The Collaboration Myth

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It’s one of the most dangerous words bandied about by agencies eager to impress prospective clients.

It’s dangerous because it openly promises clients active and sustained involvement in the creative development process. Something that can complicate and slow down getting to the right creative solution as the world and his wife wade in and have their say at every stage.  

It’s dangerous because it promotes the idea of “working together” to come up with great ideas. Something that few clients are rarely qualified to do.

It’s dangerous because it diminishes and undermines an agency’s specialism as being advertising experts. High ground that is difficult to reclaim if relationships are started on a ‘creativity can come from anywhere’ basis.

It’s dangerous because it conveys a false sense of importance on harmony and overtly signals that the agency wants to be seen as being easy to get along and work with. Something that seriously underestimates the value of an agency challenging and confronting the client to help get to a better place with their advertising.

But mostly it’s dangerous because, invariably, great creative work doesn’t come from collaboration.

Great work might well happen despite of collaboration. Rarely does it happen because of collaboration.

Collaboration has become a buzzword and a bandwagon used to woo and reassure anxious, nervous clients that they will get the advertising that they want.

Now, as we’ve banged on about before, giving a client the kind of advertising they need is not necessarily the same thing as giving them what they want.

Ultimately, they’re paying us agencies good money to deliver something powerful that’s going to be in their best interests commercially. They’re paying us agencies good money to deliver what they are unable to do themselves.

They’re not shelling out cash because they’re creative wannabes who want to fiddle with everything and ensure it’s their ideas that come to fruition.  

By and large, clients just simply don’t have the skills, talent and expertise to take a truly great creative leap.

I know it’s heresy to say this kind of thing nowadays but the assumption that collaboration is inherently a good thing that always leads to better work is utter bunkum.

Clients need agencies to provide them with creative magic. And agencies need clients to give them enough space, trust and respect to do this.

This argument is nothing new. Ogilvy’s adage of “Why keep a dog and bark yourself”? and Lois’ legendary “You make the Matzos, I’ll make the ads” story demonstrates that this tension has been around for some time.

However, the current climate has made the situation much, much worse. And agencies have been complicit in this step change by encouraging a greater contribution from clients at the wrong point of the process.

I’ve spoken to a lot of creatives who regularly bemoan the fact that it feels like the agency no longer takes the lead and controls creative matters. Many feel that the Client is the ultimate Creative Director and that the agency uncomplainingly dances to this tune.

And that can never be a good thing for the end product of great creative work.

There’s a fear factor that resides in a lot of agencies who are shit scared to do anything that might rock the boat or compromise their relationship with the client.

They’re so intent on keeping clients happy that they’ll merrily drop their trousers to accommodate often unreasonable, unrealistic or downright rubbish suggestions about the creative work in case any pushback compromises the relationship in any way.

And they’re so intent on keeping clients happy at all costs that they have actually become blind to the fact that the main thing that compromises the relationship in the long run is poor quality advertising that does bugger all for a client’s business.

John Hegarty has already eloquently outlined the issues with the almost omnipresent obsession with the charade of ‘tissue meetings’ half-baked ideas getting in the way of great ones.

The culture of “co-working” and “co-creation” may have served to keep everyone in their comfort zone but this has also resulted in safe and comfortable work coming out of the end of the process.

I believe there is a direct correlation between collaboration and the general drop in standards when it comes to advertising.

Collaboration just doesn’t create the conditions for success. Rather than nurturing them, iterative and incremental creative development usually ends up killing great ideas.

Part of the issue is that you simply cannot create great advertising ideas by committee.

Somebody needs to sweat the small stuff and strike gold in a moment of inspiration.

Somebody needs to think really deeply about a problem.

Away from all the chatter, somebody needs to focus on doing the right thing regardless of what anybody else might think.

Somebody needs to actually sit down and have a great idea.

And, by and large, that somebody has to be a creative person.

Sure, anybody can have an idea. Sure, everybody can have an opinion.

But let’s be honest, here. All ideas aren’t created equal. And not everybody’s opinions hold the same weight.

It’s human nature for everybody to think that their own ideas are great. But a reality check in the history of great advertising would find that most great ideas originally came from someone who had the word “Creative” in their job title somewhere and not from Planet Collaboration.

Instead of increasingly being marginalized, it’s high time that the expertise of creative folk emerged from the smokescreen of collaboration and was put back front and centre in the world of advertising.

The nonsense of crowdsourcing, the misguided notion that audience participation is deep and widespread, the “how to” book and conference brigade all perpetuate the myth that all our ideas are worthy and coming up with them can be a democratic and universal process readily applied to solving any problem.

However, when it comes down to it, it simply just ain’t true that creativity can come from anywhere. Well, good creativity at any rate.

Coming up with great advertising ideas is a specialism. It’s a craft. It’s something that’s best left to the professionals.

It’s not a level playing field. Talent comes first.

Unfortunately, a lot of agencies are making it much harder for talent to genuinely shine due to the over-emphasis on collaboration. And this often leads to more time being spent talking and debating about ideas rather than actually having them.
Let’s face it. It’s much, much easier to talk and write about having ideas than getting down to brass tacks and actually having an idea.

It’s one of the unspoken truths in our business that everyone loves to talk about great ideas but not everyone can have them.

Another truth that makes collaboration counter-productive is that creatives tend to be introverts by nature.

They tend to work best away from the stage-managed “dog and pony show” of generation sessions and multiple person review where their ideas are thrown to the wolves for everybody to pick apart.

Although they thrive on having the responsibility to crack a problem, it’s fair to say that a lot of creative people don’t really instinctively know how to or want to collaborate. They’re just not hard-wired to have ideas that way. Sometimes they don’t even know where their own ideas come from.

Any creative person worth their salt would run a mile from a brainstorming session if given half a chance. Ditto being forced to be spontaneously creative on the spot in the presence of a client.

In my experience, the more people involved in the creative development process, the less likely it is that something great will come out at the end of it.

That’s not say that the best creatives don’t seek involvement and input from colleagues [and clients] who they respect and trust and whose opinions they value. They just need the freedom and authority to be able to get their heads down to work out the best and most interesting way of solving a brief. And sometimes that means leaving them alone to do this.  

I appreciate that this approach needs sensitively handling as it can obviously have an impact on agency and client relationships, especially if clients have been conditioned to expect significant input and involvement in the creative work.

It’s also completely understandable that many clients want to have this level of involvement and input as it’s often a reaction to a previous poor experience with an agency that has kept them at arm’s length and given them advertising that ultimately hasn’t performed.

The scars of the bad old days of advertising still remain in some quarters where intimidating, arrogant, aloof, head-up-their-arses agency types have made clients feel like second-class citizens.

The desire for clients to seek more control of the creative process is very often a symptom of the lack of trust that remains and a protection mechanism built in to ensure they don’t get bitten again.

Collaboration, however, is the wrong answer to this problem. With the average relationship tenure now down to just over two years, it’s clear that clients are making the same mistakes over and over, again and again by ending up with advertising that they feel they need to change.

Quite often, agencies will give the impression that they are collaborative when behind the scenes there can be ridiculous power struggles about the brief or the direction of the work. The veneer of collaboration is then exposed when it comes to making a decision about what work is actually going to be produced [or “sold” to use agency internal common parlance].

Now, I’m not suggesting that clients and agencies shouldn’t have a partnership or work closely together as a team. But there’s a big difference between teamwork and collaboration.

With teamwork there are clearly delineated lines of responsibility and rules of engagement. Everyone works to a common goal.

With collaboration, there are bunfights where everybody internally and externally involved with a piece of business seeks to impose their influence and input on the creative work.

Normally this happens because people haven’t been asked to contribute at the right stage.

Of course, clients should be listened to. Their knowledge about their market, their audience, their business is invaluable.

They usually have a very clear and insightful view about what their problem is.

If anything, it’s at the initial stages of a project where they can be most helpful before creative development actually begins.

Agreeing the objectives for the communication upfront. Finding out the most important information about the product and brand. Establishing the success and measurement criteria for the campaign. Understanding the politics of the business and any hidden agendas.

Most importantly, having a shared view of the advertising strategy.

If clients and agencies agree on what they want people to think, feel and do after seeing the advertising then there’s going to be much less pressure for both parties to spend time and energy debating the minutiae of detail about an ad that people in the real world won’t really give a monkey’s chuff about.  

If your clients always want to wear the creative trousers, there can only ever be pain and trouble ahead.

I know it’s hard but the advertising business needs to grow a pair and start reframing how the relationship should work for the best work to grow out of it.

Clients are experts in their business.

It’s about time we started acting like experts in ours.

And that ultimately means less collaboration rather than more when it comes to matters of creativity.


  1. Well put. I'll happily collaborate with clients right up to the moment they sign off the brief on which we've been collaborating. After that, I want to surprise them.

  2. Love this.

    Particularly the part about creatives being introverts, even misanthropes.

    Instead, we're being turned into trained seals.

    I work at a large NY agency. There are probably 150 creatives. Yet I believe I could create the entire output of the joint if they'd just leave me alone to do it.

    Instead we collaborate. Then meet about collaborating. Then collaborate about collaboration.

    Leave me alone.

  3. Oh how I detest brainstorm. The most useless and infuriating process there is to get ideas.

  4. We got asked to do a brainstorm session to come up with ideas for a charity (in a room with the account person and a planner).

    We just refused to do it. We said we'd stay late to work on it, on the condition they spend the hour brainstorm session writing a brief instead.

    Never got asked to do another brainstorm or work on the charity client again.

    Beginner's luck?

  5. You need to turn this into a Ted talk.

  6. I agree completely with the theory that outstanding creative work tends to be singleminded and come from a person or creative team than a broader collaboration. But most clients (in my experience) don't recognise either the brilliance or the value of a creative idea at the point where it has to be signed off. So some collaboration with other experienced outsiders IE smart media people, wise account guys or (whisper it) a planner helps. There was a Valentines tactical ad i saw last week that looked as if it was an unholy collaboration between Liberace, Powerpoint and Getty Images which proves your point.

  7. Collaboration with clients, to borrow a phrase, is giant wank.

    If the clients are doing the "work," why the Hell should they pay an agency? Shit, this is just another brick in the tell-tale grave of ad agencies. Pretty soon, the work is all going to be shitty and clients are going to save the money do shitty work themselves. Why pay an agency to watch you fuck it all up when you can keep the money and fuck it all up.