Do You Value Ideas More Than the People Who Create Them?

Uh, oh. It seems the Open Source Movement has crept into the halls of ad agencies and has now started to shape the way we farm for ideas internally. But instead of user-generated ideas, it is everyone-generated ideas. And this movement has many followers drinking the Kool-Aid.

In fact, clients are in line for refills. Let’s face it, most of them will pry an idea from a dead man’s hands if they think it will sell product. They don’t really care where it comes from. And why should they? On the agency side, most top management is preaching the wisdom and power of the creative commune. Why? Clients are into it, and the top brass have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

But it can’t sustain itself.

I worked at a place where it was all about communal creative, to the point that if one team came up with a big idea, it would then be opened up to other teams or even the entire department to work on. Quite often someone else’s interpretation of the idea would win out, so the team that originally conceived it was relegated to the middle of a long list of names on the credits.

But guess whose name was always at the top? Yup. The creative director’s. And the agency’s, of course. So while the communal system built their reputations, their brands, it simultaneously watered-down the value of the individual creatives.

Since I was in upper management at this company, I was not subject to having any of my ideas communalized. So no sour grapes. In fact, I’m actually fascinated with the power of the collective. I’m working on something right now that fosters that. 

But I also know this: You can’t treat a creative like an ATM, where you withdraw ideas until he’s empty, then move on to the next machine. 

Is it effective? Heck, yeah. They won a lot of awards and new business. And you’ve got to like that. But the problem is, it left in its wake high turnover and a bunch of miserable people. In fact, some of the creatives who were actually getting great stuff produced were still unhappy. Why? No ownership.

Here’s a shocker. The reason creatives got into advertising to begin with was to, you know, create. Collaboratively? Yes. Communally? No.

Ownership is a key motivator for human beings. I would argue the whole communal thing is based on ownership. There’s a reason it’s called MySpace and YouTube. They are empowering their members with a voice that they can own. For 15 seconds, anyway.

It may be selfish, but ownership is what drives creativity. Why do you think your children fight so hard for a space on the fridge for their creations? It’s in our DNA.

But just for giggles, let’s play this out. Say a mid-level writer ambles into your office and you look at his work. “That’s a nice spot,” you say. “Yeah,” he responds. “It was my idea to have a contest to get consumers to shoot their own commercial.” OK, you think. He’s hip and with it. You point to another ad. “I’ve seen this headline before.” “Um,” he retorts. “Could have been in someone else’s book. I think there were like three or four writers on that one.” Hmmm, you think. A pattern here. But maybe he’s just a team player. “Well, I really love this campaign you did here for Brand X,” you add. “Oh,” he says. “That was originally an idea another team came up with, but we sure nailed the execution, didn’t we?”