Are Ad Agencies Wasting Talent?

Ben Kay's latest blog post is interesting. You should have a read if you haven't already. Loosely, it's about the notion that it takes a lot of effort to do brave work, and that people are naturally disinclined to put in that effort if the chances of the good work being used seem slim.

It's especially interesting if you read the comments, there appears to be a lot of disenfranchised creatives out there, who appear have given up on producing good work and are just phoning it in.

What a sad state of affairs that is for the industry. But I don't think it's the creatives' fault. There's a problem with advertising agencies – they have lost their sense of purpose. Their goals have become confused, they are now more about keeping the client 'happy', building relationships, doing what it takes to not lose the account, keeping the bean counters happy, keeping their awards scores high in the Gunn report, looking good in the trades. All of these distractions from what their purpose should be – that is, using creative thinking helping to their clients meet and exceed their goals.

Agencies have lost that single-minded purpose. The irony is, if they regained it, long-term the effect would be happier clients and better financial results. But they play the short game of not upsetting clients in the short-term, to the detriment of the work, the results and ultimately, the long-term relationship.

I believe there is still a huge pool of clever and talented people in advertising, but they are being crushed within agency systems that are completely off-purpose. It's no wonder you see this level of disillusionment.

When we set up Sell! Sell!, it was with the single-minded purpose of creating the best creative work. Everything falls out of that. Everything. Off the top of my head, to consistently produce great advertising (not just one or two hits a year amongst everyday dross) you need, amongst other things

Happy, relaxed, talented creatives who are challenged but given enough time and space to meet the challenges
Mutual respect between agency and client
Clients who understand (or are made to understand) that the best work doesn't come out of happy-clappy relationships where no one argues
Clients who give the agency space to answer the problem
An agency that is prepared to stand its ground, but respects the client's opinion
An agency focused on producing a great solution, not a menu of solutions
The problem-solvers (creatives) at the centre of everything
People who are afforded a good work/life balance, not worked to the bone every week, which means realistic deadlines, and realistic staffing
A strong and open culture of the single-minded purpose – "It's all about the work"

There are more, that's just a quick list. But all of these things fall out of the single-minded purpose. All of these things exist because that's the best way to consistently get great work. That's what everything we do, how we are set-up, how we work, is built around. Everything we do is built around the single-minded purpose of producing the best creative ideas to help our clients.

Until agencies regain their sense of purpose, I fear that the industry will be stuck in its rut. Clients won't get the best work, good work will continue to be the rarity, client tenure rates will continue to fall, and talented people will continue to be stifled, and their efforts wasted.


  1. A very interesting rejoinder. Cheers!

  2. Cecil B. DeMille16 April 2014 at 15:48

    God I wish... I bailed out of a holding company fiasco of an agency into a small, independently-owned shop hoping for something like that. Unfortunately, the principals are just as spineless and fast-food as everyone else.

    Disenfranchised. Disillusioned. Disheartened. Disinterested. And Disgusted. All bad descriptors of creatives. All accurate in my case. My only hope is an agency I'm unlikely to ever work for shouting at the void and hoping the void grows a conscience.

  3. I've spent the last two weeks coming up with creative ideas that I know the client will never use. They always pick the safest and most boring option. Don't know why I bother sometimes.

  4. It's not just the Creative teams time that's wasted.

    Think of the hours and effort spent by Account and Project Managers trying to keep a team of disheartened Creatives interested in the project; and developing work that will likely never see the light of day.

    Estimates, schedules and midnight stairwell pep talks don't grow on trees.

  5. I love your blog, love your opinions (mostly because I share it I guess). Though, I do have a question:
    when reading this post, everything sounds right perfect in your agency, that you are the kind of agency that does not experience the troubles of having annoying clients who just don't get it, that pushing out great work sounds "easy" and isn't part of lenghty discussion getting the client to buy it. That you have risk-taking clients where internal approval on the client's side is never an issue. Is that really always the case? I believe any good creative wants to do great stuff, I don't think good creatives settle with mediocre. But sometimes there is reality which doesn't always play out, where compromises need to be done, where not everything is great.
    I remember Paul Arden saying in one of his books: keep the client happy first, show him what he wants, but also do somethings which is a bit off and present it. Like this you can work towards doing great creative work and eventually get the client to run it (I can't recall the exact wording, but I guess it was something around these lines)
    I guess the reason I'm "challenging" you on this post, is because it almosts sounds too perfect to be honest.

  6. Good call @11:37

    I've been wondering this myself. Guess the only way to find out is to work there?

  7. That's a fair question anon. It would be a lie to say that getting good work out on every brief was easy, but it's a lot easier if you know that is the sole purpose of what you're doing. That means working relationships with clients being built correctly from the start, earning the trust of those you work with. It also means having to have direct relationships with the decision-makers at those companies, and insisting that you do. And many other things like that; standing behind work that you think is right but being smart about how you do it. All of these fall out of the single purpose, and they all tend to be the 'harder road (after all, it's much easier to produce crap and say yes to every unhelpful bit of feedback(. But pretty much this is true to how we work every day.

  8. Hello again, this is Anon who posted the question earlier at 11.37.

    I guess it boils down to one thing: if you want to be involved in the whole part on both ends, i.e. creatives sitting face-2-face with the decision makers, the only way to go is to set up your onw shop, hire like-minded people and find like-minded clients. Basically what you're saying on your website. But it also means that you can't have certain accounts because the structure of certain companies will not allow you to sit down with the decision makers, because they will be sending the CMO. The CMO will be sending the deputy. The deputy will be sending the brand manager. The brand manager will be sending employee John Doe. So when you meet John Doe you will be discussing everything with him. And he will have to report back. And if you want to avoid this, the answer to such companies is: we can't do the advertising for you, because your company structure is set up in a way that will not allow for great advertising to get through all the layers in between because too many decision makers are involved. I'm not saying this is in a judging way, it's just an observation from my end.
    I believe any shop who opens up wants to do great work, and I think it's the aim of any good creative to do great work as I said before. However, when you open up your shop and you really need to make money to pay salaries, at some point maybe you will have to make compromises in order to survive (based on my own experience of having tried to run an agency). I don't know about the history of Sell! Sell! but if you have always been in the situation of getting great work out without risking the survival of your own shop from the start, then this is really great. And I might send in my book some day, because you seem to be the agency I want to work for.

  9. @11:37 are you by any chance looking for a partner?


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