Friday, November 5, 2010

Break the Cycle of Creative Abuse

I have read more than a few articles in the last 60 days all about top shelf creatives leaving the advertising business. These are not underpaid interns, recent graphic design grads or even mid-level producers, rather they are executive-level creative directors and top-of-the-food-chain creative leads migrating away from high-profile positions at the big-boy conglomerates.

Why is this? Yesterday Ad Age distributed a great piece talking about some of the reasons. You can read Daniele Fiandaca's piece in whole HERE

Basically the article states there are a few core reasons for the industry needing a vast re-tooling. Some factors include the impact of technology, outdated industry in an ever evolving media landscape and burnt out and commoditized creative talent.

I would like to focus on the last point, while made, in my opinion, not emphasized enough. This is a very real, far reaching and long term issue.

I have been in the media industry for 13 years and have worked on the agency side, the client side and the media side. I am currently own a business that services some ad agencies. It is my observation that the industry has a real problem with creative abuse. Similar to other forms of abuse (see child abuse) it seems this creative abuse is hard to break because it is formed in a nasty cycle. Client abuses agency, agency abuses creative, creative/producer abuses partner/vendor based on behavior exhibited or pressure applied to them by account leads. It is trickle down abuse. The net result is under performing work, budgets that do not fit the business objectives and everyone is frustrated, if not down right demoralized.

The agency industry has been complaining and moaning about commoditization of good creative work for decades, this is nothing new, yet they pass that same abuse and commoditization on to everyone they work with. When does the cycle end? How do you break the cycle? I think technology, for all its foibles, offers at least, a potential break. I have thought this for a long time.

Commoditization occurs when the market becomes saturated and the "cheaper" providers can move in and offer goods or services at a level that can satisfy the market at a low price point - pushing away the value from a high quality, higher cost provider. Understanding that, we see the ad business has been commoditized in the traditional services - standard graphic design, copy writing, print services, and traditional broadcast services. Funny how the "big idea" is not mentioned, mostly because it can never be commoditized because it is rarely found within a commodity agency. Have you ever taken the time to ignore the major advertisers that you see on the Super Bowl or that are featured in creative publications? Look at the other 85% of advertising that runs. There is a lot of VERY BAD advertising out there. The industry even admits it. You can chalk up all that poor work to low budgets, clients with low expectations and agencies willing to accommodate and commoditize their offering to serve that market. I am not judging, I am just calling out what I see. The abuse is a big piece of this puzzle.

Lee Clow said in a recent Independent Lens documentary, Art & Copy. I am paraphrasing, but he basically said there is a ton of poor advertising out there because many agencies are not advertising the truth. They are taking money to perform for poor products and services. Maybe that is the genesis of this abusive cycle? Taking payment to promote something that inherently offers little value to the customer? Does that promote a low image of not only the client, but of the agency? Low self esteem certainly fuels an abusive situation. I am not sure, but it certainly provokes thought.

The solution? I want to be a part of it for sure. Getting back to technology. Is this an opportunity to start fresh? To break the cycle? Is it too late? Based on the rapidly advancing evolution of the media industry, based on technology and moving audience habits, I believe this has offered, the past 15 years and continuing, an opportunity to leave the commoditizers in the past and progress towards a more creative, value driven model. Advertising is a creative-driven business. Yes it is fueled by business objectives, but make no mistake, creatives are the gasoline of this engine. To lose the best creatives is akin to running out of gas and being stranded.

So if this opportunity has existed for the past 15 years and is moving forward in an undeniable fashion, why so much flight from the industry? If the horizon is just over the hill, why the frustration? This opportunity has not been embraced. It has been fought and frankly a lot of the commoditizers in the industry have down played the progress even though it can help to effectively free them from the yoke. This resistance to evolve has gone a long way to not only motivate legions of creatives to leave traditional agencies and migrate towards boutiques with a fresh perspective, start their own shops or even leave the industry all together, it has effectively kept fresh blood out of traditional agency recruitment.

I cannot count how many young, talented creatives that I have chatted with over the past 5 years who have expressed no desire to work at a large, traditional shop. They want to work for a smaller, nimble digital shop or a boutique who focuses on smaller clients, and premium work. It has been incredibly interesting to witness. People turning down opportunities with large shops in major metros for small boutiques in major metros or even mid-major cities.

I am not sure I have the solution to break this cycle, but I will leave you with a few paragraphs quoted from the Why Aren't Ad Agencies Rewiring piece referenced earlier in this post, "Mind boggling isn't it? We're relying on a model established nearly 50 years ago to carry us into the future where massive changes are taking place in the wider media world. It's no wonder this model isn't working for us, as evidenced by the fact that industry talent is leaving places they fear can't and won't change.

For the most part, it's not that agencies don't want to evolve. They are simply stuck in old processes and production models that can't adjust. I hear it from my students in every class I facilitate. Well-established agencies are really struggling to figure out how to shift their focus and think beyond single disciplines such as "advertising" and "digital." They are trying to change their DNA -- no small feat compared with the characteristics baked in at smaller, start up agencies born in the digital age."