Australian creatives sense a shift in 2024

By Ruby Derrick | 20 February 2024
Credit: Julentto Photography via Unsplash.

Australian creatives, with shrinking budgets and tighter deadlines, closed 2023 feeling frustrated. But, they're more upbeat about the prospects of the new year.

There's a sense of optimism and perseverance in the industry after a tough few years. Industry insiders say they're ready to create.

Creatives just want to "make stuff", according to feedback given to Nicholas Cox, recruiter and co-founder and ex COO of creative agency Sunday Gravy.

Clients still have requirements but budgets are extremely tight, Cox, director of The People Place Agency, told AdNews

Forrester, the global marketing consultancy, sees a new confidence building in the media world. In Australia, marketers are expected to take more risks in 2024 as media budgets stabilise and increase as 2024 progresses.

The second half of last year saw marketers tightening budgets and play it safe. However, Cox sees a more optimistic outlook for 2024.

"Making stuff" is why creatives do this job, says Jess Wheeler, creative director at SICKDOGWOLFMAN.  It hasn’t been easy, he says, but this business never is.

And beyond it being a job, it’s also what creatives need to simply exist as creatives, he says.

“There’s nothing more discouraging than working your ass off just to fill decks with a graveyard of ideas.

"When you look at the immense amount of talent in creative departments, and then the output at large, we can seem a very wasteful industry."

The last couple of years has been undoubtedly tough with budget cuts, a perceived lack of ambition and a general hesitancy to try anything different, says Wheeler.

But this is where the importance of relationships shines through, he says.

“Understanding not just the needs, but the challenges and internal machinations your client partners are navigating,” says Wheeler.

“We had a very productive 2023, increasing our scope of work with existing clients while also adding a few more along the way. We finished the year with a number of sizable productions, and had another three go straight into pre-prod to start ’24. The opportunities are there if you keep looking.”

Cox agrees. The advertising sector is inherently competitive, he says. However, the recent surge in independent agencies, coupled with brands increasingly establishing their in-house teams, underscores the critical need for creative agencies to forge and maintain robust, trusting, and loyal relationships with their clients.

“In such a climate, operating merely on a transactional basis poses significant risks,” says Cox.

For Lauren Moran, associate creative director at CHEP, Australia has witnessed a surge in "value" messaging in the past few years.

“I'm sure many of us have participated in the cliché 'let's make the price point bigger' conversations. For creatives, this era can be frustrating, with more conceptual work being pushed aside as we reuse product imagery and update headlines,” she says.

“Despite creative restlessness (and to our clients' credit), it was fair to assume that this is what the world was calling for.”

However, as creatives enter 2024, Moran senses a shift. Production budgets are aligning with media budgets, and there's an appetite to rekindle people's love for brands, she says.

“Ideas that we simply didn't have the budget for are being dusted off, and shoots are being scheduled. We creatives will always be a somewhat frustrated bunch, but I, for one, am entering this year with optimism. It's time to make stuff.”

Over at Special Australia, partners and CCOs Tom Martin & Julian Schreiber, haven’t noticed any restraint or desire to not make things from their clients. 

“But we are noticing the impact of shorter timelines. They do come with more pressure and intensity to get the output right,” they say.

Although they have observed that shorter timelines also implicitly affect the kind of work creatives can make. 

“Our observation is that traditional work can be made faster than the unconventional.”

Tristan Velasco, ECD at Chello, notes that in a recent strategy workshop with a client, the agency observed a notable shift in its approach compared to previous years. 

“The projects on the table were not just larger in scale, but also carried a sense of heightened excitement and ambition. When we probed about the noticeable change, the answer was clear: a new leadership was in place,” says Velasco. 

This industry thrives on innovation and fresh ideas, he says. The arrival of new leaders, eager to leave their mark, presents both an opportunity and a challenge.

"As agencies, we have a choice: to either cling to the familiar ways of working, or to embrace this wave of change and champion our clients in exploring bigger and bolder moves,” says Velasco. 

Today's budgets aren't what they used to be, but the starting point for any agency is to present ideas that fit within the budget provided, says Anna Borien, partner at Galore Creative. 

“So if the ideas presented are affordable, and they are being rejected, then maybe budgetary issues aren't the real problem here?!” she says.

“We're sadly not starting any meetings of late with ‘we open on a deserted beach in Mexico’ 60" TVC script, but that doesn't mean our creativity is limited...having beefy budgets doesn't automatically lead to great work.”

In fact, says Borien, having constraints can often push the work to be better creatively. 

“Dare I say, throwing cash at the problem can sometimes make people a little...lazy?” she says.

Jessica Thompson, creative director at The Hallway, says while she’d hazard a guess that even with all the money in the world, most creatives would still be asking for more money, it hasn’t been her experience that clients are playing it safe or that it’s hard to get work made. 

“I’m seeing a boldness amongst many of the people and brands we work with; maybe it’s a bit of an F-you to the scariness of the last few years, or an acknowledgement that cost of living pressures are adding value to every one of their customers’ dollars, so we have to work harder to earn them,” says Thompson.

Whatever the reason, conceptual conservatism isn’t ruling the day today, she says.

“And as for the budgets, we’re responsible for - and, for the better creatives out there, eminently capable of - having great ideas that are also doable.

“A lack of time is a legitimate reason not to get to the best idea; a production budget restriction isn’t. If our ‘great ideas’ can’t be made with the resources available, they might not actually be great ideas…”

According to Matt Batten, ECD at Five by Five Global, there has been a trend of setting budgets unrealistically low which require upfront conversations and some estimating work to demonstrate market rates.

“When the budget is provided in the brief, it’s not our policy to revert with a concept that exceeds it,” he says.

“So there’s definitely an issue with rising client expectations against tightening budgets that could suggest a lack of understanding of the cost of executing through the entire value chain.”

 A 15-second ad isn’t half the price of a 30-second ad because it still requires the same skills, people, third-party partners, equipment and talent, says Batten.

“To put it another way, a bricklayer would charge you the same for coming out to lay ten bricks vs laying twenty.”

He says a bigger challenge is when a client doesn’t disclose the budget in the brief (or isn’t totally transparent), only to later propose a budget that could never have covered all the objectives and expected deliverables required by that brief. 

“Agencies, and their third-party production partners, need to know the budget to be able to work within it. Same for that bricklayer,” says Batten.

There’s also pressure on agencies to support overheads (recently raised by the double whammy of Covid and inflation) throughout the production process,  he says.

At a macro level, Batten says the industry is also seeing the consequences of a number of marketing behaviours: placing quantity over quality (cramming social feeds with 6-second videos and low-concept meme content); unchallenged legal dept overbearance; compliance to algorithms; democratisation of publishing tools; and outsourcing of brand comms to influencers. 

“All these factors have compounded a view that marketing is a commodity and a cost to be minimised. To ensure an agency’s ‘craft’ is valued, the client relationship needs to be continually enriched,” he says.

“More transparency between client and agency allows better understanding and collaboration on delivering great creative work that’s crafted, meets objectives, and fits within budget. Win-win.”

It’s easier to hide behind the constraints of budgets and deadlines, using them as excuses to curb our creative ambitions, says Velasco from Chello.

“However, this approach does a disservice not only to our clients but also to our own potential. When an idea truly resonates, it has the energy to transcend these constraints, attracting the necessary resources and time,” he says.

This hopeful outlook is especially palpable among the agency’s clients, he says. At a time where many might opt for caution, those who dare to focus on growth are more likely to achieve it. 

“It's a reminder that in times of general retreat, bold strides forward can set the stage for remarkable achievements,” says Velasco.

Borien from Galore Creative says when budgets are tight, it's easy for clients to see agencies as being a profligate expense.

This is one of the reasons the agency has built its whole business in a non-traditional structure. 

“It's had a positive impact on the way we spend our clients' money - less on the stuff they don't need, and more on solving the problem and making work,” says Borien.

“Having a leaner model that still allows clients to work with senior talent means that clients can view marketing and creative risk in a new light.”

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