It’s much better for agencies to be unreasonable if the alternative is just agreeing with the client

During my teenage years my Mum had hung a piece of homespun philosophy in our hallway. It said “I complained because I had no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet” Anon. I saw it every time I arrived home and even if I didn’t read it I knew it was there. Say twice a day, seven days a week over eight years. That’s an OTS of 5,824.

Perhaps it’s obvious but it is a thought that has never left me – which is why I’m not too good with people whingeing about wanting the next reward they think they are due.

It struck me there’s another quote I always remember that could hang in the entrance hall of ad agencies, from George Bernard Shaw:

Reasonable men attempt to adapt themselves to the world,
Unreasonable men attempt to adapt the world to themselves,
Progress is in the hands of unreasonable men.

These are not comfortable bedfellows. I was once accused of being ‘prickly’ by a senior board member of Ogilvy who went on to say “you are more like a creative.” I think he meant it as a slight whereas I took it as a compliment. The reason I was hired was to inject some ‘revolution’ into the business. It is a strong word and not one to be used casually.

The notion of ‘progress being in the hands of unreasonable men’ seems to make a lot of sense to me. I wouldn’t have thought Richard Branson has achieved what he has by being reasonable. Turning my attention back to ad agencies, this notion should apply but it doesn’t, well not across the board. Maybe it’s why creatives often have a reputation for being difficult. But maybe they are just being unreasonable for a higher gain?

I worked with Chris Palmer (pictured) for about five years (Chris is now a partner in the very successful film production company Gorgeous) and I would put Chris fairly and squarely in the unreasonable category. Basically Chris was fighting against any pressure to push him in to the mediocre space so he would make a stand for his position. The result was an agency with a glowing reel and great poster work. Over time the collective effort to maintain the quality of thinking and execution influenced most people who worked at Simons Palmer.

One of the very tough calls in a good ad agency is the balance between the account man’s feel for the client with the intentions of the creative teams. I’ve had many a cross word with account men/women who start a sentence with “the client thinks…” If all work was developed on the basis of what the client thinks then the quality if the output would be much lower . One of the top blokes at Chiat Day in LA said the job of account management was “to find out what the client wants, then find out what they need, then get them to want what they need.” Brilliant and a really good way of getting the agency and the client on to the same page.

I think one of the tugs of war that goes on, in particular with the large US multinationals, is the philosophy of the agency. I’ve overheard very senior management say things like “We need the client to love us so they can’t be without us,” but this begs the question of “on what terms exactly?” So for some clients it might literally mean doing rubbish work to pander to the ego of the client’s president. It isn’t very helpful as an MO for the staff.

However if the agency philosophy is “Our goal is to produce to most compelling, original, creative work for all of our clients” then suddenly you have a mission plus a yardstick to evaluate the output of the agency. As for the clients there can be no misunderstanding about the intent of the agency. Further, you can also bet that in this agency there will not be too many people trying to ‘adapt themselves to the world.’

At Simons Palmer we had a very clear opinion; ‘Outstanding creative work stands a better chance of commercial success than average creative work.’ Discuss. We pinned our colours firmly to the creative output of the agency. Funnily enough we ended up with clients who believed in the same approach. Prior to the pitch for the European launch of PlayStation I asked the president, Chris Deering, why we were on the pitch list when we didn’t have a network in Europe. His reply was very explicit: “We think you will come up with the most exciting ideas, the rest is distribution.” What a man; I will never forget that conversation as it validated our stance and philosophy.

As a footnote I fully understand the massive differences between a large multinational and a local indie – they are very different beasts. I’m not making one right or one wrong – that isn’t helpful. What I am suggesting is every agency of note should have a creative NPD group in the corner whilst everyone gets on with the paying clients. Finding the space for fresh ideas outside the confines of a particular client’s culture can easily convert to more revenue down the track. Times are tight I know but I fear the consequence might just be creative reasonableness – which won’t be good in the longer term for anyone.

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About Paul Simons

Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.