'There will be less big ad agencies in London over the next five years' - Isobar UK CCO Simon Gill on creativity and why he won't be at Cannes

Simon Gill & Ali Hanan

Ahead of this year's CANNT festival, the eighth in its history, co-founder Simon Gill, Isobar UK's chief creative officer talks to Creative Equals founder Ali Hanan about the challenges he sees in the creative sector, why he isn't going to Cannes this year and the rise of technology.

Q. You've been in the industry for more than a decade. What are the challenges facing creativity right now?

Well, over two decades, but who’s counting? The biggest challenge isn’t Brexit, or talent drain, or even the hastily decided election.

The creative industry needs to do what it does best and embrace its most difficult challenge of all: the need to change, fast.

If you listen to the industry’s leaders, everyone is talking about the importance of creativity. They talk about how it’s the ‘last unfair business advantage' and why we need to move from ‘doing’ creative to ‘embracing’ creativity. But many behave like its ‘business as usual’.

The needs of our clients and the desires of their customers are changing, and at speed – so, as creatives, we need to adapt too. We’ve got to skill-up, become multi-faceted, embrace how we use and understand data, learn to code – and quickly. We need to step beyond the traditional art director, copywriter, designer roles. Creatives must know and understand business, learn what it takes to sell an idea in, what it takes for an idea to be successful for the client, to experiment with the new platforms, to understand how to creatively solve business problems.

The house will burn if agencies don’t truly embrace the above. Believe me.

Q. Most of your career has been focused on digital. With the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI), is creativity in danger of being automated?

Yes and no! If you look at Marty Neumeier’s ‘The Robotic Curve’, it places creative work at the top. In principle creatives are the least threatened by robots and automation. The problem is that a lot of what counts as ‘creative’ in marketing is ‘skilled work’ or on occasion ‘rote work’.

The reality is much of our work is in danger of robotic automation. Think of the process most agencies use – a strategist will conjure up universal audience insight, then write a creative brief using a standard template. This is used to brief creatives, who dream up ideas, often using the same references as the competition, and present the idea in a similar way… While there are moments where creativity can make a huge difference, the process is structured and repeatable – highly repeatable, which means it can be automated.

This doesn’t mean creativity or the creative director is defunct: we need both more than ever. Our challenge is to be less formulaic. We must enable more creative moments to build experiences delivering a credible value exchange for both the consumer and the brand.

Q. How can technology complement creativity, not devour it?

For me, it’s like the emergence of the affordable music synthesisers and drum machines in pop music. They were derided as not making real music, of replacing real musicians, yet they spurned three roots of modern music: hip hop, house and techno.

Playing with technology as a source of creativity, of unlocking opportunity, of changing the way we think and ideate, needs to become second nature.

Embracing the rich data sources to help stimulate, guide and justify ideas is a must. Good creatives have always taken inspiration and input from data sources. We need to understand ‘data informs intuition’ and to be a transformational creative requires a mix of magic, craft and graft.

Q. Many young GenZs are more attracted to the start-ups and digital platforms like Facebook than adland. How can we compete?

It’s not a surprise, is it? Being in, or even running your own start-up is exhilarating. Imagine what you learn.

This is one of the reasons why adland must change. There will be less big ad agencies in London over the next five years – some future gazers think we’ll see a 50% reduction, which means our finest talents will need to find new careers.

Adland has to realise technology has brought us to the end of the brand era: brands can’t be the only or main answer we give for our existence. Think about this sentence - it’s true - you need to understand why. In doing so, we can build a sense of your future and the people we need to attract.

As for Facebook, Google, or Snapchat – if you get the chance to work there, do it.

Moving between agency, client, platform and publisher is the perfect mix of diverse perspectives. No one has ‘a job for life’. Getting to experience different views of a business challenge helps ‘creatives’ to become problem solvers.

To ‘cross skill’, will add divergent thinking into the mix. Adland has to go back to being creative, of stepping away from process, from certainty, to embrace the fluid, the agile, the untried. I believe how we move forward is to use our brilliant minds to solve real problems to make new markets, to transform behaviours, attitudes, business and communities.

This will engage new talent: it will help give them a greater sense of purpose and force agency employees to step beyond what feels outdated.

Q. Does diversity drive creativity?

I have judged D&AD New Blood awards many times. Students work on the same brief. On average more than 60% of the work is the same idea, executed to different standards. This mirrors crowd-sourced idea platforms or ‘big’ brainstorms. It tells us this is the obvious idea, the non-creative idea, the robotic idea: the idea to be avoided. There are many reasons for this, but lack of diversity (in its widest sense) is a major cause. I’m excited by the work we are doing at Dentsu Aegis Network – it’s one of the ways we’ll outrun the marketplace.

Fostering greater diversity has been one of CANNT’s ideals since the beginning. We have an open door. I’m thrilled to be working with a mix of partners to bring this festival to all: Creative Equals, Stripes, PrideAM, SheSays, BIMA, LifeIsTooShort, Glug, Creative Social and more. Most importantly, this festival has a purpose: the money we raise will go into the Creative Equals Intern Bursary – to help financially disadvantaged women on the ladder.

Q. After many years at Cannes, you're not there. Why is that?

In my previous role, I spent years championing Cannes Lions as a Festival of Creativity. I have huge admiration and respect for the event. It’s an important proof point in how business needs to embrace creative thinking.

I’m not there this year, as Isobar is developing new client opportunities, building new ways of working and becoming a different style of agency - one that is designed for the experience economy.

Thankfully we can experience much of the Lions festival through its live streams, social channels, media coverage and the archive. I’ll certainly be doing the analysis of what’s won, post festival.

We’ll be taking a leftfield approach at the CANNT Be Divided event on 21 June at Publicis UK on what’s done well and watch out for.

Right now, I prefer to meet new people, with new ideas, of fresh attitudes to what we could/should be doing. That’s what Cannt brings for me at this critical juncture.

Q. Eight years ago, you co-founded the Cannt Festival with Laura Jordan-Bambach. Is this still relevant?

More than ever. For me, it’s always been a team play. While established creatives are at Cannes, this is where everyone coming up the ladder can celebrate, learn and recharge. This year, we’re focusing on young talent this year with four key events.

• We’ve launched the inaugural’ CANNT Get Noticed Awards’ with a prize of £2,000 free ad credits, to help graduates get their mobile Canvas Folio in front of potential employers.

• With Havas we’re doing a speed-date style folio review between young talent and creative directors. In the past, this has lead to job offers.

• The Young Creative Council are back with their placement matching service, giving young talent the chance to sit in a creative director’s seat – and win a job.

• With Glug, we’re hosting a huge networking party, giving the industry’s most forward-thinking agencies the chance to meet fresh, diverse talent.

The core principles Cannt was founded on apply today: look outside of your frame of reference for inspiration, be open to new ideas, and embrace change. For good measure, we added buy your own beer.

Having humility, generosity, imagination and above all being curious, will enable us to sustain and grow what we do. Combine these behaviours with the fundamental need to collaborate with relevant and interesting people in today’s complex world is you have what Cannt is about.

Long may it embrace the ‘change’ we need to see in the industry.

More details about Cannt can be found on the event's dedicated website.

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