Agencies seeing more burnout than creative chaos

By Ruby Derrick | 30 April 2024
Credit: Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash.

Multiple reports from the creative side of advertising talk about a form of frenzy, an acceleration of the usual fast-paced work, taking hold.

In the AdNews article series, Creative Insights, TBWA associate creative director Cat Williams says the greatest hurdle at the moment is timing. 

“Why are we all going so fast?” she says. “Never been done before takes time.” 

This could easily be placed at the feet of brands, with shrinking budgets, demanding more for less in quick time, promoting burnout rather than creative chaos.

But there are other factors at play. 

According to Verificom’s pitch cost calculator via TrinityP3, a four month pitch equates to 1026 hours for an agency to complete. 

This is across all departments, including credentials and chemistry, strategy, speculative creative and financials. 

For a 15-person creative team, that’s 40 hours working on a single pitch.

Pitching also takes time from paying work. TrinityP3’s recent State of the Pitch study surveyed agencies for their views across 77 pitches, over six months, run across the market covering 28 industry categories, agency fees from $50,000 to $10 million.

“The ask to respond to a creative brief means we spent $150,000 in time on this pitch,” one respondent said.

Another reported pitches with long and substantial written components, financial, media rate exercises as well as strategic responses. 

“Whilst the process and openness of the pitch was encouraging, it appeared at the end that the CEO had already determined the outcome of the tender process. Not an ideal situation to be involved in,” another said. 

It strikes Today The Brave founding partner Jaimes Leggett that in agencies, the global shift away from retained work, giving way to projects, could be attributed as a factor of us feeling time-poor. 

The pace is unrelenting, he says.

“We’re seeing the implications of this steady transition first-hand on effective planning, ultimately changing the very fabric of how agencies operate,” says Leggett.

“While retainers gave us the luxury of foresight, project-based work can often mean this is compromised. The implications can be an impact of production and efficiency. Shorter, sharper jobs naturally inject a sense of immediacy and intensity into the work, which may play well into ideation and strategy, but typically doesn't translate well into production schedules.”

But Leggett says there’s an undeniable allure to more agile commercial models - those that foster frenetic energy that sharpens thinking and initiates sparks of creativity. 

Intensity tends to breed creativity, collaboration and innovation, creating an environment for teams to thrive, he says.

“Needless to say, there needs to be a delicate balance between productive intensity and chaotic disarray, with a supportive culture at the core. A fast-paced environment is invigorating, but a permanent boiler-room atmosphere of stress and burnout is not.

“What we’re finding is that culture, attitude and approach are trumping process and scale. Stay lean, stay innovative, stay agile, stay hungry, stay driven, stay focused. This mantra is the short, medium, and long term plan for our agency.”

The reality is that the quality requirement is low for work that agencies have traditionally had to bash out in short timelines, according to The Hallway chief creative officer and partner Simon Lee.

“Many a creative director has angrily scribbled the old ‘done quickly, low budget, good quality’ triangle on a whiteboard or pad and passionately remonstrated about how it might be possible to achieve a combination of two of them, but you definitely can’t have all three,” he says.

Lee thinks that AI might be about to make the work associated most closely with the time and budget segments of the triangle a non-human problem. 

On many of these occasions, he says, the agency - admirably - often wants to make more of the opportunity (and therefore wants more time); but from the client’s point of view, it’s often more about getting something relatively decent out quickly than creating amazing never been done before work. 

“Now, AI can already spit out a coherent and readable chunk of copy and a decent concept visual faster than a fast talking human can say ‘f*** that’s fast’,” says Lee.

“So when a client just needs something ‘solid’ delivered quickly, it doesn’t take a genius to see that an automated solution will soon be available if it’s not already.” 

This is bad news for agencies in some respect but good in relation to the timings question at hand, believes Lee.

“With AI turning around stuff incredibly fast, amazingly cheaply, the main reason why a client will turn to human creatives is associated with the third segment of the triangle: because they genuinely want great original work,” he says.

“And in my experience, a client who genuinely wants greatness (because they understand its value) knows that greatness takes time. So when you call and ask for a few more days to make the work as great as it can be, you get them. Then you just have to nail it, like only a human can do.”

For It’s Friday head of strategy Heather Sheen, it’s worthwhile to consider that the speeding up of the industry is symptomatic of a world that is - literally - getting faster every year.

“Did you know that earth is spinning faster? Yep, for the first time in squillions of years, it’s been speeding up instead of slowing down like it is supposed to. Apparently by 2029 we’ll have to shift our clocks forward one whole second. Brace yourselves,” says Sheen.

It’s not just a result of tighter budgets, she says. When uncertainty is rife and budgets are under pressure, there’s a tendency for marketers to revert to short-term activations, which mean shorter timelines. 

“However, I think it’s worth keeping in mind that everything is moving faster, and so are everyone’s expectations.

“The difficulty is that the creative process isn’t one that you can easily speed up. Lateral leaps are hard to make.”

Ideas are slippery things; they’re hard to pin down and don’t seem to respond well to demanding call-times, says Sheen.

They sometimes rely on serendipity, she says, unexpected inspiration or simply kicking the problem around until your brain makes those magical connections. 

“The trick seems to be how can we optimise things around the creative process.”

She believes a key reason we’re seeing the rise of indies and start-ups is because in the face of this acceleration, their leaner models naturally allow for agility.

“With just a small core team of people they can run at the problem quick-sticks and have the flexibility to create bespoke teams of expert consultants to respond to specific projects,” says Sheen.

Thinkerbell founder and consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier believes holding onto the timesheets mentality between time spent and creative generated isn’t useful at best and destructive at worst. 

“Maybe it’s my forensic psychology background but I’ve always used solving a crime as a useful analogy for having ideas,” he says.

“If a crime is not solved quickly, within the first 24 hours it becomes less and less likely that the crime will be solved at all,” he says.

“Likewise, time spent and good ideas would have a very weak, if not slightly negative correlation.”

In a world of crowdsourcing, AI, semi / automated means of production / computers / UGC / and so on the relationship between time and ideas is completely irrelevant, says Ferrier.

“That said, it’s not black and white some people and some agencies can only work at one pace and if time is what they need for brilliance to happen - then knowing that and championing that, and charging for that will be very important.”

He likes thinking of time kind of like an old school piano accordion.

“The more it stretches the more time you make, it’s kind of meta and certainly not linear,” says Ferrier.

Clemenger BBDO senior art director Huei Yin Wong says this pace creatives feel and talk about is in a way a symptom of tight budgets. 

It’s logical to think that with tighter budgets, less hours will be allocated to a brief, leading to an aversion to experimentation, says Wong.

“This impacts both the quality of the work and our clients—who are understandably looking for the best value and impact on their businesses,” she says.

“But zooming out from AdLand, ‘going fast’ is happening in all areas of life. Digital technology has been a wonderful extension of the human experience, however our gooey brains are thinking that we’re still hanging out on the Savannah. Our biological evolution will never catch up to the speed of technology and therein lies the conundrum of modern life.”

The industry’s expectations for ‘never been done before’ have also shifted, she says. 

“Previously, the range of advertising history was contained to our memory and printed advertising annuals.

“But now with every tagline and campaign documented online, it’s harder to say something in a new way. As the folk in the comments section like to remind us, 'iT’s bEeN dOnE bEfOrE'.”

On what's changed in the way agencies are working on briefs, Wong says measuring the value of ideas by the number of hours it takes to conceive it is fundamentally flawed. 

Most teams love the thrill of chasing a great idea and will often clock up thinking time that may never find its way to timesheets, she says.

“Less money coming in but the same amount of thinking going out leads to smaller salaries and people feeling unhappy with their effort to compensation ratio,” says Wong.

“And if advertising is no longer a fun way to earn decent money, then other industries will start looking a lot more exciting to our top talent.”

Wong has seen agencies move to project based models (good), she says, and intellectual property based models (better). 

That way if a particular project does incredibly well, there’s still value in it for the agency and team that helped create it, she says. 

“The best way to make more money is to create better work. Think of it as royalties for a successful idea.”

Not to say that great ideas need huge budgets, but in the majority of agencies there is certainly more pressure to deliver ‘never been done before ideas’ in ‘never been done before timelines’, says Wong.

“This flows through the agency and unfortunately often leaves production holding the short end of the stick,” she says.

“Crafting an idea takes time and money—there’s no way around that. If we want something to be world class, we have to pay for it.”

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