Pirates vs the Merchant Navy

July 25 2017

There was plenty of disagreement among senior creatives who had gathered for The Blueprint’s second working dinner of 2017 but they found accord in the view that the shifting needs of marketers had blurred the carefully drawn borders of the agency landscape. The upshot of this redrawing is that creative directors must become more commercial. Illustrating the point, one guest remarked how her agency’s drive to remain relevant through acquisitions meant M&A strategy was now part of her remit. Another described how he was regularly collaborating with people from disparate areas of business, not just the client’s CMO. That’s not peculiar in itself "it’s basically how architects work every day", he said – but it is newer territory for creatives.
"Creativity is a journey and you can either go it alone or with the client,” he added. "Both are valid but doing it with the client is more rewarding and, I suspect, you end up with better work."
This shift towards commerciality is bringing creative agencies into conflict (and cahoots) with management consultants, many of which are making their own moves into the space occupied by creative agencies. Trying on some cynicism, one guest suggested the creative shops’ motive was the 40%+ margins that consultancy work yields. It dwarfs the 10-15% agencies usually subsist on. Meanwhile, the consultancies have their own challenge, to understand creativity as a business and foster a culture that makes space for creative thinking.
One guest described the collision between consultancies and agencies as pirates going against the Merchant Navy. The consultancies are the pirates: acting independently of one another and rapaciously chasing client briefs like they were buried treasure - creating a mythology of fear and respect along the way. Agencies, on the other hand, are more like the Merchant Navy, because they are well-organised and respectful of creativity, but reactive to client orders.
Between agencies and their clients, the old Upstairs, Downstairs, us versus them dynamic that used to prevail is disappearing. One guest said she no longer felt like she served her clients; she was co-creating with them.
Another guest agreed that he was seeing creative directors being brought into clients’ decision-making processes further upstream. After more than a decade of complaining that they were being relegated to commodity service providers, creative directors are now more likely to have the ear of the C-suite and are being entrusted with solving broader challenges, such as business transformation.
But there is an element of ‘be careful what you wish for’ here, he warned. Creative directors must now learn new skills to meet client demands and, at the same time, preserve their agency’s culture in the face of change, lest they lose their USP.
This can be tricky, particularly when some clients treat their agency’s offices like a break-out room where they can decamp whenever they want to feel inspired. Close-quarters collaboration comes with other issues, too. One guest referenced the fishbowl effect when talking about how, if a client feels they are driving the creative process (such as, suggesting ideas), they may begin to question the value of the agency altogether.
That’s a worst-case scenario, however. And one guest, who frequently works in clients offices, found that the best clients were not only collaborative, but keen to hear criticism of their ideas.
‘Clients want us to push back,’ he said. ‘They want that long as you’re not an arsehole about it.’