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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.

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