Monday, October 5, 2009

Why we (or at least I) still need creative departments: a tribute

A combination of both long-term trends and recent events impacting our business have led to some interesting conversations about eliminating creative departments altogether. Like the talk on this panel here. One can see the logic. Creatives are, or at least were, pretty expensive. And, the logic goes, they only did one or two things. And it's certainly true that these days we need lots of people to do lots of different things. We can't possibly afford to keep all this multifarious talent under one roof. Wouldn’t it be great to just outsource all the creative?

This should be good news for strategists like me. It could potentially elevate roles like mine even higher, making creative strategists and strategic creatives brand orchestrators or, in the latest buzz word, "curators" of creative elements that we arrange to form brand experiences and communications. And in many ways I do think this is a golden age for planners, but I’m not so sure I want to do away with creative departments altogether, if it means I don't get to have daily meetings with people who actually make stuff.

Why? Well, I could explain my hesitation with a bunch of big unsupported generalizations, but since this a blog, I'll just speak for myself. I’ve worked at a bunch of different agencies and brand consultancies and the simple truth is that my thinking is exponentially better when it is developed through an ongoing dialogue with a creative partner. And not "creative" in the general sense of someone who has ideas, but someone who spends the majority of their time thinking about and making creative objects. (I still think there is a difference, but that would take a post by itself)

I’ve been doing this for awhile now and I have some evidence that I'm pretty good at asking useful questions that yield intriguing data points. And a fair amount of people have told me I'm also not bad at synthesizing these data points with various perspectives into platforms and provocative formulations that help inspire creatives across a number of disciplines from advertising to design to application development. (And if only to prevent this post from being relegated to the POV of a wonky analyst, I’m a published fiction writer too)

But again, much to my annoyance, whatever ideas I'm able to generate using my right or left brain (and, on very special occasions, both halves of my brain!) those ideas get infinitely better whenever I share them with creative partners as they develop. Simply put, the good creatives I work with see things I don’t see. Over and over again. And I'm not just talking about the creative development stage. I'm talking about the research stage too. Even the pre-research, wtf are we going to do, stage.

Good creatives see tangents and weird possibilities and just bizarre inversions that would never come to me and frankly I could never get to through the data (quant or qual or cultural) in any conventional analytical way. And these sometime wacky, sometimes insightful thoughts in turn help me ask better questions that yield even more interesting answers which in turn yields better work.

So when I propose a thought and a creative says to me, what if we asked the same question but from a bunny's perspective, or, I think it's just the opposite of what you just said, I couldn't be happier, because that's exactly what I need.

The point I'm making should be obvious, but I haven't seen it in the dialogue around these points. Creatives don't just execute ideas; they are especially good at generating ideas of a certain kind, the kind that are, well, creative, intuitive, weird, surprising etc, And I'd argue that the kind of ideas that agency's develop are great and valuable in part because of the dialogue between analytical and conceptual thinking types like me and the many creative thinkers I've worked with.

It's this dialogue that makes agency ideas different from the business ideas that are generated by big consulting firms like Mckinsey and Accenture. They aren't just insightful and rooted in lots of data and analysis. They may be rooted in data and analysis, but at their best, they do more than that, they engage with the broader culture in a surprising unique powerful way that only art can and thereby transform consumer behavior and culture. .

Can you do what I'm talking about with outsourced creatives? One great company I worked at called Mechanica is built on just this principle. And they are particularly good at thinking broadly about addressing business problems beyond communications, and using a range of network partners to address those issues, whether they require employee training or new product development. On the creative communications front, my experience suggests it's not as easy to outsource great creative as it might appear.

Why? Again, I'll speak personally. If you've ever worked in a really creative agency, one which really valued creative excellence, you know how many conversations and iterations it takes to get the idea where it needs to go. And it isn't one or two or five. It was more like 20 or 30 or a 100. If you’re using freelance talent that can get pretty expensive pretty fast. And we all know how hard it is to work creatively when you don't have existing relationships.

I'm all for the new models emerging out there and I'm curious to see how they develop. But to do my job well, I, for one, want and need daily interaction with people who spend most of their time making strange, new, beautiful, compelling things.

So Jason and Tommy and John and Bruce. And Trish and Laura and Ted and Ed and Greg and Karen and Jim and Libby and many many other art directors and writers and designers and developers who've collaborated with me every step of the way: I couldn't have, still can't and don't want to do it without you so I hope we all get to stick together.


Stacy Graiko said...

Scott, could not agree more...and very nicely written.

Beecham said...

It's striking that the panel that you link to, a panel that was in part discussing eliminating creative departments if I understand you right, seems to all be men. Of course it could just be a coincidence, but are there also gender dynamics in play here?

sk said...

Thanks, Stacy. Appreciate it. And B, you're revealing yourself as an outsider to our industry! I'm sure everyone would agree (well, almost everyone) that it's no coincidence. Gender dynamics are very much in play for all kinds of reasons from the personal sexism (gals aren't as funny as guys) to the demanding hours of the business (which amounts to a sexist bias as well, but on a socio-economic level). Diversity of all kinds is a problem the industry is constantly trying to address and constantly failing to address. Some of the facts are consistent with other high-pressure client-service jobs with inconsistent hours that often make it very hard for women to balance having children and maintain their career momentum. This is less true of other roles in agency life. One hopes it's finally starting to change, but it's taking way too long.

Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ferko said...

Scott, I presume one of your next posts is going to be about the inspiration and elevation you get from working with great account people, right?