Back to the future: 2005 coverstar Ben Lilley thinks most ads are bland

Rachael Micallef
By Rachael Micallef | 16 December 2015
The AdNews Annual 2005

Back in 2005, for The Annual, AdNews asked industry figures to predict what the state of play would be in a decade. That's now. We decided to revisit those predictions and see who was right – and who was wrong. Over the next few days we'll be revealing who had an accurate crystal ball a decade ago – and who was frankly full of shit.

We revisit the predictions of Ben Lilley – who graced the cover of our 2005 Annual - from a decade ago, and see how the then founder of national independent agency Smart and now CEO of McCann Australia faired.

One thing Lilley was adamant about then and now, is the importance of creativity in the advertising industry.

At the time, he said that “agencies that continue to add value to clients' brands with smart ideas will be the super agencies of the future”. A decade on, Lilley's opinion hasn't changed.

“In what is often the highly fragmented industry that we now work in, a lot of creative agencies, and frankly, a lot of clients still lose sight of the importance of creativity first and foremost to really just inspire and excite, or even just get the attention of consumers,” Lilley told AdNews about the present state of the industry.

“The truth is, most advertising is still terrible, most brands are bland and boring and more advertising spend, by extension, is just wasted money.

“No matter how the industry continues to evolves, my one hit prediction for the next millennia is that creativity will continue to remain the single most important product of any agency, and the single most important thing that any client should be seeking from their agency.”

Back in 2005, Lilley along with John Mescall and Ash Farr were still running independent agency Smart. The reverse takeover of the agency by McCann would happen in 2011 and see the trio turnaround the fortunes of the then-ailing multinational.

At the time, Lilley said that it wasn't quite the death of multinational agencies but that “it will be the end of the global dominance of the multinationals and the beginning of the smarter, small and strategic creative agency”.

While that hasn't quite happened – luckily for Lilley and McCann – he says he was on the cusp of being right about it at the time.

“Being a more unique and strategic creative agency, as Smart was then, we were the beneficiary of a lot of bad work that was being done,” Lilley said. “Back then, it was enough to be able to open your doors with some really good strategic and creative talent and steal a lot of work from what were then fat and lazy multinationals.”

But what he said at the time, much of the industry didn't realise the scale needed to be able to to compete with multinationals and do a good enough job for large clients, as creative agency remits expanded.

“The key thing that has changed in the last decade is the amount of complexity involved in executing those ideas and integrating them,” he said.

For this reason, Lilley said the decade since 2005 has seen a great deal of movement in the industry, with creative agencies buying digital agencies, and now, in the case of McCann, increasingly eyeing media planning and buying.

While the Lilley of 2005 saw a clear delineation between ideas and execution occurring in creative agencies of the future, Lilley of 2015 doesn’t think the reality is that far removed.

“The way that the best agencies work now is that you hire the creative people who are responsible for generating unique and original ideas and they need to have a good grasp of a lot of the executional components,” he said.

“But there is a swathe of new skillsets and types of people who are then required to help us execute and seamlessly integrate those.

“There are a lot more moving pieces in most agencies and a lot more skillsets required to execute first-rate creative work. But the one thing that has evolved the most in the last decade is just the sheer necessity of creativity first and foremost.”

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