Advertising can't afford to be scared of bravery any longer

Reuben Webb, ecd of SteinIAS

“Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?” ~ Brandon Stark, Game of Thrones

The advertising industry has reason to be afraid. But is it because it is under threat from rogue creatives using the B word (brave) at exactly the wrong time? As far as systemic industry problems go this doesn’t sound like the worst. Seeing the client’s point of view when selling creative is certainly good advice. But on the subject of bravery, surely we need more not less?

The industry is clearly still brave enough to criticise the creative community whenever it fancies. Those wayward, insensitive, blundering, beardy wierdos stalking the land turning advertising gold into straw at the blurt of an opinion. Surely it would be better not to let them out of their holes? They haven’t seen the sun in so long they’ll vanish in a puff of cinnamon vape anyway. When will we be able to replace them with AI Macs? From the state of the majority of marketing, that’s already happened. It’s all the same. It must be coming from the same big sinister source. In a way it is, the source is fear. Operating in a climate of financial and political fear, most marketers are scared to be different. They are uncomfortable with the thought of taking the advice they pay creative people to give them. Instead of being brave enough to talk about this as an industry, we continue to crap ourselves and build up the human shield wall between clients and creatives, muffling the creative call to be different. Empathy with the client world is something we need more of, but we won’t get it by keeping clients and creatives apart, which is what we do very well as an industry.

And empathy goes both ways, agencies need to speak up and let clients know what it’s like to be a creative in advertising now. We put another crazy deadline in their faces from the moment they walk in from another late night reworking something that went against their best advice in the first place. Smart kids are leaving for industries that are better at nurturing creativity – those that really encourage brave leaps of the imagination. We desperately need clients to support us with investment in craft and trust in creative expertise. Admit it. Be brave. Not after the fact but up front. Before the contract is signed. Admit you know that clients are afraid of being different. Admit you know why; because their sales guys deride them, their bosses undermine them. Admit you know they are often afraid to be different and then yes, ask them to be brave for the sake of effectiveness, their reputation and the creative community’s sustainable development. If all agencies were brave enough to do this at the beginning of every client encounter, it would start the ball rolling towards brave being normal and there would be no need for justly frustrated creatives to say, come on let’s be brave just this once. The worst that could happen would be that clients would be honest back and admit their need for conformity to the norm. From a creative’s POV that’s fine. Knowing where you stand from the beginning saves a lot of time and heartache.

That agencies would all do this is fantasy of course. Agencies never stand together do they? Sadly we’re happy to drop our prices and standards to out do each other in the quest for new business. Worse we are often internally divided, willpower rather than kindness being the currency of career advancement. Account people being resentful of creatives, creatives resentful of planners. Axes to be ground (in the press!). Stop it. Be nice. Take a leaf from the creative communities book. They do stick together. Rival agency creatives enjoy supporting each other. Like ancient soldiers from rival armies who worship the same God, they have a bond that transcends competition. The bond is the struggle to be heard.

I recently met a fellow Creative Director at an awards ceremony. He thanked me for being brave enough to point out the sea of mediocrity B2B is drowning in by helping create the Drum’s web series Cliché Killers. He admitted he hadn’t worked on anything he was proud of for the last five years. He wasn’t from an obscure agency either and like the vast majority of agency creatives, this guy and his team have genuine talent. We, as an industry, have failed him and we’re failing others just like him. It’s time for agencies and clients to get brave, all at the same time. Shout the B word from the rooftops, go crazy. But, yeah, like Phil says, maybe not just as the client is about to buy your brave idea.

I am afraid for the creative future of our industry, because the common reality isn’t the gorgeous stuff we see coming out of Cannes, but the ever multiplying stock photography we drudge through on the web. I’m brave enough to admit it and ask others to help do something about it at 101cliches.com. “Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?” as Ned Stark answers, “That is the only time a man can be brave.”

Celebrate marketing bravery in all its forms, keep talking about the need to be brave and enter The Drum’s B2B Brave Awards to prove that against the forces of fear we will not be defeated.

Reuben Webb, chief creative and values officer at Stein IAS. This piece was written in response to one by Phil Adams entitled 'Why bravery is a bad idea in advertising'.

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