Why do we need creative leadership in Advertising and can Design Thinking help?

- Part 1

There’s never been a better time to be in advertising, but it’s also become more challenging than ever. Like many other industries going through necessary changes caused by the new world we live in, advertising has been trying to change and adapt to the fast moving worlds of digital media, technology and data driven marketing, only to find itself stuck in an era long gone.

Still great in creativity and storytelling, the advertising industry still relies on old creative team models that are not sufficient to provide holistic solutions to new age problems. Ad agencies are no longer transforming brands, as they are now built from a combination of customer experiences rather than just traditional advertising. This is making them an easy prey for multidisciplinary consultancies and companies such as the Big Four (EY, PwC, KPMG, Deloitte).

These consultancies continue to seek areas in which they can grow their operations by buying Ad agencies or poaching their top creative experts. Adding the creative advertising layer to these consultancies favours them in winning major business, as they have the potential of completing tasks across diverse skill-sets and areas in-house to provide a rapid
holistic service.

That’s why in order to solve this pressing issue, the future must be re-imagined and creative leadership is required. The process could start by fixing the current structures in order to fit in multidisciplinary expertise and provide better types of creative services to brands with ever shifting needs. Being the backbone of the Ad industry and the producers of its main product, ideas, creative people should lead the way in this quest as they live and breathe this situation on a daily basis.

It is an absolutely necessary attempt if Ad agencies want to move at the speed of culture and answer the ever growing demands of a world that is experiencing higher levels of awareness. This could be potentially effective to stop big multidisciplinary consultancies from buying out more advertising agencies. So could it really work?

How did it all start?

First, let’s go back in time to get a better understanding of the Ad industry and why structural change is beneficial and should be orchestrated. In 1878, Advertising experienced its first major change when James Walter Thompson established one of the first advertising agencies to offer clients creative services. The ‘full-service’ advertising agency model was created, a one stop
shop with multiple departments within, whereby each one was devoted for one specific role. For instance, one department would be dedicated to account management, another to creative services, and another to media planning and buying. This re-modeled Ad agencies from being vendors of advertising space for client-prepared messaging, to developing creative content such as layout,
copywriting, package design, trademark development and market research. Fast forward to the 1950s, Bill Bernbach — one of the greatest Ad men and a co-founder of the multi-national agency, DDB — decided to team up copywriters and art directors together after having been in separate departments. This revolutionised the industry and ensured better and more meaningful creative advertising to see the light. His model for the creative teams still exists in advertising agencies today as seen in Fig.1.

Fig.1. Creative Team Model created by Bill Bernbach

What about today?

Bill Bernbach’s template was well suited to a world where brands lived in the space of different media and technology, says Nick Law, Global Chief Creative Officer of Publicis, however, today this model has proven to be rigid, non progressive and unable to deliver comprehensive solutions as it is mainly focused on delivering solutions based on brand storytelling. This has been one of the main reasons why advertising agencies have lost their impact in the current business landscape.

So, in order to solve this, different tasks call for different tools. Fig. 2. demonstrates Law’s recommendation for creative team’s re-structures whereby teams can be curated based on an organising principle rather than having the typical atomic team (i.e: the art director and copywriter). His model combines storytelling and experience which works by creating teams from those two worlds, that can deliver well rounded services under such fusion.

Fig. 2. Adapted illustration from Nick Law’s creative team model

Introducing design thinking into creative teams in Ad agencies

Building on what Nick Law proposed, teams could be curated according to what the nature of the problem is or by including some team members with different skill sets that could potentially contribute significantly in an unexpected way. It is worth noting that in many instances, Ad agencies could already have some specialised individuals in their companies sitting in hierarchy under the teams of copywriters and art directors rather than being involved in the creative process from the beginning. So the idea is to create a proper collaboration by curating them in teams that work side by side with the original story tellers i.e.: copywriters and art directors.

This can enable creative teams to be agile, dynamic and strong. But before curating teams, a certain culture and way of thinking should be adopted in order to glue all the disciplines together and ensure that the vision is clear and the purpose is unified.

In the past, design has been associated with aesthetics and craftsmanship and designers have been regarded as artistic experts. But creating a design-centric culture where everyone thinks like a designer, exceeds design as a function, conveying a set of principles to everyone, helping bring ideas to life. A proven method that has been popularized by IDEO — a world leading international design and consulting firm — and Stanford University through forums like TED, BusinessWeek, and Harvard Business Review is Design thinking. The best way to define design thinking is to go by the words of Tim Brown, president and CEO of IDEO:

‘Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.’
Fig. 3. Adapted illustration from IDEO’s Field Guide To Human Centred Design

Design thinking is less of a linear process, but more of a mindset. It is purposefully iterative and aims to quickly create and test numerous possible solutions to reach an ideal one. It is comprised of 5 phases. 1) Empathise, 2) Define, 3) Ideate, 4) Prototype and 5) Test (‘An Introduction to Design Thinking Process Guide’ 2007). These five phases don’t have to follow a specific order and they can occur in parallel as seen in Fig. 4.

This is a great tool to enable people from different disciplines within an Ad agency to collaborate together under one system and efficiently achieve common goals.

Fig. 4. Design Thinking Model. Adapted from Hasso Plattner Institue of Design at Stanford model

Putting together a creative team

An essential principle of design thinking is to construct a team with various experiences because a mix of perspectives, expertise and approaches produces the best results. A typical team will produce typical solutions, while an unpredictable team will produce unpredictable solutions. The less someone knows about a problem, the more curiosity and unpredictability they will bring in trying to come up with solutions, as opposed to reasons why ideas won’t work.

To choose the right people, advertising agencies can use IDEO’s long practiced model for collaboration and the development of their employees. The model, called The T-shaped People, was first used internally by McKinsey & Company for recruiting and developing consultants and partners and later championed by IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown, as seen in Fig 5.

Fig. 5. Adapted illustration of T-Shape Person model by McKinsey & Company

A T-shaped person is capable in many things and expert in, at least, one. The vertical stroke of the “T” is a depth of skill or specialty that allows individuals to contribute to the creative process. That can be from any number of different fields i.e.: a graphic designer, an architect, an anthropologist, a business specialist or a mechanical engineer etc. The horizontal stroke of the “T” symbolises the general skills or the breadth that allows individuals to be capable in a lot of things but not expert in any. T-shaped people have both depth and breadth in their skills. This can be an invaluable method how advertising personnel are hired in Ad agencies and creative teams are curated.

Hypothetical Example

In a hypothetical scenario, after a brief is received and an insight is found, a team leader should be appointed to gather a team (Team sizes may vary depending upon the challenge at hand) to brainstorm ideas for solutions. The brief could require people with specialised experiences in Social Media, User Experience design, Copywriting, Strategy, Graphic Design, Art Direction etc or could require grabbing the guy from accounting who is into classic cars, the lady from the data team who has an amazingly analytical brain, and the new office administrator who is just started and knows nothing about advertising, and start brainstorming outside their own bubbles of influence to explore new spheres of holistic solutions.

To make this even more interesting agencies could look into hiring full time or freelancing expertise of totally different and unexpected experiences if the brief permits or perhaps always leaving a vacant space for a person in any curated team that could potentially be filled by an individual who might possibly bring the X-Factor. For example, adding an Anthropologist to the creative team can bring insights about humans, human behaviour and societies in the past and present. Adding a physicist or a mechanical engineer on another occasion can potentially contribute in a significant way in working on a campaign for a car brand. Adding them together can give us another unexpected perspective too due to new dynamics created. How about inviting a young mother to join a team working on a brief for baby prams? This is an agile and dynamic structure that is non-rigid and is always open to exploration, as seen in Fig. 6.

Fig. 6. Suggested creative model in agency. Inspired by Design Thinking & Nick Law’s Model

Therefore, creativity is not locked to one department in an agency, it’s a process between a group of people who might not have a chance to work together by applying design thinking to solve marketing and business problems of clients .

The final formula of change could potentially look like this:
New Team Structures + Design Thinking culture & methods 
= Agility, Creativity, Innovation, Holisticness, Empathy & Efficiency

Re-modelling Ad agencies based on Design Thinking: For, Maybe and Against

One great example of how some methods of Design Thinking are being embraced, is an American international advertising agency called R/GA. Throughout its lifetime as an agency, R/GA has been changing its working modules and reshaping itself every few years in order to operate at the speed of culture. Now a days at R/GA, multidisciplinary teams of seven from different areas of expertise are curated to work on briefs. By collectively getting behind the idea, a level of passion is locked in. R/GA teams work to a process of collaboration and iteration, that favors change and evolves communications in accordance with how a product develops.

Another interesting voice in the Ad industry who is a fan of re-modeling advertising teams is Riku Vassinen, Digital Business Director, J. Walter Thompson Ad agency, Singapore. Although he hasn’t specified design thinking as the go to method, Vassinen believes that it is about time to shake the old advertising structures and has listed 4 outcomes that can be achieved if that happens:

  1. They can create an ecosystem whereby creative products are generated quicker
  2. Grow agency services to surpass traditional campaigns
  3. Locate new business models that could replace retainer-ships and project fees
  4. Facilitate dynamic ways of working to decrease inflated organisations and rigid systems

Riku also believes that future and re-modeled advertising agencies should consist of people with good breadth who are accompanied with specialists. As the channel & technology knowledge gets more specific, the need to have big picture individuals becomes more vital.

Of course, not everyone in the Ad industry will be a fan of adopting design thinking in general, let alone remodeling the agencies based on that. One of the strong opposing voices is Adam Ferrier — a consumer psychologist and one of the world’s top 50 strategists — who believes that human centred design is the enemy of original brands and that design thinking might cause your brand to slip right out of your customer’s mind. Ferrier argues that thinking about the customer isn’t a new thing in advertising and marketing, but the obsession about the customer is getting a bit out of hand. Adam adds that in the design thinking’ processes — empathy, stimulation, prototyping etc), the word ‘brand’ doesn’t even appear on the design thinking template. For him, human centred design misses the mark. ‘It creates homogenised brands, and makes those brands being seamless, and friction-less and devoid of meaning, or value.’ So the main focus should stay on your brand and not the customer because brands are why advertising agencies are in business.

What Ferrier presented is a fair argument especially if design thinking becomes a one size fits all approach.

Final thoughts

Design thinking allows Ad agencies to understand and empathize with the consumers as it encourages interviewing them. Holding empathy interviews can bring a lot to strategy discussions with business clients. This is important because agencies are in the business of finding customers for their business clients.

In addition, a key component of design thinking is storytelling — which is something that Ad agencies excel in. Being able to communicate marketing messages around human needs on top of product features, enables Ad agencies to connect with target audiences at a more personal level.
Finally, it’s about time to radically reshape advertising agencies. By adopting design thinking and building new creative team structures around it, this can then transform the way advertising organisations deliver ideas in addition to developing products, services, processes, and strategy. This can happen much quicker if advertising creatives take the lead in creating the future instead of surrendering the decision-making to other agency departments. As any new idea or proposal there will be opposers, adopters and skeptics. But this is 
a work in progress, so better act now before multi-disciplinary consultancies take over the creative landscape and force everyone to play by their rules.

This article was part 1 of my Future Design Leadership Research at RMIT University as part of the Masters of Design Futures program.

Check out part 2 here:

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