Agency 2020: Change makers discuss where creativity sits in the age of tech, data and ROI

What will an agency look like in the year 2020? Or what will an agency ‘need’ to look like in the year 2020 in order to deliver what clients ‘need’ from them and consumers ‘want’ from them?

Both these questions recently formed the topic for a roundtable discussion hosted by The Drum and progressive talent search company The Blueprint, the findings of which will form a series of articles entitled Agency 2020. The Blueprint brought together the change makers from several of London’s leading agencies to offer their thoughts on the above subject matter and more.

The story proclaiming the need for agency change has now reached the top of the agency management agenda for most, if not all, in the industry. Whether the story is a nightmare or fairy tale depends on the attitudes of those at the top of agency businesses. A deeply entwined combination of internal and external factors has meant that the past five - and most critically - the next five years are era defining in the evolution of all creative agencies.

Whether it has been battling some of the toughest economic trading conditions in history, adapting to meet the needs of increasing globalisation or the shift in media consumption; every brand, business and agency owner has had to change, reinvent and reimagine their own future.

Offering their views at the Chatham House Rules roundtable session hosted at The Riding House Café in London were (clockwise from top left): Fern Miller, global chief marketing officer at DigitasLBi, Gareth Moss, managing partner at The Blueprint, George Porteous, managing director at Accenture Interactive, Jasel Mehta, former international general manager at AKQA, Matt Groves, former managing director at Edelman Digital, Simon Wassef, executive strategy director at R/GA, Paul Doran, strategic partner at The Blueprint, Neil Miller, CEO at POSSIBLE, Nadya Powell, managing director at Sunshine, Jonny Spindler, chief innovation officer at AMV BBDO, Laura Jordan-Bambach, creative partner at Mr President, Mark Lainas, chief innovation officer at Ogilvy & Mather.

The first in this series of Agency 2020 articles focused on where ‘creativity’ now sits within an agency business, particularly as tech, tech departments, tech directors and data have risen to the fore in recent years.


Opinion was unified that the ownership of creativity was one of the fundamental pillars that agencies needed to both protect and nurture in the future. Creativity is always going to be important, but as more and more things become automated, creativity is how agencies will ultimately differentiate themselves, stay alive and thrive.

“Creativity is certainly an important part of any’s agency output, but tech can also be creative, separating the two out is kind of an old school institution thing. That is a siloed view and that is changing within agencies,” said one contributor. “Creativity is always going to be important within an agency, especially as more and more things are becoming automated in all walks of life. The way we will all survive as agencies is to be creative, but not be a creative silo. It is creativity in technology, in the way we think of creativity and the way we approach creativity in advertising.”

So, agencies must view creativity not singularly as a ‘creative silo’, moreover creativity needs to play out in all that the agency does, in the use of technology, in the way that planning, strategizing and thinking is done and generally in the way that advertising is approached.

“I am finding that creativity is even more important nowadays and there is now a much broader remit for creativity within an agency,” added another contributor. “Really understanding communications planning for example and being creative in a communications planning environment is now vital for creatives. Five years ago it wasn’t so much, it was more around simple linear storytelling.”

“To make AV content, for example, work in a multitude of different places you have to know quite far up the creative process what you might want to do with that content,” said one agency head. “Quite often creative agencies fall into the trap of creating stuff in a very traditional way and then saying ‘right, this now needs to be AV’. The creative content we are all now producing needs to be really flexible and work in these different spaces. Often we have assets that aren’t going to work as hard as they could in different places because we didn’t know right up front what was required. Perhaps as creatives we don’t interrogate enough up front on how we and/or the brand are actually going to distribute this stuff.”

So, it seems that the feeling is that it is very much the modern creative’s responsibility to expand their own thinking from traditional media and really interrogate how the content they are producing could ultimately be used long term and in what format.

“The challenge for above the line creative agencies is how do they get into all the channels now available to them? They should be looking at how they can connect the brand and the audience together in more impactful ways in the long term,” said one contributor.

To drive that long term connection with audiences, it seems that creative agencies and, in many cases clients, need to change their thinking.

“Agencies and clients, still think in terms of campaigns and so to build or engage an audience they come out with a ‘moment’ which they then drop after three months or so until their next campaign kicks off,” said one agency boss. “We need to develop more connections over a longer period of time and that takes a different skill set from creative departments to do that.”

“Creative departments are changing and they need to change. It’s not just about technology, it is about people connecting to influences, spending time in various channels and thinking about the client’s whole eco-system. Creativity moving forward is about having people who can actually understand how they can tell a brand story over a really long period of time.”

Another agency head said: “Creativity has always been the preserve of agencies and it's quite a rare talent, being able to think about the vision for a brand and come up with amazing ideas that connect with customers. I think it's still about that, but I think the new kind agency is the sort of agency that can embrace data, really use technology, focus on measurement and develop some of these new skills and value them as being as important as the traditional skills.”

That theme of longer term engagement continued as one contributor criticised the current obsession by many agencies and brands to focus on Christmas in the UK and The Superbowl in the US as the only times of the year when they can really push the boat out and create work that is genuinely ‘loved’ by consumers.

“In the UK only once a year around Christmas do we all try to make stuff people love. In the US once a year it is around the Superbowl. For the rest of the year we make everything else, but if we could create more of those Superbowl and Christmas moments, where there was a moment every month, where you had to make some people laugh then that would help things and enable creative agencies to drive longer term engagement across all channels rather than being focused on big TV opportunities.”

Alternatively, looking at the creativity question from a different angle, you've got one side of the equation where you have massive reach through a piece of content and then on the other side you've got the brand advertising and it's a balancing act between the two.

“Often you see lots of reach numbers coming through and you believe that that creative campaign was successful, but from the brand point of view, the marketers point of view, the creative content has done little in terms of moving the dial.”

So, to sum this up, how is this shift in what is expected from creatives in terms of understanding all the channels and tech available to them, impacting how they are building their agencies?

“I think operationally our job is to create an agency environment where creativity is everywhere. I think part of this, for me it's a little bit like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – you need to understand the medium to get the best out of it and it's not about that individual or that group of people over there. To get the best out of them, you've got to charge that environment and structure where the whole agency is doing it. So, rather than the agency being in what I call portrait mode where the whole agency is departments, it's turning it into landscape so that everyone's moving together, focusing on that side of things.”

Creativity isn't just about the aesthetic or the creativity. People have talked about our duty which is helping people fall in love with the work that we produce. It isn't just that. We're looking at the kind of people we bring in. Often people bring in the best technologists, all they will care about is the most technically complex way of doing something, not actually how to make someone do exactly that. Creativity has to be part of everything we do. if it isn't then what are we here for? You can get the same shit from anybody otherwise.”

So, in conclusion; creativity, in an agency environment, is no longer just about people drawing pictures, writing copy or making TV ads. The use of technology can be creative it is the responsibility of the modern day creative to understand all the tech available to them and to actively interrogate how it could apply to their clients. It is their responsibility to explore all channels and strive to build longer term connections with audiences through all these channels, not simply develop the concept and leave it to the media agency to crowbar it into different those channels.

Is this leading to a new breed of agency creative? Inevitably, it will be, but in an industry where the lines between disciplines are blurring on a daily basis that is practically a matter of course.

The next Agency 2020 article will be published on Thursday 16th June and the focus for that piece will be the threat landscape for agencies.

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