Be brave, Scotland – and remind advertising why it should have faith in courageous ideas

Gordon Young, editor of The Drum, offers his insight and opinion on various matters relating to media and marketing.

Land of the brave?

Apparently that’s no longer a good description of advertising. A recent Advertising Week Twitter chat with Cindy Gallop seemed to suggest big agencies are losing their nerve.

Gallop will be building on this theme when she takes part in Advertising Week in New York next month, and no doubt she will be practising what she preaches when she guest edits an issue of The Drum magazine which will be launched during the event.

Gallop, founder of BBH New York, IfWeRanTheWorld and MakeLoveNotPorn, argues that a fundamental problem is the structure of big corporates dominated by white faces, belonging to self-satisfied middle-aged men.

She said during the Twitter chat: “We won’t see creative bravery at the top of holding cos. Closed loop of white guys talking to white guys about other white guys. #awchat”

Her solution was summed up in another neat 140-character sound bite: “When you’re the norm, nobody wants to rock the boat. Want creative bravery? Hire deviants. And champion deviants.” And some of these “deviants”, she argued, should be brown, black, yellow and female.

The cultural make up of the industry is certainly one challenge, but there also seems to be evidence of a deeper malaise here. 20 years ago the agency landscape was also dominated by white, college-educated men, but back then the work was more courageous. So if the cultural make up hasn’t changed, why is the work less gutsy?

In the UK, Gallop’s former boss Sir John Hegarty – both white and a man – argues that the industry is certainly less bold than when he was in his prime.

“I think it has lost faith in the big, bold idea,” Hegarty said earlier this year. “I think it has lost its courage and I’m deeply upset by that. Too many people leading our industry are accountants, and I think for a creative industry that’s a tragedy. We’ve lost the power and courage of creativity to drive our business forward.”

Clearly that is not happening enough, and in fairness, for good reason. Perhaps driven by those focused on margin, there is now more emphasis on giving clients what they want (or what they think they want) as opposed to what they really need.

With the sector increasingly competitive there is a sense that there is always some shop prepared to cut costs, or cut standards in order to keep a client on side. In other words, being brave is simply seen as being too risky.

There is no doubt that giving clients what they want is the easy option in the short term, but in the long term – and in an increasingly volatile world – it is also the road to ruin. In reality, being brave is the only sustainable option. Timidity is actually the riskier route. So demote the accountants and promote deviants.

On the subject of bravery, there is a good parallel here with the momentous decision facing the people of Scotland on Thursday. When we talk about advertising losing its mojo, nowhere is that more evident than in Scotland, where the country’s once thriving ad business has been reduced to a shell of its former glory in recent times. Naval gazing about the quality of its ouput would be a luxury for an industry that has not so much lost its creative spark as lost the bulk of its agencies altogether in recent times.

I have already made the case that ignoring the fear factor, and voting yes in today's referendum, could finally rejuvenate Scotland’s advertising industry. Yes there are risks attached, but surely none bigger than settling for the status quo and sleepwalking towards further, irrevocable, decline.

Come on, be brave!

Gordon Young is editor of The Drum. This article first appeared as the leader column in the 17 September issue of The Drum magazine.

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