Collective Conscience

The hot trend for 2007 is something I’ve heard called the “democratization of creativity.” On close examination, this seems to come down to ordinary people posting extraordinary stuff on YouTube or getting their spots on the Super Bowl.

For many ad folk, the terror inherent in this is that if anyone can be a creative genius and, basically, create a compelling and watchable spot from, say, his trailer in Albuquerque (not suggesting anything bad about trailers or Albuquerque—I’m from England, ignore my socio-geographic flights of fancy), then why should client companies pay vast amounts of money to ad agencies for creativity?

Clearly many agency craft skills have gone far beyond the point where they are meaningful to consumers or brands. Can it be that the agency creative director with anything meaningful to offer still goes to the wall for a smaller logo? I suspect a few still do. In the 21st century, if you’re arguing passionately over the logo size, personally I suggest you revisit the idea. Because I can assure you the client is revisiting your fee. An overweening obsession with craft (still a feature of many advertising award jury sessions, for instance) isn’t just about logos; there is a global glut of overproduced, under-ideated advertising wallpaper in all media.

I think craft is extremely important, but look at it this way: of the many debates inspired by one of the most-watched pieces of film of 2006-07, namely Saddam Hussein’s execution, none of them concerned the quality of the filming.

The true losers in the so-called “democratization of creativity” are what some bruised account people call “creative prima donnas.” The creed of ad agency creative prima donna-ism has its roots in the 1970s and ’80s, when, really, creatives wanted to be Alan Parker, the Collett Dickenson Pearce copywriter who became a Hollywood director. Doing ads (selling—yuck!) was a regrettable stepping-stone to something more noble, and any attempt to engage these creatives in anything even vaguely to do with commerce or business strategy could end up with some hapless suit getting a typewriter lobbed at his or her breadbasket. You’d have trouble telling the difference between these people and, say, beat poets.

In those days, creative departments of “hot” agencies resounded to cries of “Don’t ask me if it’s ready yet, ask me if it’s great yet.” (Some people have ascribed this phrase to that golden oldie, Frank Lowe. For some totally unrelated reason the alleged Lowe-ism that sticks in my mind was when he once was opening a bottle of champagne, realized it was non-vintage, handed the bottle (neck between thumb and forefinger) to a secretary and sniffed, “Take this thing away and … give it to a planner.”)

The fact is, if creativity truly is becoming democratized and a great idea truly no longer cares who has it, then creative direction (i.e., being the agency creative custodian of the client’s brand) has never been more important. Even with the much talked-about but extremely ordinary “amateur” Doritos spot in the Super Bowl, people who logged on to Yahoo and took part in the competition worked to a brief from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners around the theme of “the passion Doritos eaters feel about the flavors.” Thus a supposed free-for-all already entailed a great deal of creative direction, as did the fact that the five finalists and eventual winner were chosen by Doritos marketers, including the agency.

When even amateur spots have creative and strategic parameters, the idea that a top, highly paid ad agency creative can lock himself or herself away in an ivory tower and eventually emerge with something so brilliant that it transcends everything, including commerce and strategic relevance, is baloney, as we say in Brooklyn. More dangerously, it reduces you to the level of the lone YouTube contributor in a log cabin in Montana, forgoing the massive advantage of hanging out with people down the hall or in the office next door or at the desk opposite who live and breathe all aspects of a client’s business and can help you execute against every one of them.

Nothing, not even iSight or any other virtual tools, beats sitting around together in a bunch and chewing things over with people of all disciplines who you know and respect. It’s exciting to be in a creative and strategic collective called an ad agency. For me it easily beats the old battery-hen days of sitting alone in my office at Lowe Howard-Spink in London getting TV briefs slipped under my door like so much bird feed.