Paradise – ok, creativity – lost?
There's too much self-interested froth killing the creativity in advertising, writes Bob Wootton. It's time to ditch these new obsessions and reclaim the big idea.
There was a moment during the Christmas break when I tweeted about the difficulty of finding something to watch on telly.
Nothing to do with the choice on offer, nor the quality of much of it; more the difficulty of finding out what was on in a sea of channels and 'content' despite an EPG and a two-week TV magazine.
My tweets seemed to strike a chord and got me on a riff about creativity in a world of channels. The accompaniment came from numerous recent industry comments as we enter a new and uncertain year.
The problem is this: We've stopped worshipping the thing that is truly precious and distinguishes - creativity - and have instead become grossly overly preoccupied with routes to market - channels.
Obstacles of complexity
Since it's much easier for others, for example tech, to get involved in such systematisation and delivery mechanisms, we've encouraged commoditisation and a race to the bottom.
Since it's dressed in the language of hard metrics, the clients love it and must be indulged lest they take their business elsewhere.
We've rubbed along with this, because although most people in advertising and marketing may be more 'creative' than many of their counterparts, in itself that doesn't make them very creative.
This is not so say there's any lack of great thinking or insight driven by abundant data. Far from it, and with the advent of AI that feasts on data, there's only going to be way more.
But we're still setting up obstacles of complexity instead of finding pathways to simple solutions.
In times past, I was fortunate to work with (well, hire) some of London's finest heads of account planning, each of whom went on to considerable personal glory. But even in those simpler days, there was continuous tension and duplication.
The account planners tended to come from motivational psychology - they wanted to know who the target was so they could figure out how they thought and acted and better influence them (with advertising).
The media guys wanted to know how best to reach them, and over time this evolved into an interrogation of the audience's likely mental state as they consumed the various media.
(Media owners were and rightly remain keen to contribute, seeing opportunity to upsell from a generic ad impression to an engaged viewer).
Sometimes we reached different conclusions. Oversimplifying, there might have been a creative 'agenda' or the account planners perhaps sought to reposition the brand while the media guys tended to hold to current consumers.
Talking and listening to agency folk, surprisingly little seems to have changed.
Rather, it seems to have worsened. There's the well-documented distorting influence of the traders and the proliferation of specialist agencies that accompanied all the new channels.
Facing margin pressure and erosion, each over-promises and therefore dabbles in everything. Each has its own strategists and creatives - media, digital and social agencies, even shoe repair shops. Ok, I made that up. (The new Bountiful Cow start-up has got in on the act).
How many creative directors does it take to change a lightbulb? Some might be very talented but can also be difficult. As a collective, they often make for noise and confusion. Many clients understandably tend to give the idea of multiple agencies' creatives a pretty wide berth. And generally unconnected P&Ls and performance incentive schemes don't help.
If you've ever judged any of the industry's legion awards, you'll know many entries belie the agency practice of pitching a brief out to various media owners and letting them do the heavy lifting of coming up with 'solutions' for their money.
As these 'solutions' come from media sales organisations - which may or may not be co-located with editorial creatives - they invariably bundle what the media owner in question has on offer and can best profit from. Some can be clever, using strong proprietary insight to track the target. Some have editorial tie-ins. But few are creative in the real sense. Tricksy, maybe.
On the positive side, this generation gets collaboration in a way previous ones flatly refused to. And some larger advertisers have established 'editorial boards' as a means better to align their various marcomms services providers.
Everybody's very proud of what they've created. Yet we're left with a data-fuelled obsession with consumer 'journeys' that may lead to some very elaborate media planning but is eclipsing real creativity.
This is why Droga 5 creative director Dave Kolbusz hits the spot for me in his new year piece in Campaign. He observes that we've become so spoilt and so obsessed by the sheer number of channels or devices through which to reach our millennial targets (for there are no others!), that many creatives have relinquished their key role - to produce "wholly exceptional work that wins the hearts and minds of consumers and sells their product or service" regardless of channel.
Prosaically, I'd add "something people notice, remember and amplify in their own real-life conversations" (preferably in a positive way!). Standout work that punches through in spite or regardless of channel. This was certainly the mood at Posterscope's recent round table event.
Judging by the mass of work out there, I think Mr Kolbusz is on to something. Yes, there's still some exceptional work, but far too little that one can remember or cite. As ever, there's much more rhetoric out there about reclaiming creativity and the big idea than there is actual delivery.
That's if you can pick through all the self-interested froth about channels, programmatic, granular insight blah blah.
Funnily enough, and perhaps characteristically and with good reason, Thinkbox's new 'Alien Invasion' spot is, for me at least, a welcome glimmer.
Wishing you a very successful and preferably more creative 2017. In this vein, I may write my next column with my new best friend Alexa...