Be More Tortoise

Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet
Jean-Jacques Rousseau

One of the biggest myths plaguing the advertising business at the moment is that that being agile blesses an agency with some sort of unique and divine competitive advantage.

Agility is a dangerous and misleading buzzword that seems to have been adopted by many an agency desperate to demonstrate that they have transformed their business model to develop a new way of working that is fit for purpose for the every need of your modern marketing client (sorry, Rockstar)

Agile. Just type the bastard word into the search function on Campaign and you’ll be overwhelmed with a tsunami of articles banging on about it. 1194 results to be precise.

Agile, agile, agile, agile, agile, agile, agile, ad infinitum.

Almost everyone is saying it but dig a little deeper and what does this actually mean?

Put bluntly, all it really means is that agencies say they do things very quickly (or, in reality, quicker than they previously did).

Now, it doesn’t necessarily follow that just because agencies say they move at pace and do things quickly, it’s therefore a given that they can always do those things well.

The Quick And Great advertising idea is a very rare beast whereas there seems to be an infestation of the Quick And Shit spreading its disease in every media channel thanks to the agility virus.

Let’s put to one side the ridiculous conceit that agility can provide any kind of creative competitive advantage when every Tom, Dick, Harry and Tiny Martin is saying the same thing and making the same promises.

There’ll always be a surfeit of obsequious agencies happy to drop their trousers and commit to delivering work at the speed of light regardless of any possible detrimental effect to the creative output because they are so paralysed by fear and believe that their relationship and hold on the business will be irrevocably damaged if they don’t do exactly what the client says.

Let’s be honest here. Giving the client exactly what they want is not the same thing as giving the client exactly what they need.

Surely it’s time to reframe the conversation about the quality of creative work rather than how quickly it can be turned around?

The best agencies aren’t ideas factories or sweatshops.  Their end product is something that is highly valuable. It isn’t a commodity that can be conjured up overnight by a team of creative elves.

As a very small, elf-free agency without any kind of hierarchy or labyrinthine, bureaucratic working process, I reckon we’re ideally placed to jump on the bandwagon and genuinely beat the agile drum if we wanted to.

Fuck that.

Agile is ultimately a generic term that any small agency can credibly lay claim to.

It’s one that big agencies are now trying to muscle in on because they know that clients are increasingly getting pissed off with it taking ages for them to do stuff and they’re also shit scared of smaller agencies eating their lunch.

In the case of many bigger agencies desperate to say ‘We’re nimble’, it’s also a big fat lie.

With a creative team reporting to a Creative Director, reporting to an ECD who reports to a CCO and all of them surrounded by a project team bigger than BeyoncĂ© and Jay Z’s entourage, they’re about as nimble as a herd of elephants copulating in a mudslide.

The ubiquity of agility is further evidence of the advertising industry’s obsession with how we work at the expense of how good the work actually is.

If you take a step back, it seems ludicrous that agencies are selling themselves on the speed rather than the quality of their thinking. It also seems ludicrous that a lot of clients don’t appreciate the considerable benefits of patience and time when it comes to the development of creative and investment in advertising.

Although it can be a difficult topic to broach to a client who wants everything done tomorrow, there needs to be much more discussion about the unpalatable truth that great creative work and long term advertising ideas simply cannot be done overnight.

Get it done well not only beats Get it done fast, it always adds far more value to a company’s bottom line.

When a campaign is finally unleashed, the only real measure that counts in the long run is how effective it is and not how long it took to make.

I totally appreciate that clients are under severe pressure these days. Competition is intense in every market, margins are being squeezed, and budgets are tight. The board and shareholders are extremely demanding. This seems to be the reality of modern business life and it’s not going away any time soon.

However, it seems that many agencies and clients have forgotten the fundamentals that the best advertising takes a decent amount of time to produce and a decent amount of time to actually work.

The culture of “everything now” and instant gratification is directly at odds with the inescapable reality that brands are built over the long term and that there needs to be continual investment in a long term advertising idea to reap the rewards.

The curse of agility and the endemic obsession with short-term behaviour has been fuelled many a snake-oil-selling naysayer. You know the type, the ones proclaiming the death of advertising and promoting that kind of ‘always on, always in Beta, think small’ iterative bollocks where multiple digital experiences are favoured at the expense of a powerful overarching and enduring big idea.

This has led to loads of brands continuing to wasting their money on an explosion of rapidly cobbled together here today, gone tomorrow tactical ideas that have the staying power of a mayfly and add up to the square root of fuck all in the minds of the punter and the bottom line.

These ideas are often forgotten even quicker that they took to develop and never really add up to anything and generally fail build to something deeper or meaningful over the long term.

The irony of all of this is that a classic, big advertising idea actually makes it easier for agencies and clients to be more agile over time.

A big idea that’s properly developed over time allows a client to get off the endlessly spinning hamster wheel of poorly linked tactical ideas. A unifying central thought with a core message that’s powerfully executed and consistently expressed enables all future marketing activity to spring from this. It provides a starting point and a springboard for all fresh creative development without the need to start over from scratch with a blank sheet of paper every single time.   

In the long run, a big advertising idea that might have taken longer to see the light of day will create significant economies of scale further down the line as clients do not have to keep paying for the process and output of constant reinvention of idea, message and execution.

The mention of execution brings me on the crucial subject of craft.

It Ain’t What You Do It’s The Way That You Do It (That’s What Gets Results). We’ve invoked the wise words of Bananarama on many an occasion as it neatly captures the vital importance how you say something as much as what you say.

It’s not just the origination of great ideas that need proper time to be nurtured and developed; it’s the execution of them too.

The proper craft of great writing and art-direction is almost a dying art these days as agencies hurriedly leap from concept to execution without pausing for breath. Yet, it’s paying attention to these elements that can make a huge difference to how the advertised is received by the people that really matter, the ones who live in the real world that you need to convince to buy your brand.

Great art direction, design, typography, photography, film all take time. Cutting corners is a self-defeating exercise.

The quality of how well an idea is crafted can make a big difference to its overall effectiveness. It can often be the determining factor behind whether your advertising is noticed in the first place or is then remembered and acted upon.

Finally, I think it’s important to emphasise that I’m not advocating a return to the bad old days when it took the gestation period of an elephant for campaigns to be developed (yep, back to that delightful fornicating pachyderm reference again).  It’s more about being realistic about how long it takes to come up with and then make a great idea.

There are valuable ways of saving time in order to create space for time in the creative development process.

Don’t ever promise brand new ideas with the drop of a hat.

Don’t agree to start work unless you feel you have sufficient time to get under the skin of the business, gather the right information and get access to the key decision-makers.

Don’t give four teams one week to crack the brief. Give one team four weeks to crack it so that they ‘own’ the problem and feel personally responsible for the solution.

Don’t eat up creative development time with endless meetings.

Don’t let the oppressive timesheet mentality dictate creativity. You can’t book idea generation time into thirty-minute slots and expect the best work.

Never take longer to write the creative brief than do the work.

Give feedback on client feedback. Not everything you’re being asked to change will benefit the development of the work.

Minimise the number of internal and external creative reviews.

Only present to people who have the power to say ‘yes’.

Remember that the approval of the concept is only half the battle. Don’t squeeze or skimp on craft.

Avoid brainstorms and hackathons like the plague.

Above all, don’t shy away from speaking some real truth to power as a valued business partner rather than a servile supplier.

Let’s stop kidding ourselves that being agile genuinely leads to better, more effective work and let’s start telling clients that patience really is a virtue and that, for everyone’s benefit, we should all Be More Tortoise.