Giles Keeble on creativity: in a data-driven world do clients only measure what’s easy to measure?

I’ve jotted down a few thoughts and observations over the past few weeks about the three Ps: poetry, pitches and payment.

Copywriters seem to have discovered poetry, or at least a few lines of it. The Independent’s ‘Litany’ TVC (below) was a good example of its potential; and I once used John Cooper Clarke for a Time Out radio ad which seemed to work well. More recently, brands like McDonalds have used rhyme to bring their slices of life to life, but there are also snippets of poet’s poems in some ads these days. Many years ago I think British Rail used all or most of WH Auden’s Night Mail, but recently you may have heard lines from William Henley’s ‘Invictus’ and from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest.’

“I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul” first appeared last year in the Guinness ‘Sappeurs’ ad (below), but is now being used in a Game ad.

“We are such stuff that dreams are made on and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep” is used in the latest Ikea TVC (below). The question I have about these is whether or not they were thought to be relevant and why? Both poems deal with fate or life/death. Invictus maybe is more relevant for both its uses – one about individuality, the other perhaps about facing up to the “bludgeonings of chance.” But Prospero’s words for an ad about beds? Hmm- well it does have the word ‘sleep’ in it.

Poetry does have lessons for advertising though. I don’t mean ballads and narrative poetry so much as poems that reduce ideas and emotions to an essence, that capture them in a word or phrase by metaphor, simile and imagery. I’m not saying we should have more poetry in ads, just that the discipline might be useful: for example, the metre and rhythm of a headline or line of copy can make a difference. I once set some holiday tasks for students at Central School of Art – the writers should look at art and the art directors should read some poetry. I think they thought I was bonkers.

The second P is for Pitches. It seems that despite the best efforts of people like the IPA and The Agency Register, client long lists are longer and their short lists not particularly short. In my view (and experience) a short list should be no more than three agencies, and there should be a clear reason for that number.

What’s more, in these trying times, are clients offering reasonable payments for the cost of the pitches or is it simply a way of them getting ideas for nothing? The fairest pitch I was ever involved in was the one for Mercedes (which we subsequently won). Everybody was treated the same and all were paid a reasonable amount for the cost of the pitch.

Underlying this is why clients want to change agencies in the first place, and what they are looking for. Many years ago Mike Sommers pointed out that different clients want different things and agencies needed to acknowledge it and cut their cloth. A few clients want the whole thing – research, strategy and work; some may want a bit of thinking around their own research and some just want the work, tomorrow if possible. And some just want a deal.

Even when a pitch seemed fair it was hard to know if it really was: I have lost some pitches with work we thought was great, and won some with work we thought was just OK. Who knows who knows who? (Or as Joan Rivers once said: “Remember. it’s not who you know – it’s whom you know.”) But agencies may not help themselves: there is a tendency to talk about how great they are rather than let the client talk about their business and what they are worried about.

I’m not sure the creative work is always the issue, though it might be presented as the excuse for a pitch. Many clients find judging creative work extremely challenging (great work is). Lack of shared criteria (do they really want ground-breaking work?), the chemistry between the teams, efficiency, the cost, can be underlying reasons.

Which brings me to Price. How agencies get paid and how they should be paid has been a discussion point since commission ended. If brand and communication ideas are as important as agencies and clients maintain they are, then in what way do clients pay for them? Under the commission system, clients paid the same for great work as they did for average work.

I believe fees have replaced commission but until an agency is fired, surely good work and bad work – or more likely, average work – get rewarded equally? What if a client moves but keeps the ‘idea’? I think RKCR once tried to charge for ideas, then an ongoing management fee. But in the terms of business, how long a period should be agreed for the measurement of success or failure?

The work done by Peter Field and Les Binet on the IPA Effectiveness Awards indicates that there are ways to get short-term results (price, offers etc) but that the real payback is for brands that advertise in ways that are engaging and relevant which takes much longer. The old problem that advertising is a long(ish) term investment measured by short-term results seems to remain.

And the difficulties must be compounded by the proliferation of channels. Can agencies still make money if the bulk of the work is going to digital channels and executions? I am not involved in management these days so I don’t know what is going on in a world where Martin Sorrell is making a fortune (admittedly on the back of performance) and yet an agency as good as BBH recently made redundancies.

Perhaps the salary pattern is shifting: while the bigwigs still get a very good package, are the creative department still the stars as they once were, or are digital whizz-kids and planners taking over? The aim of the business is surely creative work that is creative and effective. If it is easier to measure effectiveness to decide how to pay agencies then the criteria of success must be agreed, including a proper time-frame.

As I have touched on before, we may be in danger of being able to measure the cost of everything but less able to understand the value of anything. How long before the first agency outsources some of its work to India? (Which is not to imply there aren’t some good agencies there.) At least they’ll have a script.

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About Giles Keeble

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Giles Keeble started as a rep (account man) at JWT before moving to BMP. There Stanley Pollitt told him that JWT’s Stephen King had wanted him to become a planner. John Webster encouraged him to become a writer but after a number of years Giles moved to French Gold Abbott and, for a while, did become a planner of sorts. Returning to writing he went to David Abbott’s new agency AMV followed by WCRS and was then ECD of Leo Burnett for six years. He then returned to AMV before moving to Publicis and then Lowe in Hong Kong at the inception of the ‘World’s Local Bank’ campaign for HSBC. He now works as a writer and strategist as well as running advertising courses for senior clients.