A small group of creatives who have left their top posts at big agencies to pursue other ventures kicked off the second day of Creative Week panels at Dumbo's Galapagos Art Space with a discussion of the traditional ad industry—as seen from the rearview mirror.
Jae Goodman, formerly an executive creative director at Publicis & Hal Riney and now creative director at CAA Marketing, dismissed the notion that it's size that's keeping lumbering network shops from being nimble in a new marketplace. "The ad agencies are big, but really what they're fighting against is institutional knowledge," he said. Along with media companies, they make up part of what he describes as an "ecosystem" with a vested interest in the traditional way of doing business—and not necessarily eager to change. "You have essentially a $100 billion cartel built up" in those institutions, Goodman said. That doesn't necessarily mean that they're effective. "I don't mean to demonize the institutions, but they no longer have the ability, despite their might...to affect popular culture," said Goodman. "[They have] too much momentum moving in the wrong direction."
It's not necessarily an issue of talent either, Goodman suggested, invoking the case of McCann Erickson, Interpublic Group's largest agency network, and Linus Karlsson, the chief creative officer it poached from independent Mother in 2010. "Linus Karlsson is arguably the best creative mind of his time," said Goodman. "He's sitting in this institution; I don't know that there's a sledgehammer big enough for him to break that up." He added, "What he was doing at Mother was a sledgehammer...I don't understand why he made that move. "
Speaking on a panel titled "Creative Renegades," Goodman was joined by three former agency leaders who have since launched their own shops: Gerry Graf, who was the chief creative officer at Saatchi & Saatchi New York before peeling off to launch startup agency BFG 9000 in 2010; Ty Montague, who was chief creative officer for North America at JWT before launching also in 2010 brand consultancy co: collective (with fellow JWT alum Rosemarie Ryan); and Colleen DeCourcy, who launched Havas-owned social media shop Socialistic last year after leaving her post as global chief digital officer at TBWA\Chiat\Day in 2010.
Montague recalled his motivation for striking out on his own—frustration at his inability to improve the products he was supposed to be helping sell. "It felt like we were inserting story and story thinking way too late to really have an effect in the world," he said. "So [my co-founders and I] wanted to try and create a company that structurally allowed us to get [involved] earlier." Montague cited the time those types of strategic engagements take to complete as an explanation for why the collective hasn't yet released much work but did plug the collaborative workspace the agency launched last year.
Graf, for his part, isn't exactly trying to reinvent the ad industry with his startup agency, BFG 9000. It's the "Fantastic Mr. Fox business model," he said. "I'm going to run around and steal other people's chickens." The oft-decried ad clutter, meanwhile, doesn't bother him much—he sees it as an opportunity. "It's fantastic that there are a million ways to communicate because you need to have an idea that first breaks through—that people will be a part of—and then, when you have peoples' time, that communicates something about what you're selling," Graf said.
Asked by moderator and Daily Beast writer Nick Summers how she convinces clients to take a risk on social media, given the format's potential for getting hijacked by consumers—DeCourcy punted. "I don't think that what we do involves corporate communications or transparency about products," she said. "I don't really equate advertising with the management of what people are saying about your product."
As for whether there's a boys club in advertising, DeCourcy said she didn't think one sat in the creative department—but also suggested that she might not be best to know. "I have a slightly different experience because I was a digital person and a creative and a female," DeCourcy said. "So whichever way I went, I was either being pushed too fast in a direction because you needed that or I was such an odd man out that I didn't know where to grab on....I've also never not had opportunities."