Listening to industry rhetoric, you could be forgiven for thinking that advertising and commercial creativity are in a death spiral.
A number of traditional marketing service holding companies continue to disappoint investors with poor organic growth, often pointing to major clients apparently disinvesting in brand support.
Now, even the esteemed IPA, which has done so much to develop the UK’s position as a global creative advertising leader, has published a book called Lemon, by Orlando Wood, in an attempt to reverse what it is calling the crisis in creative effectiveness.
With Les Binet and Peter Field’s superb work called upon to support the argument of decline, only a fool would rush in to dispute the findings.
So this fool would like to present a contrarian question: are we seeing a crisis in advertising creativity? Or are we actually seeing a crisis in advertising creativity as it used to be defined?
I ask this question because if you have any belief in the wisdom of the crowd, the facts just don’t appear to add up to the crisis.
Global advertising spend continues to rise. Even in the troubled UK, digital advertising spend grew 13% in the first half of 2019.
This is all short-term, lower-funnel, direct-response advertising, I hear you cry.
Well, hold on. Digital video advertising went up 27%, so the highest growth came from the emotive (and expensive) power of video advertising.
Either the majority of advertisers are stupidly wasting money or maybe they have more faith in, and more facts on, how creative advertising is working for them.
More circumstantially, you don’t need to look far to see some stunning work being created in the UK.
Just recently, Uncommon Creative Studio and Goodstuff Communications' work for ITV’s mental-health campaign, featuring a silent ad break during Britain’s Got Talent, showed how creativity combined with great understanding of context could crack the toughest of challenges – having families talk about mental health.
And, by the way, in reality the biggest FMCG companies, so often accused of cutting creative brand support, are doing no such thing.
The likes of Unilever, Procter & Gamble and L’Oréal are busy building new "ecosystems" of partners to provide the powerful creativity that they need to thrive – from agencies, film companies, publishers, influencers and tech businesses.
The issue is not about the death of advertising or the decline of creativity (we have always had bad ads), or even blaming clients for cutting budgets, as some agencies persist in doing.
This is simply lazy thinking. Clients are seeking creativity. They know that optimisation is incremental. They know creativity can create a step change in brand fortunes. They know they need creativity to win.
They are just going to a broader range of places to find their creative gold. The hegemony of the old system might be what is actually in crisis.
Indeed, creative demand is set to increase. Campaign's Gideon Spanier recently pointed out that in a world of streamed TV there will be new challenges.
With the combination of waning consumer patience for long ad breaks, advertisers seeking new ways to harness the power of TV and the need to monetise expensive programming, there will be great rewards to the creative people who learn how to use this new environment in ways that reward consumers, channels and advertisers alike.
The new creativity "supply chain" has changed beyond recognition in just five years.
With almost every major publisher and TV business is busy growing their "content division" and a whole cadre of new publishers – aka influencers – are being fostered by major brand companies and private investors, the platform businesses’ creative resources have never been greater.
In agency land, there is more entrepreneurial activity today than we have seen for a decade. Agencies, performance marketing companies, data businesses, video specialists, media companies – so many of these are showing strong growth as clients seek new expressions of creativity.
Many but not all are private. All are entrepreneurial. All are focused on creating a truly inspiring working environment, not a tick-box HR "fruit on Thursday" exercise. In short, they are built to create.
Nor do they sell prepacked "solutions" – they build off great platforms rather than trying to rebuild them. They are client-focused and their leadership spreads inspiration, not fear of failure.
This is not about size. Clients will go where they need to go to get powerful creativity, whether it be a listed holding company or a new start-up.
As I have previously highlighted, we are now seeing a divergence of holding companies’ strategies between those wanting to be a platform business and own first-party data and those that want to deploy the best available in the market, ambivalent to ownership.
Similarly, we are also seeing a divergence in holding companies' focus on creative advertising.
Finally, the toughest judge of the value of creativity is the mergers and acquisitions market. Results International recently highlighted that traditional holding companies are on course to make about half the number of acquisitions than they did in 2018 – a downward trend that has been apparent since 2014.
However, overall acquisition activity is up in marketing services, thanks in part to the consultants but more due to private equity and venture capital. And, guess what, the highest number of these acquisitions is in the advertising and creative agency space.
What looks like a crisis to some looks like an opportunity to others.
Advertising is not dying, nor is it going back to the future. It is adapting to a fast-changing environment, as it always has.
What may be true is that some of the old suppliers are dying and occupying more headlines than they deserve but, like nature, chief marketing officers abhor a vacuum; they need the oxygen of creativity to thrive and prosper. And they will find it.
Iain Jacob holds a number of roles including chair of UKOM and Cinema First. He is a former media agency leader
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