Once upon a time, between agencies, I set up a consultancy I called ‘Idees sans Frontieres’. This followed on from my view, developed at Leo Burnett, that agencies should have the courage and conviction to recommend a solution that was not advertising (at least to start with) and clients should have the integrity to pay them for that advice. Needless to say it was not a success.
A few years later I attended a seminar run by Campaign entitled ‘Ideas beyond advertising’ and I subsequently wrote a letter suggesting that it should have been called ‘Ideas before advertising’. Advertising is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Watching a film made about John Webster, this was something he understood, and it certainly didn’t get in the way of the quality of his work.
I wouldn’t want to work in a place that blames its clients rather than itself for poor work, even now when so much work -at least on TV- seems to be a form of sales promotion.
That doesn’t mean clients are blameless, but agencies sometimes need to work harder at understanding what it is the client wants or is worried about- it can save time and disappointment. New business pitches in my experience were often more ‘let’s talk about us’ than ‘tell us about you’. If what the client wants is not what you think they need, or not what you feel comfortable in doing, then you have the option of parting company – or if you have done due diligence, not pitching in the first place.
This is always difficult as you have to weigh up the effect on the morale of the agency and its professed values (great work etc) against looking after your people. I think the point is to be honest. And I wouldn’t want to work in an agency where the Creative Director sits behind closed doors and has no time for the ‘difficult’ clients, preferring to concentrate on those accounts (maybe charity ones?) he or she thinks can win awards. Or where the Creative Director wants the creative department to do the sort of work he or she would do if only they had the time, rather than hiring individuals who might have their own way of doing things.
Things have changed in many ways. I think a lot of older people who are still in the business think it isn’t as much fun as it used to be, and why should business not be fun, especially a creative one? If it is, in contrast, more accountable, is advertising any more effective than it was? The case for the link between creativity and effectiveness has been made by Donald Gunn and Thinkbox, among others. The IPA Effectiveness awards also contain a number of very creative campaigns.
But the digital age has brought with it a greater reliance on metrics, with pluses and minuses. I won’t go into it here beyond saying that qualitative and quantitative research can be very useful but much research is pretty bad, or used badly. Research is not a substitute for judgement.
Over the years, there are a few agencies who have impressed me because they were trying to do things differently and understood the concept of ‘solution (rather than media) neutral’: Crispin Porter Bogusky, Mother, AKQA, R/GA and Droga5. Many years ago I suggested an ‘Ideas Awards’ , and it’s good to see that awards like the Cannes Titaniums celebrate what we as a creative business can provide before and beyond advertising: new products, new services, new ways of doing and thinking about things.
But I want to go back, not forward – to The Firehouse in San Francisco where Howard Gossage (below) had his agency in the 1950s and 60s.
Here is a passage about him from ‘The Book of Gossage’ – a book I strongly recommend to anyone who really thinks about what we do: “Gossage struggled to make advertising something that involved people at the upper levels of their capabilities; that searched for the audience’s highest common denominator rather than its lowest. He advocated and created a kind of work that invited involvement from the audience, that went out to them on their own terms and got them to laugh, think, send something in, make a suggestion, appreciate something they might never have noticed.”
Gossage died in 1969, over 40 years ago. I’d like to have worked there – or at least to have met him – and if there are places out there that embrace his philosophy, then yes, I would want to work there now.