This is going to sound a bit grumpy but fuck it, here goes. We lost a big pitch recently. We were told our creative work was “miles ahead” of the other agency’s. But the other agency promised the client they’d get the leads they wanted “through search engine optimisation and programmatic science”. The client chose to believe them.
It’s further evidence that a lot of marketers today don’t know the difference between marketing strategies, marketing channels and marketing content. Sure, SEO and programmatic can find you customers online. But that’s no guarantee they’re going to buy anything. Unless the creative content they see is persuasive and relevant, they won’t even notice it. In fact they’re more likely to be irritated by its intrusion into their screen time. People tolerate offline advertising and fondly remember the best examples of it. But they hate online advertising and actively block it at every opportunity.
This current devaluation of creativity in the minds of our clients is mirrored inside our advertising agencies. This year, the D&AD annual – once every young creative’s bible – added an ‘m’ and described itself as a ‘manual’. Inside, for the first time since it launched in 1962, are exercises designed to teach creatives how to have ideas. This is no bad thing. When we came into the industry, wide-eyed and wild-haired in 1980, we were eager to learn and we had heroes to learn from – David Abbott, Dave Trott, John Hegarty, John Webster. It was their work that seduced us into the business in the first place. Beautifully written magazine ads for Sainsbury's; glamorous, funny TV commercials for John Smith's and Levi's; witty posters for London Weekend television. Ask a 23 year-old creative who John Webster is now and they’ll look at you dead-eyed. They’ll never have watched his Guardian ‘Points Of View’ ad or wet themselves at his Smash ‘Martians’ commercial. They have no heroes in the business – so many of them have proudly told me this – just carefully trimmed beards.
When did the rot set in? When and why did young creatives start to think they couldn’t learn anything from the generation that came before them? When did they stop reading books about those great Volkswagen ads? When did they stop reading? Or caring about spelling and punctuation? How come they look so skeptical when I point out to them that the world’s best book on creativity (A Technique For Producing Ideas by James Webb Young) was written in 1939? Why haven’t they read it?
My theory is that creativity lost its way during the digital boom years. Almost overnight, online software meant anybody could create their own layouts. Our clients decided art direction wasn’t a precious craft skill any more. If their 12 year-old could crank out pictures and typography in 10 minutes, anybody could. A whole generation of digital native ‘designers’ was born.
We started presenting Mac designs instead of magic marker ideas. The creative team-of-two system was discredited. Go into any creative department now and instead of teams, you’ll see individuals sitting behind computers. If they do happen to have creative partners, they literally can’t see them because there’s a giant Mac screen blocking the view. So how do they swap ideas or chat about the best way to crack the brief? Without that face-to-face dialogue, digital creatives are selecting the typeface and photoshopping the pictures before they’ve even tested the thinking. The modern habit is instant ‘prettyfication’ rather than constant interrogation.
Copy has suffered too. When I started writing copy, it was a way to test your thinking. You had to put your initial idea into plain English and make sure it stood up strong. Now there are people who’ve never heard of David Abbott who call themselves ‘web copy specialists’, as if writing for a digital channel required a different skillset than writing for print.
We also have a new breed of digital creatives who call themselves ‘content creators’. They have business cards engraved with hilarious titles like ‘global head of content’. But none of them can explain what ‘content’ actually is. Hey guys, ‘content’ isn’t a thing, it’s anything that can be made public in any medium, from a book to a film. So tell me why it needs an empty new name?
Another factor that marks a decline in creative standards is good old-fashioned ageism. The younger generation are pushing up. They want their creative bosses’ titles and salaries. Their clamour for promotion combined with the fact they are ‘digital natives’ means that agency management starts believing that they represent ‘the future’. Creative directors over 50 years old are ditched in favour of a new generation who can “do digital”. Ask any agency managing director what the ability to “do digital” is and they will tell you it means kids who can knock out bland banner ads as fast as their account handlers can scribble ‘ASAP’ in the deadline box.
The result is that agencies have lost their creative teachers, the people who made those agencies great in the first place. John Hegarty put it well in a recent talk about advertising’s ageism: “In our industry, we’ve lost that sense of where we’ve come from and understanding how to go forward."
Don’t think this is sour grapes from me. I was politely jettisoned from the Leith Agency “for financial reasons” aged 57, a couple of months after getting a five-star appraisal, a bonus and a payrise. But as a freelance creative, I’ve never felt more fulfilled. I’m doing some of the best work in my career and winning awards for it. I once overheard two of my former bosses refer to my generation as “a bunch of old has-beens”, as if we suddenly stopped knowing how to crack a brief or craft a commercial once we hit 50 years old. They couldn’t have been more mistaken.
The real test of this new digital generation is the quality of their work. It should be better than the work of the generation that preceded it. Sadly it’s not. I can’t remember the last time a Scottish ad agency troubled the D&AD juries (with the notable exception of Edinburgh environmental design shop StudioLR which quietly picked up two D&AD Silvers over the past two years). Instead, our agencies aim low, contenting themselves with celebrating their successes at regional awards shows and pitching against each other when the truth is, the real competition and the big clients are in London.
More and more I find myself being asked to come into creative departments and teach young creatives how to have ideas. The funny thing is that it’s PR agencies, not ad agencies, who are hiring me. They’re fed up playing second fiddle to advertising. They see an opportunity to become custodians of the big idea instead of being patronised as the PR afterthought. They are experts at generating publicity, something Scottish ad agencies have neglected in their race to be seen as organisations who ‘do digital’.
It’s not all bad. Scotland’s very own Napier University runs an exceptional advertising course for wannabe creatives. It built a phenomenal reputation for itself under the talented leadership of Suzie Henry and Brian Williams. It has an equally bright future under the stewardship of Rodger Stanier, who co-founded the Leith Agency. Napier’s students regularly beat English colleges’ students to the top UK industry prizes. If you want a creative department of thinkers and brief-crackers rather than ‘digital designers’ and ‘content creators’, Napier is the place to look.
But if you have any ambition to grow as an agency, you need to stop judging yourselves against your regional peers and start benchmarking against London and the rest of the world. Stop boasting about cleaning up at the local awards. Aim higher.
And if you’ve forgotten that ‘digital’ is merely a channel and not a creative discipline, spend £60 and have a look through this year’s D&AD ‘manual’. You’ll find that the biggest winners are analogue, not digital: there’s a magazine printed with ink made from HIV positive blood; a bookshop that only sells one book; a supermarket that sells ugly fruit; a spoon designed for people with shaky hands; a doll that turns red in the sun to remind families to put on sunscreen; a soft drink made from seawater so you can taste what it feels like to drown; a Van Gogh painting you can spend the night in; a washing instructions label sewn into clothes to remind men that they can do the washing too; a black woman who gatecrashed the Paris marathon and walked 26 miles with a water container on her head; and a cream that gives you wrinkles.
‘Wrinkles’. A bad word in ad agencies these days. But us ‘old has-beens’ are still doing it. When Gerry Farrell Ink won the Grand Prix at the Drum Awards this year, a few folk said to me “Still got it, eh?” Do you know what? I never lost it.
Gerry Farrell is a former long-serving creative director of The Leith Agency and now runs Gerry Farrell Ink