Rewilding Creativity (in the Advertising and Communication industry)

A lunchtime wander round the local Waterstones recently led me to George Monbiot’s Feral.

Its cover is handsome: adorned with the striking image of a Stag in a multi-story car park and a combination of Albertus and Gill-Sans typefaces. Books about nature are not my usual cup of tea. But, attracted by a combination of the aforementioned cover and Monbiot’s work for The Guardian, I decided to give it a go.

The central idea of Feral is the notion of rewilding. Monbiot describes rewilding as permitting ecological processes to resume “(recognising) that nature consists not just of a collection of species but also of their ever shifting relationships with each other and with the physical environment” (Monbiot, 2014, p. 8). It is a process aimed at the “mass restoration of eco-systems”.

Monbiot’s TED talk on the subject is well worth a watch and it explains many of the concepts in the book.

His desire to see this process happen stems from his personal feeling of “ecological boredom”. A sense that modern life, with all its safety, was missing something. For the majority of people in the developed world, we are lucky enough to lead secure lives. But with security comes a sedentary existence. It occurred to me that this observation is not just true of our personal lives, but also for our professional lives – my professional life specifically and not only to me, but also to my entire profession, really.

Monbiot discusses an ecological phenomenon called trophic cascades, a phenomenon which is promoted by rewilding. Trophic cascades are “processes caused by animals at the top of the food chain, which tumble all the way to the bottom. Predators and large herbivores can transform places, which they live. In some cases they have changed not only the ecosystem but also the nature of the soil, the behaviour of rivers, the chemistry of the oceans and even the composition of the atmosphere” (Monbiot, p. 9).

I believe we need to rewild creativity in the advertising and communication industry.

Modern agencies, whilst offering a range of services, notionally specialise in a single, over-arching discipline. We have agencies that offer Advertising, Media, Direct, Digital and PR and they resource themselves accordingly. They are monolithic, mono-cultural even. To use Monbiot’s phrase, they are ecologically boring.

The corporate equivalent of rewilding in the communications industry is a return to a type of full service agency – of breaking down the agency silos that have crept up over time and restoring the creative ecology. The analogue of the trophic cascades in nature, when played out in agencies is a world in which all sorts of people, from all sorts of disciplines begin to interact more closely with each other again. The legacy ‘species’ of copy writers, art directors, media and account planners, suits, PR and direct specialists, not just all under one roof again, but back round the same table, actually in the same room. Not just for meetings, but all the time. What would happen then? What would the work produced look like in this situation? That’s before you introduce the nascent ‘species’ –people specialising in disciplines that have emerged since the dissolution of full service agencies: UX, social, data planners and analysts, app and web and product design.

As we are constantly being reminded, the world for brands and advertisers is only getting more and more complex. With this complexity, the world becomes harder to navigate. The natural fault lines between communications disciplines is blurring as a part of this shift and becoming harder to discern: the need for closer collaboration therefore is heightened and exaggerated. Complex brand challenges need closer working relationships, not more distant ones. Jeremy Bullmore, writing in 2002 to mark the fortieth birthday of D&AD noted “at exactly the time that the value of communications consistency and brand coherence has never been more widely recognized…the suppliers of those communications have become irrevocably splintered” (Bullmore, 2002, p. 467). The world has only got more complex since he wrote those words. This is the prevailing and most prominent, obvious even, reason for going back to a full service model.

But, something else is happening in the agency ecology. Something that means we must rewild our industry eco-system now.

Nearly ten years ago, when I started working in the industry at a media planning and buying agency the days of the full service agency where still talked about with a mix of reverie and disdain, depending on whom you spoke to. Media planners in the latter camp would regale you with stories of their work being confined to “five slides at the back”; if indeed their work was seen by the client at all. Planners in the former – far from seeing media planning as the bit bolted on at the end of the main body of work, saw things like Phil Georgiadis who has talked about media strategy during this time as being fundamentally a “creative problem” (Georgiadis, 2014) requiring and benefitting from input from all types of people. In his case, WCRS chairman Robin Wight.

The graduates my current agency have just welcomed into the building will have no concept of what it was like when we all worked together under one roof. More importantly, their managers – the people who have graduated to senior management roles in 2015 – will have only experienced it second hand themselves. The last vestiges of people who were actually around for the full service days are either retiring or moving into new pastures: international roles, chairmanship or that Cornish B&B they always fancied running. With them go vital knowledge, experience and emotional intelligence.

Monbiot sees rewilding as a form of conservation, as should the advertising industry in my opinion. We must conserve the skills that make for mutually beneficial co-operation and collaboration between disciplines. How many media planners working today know how a planner will brief work in an advertising agency? Not notionally, but actually know? How many creative teams will genuinely have the expertise to take ideas from concept to the context in which they will finally live and be consumed by our client’s target audiences other than on TV – and even then really understand the method and means in which the ad will be distributed? Greater proximity will breed greater understanding, greater competition even – driving the product we sell our clients forward.

Interestingly, the barriers to rewilding nature are probably the same that prevent us from rewilding the agency landscape in advertising. Monbiot observes time and again that the barriers to rewilding our landscape “are cultural and economic” (Monbiot, p. 106), rather than ecological. So it is with our industry. The full service model fell apart because of ego, it has been said. But it has stayed apart because of money. Adam Smith’s notion that “the ultimate source of increase in wealth lies in the increase in productivity through greater division of labour” (Chang, 2014, p. 31) has been proven correct in the agency landscape. Division of duty in the post full service world has created wealth for specialists as well as a chance to “at last enjoy the prominence and rewards they’d been previously denied” (Bullmore) in the old agency world.

Ultimately though – the biggest handbrake on anyone attempting to start a modern, full service business is the customer, our clients. It is a truth in business that it is a “company’s customers who effectively control what it can and cannot do” (Christensen, 1997, p. 101). A full service business launched today would fail not necessarily because it is a bad idea, but because no one would be prepared to pay the relative price premium it would have to charge to survive. The current trend for agency fees is downward, after all, not upward. In reality, this could be a case of cutting one’s nose off to spite your face. I’m increasingly convinced that the quality of thinking and output that a modern full service business could offer a client would more than warrant the cost difference of a diversified supplier and agency roster.

The answer probably doesn’t lie in a return to the old style of full service agency. They worked in a different time and context to the one we find ourselves in now. Maybe the answer lies in the holding company; itself a modern phenomenon, and the strategy adopted by companies such as WPP or Havas  placing complimentary agency brands in adjoining offices. Maybe the answer lies in virtual networks like Pimento or Victor and Spoils, companies that could offer clients a new style of agency; one that acts as a meta agent for clients – sourcing and assembling the best team for any job in a fluid manner, itself becoming more involved in the procurement of services than the strict production of work. Whatever the answer, it will have to involve a more diverse and less “ecologically boring” creative landscape.

Bibliography

Bullmore, J. (2002). Last Word on the Future. In J. Myerson, & G. Vickers, Rewind: Forty Years of Design & Advertising. London: Phaidon.

Chang, H.-J. (2014). Economics: The User’s Guide. London: Pelican.

Christensen, C. M. (1997). The Innovators Dilemma. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Georgiadis, P. (2014, July 17). Why Media Strategy is a Creative Problem. Retrieved October 10, 2015, from Campaign: http://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/1303547/why-media-strategy-creative-problem

Monbiot, G. (2014). Feral. London: Penguin.

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