Dentsu Creative's Kirsty Muddle and Ben Coulson fighting average with ideas beyond the brief

By Ruby Derrick | 6 March 2024
Kirsty Muddle and Ben Coulson.

Dentsu Creative’s Kirsty Muddle and Ben Coulson feel that everyone in the industry is in a bit of a race at the moment to reorganise.

There’s lots of tendering and project pitching, and clients want a bigger impact on a smaller budget, they say.

For the pair, the key to commercial creativity in today's climate is to come up with ideas for clients that are beyond the brief. 

There are about 50 other networked agencies and about the same amount of indies kicking around in the same city who can meet the brief, says chief creative officer Coulson, in his first formal sit-down interview with trade.

“We’ve got to do better than that. We need to bomb in an idea for this client that they totally aren't expecting,” he says.

CEO Muddle says the agency and its clients are seeing this in the work since Coulson joined in December of last year.

“We're starting to deliver on that ambition because it's the push that everyone needs,” she says. 

What's interesting, says Muddle, is the size of agencies five years ago compared to now. 

Industry market research body IBISWorld reports that there are more than 9500 advertising agencies in Australia as of 2024, an increase of 2.6% from 2023. 

“The amount of agencies in Australia has grown over time, but the total available revenue has gone down. It’s an interesting environment,” says Muddle.

Start with something that can cut through and then apply all the rest of the rigour to it to make sure it's tonally tight, on time and on budget, the Dentsu duo say. 

“But if you go the other way - and you think commercial creativity is about just being on budget, delivering the right message in the right way to the right people at the right time, ticking all those small will get shit boring results that will be a total waste of a clients’ money,” says Coulson.

If an agency does something that will freak everyone out; surprises the client and the customer, then it's got something to work with, he says. 

“If it's not innately original and interesting at the beginning it's mostly going to waste everyone's time.”

Muddle says the thing about commercial creativity is that there’s a financial value at the end of the day in everything the agency does.

That’s what people find in the early days in their career in this industry. They’re not making art for art’s sake. It’s a very specific type of creativity, she says.

“You can put a numerical evaluation to a brand now. With anything we do, we’ve got that in mind. Is what I’m doing going to have an impact financially somewhere for our client over a period of time?” she says.

On the other end of fine art, with graphic design and architecture in between, is where commercial creativity sits, says Coulson.

“The canvas is huge; your creativity will get national or international recognition for your ideas. The work has to be done around someone else’s time and money, so yes there will be a client and they will tell you what to do,” he says.

“Can you hack that? If that sounds a bit too hard, then there's illustration, graphic design and fine art with no clients and no one telling you what to do. I can’t guarantee you're going to get paid though…”

It’s been an incredibly tough environment for two years, says Muddle. What Dentsu Creative and the industry is hearing consistently, she says, is everything concerning growth. 

“I don't think consumer confidence is returning at any great speed. We’re helping them navigate that,” she says.

This comes off the back of last year’s pitch market being a frenzy as marketers, facing budget constraints from economic pressures, shopped around for the best deal and many global accounts were taken to pitch after contracts rolled over in COVID years.

Also common across the board is clients talking about being ‘match-fit’ for the economic environment that everyone is heading into, says Coulson.

“People have a little less money; they’re more conscious about where they’re spending it. You’ve got to return value and be meaningful in people's lives. 

Businesses out there aren't quite used to that, he believes. 

“We’re seeing a real return now with our clients questioning what the core thing is they can provide people that can actually mean something in their lives,” says Coulson. 

“Clients talk about getting themselves match-fit, in terms of how they’re going to capture that part of people’s lives and attention and that small amount of people’s purses.”

Coulson says the question is which creative businesses are match-fit in their offering in the way they can present creativity to people with a finite amount of money.

Clients always tell agencies what they expect from the money they give them, he says.

“Here’s this much budget for the project, these are the expectations...'we need to have a certain result’. What you want to do is smash that result and deliver something much more exponentially interesting because of the power of your creativity. 

“Creativity deadly enough that it can capture beyond expectation.”

One thing for certain, says Coulson, is that as soon as an agency gets some crew who are really good, there’s going to be pressure because they will get jobs in the States.

“That's a normal part of our industry. We look to grow through our capabilities and our skill sets,” he says. 

If Dentsu Creative focuses on delivering growth for its clients, growth will come to the agency, says Muddle. 

“It's not about winning new business, you've got to pay attention to your own clients first and foremost,” she says.

“Help their business with whatever part of it needs help and the growth will come. That's been the journey over the past two years. Everyone's a bit restless and that's what you want…ambitious people with a fire in their belly to do good work.”

“I think Ben is slightly tortured most days. It’s just in his brain,” she says.

For Coulson, he says he only feels tortured if everything is looking “average”. 

“When it’s looking like a ‘never before’ idea, that's when I'm in a great spot. You can work all day and night when you’re doing that kind of stuff,” he says. 

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