produced, a deafening silence comparable to a code of omerta soon descends over all participants. There will be very few CVs proclaiming involvement in that Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad, I’d wager.
The reason people claim success, even when their right to do so is tenuous, is obvious. As a business we are judged by our product and the same applies to each of us as individuals. If we want to compete for the best jobs, it is tempting to claim involvement with the best work. As I alluded to in my last column, this inevitably creates distortions.
A desire for accreditation
For a start, it can quickly lead to false claims. Perhaps more insidiously, it can lead to a culture that is driven by a desire for accreditation more than achievement. If you can claim involvement, why bother yourself with all the hard work and angst of actually being involved?
There are a few answers to this question, which I’ll come to. But I’d first like to highlight why this is an increasingly important subject.
We live in an age when there are fewer and fewer creative boundaries. Where collaboration is expected, co-creation is encouraged and integration is de rigueur. These are all good things, and have undoubtedly enhanced the range, diversity and quality of creative expression.
At the same time, the more boundaries you remove, the more difficult it is to give credit to a certain individual, a certain team or, even, a certain agency. Was it the ad agency, the media agency, the CRM agency, the influencer agency or the combined effort of all of them? Increasingly, the combined effort is the right answer. And yet the awards system rather encourages us to line up under our company flags, incentivising essentially parochial behaviour.
What I find interesting in these situations is that the companies most eager to take credit can sometimes be those who become involved considerably after the origination process has taken place. And this brings me back to my earlier question. What is the downside of overclaiming or vamping someone else’s efforts and enterprise?
Well, there is the axiom we were all taught at school: if we cheat in exams, we only cheat ourselves. Indeed so. There is only one thing worse than being underestimated, and that is being overestimated. We create false expectations for ourselves and for others, and we can quickly become hostage to our unduly inflated reputation. The danger then is that we get caught in a cycle of overclaim, increasingly reliant on the validation of gongs and plaudits rather than the more homespun rewards of doing a day’s work.
The corrosive nature of this credit-craving cycle is highlighted in Jim Collins book How the Mighty Fall. He outlines eight dynamics that lead to organisational decline, and one of the chief culprits is a tendency for the leadership team "to seek as much credit as possible for themselves" as opposed to "crediting other people for success". Two other closely related signifiers of decline are a culture of denial (bad news is to be avoided, rather than confronted and thus learned from), the second is a culture of blame where failure leads to "a search for culprits rather than wisdom".
The grey area between congratulation and self-congratulation does not in any way diminish the importance of giving credit and applauding achievement. It is vital that we do so. But it does highlight a difficulty. The creative process is becoming increasingly porous and osmotic. It is more and more difficult to draw neat divisions of authorship when co-authorship is the order of the day. So my advice when someone asks "Who’s the daddy?" is to answer "everyone". It’s a bigger word than "me".
Charles Vallance is the founder and chairman of VCCP