The Year Ahead For ... Creative Agencies

Robert Senior explains that by focusing less on the balance sheet and more on the work, agencies can navigate their way out of the gloom.

As the first decade of the new millennium has drawn to a close, we allow ourselves a moment of reflection in preparing for the future. Selfishly, I loved the last decade for loads of reasons. But a dispassionate view has to conclude that it was unremarkable in at least two respects: compared with the 80s and 90s, the start-ups served up seemed overly focused on a client-servicing agenda rather than a force for pioneering good, setting new quality benchmarks and attracting the very best creative talent into our industry, ie. a creative agenda. And as a ten-year body of work, the highs - while high - were too infrequent.

The last year was, of course, a shocker. Agencies of all denominations hunkered down as the procurement tanks took up their position on the front lawn. The siege commenced and, frankly, looks set to continue for a while yet.

Bob McDonald, the recently appointed global chief executive of Procter & Gamble, sums up 2010 with the acronym "VUCA": volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. And when P&G buys a box of tissues, we all sneeze. Revenue may well be VUCA, and in the spirit of controlling the controllables, cost is in our hands. So, for many agencies, it's likely to be another year of a steady, well- intentioned march to inexorable extinction, as the "now" becomes the new boardroom black and the future is the elephant on the table.

Given this rather bleak outlook, some solace can be found in the biological law of destruction, which states that in times of destruction, a parallel universe of creativity emerges. Or put more simply, creativity often flourishes in adversity. Indeed, some of the very best creative minds sometimes manufacture adversity in order to produce greatness.

In the recession of the mid-70s, the US saw unemployment reach 9 per cent, inflation surge 11 per cent and the stock market crash 48 per cent, but amid the misery and hysteria, Fred Smith launched FedEx, Bill Gates and Paul Allen started Microsoft and Mike Ovitz opened the Creative Artists Agency. And, of course, many legendary ad agencies were formed. I do not think it's unreasonable to suggest that, more than ever, it's time to look to creativity to keep the lights on and the supply chains humming. Creative Britain may well still have its day. And advertising must play its part.

So perhaps the time has come to take the weight off the back foot and get back on the attack, with the one piece we bring to the table, our creative output. Attack will surely be our best defence. And eye-watering creativity must surely be our only means to outmuscle the tanks into retreat.

Any aspirations to be at the vanguard of Creative Britain requires us to embrace three forces:

1. We must rebuild our output around the laws of participation. We've all known about it for a while, and yet too much output is dominated by a world of digital fluff ("because we can" replaces "because it's good").

2. The task of our ideas has moved from shifting attitudes - which, in turn, shift behaviours - to creating action. We have the wherewithal to go for the jugular and get people to do things rather than simply think them.

3. Now more than ever we should place the quality of our product at the beating heart of our business. Counter-intuitive though it might be, it's time we abandon advertising by numbers, tooled with a "balance score card", fixated on the balance sheet. Stare at the money and we'll excel in cost management of a dwindling business. Stare at the work and the money will come.

As people doing our best to play our part in a people business, it's up to us to effect the necessary changes - we are the efficiency drivers, we are the new apps. So what's our brief? What should we do to mainline a fresh creative impetus? I don't have the answers any more than you, but I suggest we all reunite with three absent friends:

1. Leadership. Much as Nigel Bogle argued in this article a year ago: "Choppy waters require a firmer hand on the tiller - more leadership, but leadership that liberates."

2. Confidence. I know that's crap advice. Telling people to be confident is like telling them not to look down. I suppose what I mean is in liberating those around you, a climate of bravery is created to go to new places and try new things - after all, it's what our audiences are doing every day. Confidence comes from the fruits of bravery. And confidence is an absolute competitive advantage in a climate of fear.

3. Banter. One of the best (and worst) aspects of working in advertising is the bionic mood swings from elation to catatonic disaster and back again.

And because we spend so much time holding on to an instruction that says "this message will self-destruct in 30 seconds", we have perfected the art of seeing the funny side. We're blessed to work with interesting, clever and very often extremely amusing people. More banter means more oxygen.

And breathing helps.

It's often said that our audiences were educated at Google and trained by eBay. And so we all could learn to look beyond the decoration of the Screenage and fully lean into the new opportunities. Because it is exciting, and despite the contextual misery, I honestly believe there has never been a more extraordinary time to work in advertising. Yes, that's right, advertising. It's what we do. And in our heart of hearts, we love it. And when we love it, we're better at it.

- Robert Senior is the UK chief executive of SSF Group.