The great divide

My old friend Mike Fromowitz recently posted a blog in Campaign magazine regarding the recent rise in start-up advertising and branding companies such as our own. It’s an increasingly common topic these days, and if you look around across Asia some of these ‘little shops’ are doing very well indeed, attracting big name clients to give them a try.

I think there is a good reason for this and it has more to do with the issues facing bigger, international agencies as it does the qualifications of the small, independent ones.

Here’s a theory to add to what Mike has suggested, shoot it down if you will. In recent years, Asia in particular has come on in leaps and bounds in terms of award-winning creative work. More than that, the diversity of source countries producing great work is broader than ever. The global creative map has changed forever.

What’s also changed and is seemingly irreversible, is the ability of agencies to actually sell in great work to clients. Selling ideas is tricky. Clients, by nature, are more likely to be apprehensive about ideas which seem risky, are not familiar. Not tried and tested. Which is why most creative advertising we see around us every day is tried and tested. Not to mention mostly crap.

But in today’s world, agencies don’t have to sell in their great ideas. They simply request the client’s permission to ‘run them’ in order to qualify for the award shows. So everyone’s happy. The creatives are happy because they get their chance. Client service people are happy because they don’t have the (once upon a time very stressful) pressure to try and get brave ideas through the client. And the clients are happy because they are comfortable with the tried and tested work anyway. Despite the fact that more outstanding ideas might work that much harder for their brand and achieve better returns.

However, the end result of all this is that many agencies (I’m talking big network agencies) are now split down the middle. There is the real world. The bread and butter work which gets churned out every day for real briefs from big spending clients. Nobody really tries to rock the boat with that. Clients won’t buy brave ideas anyway. Do the job and take the money. Then there’s the pretend world, where you do excellent creative work for the shows, pay for it to run (big agencies have budgets set aside for this) and pretend it was real. (It always makes me laugh when agency leaders blame poor standards of creativity on a bad economy which makes clients more nervous…when nobody bothers getting better work past clients in the first place these days…they simply ask to run it.)

This is now the norm. If you asked many agencies to showcase the work they do on their biggest spending projects vs their most award-winning work, there’s a very high chance that the two will not correlate.

This is very different from the world’s most famously high profile creative agencies (ie Weiden and Kennedy, BBH London etc) who built their reputations by doing great work on real briefs. They did this by having very strong client relationships. By being honest and firm with clients. And also, by leading the relationship, as opposed to the other way round where agencies are told to do as the client says with a ‘customer is always right’ mentality. (Because the main objective is to meet the numbers.)

So, there’s the great divide. Two world’s under one roof. The results of all this are a generation of young talented creative leaders who know no other route to the awards stage than under the table. And agency client managers who would not have the faintest idea how to begin to sell in a daring idea to a client. Agencies are not breeding any Frank Lowes today. Any Mike Greenlees (tasked with the difficult challenge of selling in Dave Trott’s ideas..). Any Rod Pullens. In fact, let’s say any real leaders.

For the small independent agencies, who are often started by senior, experienced agency people who want to get back to the basics and see a better way, this is good news. Because you know what? Clients want that too. At least the good ones. They want people who think for their brand or business. Who have opinions and offer expertise. And know how to sell a brave idea.

I know which world I prefer.