Messy ideals: Does the creative process need an overhaul to increase diversity?

Great British Diversity Experiment

If the advertising industry wants to be truly diverse, it’s not going to be easy or neat. But since sticking with the status quo is no longer an option, how can agencies place diversity at the heart of their creative processes and find the right balance?

It’s time for creative agencies to get “messy” and reinvent traditional leadership roles in order to be more diverse, according to the findings of the Great British Diversity Experiment. But in reality, agencies are often under pressure to deliver solutions quickly and cheaply, so finding the right balance can be a challenge.

Designed to prove that more dynamic teams yield better ideas – and ultimately better results for clients – the GBDE brought together over 20 diverse teams to respond to a hypothetical Tesco brief.

The best-performing teams were found to be those where ideas had emerged from longer discussions and a more collaborative approach, with the best leaders facilitating “messy” debate rather than dictating conversation. But in adland, where a hierarchical structure is the norm and agency processes are governed by client needs, timesheet tracking and external factors like Brexit, can agencies really change their creative models to reflect the optimum scenario described in the findings, or is it all just wishful thinking?

Time is money

As the saying goes, time is money, and as St Luke’s executive creative director Al Young points out, most businesses fantasise about taking a “better, faster, and cheaper,” approach while arguing that that combination is also “self-negating”.

“The better agencies cut time by short-circuiting the old ‘production line’ approach from planning to creative. They get inventive early, reach consensus quickly and get it right first time. This is only achieved through the checks and balances provided by assembling small, smart teams with diverse talents and outlooks,” says Young, adding that he thinks the GBDE’s findings “accurately reflect the working practices of the most progressive agencies,” out there already.

While progressive agencies may indeed be taking such an approach, the fact of the matter is that the diversity of the UK still isn’t reflected within the walls of many advertising firms’ offices. Creative Social and GBDE co-founder Daniele Fiandaca believes it’s time for creative departments to recognise the need for change, and that the only way to do this is by ditching the easy route and going beyond traditional decision-making mechanisms.

“Most agencies will be telling their clients everyday about the need to innovate and to experiment. Yet most creative departments in London very much reflect those that existed in the likes of DDB back in the 1960s,” he argues. Rather than changing everything overnight, he advocates trying out a different approach for a few briefs first of all.

No pain, no gain?

While more diverse teams may generate better ideas, it can also cause more friction, the experiment found – with almost half of the participants (48 per cent) agreeing that increased diversity was likely to create more arguments. Nevertheless, Sunshine managing director Nadya Powell, one of the driving forces behind the experiment, says the industry needs to realise that it’s worth it.

“Ideas win by merit, so if you all have different opinions and different ideas you have to go through quite a painful process of debating which idea you want to win – which can be challenging, but it means that when something does go live it’s made it for 100 per cent the right reasons, because it’s just a bloody good idea.”

Optimistic diplomacy

The experiment found that the most successful teams were led by empathetic, careful facilitators but that the best mentors provided guidance rather than an all-seeing eye. So does this call into question the traditional role of the creative director, or has the dictatorial Don Draper-esque stereotype already evolved beyond the Mad Men days?

Creative directors have already progressed to fit into the cogs of this collaborative approach, according to St Luke’s Young. “The mysterious, millionaire maverick making-pronouncements-that-must-be-obeyed is now an old joke,” he notes. “Personality cults have given way to an ever-available, optimistic diplomat.”

What hasn’t changed, he argues, is the responsibility of the creative director to protect creatives and their work from more influential forces. This is key for younger talent in particular. “They need someone with greater sway and persuasion skills to help them keep good work intact – or, more often, mitigate damage.”

Meanwhile, GBDE mentor Emma Perkins, executive creative director at MullenLowe Open hints that the need for a messier approach still calls for a strong creative leader.

“[It’s] about creating the environment for great work, getting rid of the barriers to great work, inspiring great work, being clear in your direction but not dictatorial, and allowing creative people and their ideas space,” she muses, adding: “Clear direction is so important when managing a diverse team.”

According to Wayne Deakin, executive creative director at AKQA, the traditional role of creative director has already changed and that what’s right now won’t be right for clients in 12 months’ time.

“Let’s face it, creativity is messy and full of chaos but a creative director’s role is now about being a business/creative partner for the client. It’s about starting at source and being a partner that thinks in a different way for the client and builds process and teams to solve business problems with creativity along the way.

“Not thinking of ‘creative’ as a silo department opens up a world of opportunities to really make beautiful and game-changing work.”

Deakin argues the process of producing work doesn’t have to be slow or pained.

“It’s only messy and slow if you try and make creativity one part of the process. If you have a creative, diverse and open team with a shared mindset and work at ‘source’ then anything is possible whatever the timeframe or problem.”

Battling the Brexit

The current political climate is also raising concerns about the economic future of the UK’s creative industries, and diversity risks dropping further down the priorities list for agencies. But those who make the commitment could actually find themselves stronger as a result, argues Fiandaca.

He acknowledges there’s a “real risk” that even those who had committed to invest in diversity will stop doing so – especially those in networks where short-term profitability targets make it harder to make medium or long-term investment – but he believes those who do invest will emerge from the “mess of the Brexit far stronger.”

Whether the need for diverse talent will trump timesheets, tightened budgets and a stringent approach to creativity remains to be seen, but Perkins is confident the industry will find ways to work around these restrictions in order to reap the benefits.

“We’ll have to transform the limitations into advantages,” she says. “I think that’s when we creatives are at our best anyway.”

This article was first published in The Drum's 27 July issue.

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