Advertising's Dirty Little Secrets #1: It's All About People Not Process

Advertising is a simple business - selling products and services using wit and guile. But it has been made very complicated and convoluted. You see, the advertising industry harbours some dirty little secrets. Secrets that most ad agencies would prefer if you didn't know.

#1 - It's All About People Not Process

Most ad agencies have their buzzword 'process'. It's the thing that they claim makes them different (and better) than everyone else; "At TangerineLion, we use our Media Neutral Ideation Process to create the best advertising for clients", "At Tosh Babble & Prattle, we call our approach Big Bang Thinking".

Well they can call it what they like, because none of it matters.

I have never seen a process come up with a great advertising idea. Only people come up with ideas. And better advertising people come up with better advertising. It's quite simple really.

And this is one of advertising's dirty little secrets; it all about the people, not the process. People come up with the ideas. People make the advertising. Advertising is a people business. Work with really good people, and more often than not, you will get good advertising. It's the same in really big agencies - if you look at an agency, a very small proportion of their people will make the vast majority of their best work.

But ad agencies don't really want to accept this, and they certainly don't want clients to know it. This is because people are not ownable. People leave, people get sick, people change career, or move to other companies. The people who run ad agencies don't want it to be known that the key to great work lies in the hands of people.

They will try to sell you their process. But this is rubbish. It's just a way of justifying their inflated fee, and long lead times. It's a way of covering up the fact that there are not enough excellent people to work on everything. Your account, your precious marketing budget, may be entrusted to people who are not A1. Agencies like to let juniors cut their teeth on smaller accounts, but why do smaller clients only need junior thinking on their projects? If anything the opposite is true.

The tried and tested, and unimprovable way of getting great, effective advertising is to brief some really smart advertising people and let them come up with the goods. What you as a client should be interested in is who is going to be working on your business. Who is going to be doing the work? Because regardless of process, this will determine the quality of the work you get.

Quiz your agency on the work that the people working on your account have done in the past - not the agency, the individuals. The people responsible for that amazing, successful campaign you liked when you saw the agency reel might have left. Or they might now be creative director, or a group head, managing a department of other people, rather than doing work themselves.

And realise that when you meet the agency, and they wheel out the flow chart or diagram, or funny drawings, that show how their process works, behind the buzzwords they are all doing the exact same thing: putting some people on your account who are working out what to do.

People. Not process. It's one of advertising's dirty little secrets.


  1. Great post. What do you think of agencies that have a 'philosophy'?

    I guess all they're trying to do is differentiate themselves. But maybe the only philosophy should be to create work that works.

  2. Thanks.
    As for 'philosophies'- all agencies ultimately have to create work that works, at a base level, to even call themselves an ad agency.

    If some agencies have 'philosophies' that help them keep everyone's eye on that, then I guess that can only help.

    An agency that had a philosophy that isn't about creating work that works would surely have to ask themselves a few questions about what it was they were doing?

  3. ha! couldn't agree more. i was just about to post on this very topic.

    Lovemarks? Yuck!

  4. Cheers Vinny, nice to see you in our neck-of-the-woods.

  5. That's what BBH have claimed - that they put great people in a room together rather than rely on some rarely followed process. Seems to have worked quite well for them!

  6. Couldn't agree more. And let's also not forget those other people who're important in all this - the audience. Too often we end up talking to them in meaningless corporate waffle. Why not talk to them like real people?

  7. I LOVE THIS I LOVE THIS I AM SHOUTING BECAUSE I AM EXCITING! I am so glad! i am an undergrad and I am writing my dissertation all about the place of process!
    It's boggled my brain!I thought learning 'a bit of process' find out more about the brain, would make ideas easier to find.
    It just made my eyes square and my brain hurt! I just breathed a huge sigh of relief.....i shall just have to enjoy the wait to become great!

  8. Claire, sounds like you're talking about thought processes for the individual for generating ideas, this post is about agency processes.

  9. Claire, just coming back to this - there's definitely a place for developing good practices and approaches to help you personally generate ideas. You might well find this piece on Vinny Warren's blog (written by Curvin O’Rielly) quite interesting:

  10. I have ideas in the shower, in the garden, at the weekend when I'm not supposed to be working. I love the Eureka moment. There is no process. It's a reason why you can't sell design by the hour. Creativity and problem solving isn't like turning on a tap. sometimes you have to wait for it to rain.

  11. Brilliant post! Good to see an ad agency cutting through all the waffle.


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