Innovating our way out of crisis

The very core of what we do is stuck in a spiral of short-term firefighting.

Creativity is in crisis. It is the main thing of value that agencies create. It's our sole reason to exist.

It’s why we are appealing targets to management consultancies. It’s why we’re not yet redundant. As Bob Hoffman says: "[Creativity] is the only thing of major value from agencies – everything else [clients] can get from somewhere else."

Yet, right now, the very core of what we do is stuck in a spiral of short-term firefighting. The changing marketing landscape has left us trapped, trying to make more content, for more places, faster than ever before, but using the same processes, smaller teams and less resource. Instead of having two weeks to come up with some elegant print concepts, we have two days to fill a proliferation of "dynamic, personalised, mobile-first content formats". This brave new world turns out to be a scary and challenging place for creativity.

As every other part of the marketing landscape gets disrupted, our processes for getting to new ideas, for harnessing creativity, have remained remarkably the same. Marshall McLuhan argued that our "age of anxiety" comes from trying to solve tomorrow's problems with yesterday’s tools. We are facing this in creative agencies, as our creative processes fail to keep up with the changing industry.

In Madison Avenue Manslaughter (2015), the average price per "creative unit" has more than halved from 1991 to 2015, while the number of "creative units" created by each team has more than doubled. At the same time, the average ratio of account people and planners to creatives supporting each account has decreased from 1:5x to 1.0x. In short, we’re making more, for less, with fewer people. 

If something doesn’t change, where does this end? Churning out more stuff for more places faster and faster? More firefighting? Going down in flames? We are coping, currently, but it doesn’t feel like we’re making a concerted effort to fix it.

We can't just sit back and watch it burn (or throw more fuel on the fire). Instead, we need to fight the fire and save creativity.

To do all this, we must innovate. Not on behalf of our clients, coming up with new biscuit or laundry ranges, or digital initiatives in "innovation co-creation workshops", and not with little incubator units setting up brands and businesses that we wished we ran. 

No, we need to turn our creative mindset on ourselves and use innovation to develop better ways of working, better tools and better processes designed to make us creatively fit for the future.

This isn't a case of tinkering with the creative brief a bit more and looking at how we can make our traffic and production process more efficient (although that may be part of it).

It also isn’t about stubbornly and wistfully longing for "creative golden ages" and the glory days of the past. The world has changed and pining for the good old days isn’t getting us anywhere.

It’s about reinventing the creative process, the tools it uses and the agency that sits around it. We need a radical revolution in how creativity is created and captured for clients.

First up, we need to professionalise. For too long, we have been happy to treat creativity like a cottage industry. One where we embrace not having to be "grown-ups", where we roll our eyes at timesheets and put in extra unpaid hours for the "love of the craft" and getting from "good to great".

This has left us woefully underprepared for reinvention and unable to push back as procurement, holding companies and clients nibble away at our creative capabilities. Agencies need to grow up fast, not adding in overbearing process for the sake of it, but digitising briefing, workflow, time-tracking and resourcing.

This isn’t the solution alone, but it’s a foundation without which nothing else is possible. We must apply this commercial nous to make the case to reinvest in agency creativity. This may involve taking a hit on profitability in the short term. This may prompt some difficult discussions. But better to do it now, while we can choose to do it, rather than later, when we have to do it.

We must also partner up. We should be embracing, or at least working with, ad-tech and technology partners. They’re either going to be part of the problem or part of the solution. But we’re not going to be able to do this alone. The Silicon Valleys and Roundabouts of the world are buzzing with people who are trying to come up with new ways of creating and crafting ideas. We need to find a common ground and language to work better together. Some of this can also be done within the industry and across holding company networks. Initiatives such as Marcel at Publicis are steps to do this as well – building better, more collaborative, technologically enabled creative networks. But there are myriad exciting developments in artificially intelligent creativity tools already out there to work with or learn from.

Beyond this, we should prototype and pilot new techniques and tools. We need to apply design thinking and a creative mindset to the creative agency process. Let’s run internal sessions within our agencies to come up with not just new processes but new tools. Let’s work together to prototype the new model agency and figure out how we make it happen.

By developing new tools and approaches, we can escape our age of anxiety – delivering true cyborg creativity and being more creative at scale. Building an agency model where we use technology to track and unleash the creative process; where we can see how different inputs and approaches can lead to better outputs; where we experiment with and reflect on new ways of working. These innovations aren’t tech for the sake of it. It could be ways of getting new insight and inspiration into a brainstorm process, it could be scamping and copywriting tools, or specific studio techniques that are made possible with technology.

Let’s get serious about solving the creativity deficit we suffer from today. Everything else is a sideshow that risks distracting us.

But, most importantly, let’s dare to come up with a different way of working. One that gets us creatively excited again. That is designed specifically to defend and improve the thing we are most valued for doing. Creativity. Whatever channel or platform that creativity is ultimately directed at. Whatever shape creativity takes.

Let’s invent an exciting future for our industry. One with creativity at the centre of it, but that also makes the most of the exciting opportunities and potential of the future.

Oliver Feldwick is global head of innovation at The & Partnership

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