OPINION: An ugly truth for creatives

Glenn Mabbott
By Glenn Mabbott | 14 September 2012
UNOmarcomms director, Glenn Mabbott.

Some advertising types want to be artists. I’ve known a few who made the transition, from those you probably know like Bryce Courtney and Ken Done to the less populist.

There is nothing wrong with having artistic ambitions. I simply ask you to question whether your day job is an opportunity to hone your craft, or a self-serving artistic adventure subsidised by your client’s money.
Before you say “what would the client know anyway”, ask yourself: will your next big idea be one that will deliver the biggest return to the client, or will it be designed to look great in your portfolio?

Are you spending your creative energy to make a profit for your agency, your client, or yourself? A survey by Fournaise Group of CEOs found three quarters of them think marketers are in la la land. And that’s just their view of the people in suits, including digital marketers. What must they think of creative types in agencies?

What’s really scary is if a business owner can’t be convinced they can get a significant return on an investment spent with your agency, your day job won’t be round for long.

Last week at a digital industry get together, art directors complained they wanted more respect from the suits, the programmers wanted to be thought of sooner by the creative teams and the suits weren’t liked by anyone. I found it disappointing no one discussed what the clients might actually be wanting.

If you are thinking awards first, client second, you need to remind yourself you are spending other people’s money. For too long creative people with hidden agendas have given our industry a bad name with CEOs.

David Rollins, now a globally successful author of action novels, told me that when he worked at Harris Robertson Courtney, Bryce hardly did any work. Dave worked his butt off writing ads like most young creative types. He observed “Bryce has always claimed that he would put in a hard day at the office, cracking some of Australia's best advertising, before heading home to write several amazing chapters of his latest (and run 20ks training for his next marathon). Truth is, looking back on it, I have no idea what Courtney did all day, but it probably had very little to do with advertising.”

The power of one who owns the agency is irrefutable, no one was going to complain that Bryce wasn’t working back late on the ads.

There’s also nothing new in creative directors working on a script idea on a sabbatical or a programmer developing a game at nights. What we do in our own time can help keep our ideas fresh.

The point I’d like you to consider is what creativity is in the commercial world.

I’m not asking what is art. Marcel Duchamp took care of that one a century ago. I’m questioning the designer what’s the point of using a funky font in 8pt if the user needs glasses to read it? The art director why he wants to use a renowned photographer if their style doesn’t fit the brand image? Why copywriters still think it beneath them to use puns when research has proven they are more likely to be read? Or why most ad ideas could feature any brand’s logo, not uniquely your client’s?

Beauty in an ad is subjective of course. Still, I find most agency creative staff inclined to blame their clients for “ugly” work. Yet the ability to bring creative thinking to a commercial world is the most essential skill of a successful commercial artist. Dave Rollins won dozens of awards in the 80s and 90s writing engaging ads for difficult clients. Even better, his ads worked. They offered insights to consumers that only a creative thinker could reveal.

Like me, David had the benefit of learning from the masters of advertising and marketing, the original mad men. Do you have a mentor? Today most agencies are lucky to have anyone with much life experience, let alone decades of knowledge of the arts of persuasion. David applied a method that doesn’t appear to be much understood in agencies today, where everyone seems to be caught up in the rush to get the current job out the door. The gurus explained to us the key to great work is great effort. It takes time. More importantly, most of the effort is up front.

Research long and hard about what you are going to talk about before you worry about how to execute. Collaborate, work with the suits and the programmers from the very start. And if your first idea doesn’t resonate with any of them, develop a better one. Don’t think an all right idea can be saved by art direction. Remember you can’t polish a...

Thinking is the art, production is the craft, all in the service of marketing. It’s the same skill that makes David’s novels so compelling and commercially popular.

Will more creative people take the time to think about the business end of what we do before they start to think of the end product?

Perhaps then more clients will respect our contribution and entrust us with more money. And give us more time to execute our art more effectively.

Let’s champion adding value to our clients’ businesses by thinking creatively. It’s one way to get better looking results, from any perspective.

Glenn Mabbott
Creative Director

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