Sam Rothenstein invented the Advertising Creative Circle Role Reversal Seminar in 1968. It ran, annually, for 40 years. For those attending, it provided a sort of experimental laboratory that might have been designed to answer exactly this question.
Sam’s initial belief was this: if clients understood more acutely what it was like trying to meet a creative brief, and if creative people understood more acutely what it was like to be a client trying to evaluate creative proposals, then original advertising was more likely to be both created and approved.
The three- day residential course was held during a vacation at a university college: originally at Cambridge, later Oxford. Clients would pay to attend; agencies provided creative directors free of charge. On arrival, the clients would be formed into ‘agencies’ and the creative directors into a ‘client’.
On the first evening, the agency teams would be briefed by the client then sent away to invent solutions. They were each allocated an art director – a ‘ wrist’ – who would help them visualise their ideas but was strictly prohibited from giving direction. Seventy-two hours later, and after very little sleep, the competing agencies would present, the client would adjudicate and the account would be awarded.
But the most revealing part for us was visiting the different agencies in that intervening time as they struggled with the brief in their respective rooms. One very confident delegate took instant charge of his group and announced that they first needed to agree the consumer proposition, which they should do by midday, after which they could concentrate on the execution. When I revisited them later, they were in pitiful disarray. The once- confident leader took me outside. Almost in tears, he said: “I’ve always thought that you agency people made a real meal of this creativity business. I now realise that I haven’t an ounce of creativity in me.” I had to buy him a drink before he felt able to rejoin his syndicate.
What became clear was this: what stops many people from being creative is not being expected to be creative. When many of these reallife clients were forced to be creative – up against not only time but also competition – they were impressive. And, boy, did they want to win. Many would have made excellent, creative, intuitive account handlers. And then there were the others, not unlike my once- confident leader: hating every moment of it, feeling foolish and exposed; some making fun of it all, some sulking.
The line between marketers and agency people is not a fixed one: there’s quite a big overlap, like a Venn diagram. But those on the wilder shores of creativity would never be happy in a client company, nor would any client company be happy to house them: they need variety, drama, impossible challenge and like-minded mates. Clients are well-advised to buy in such talent on an ad-hoc basis, which is exactly what they do when they take on agencies. Of course they are. Or to be slightly more precise: they’re defined by the kind of work they do for the kind of clients they work with. For those of us in the business, most agencies – and all successful agencies – have quite distinct brand personalities. Apart from their work, what else defines those personalities?
A few high profile-people ( but they tend to die or change). Their location: Business Unit 43, Old Workhouse Business Park, Basildon, Essex, CM83 transmits a different brand clue from 1 Knightsbridge Green, SW1. Their age. Their size and position in the league table. Their recent wins. And, of course, awards – which takes us back to the work they do. There’s not much else.
For successful newcomers, a recognisable house style can be invaluable and may even be inescapable. For an established agency, a recognisable house style can be the beginning of the end.
My greatest admiration is reserved for those agencies that can do madeto-measure brand advertising for brands all the way from baked beans to Bentleys by way of banks, bookmakers and Barnardo’s.