The Idea Debate

Who knows where ideas come from? Authorship is one of the most elusive concepts of modern creativity and that is particularly true in the advertising business. Awards books are packed with credit lists, which often take up more space than the awarded pieces themselves.

Yet there is great reluctance to discuss this issue of authorship because a significant portion of it is outsourced. While it is acceptable to outsource the services of directors, illustrators, photographers and composers, the industry avoids the debate about idea generation. It’s as if there’s a firewall and absolutely no blur whatsoever between the conceptual and the executional.

That’s the rub: How do I explain to others, how do I explain to myself, that I use freelance help?

If the movie and music businesses are any indication, it matters more that the ideas are powerful, memorable and successful and less, the type of collaboration that designed them. Historical fact: Commissioned artists actually predate in-house creators.

An agency is judged by a multitude of skills. Its grasp of the mission. Its knowledge: brand, product, consumer, competition. Its deftness at designing strategies. The imaginative skills to convert all this into compelling communication.

A client expects its communication to be effective and famous; it wants to know that the idea comes from the core of the agency. That it is something the agency has a passion for and will stake its reputation on. In this context, how the agency arrives at ideas is its own concern.

Most outsourcing is borne out of need. A particular skill is required.

Category experience can speed up the process. A lot is caused by the imponderables of the day: accounts lost or gained; budget cuts; shifting airdates, etc. Not surprisingly, it is all in how it is used.

Outsourcing that merely fills a gap or handles a crunch, without adequate briefing, supervision and follow-through, deserves a bad name. Ditto, freelancers who bring, in their hard drives, the old, unsold ideas from their last gig.

The smart agency is one that embraces and empowers the talent; marshals it as part of the overall effort; surrounds it with the appropriate knowledge, tools and direction; allows it to see its own work to fruition. That agency, and its clients, stand to win.

One thing is sure: The paradigm has shifted. You can’t turn the clock back. Recruiters now derive a sizable percentage of their revenue from recommending and placing freelancers. Many freelancers do not want a full-time job. They prefer being able to choose assignments, work from home, manage their own time. Some do not thrive when confronted with the inner workings of agency life.

While, at least in my view, there’s no substitute for the organic generation of ideas in an agency—how else do you foster future creative management and leadership?—our industry should rethink its own preconceptions regarding freelance.

An idea is a child. An advertising idea is a child of multiple, collaborative parentage. It is not that complicated.