Creativity, commerce and culture – roundtable on finding the right balance in digital agencies

In a roundtable hosted by The Drum in association with Synergist, our panel of experts in design and build discuss how they strike the balance between creativity and commerce in their digital agencies.

It’s the age-old debate: how do you strike a balance between creativity and commerce? Everyone wants to work for an agency that is thriving, winning exciting new business and awards and hiring talented fresh faces.

But in a world where revenue is largely driven by more mundane accounts, how can agencies strike a balance between commercial need and creative want?

At a roundtable hosted by The Drum on behalf of Synergist, we discuss how to bridge the seeming disconnect between creativity and commerce. Leaders from design and build-focused digital houses, big and small, debate the place that agency culture has to play.

For Synergist managing director Keith White the question is: “As a software provider we have always pondered on the dilemma focused on business and creative. Can the two mix, and if so, how?

Kent Valentine, director of Draw Digital, says: “Creativity and commerce are seen at opposite ends of the spectrum, but commerce is just another factor in the decisions you make creatively.”

He says that commerce is simply another mechanism, alongside others such as laws, rules and time, which influence agency decision-making. “To break it out and say that it’s completely different does us a disservice and makes it seem more difficult to integrate than it actually is.”

He adds that, in a creative industry, ‘creativity’ should not be the sole domain of the creative department, particularly in the digital world.

These are viewpoints that resonate with the panel, and they agree that employees must be commercially aware, if not necessarily familiar with every single aspect, and creative thinkers foremost.

Simon Butler, director of Purestone, says an important learning curve for his agency was educating staff to work creatively within the client constraints. “We use the analogy ‘What are you baking for this client?’. There were situations where the client had a budget to make a donut and we’d try and make them a wedding cake.”

He adds: “You’ve got to be an appropriate baker for what they want. You can look for the new solution but there are times when you just have to make a donut.”

Natalie Gross, chief executive of Amaze, the largest of the agencies present, says its approach has been to create unit teams within the business, each accountable for its own P&L. This approach, she says, has helped focus the commercial savvy within each, and empowers them with the trust to make profitable decisions.

Such trust and transparency, often endemic in start-ups, allows both creativity and commercial thinking to flourish. How, though, to keep a sense of identity as the agency grows?

Ian May, Creative Jar programme director, says the agency was started 13 years ago by “two guys in a bedroom in Marlow”. He says Creative Jar, now entering its “middle age” has grown rapidly in the past three years. “Everyone you hire and bring in has [to have] an impact on how the agency functions. It’s still a fun place to be.”

So too for Richard Bruton, managing director of Propeller Communications, which also started as a “two-man band” specialising in the hospitality industry at a time when doing digital was often “setting up an email for someone”.

At that time, recruitment was more about whether someone would fit in to a sociable sector with all the clients' bars, clubs and restaurants, rather than necessarily technical or digital genius. Since then the company's benchmark for quality and qualifications has risen, but it still stays true to hiring “someone want to have a drink with at end of week”. Adds Bruton: “They’re colleagues but they’re people you want to hang out with.”

Butler adds: “The acid test is if you’re not creating somewhere you’d like to work and you’re the boss then there’s something going wrong.”

It’s crucial, they agree, for staff to fit seamlessly into both the existing and evolving culture and each has examples of where the wrong person has impacted the agencies commercially, though Gross admits that you do have to have “some concession to brilliance” – something the others believe is easier to accept in a larger environment.

Gross continues: “Culture is baked in to an agency from the start and it’s important to keep that culture as you grow. That comes from an underlying set of values.” So the culture structure might change, but its core personality and values should remain the same even when, as in Amaze’s case, it is eventually acquired by a bigger group.

There is often a sense in the client community that an agency culture should not matter, though today’s participants disagree.

May says: “The agency gives off an aura through everything we do. Clients look at what our clients are doing.”

And Bruton adds that one only needs to look at what often happens when there are major personnel changes at a client company to dispel this myth. “When a new person comes in hopefully it’s still wonderful, but sometimes it isn’t,” he says. “They’ve another agency they’ve worked with for years and regardless of what you’ve achieved, sometimes someone comes in thinking 'how long have we got left on this contract until I can get my guys in?'.”

For Valentine, culture – and trust – are even more important for agencies with a design and build heartland because of the very length and complexity of most of their projects. “A client might only do such a project once or twice in their careers – the biggest moment of your digital marketing group’s existence for five years, but for us, it’s a Tuesday. Cultural compatibility is really important.”

Gross concurs, particularly when looking at agency expansion: “What we do is so heavily commoditised that our culture is our export.”

There is a ready sense that in a largely commoditised industry, creativity – fuelled by an agency’s own culture, its people and their actions – is key to commercial success. All share many common values and tenets, yet how they express that differs from one to another. A strong culture, it seems, is not merely about a balancing act between commerce and creativity, but the key that allows both commercial and creative freedom to run seamlessly through an agency.

Words by Catherine Turner

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