The key to independent success: The Creative Works on 40 years in advertising

By Ruby Derrick | 25 March 2024

Melbourne indie agency The Creative Works, now celebrating its 40th anniversary, says the key to independent success has been earning the trust of its clients and being a partner to them, not a supplier.

More than 30% of its clients have been with the agency for more than 20-30 years. Some indie agencies aim to make it big and sell for a high price but The Creative Works has remained in its own lane.

The concept of creativity hasn't changed for the agency during this time, but the speed of the process has, creative director Mike Davey told AdNews.

"The process of creativity, in which agencies get a brief and have to come up with a solution, remains unchanged. It’s still about coming up with the best idea,” says Davey. 

“Of course, what has changed are those channels and how we deliver it as well as the speed and that faster pace.”

The Creative Work's focus has been on its stable client base, resisting clients that don’t share its ethos and not trying to be “everything for everyone”. 

The mid-size agency started in 1984 and the shifts over the period since that its witnessed have been monumental.

But gone are the days where there’d be two months to solve the brief. It’s days now, says Davey. 

“Technology has brought that on. There isn't as much time unfortunately to craft things as well as anyone would like to.”

Davey started his career at Clemenger, then headed to DDB Melbourne and then Marmalade, AJF Partnership and Cummins&Partners before joining The Creative Works in 2017.

He has seen the immense changes of work culture in the industry since starting out. 

“The ‘sweatshops’ were brilliant in their time, or when you were 20 years old. But no one wants to work until midnight, 2am, 4am, 7am when you’ve got a family and kids,” he says.

He believes the underlying idea and concept is that agencies still have to try and find that risk to change behaviour. That little nugget of truth that’s going to motivate somebody, he says.

“That hasn’t changed. Instead of delivering it in a 30-second TV ad, we've got to deliver it perhaps in an online video or a series now. It could be anything.”

And of course, the budgets have changed, he says.

“They've come right, right down. The industry’s now working with almost infinitesimal budgets.”

The Creative Works MD Matt Turner, who is ex-George Patterson, JWT and Clemenger, stepped into the senior position and alongside two other long-standing employees, bought the agency. 

Turner, who's been in the industry for almost 35 years, says the agency was able to reach 40 years because it’s been a partner to its clients, not a supplier. 

“That’s been the key; we earnt their trust. We didn't want to grow too big and lose touch with our clients. We’re not chasing fame or notoriety, nor are we the agency beating its chest. We just want to be good for our clients and that’s our focus. It’s about not trying to be everything for everyone," he says.

The obvious shift over that time, says Turner, is the focus on digital marketing advertising and the variety of channels it spans. 

The first port of call is now presenting a campaign concept on a digital piece of material rather than a traditional print or TV ad, he says. 

“With hyper-targeting availability, digital messaging also needs to be hyper-targeted. It’s a challenge; you’ve got to make sure your campaigns aren't just one message anymore. The creative needs to be segmented, multi-layered and nuanced to the different audiences."

Turner says there’s also the expectation of younger audiences, where agencies now have to put themselves in their shoes and deliver on their expectations.

“We need to make sure we’re listening to them and their tone to deliver,” he says.

What still needs work in the industry after 40 years, says Turner, is dealing with the adjustments; particularly in the digital space with privacy laws.

“It’s becoming a big issue with what you can and can’t do and the channel refinements that are coming through. Re-marketing will be a thing of the past, possibly. You can’t do that anymore."

Everyone is also still working through that challenge of finding the right balance between working from the home/ office, says Turner.

“Creative agencies…they need to be together. They need to be able to bounce off each other and have those inspirational moments that generate the sparks and the ideas,” he says. 

But it’s got to be balanced with expectations these days where it’s a balanced workplace, says Turner. 

“Making sure the experiences in the office are enjoyable is important. That’s what’s expected now."

For Davey, any creative’s likely fear is that AI could one day take their job. Although it's proven to be a good starting point, he says, that’s about it.

“A lot of our clients are member-based organisations so trying to get them represented in AI has so far proven impossible because AI is fed off everything that’s been fed into it,” he says.

“Try finding an Australian-looking construction worker and what you’ll get back is that they’re very good looking or they're wearing old-school blue overalls with clips on the front. Everything that I've tried is completely wrong.”

Even with iPhones getting quality high-definition video, one challenge that the agency has encountered with clients from the tech emergence is when they present to them, says Davey.

“Sometimes you’re met with, ‘Well, my child has an iPhone 15, why can't they shoot it?’ Having an iPhone 15 doesn't make you a cinematographer, just like having iMovie doesn't make you a video editor.”

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