Would the last creative to leave advertising please turn out the lights?

Photographer: Rodion Kutsaev

Advertising agencies were once sturdy forts of creativity, beacons for ideas and heralded for their smart thinking.

But then something happened.

Somewhere along the way the people at the top forgot about the creative side of things, they took their eye off the ball. Times changed but they didn’t.

Fast Company’s list of the 100 Most Creative People in Business for 2016 is testament to that. There’s not one person on the list from advertising. That’s not a good sign.

How can an industry that touts itself as ‘creative’ and also spends a week of every year slapping itself on the back in Cannes at a ‘Festival of Creativity’ still call itself creative when it has let that title slip from its grasp?

If there was ever a list that advertising people should be on it would be a list of the most creative people in business. And yes, I know that the advertising trade publications have lists for the creative people in the business, but that is just the industry talking to the industry.

Over the past 10 years we’ve seen some amazing innovations that have taken over much of the brand communication/advertising world. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, and there’s sure to be something else just around the corner.

Media companies such as Vice and Buzzfeed create content for brands directly now, cutting agencies out of the process completely.

But where were the ad agencies when it came to the opportunities to innovate and get truly creative?

I am sure, in fact I know, that there are and have been many people within agencies who have had ideas much bigger than TV commercials or print ads, many of them, but they have no voice at the table nor any power to change the single minded vision of the bean counters at the top of the heap.

Look at the VSCO photography app, I use it often it’s a great tool; one of the founders and creators came out of a creative agency. Creative people do have creative ideas beyond the ones they are being tasked with day-to-day within an agency.

What is happening to the ad industry is almost identical to what hit the music industry, but it seems nobody was paying attention to the similarities between these two situations.

The shift in technology and human behavior created a monumental change in how people accessed music and listened to it.

The same has happened with content, and advertising is for all intents and purposes is just content.

Once you needed a cumbersome 35mm motion film camera to make TV commercials and then we stepped into the very high end and still expensive video cameras (REDS and the like), but now you could in fact shoot one in 4K on your smartphone.

I can hear the purists now — “oh but what about the quality?” People (formerly known as ‘consumers’) don’t give a damn about the quality; they are more interested in the entertainment value or the information.

The most watched videos on YouTube are not multi-million dollar Superbowl commercials; they are more often than not shot on a smartphone by a parent observing their kid doing something funny, or their cat.

Look at films like ‘Tangerine’ from 2015, shot entirely on an iPhone and it went on to win a bunch of awards and critical acclaim.

Then there are the billboards being used by Apple for the ‘Shot on an iPhone’ campaign, a professional photographer with an expensive medium format camera didn’t shoot these, non-professionals shot them on their phones.

Times have changed, so you either catch up and keep up or throw in the towel.

Personally I am excited about what technology now allows me to do as a creative, before there were so many barriers to bringing even the simplest idea to life. No we’re kind of spoiled for choice.

Agencies were positioned at the bow of the boat when all of this change was on the horizon and approaching fast. But instead of readying the crew to navigate this uncharted sea they instead decided to go to lunch and slam into an iceberg.

Opportunity lost. History repeats.

I feel that only new agencies and the very nimble will be able to truly work it all out. Those with massive staff rosters and multi-tiered management structures will struggle.

One explanation for this is best explained by a quote I use often — you don’t see statues of committees for a reason. Having been in upper management of a few agencies I know just how slow and laborious it is to try and get any kind of change in behavior to happen, it is almost impossible. And when they do agree to try something it is almost always too late.

We are living in the age of now; we need immediacy in our actions.

There also has to be a major change to the inner workings of agencies, the old ‘us and them’ departments are as outdated as VHS. Everyone can have ideas, not just the creative department.

To survive will require a push for innovation. I’m talking about creating game changing ideas or at least getting off the bench and joining the game.

But, again there is a problem. If a smart employee did come up with an amazing idea for an app or something similar why in their right mind would they hand it over to the agency to take all the glory and the profits? They wouldn’t. And there lies another problem.

I have some ideas, thoughts, and theories on how this and some of the other issues could be solved, but hey I am a creative business person and if I give away all my thinking that would be kind of dumb. That’s what I charge for.

At the end of the day there needs to be some real thinking done by the big shops. And for those stuck in big agencies and considering striking out on their own and doing something new and fresh this could very well be the perfect time for you to make that leap.

That’s it for today; see you tomorrow.


P.S. If you are in New York and would like to attend a small talk I am moderating called ‘Where do ideas come from?’ on September 13 you can see the details here.

Rodd Chant is a Creative Director / Writer / Strategist and a bit more. He also teaches creativity to groups and individuals and makes a mean Thai red curry, or so he says. He also has a penchant for talking in the third person. You can read more of his LinkedIn musings here. You can also find him on Twitter and on Instagram. Or drop him an email — roddchant@gmail.com

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