Part 1: Is it time to unbundle strategy and creative?

Creatives need strategists, but strategists don't need creatives, argues the CEO and founder of Sylvain Labs

Editor's note: This is the first column in a two-part series discussing the pros and cons of working with agencies that offer strategic — but not creative — services. The second column, written by Britt Fero, EVP, chief strategy and media officer at Publicis Seattle, will be published tomorrow.

It all starts at the beginning. Advertising agencies flourished at the height of industrialization and mass media when corporations needed to sell great volumes of product to the greatest amount of people possible. Suddenly the supply part wasn’t hard, it was the demand that needed attention.

And so the modern agency was born. Advertising agencies were hired to persuade people to do things and buy things they may not have otherwise. They played back consumer aspirations in clever and subtle ways, deploying a phalanx of tactics: jingles, product claims, celebrity endorsements, sexual innuendo and more. In the world of business, agencies were viewed as Oz-like wonderlands, shrouded in a sort of romantic mystique and led by wizards referred to by first name only. These agencies scripted compelling myths on behalf of their corporate clients all in hopes of winning the hearts and wallets of everyday people.

The ruse was and still is the primary role of advertising Creatives — writers, art directors, technologists and the rest. If advertising agencies manufactured creative messaging and tactics, Creatives — with a capital "C" — were the machines that produced it. This of course did not account for the fact that everyone is creative in some way.

The artificial boundary around the Creative Department created artificial distinctions among agency talent. Where some people had a divine gift to see the unseen, others were mired in the details of the everyday. It’s true that some were trained in a specific craft, like copywriting, but so too were account people, account planners and producers. Everyone in the agency used their inherent gift of creativity to do their specific jobs. If you told someone you were a "Creative" in any other industry they would think you were crazy.

As a result of these artificial delineations, the Creative Department was revered and a warped power dynamic emerged — other agency roles became subservient to the Creative Department and clients, focused on fierce competition and charmed by career aspirations, became smitten with its allure.

So the question of whether strategy and creative should be under the same roof belies the fact that these two roles are actually not that different. Through a mix of curiosity, insight, risk and ingenuity, Creatives and Strategists ought to work together to fulfill their client’s needs. The best agencies understand this and are structured more dynamically, allowing for a collaborative environment where everyone is expected to be (and valued as) creative.

The point is that the burden to deliver the core agency product is increasingly being shared, and creatives and Strategists are working together more and more. Not only should the two roles absolutely live under the same roof of the advertising agency it shouldn't even be regarded as a "unique" way of structuring a business or account. The advertising industry is evolving and clients are broadening their understanding of what agencies can do and what creatives should be.

Even Creatives themselves are understanding their changing value. Many are leaving traditional agencies to either work with tangential services like production or media or to work on pet projects, new product ideas or new businesses. After all, "Creative" isn’t a sufficient title for their role. Just like many people other than Creatives are creative within the advertising agency, many people other than Strategists are strategic within the agency.

"Strategy," as it happens, is important to everything — every business decision and every business risk. And in a climate where advertising is losing its relevance and clients are increasingly doubting its effectiveness, a sound consumer, marketing and brand strategy is critical.

So while advertising Creatives need Strategists or planners to be properly valued by their advertising clients, Strategists can provide even greater value to clients outside advertising or the advertising agency. The skills and talents of the modern strategist — the ability to understand business dynamics, the ability to channel the consumer insight, or the ability to identify the creative spark — are applicable to all corners of the world of business.

After all, the world of business is changing too: so-called soft skills like emotional intelligence and insight are gaining relevance; design-thinking is making its way to business schools and management consultancies; the power of the brand is increasingly acknowledged and valued; clients are taking more ownership and control of their creative output and innovation is the prevailing cliché in business circles. All of these forces and trends make strategists highly valuable beyond the world of advertising. Clients see this benefit and are increasingly working with groups of strategists as an alternative to other agencies or resources.

So while Creatives and Strategists should live under the same roof of an advertising agency because Creative needs Strategy, Strategy can live under its own roof, unwed from any particular creative function. Because strategy can thrive without Creative with a capital "C."

Alain Sylvain is CEO and founder of Sylvain Labs.

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