Life After Sorrell: it’s no good talking up creativity if you don’t have the talent and guts to support it

Much chatter in adland on the new Life After Sorrell era (LAS) and how it’s a great opportunity for creativity to make a comeback as the differentiator between agencies and a sure-fire way to the client’s wallet. Hmm. Have they heard about procurement?

Sorrell was indeed a ‘math man’ and creative agencies began to play less and a less of a role in the world according to WPP as media agencies emerged as the main drivers of revenue and profit. This despite him forking out billions for JWT, Ogilvy, Y&R (the biggest buy at about $4bn) and Grey.

In the Sorrell era only Grey, arguably, moved forward in creative terms under Jim Heekin and chief creative Tor Myrhen in the US and Nils Leonard and Chris Hirst in the UK with David Patton (now running Y&R) overseeing things from his EMEA perch. Of these only Heekin remains (as executive chairman of Grey) although Patton is still in the WPP fold at Y&R. Which tells its own story.

P&G’s hyperactive CMO Marc Pritchard (below) has recently cobbled together an agency in the US from WPP’s Grey, Publicis Groupe’s Saatchi & Saatchi and Omnicom’s Hearts & Science media operation, saying he wants at least half the workforce to be “creative.” A lot of big American companies are appointing chief creative officers, which shows they recognise that there is something of that name, although quite a few CCOs don’t seem to last very long. Maybe there are only so many beanbags you can buy.

So the issue of creativity is live and there appears to be a recognition that there isn’t enough of it.

But a big reason for this is that there aren’t enough people in agencies capable of producing the kind of high end creativity that wins friends (possibly the fabled chairman’s wife) and influences clients.

That’s thanks to decades of under-investment by holding companies (as US consultant Michael Farmer has pointed out) and the depredations of others including procurement execs and the agencies’ own bean counters blasting away budget. All the big agency groups have their own in-house production operations these days, for example. The aim is to bring all production in-house and if you don’t happen to have a Ridley Scott on the premises – tough.

Back in the dim and distant, Collett Dickenson Pearce in London had a veritable cornucopia of talent up to various things and, occasionally, producing an ad or two. There was Alan Parker in the basement learning how to be a commercials director, David Puttnam (a suit at CDP) before he became a big shot photographer’s agent and then film producer, Charles Saatchi no doubt plotting world domination as he toiled over his copy pad and the late, great Alan Waldie waiting for the impossible art director’s brief: no copy and no pack shot.

The point is that these were real talents, as their subsequent careers demonstrate. The same can be said of some of the people at Saatchi & Saatchi (Tim Bell, Graham Fink who began at CDP), Boase Massimi Politt (which became DDB in the UK), BBH and a small number of others. No doubt there are similarly gifted people at some of today’s top agencies although their names hardly trip off the tongue.

But if you don’t have top talent (and the budgets to match) creativity will be a half-cocked calling card.

We often see ads here which are almost there but lack something. Often it’s the production values that make a good idea great. Adam&eveDDB is the master of this. Advertising is a commercial activity and, in the same way that you shouldn’t make a car with bits missing, neither should you make an ad. This inability to see things through is due to lack of confidence as well as money. If a CDP client wouldn’t play ball then, as often as not, the agency resigned it. Which holding company today would have the nerve to do that?

Without the required talent, trying to put creativity back in the driving seat is like putting Everton (once the school of science, now the school of anything to get a point) up against Barcelona.

But does the agency world have any Barcelonas these days?

Update

Graham Fink writes:

This brought back a few memories.

The B&H Snakeskin poster is one I did at CDP, and there is a nice story behind it.

Basically I wanted to make the shedded pack look like a real snakeskin that had been discarded in the desert. So instead of choosing a still life photographer I chose the legendary American photographer Bruce Brown.

Bruce was famous for his amazing car shots in the desert and I thought it would be more interesting to use him. He knew the light and how the sand should look better than anyone.I had visions of us trekking through the desert looking for the right sand dune and getting the perfect shot.

So I was very excited when I went to his house near Hampstead Heath (if my memory serves me correctly). His whole place was full of various knick knacks he had collected around the world. After an initial chat about some of his work I showed him my layout. He immediately said that going to the desert to get this shot was not the right thing to do as we could recreate it perfectly in his studio. Damn. My Lawrence of Arabia dream was shattered.

But he then brought out a color temperature meter and showed it to me. I had heard of a light meter of course, but never of a colour one. He explained that he shot all his desert shots at a particular degree Kelvin. A slight pinkness to it. He eventually convinced me it was the right thing to do. A few weeks later I went to his studio and he had set up a large box full of sand. The model snakeskin/pack was made by Asylum model makers.

They were the best in London. They actually made it out thousands of tiny pieces of clear cell which they then stuck together and gave it a light spraying of gold. Bruce carefully placed the pack in the corner of the sandpit and took out a piece of silver foil that was used to wrap scalpel blades. He then made a single sweep across the sand for a snake trail, adding a few tiny incisions here and there to give out texture. Then out came these great big lights and the famous colour temperature meter. A few sheets of filters were added to get the perfect degree Kelvin. Click.

Aah, those were the days.

Amazing craft.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.
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