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Creative Career

The cost of ambition in the creative industry

By Becky McOwen-Banks, Creative director

August 16, 2018 | 6 min read

At a time when Adland seems to reel constantly from the talent-poaching threat of the tech giants, one would think they would also look to big tech’s methods to reassert themselves into the creative lead. However it seems that is just not the case.

Tech Talent

Why is Creative talent not befitting from from the tech giants?

Looking to how talent is nurtured and ambition is perceived could offer an insight into how the tech giants maintain their intellectual and creative momentum. And it’s the nurturing and furthering of talent I’ve become interested in.

The talent within tech (and we’re using a large paintbrush here) is both concentrated and diverse. Concentrated within specific projects and fields, yet diverse in level of skills and style. What binds these brains together is their unilateral belief in the power of what they are doing; its ability to forge the future and their absolute ambition to be a part of it. With this unifying vision, talent is scouted from all areas – graduates, other industries, maverick entrepreneurs, as well as nurturing it’s own – wherever the recognition of this singular trait shows itself. This builds a team that embraces entrepreneurial spirit, recognizing success can come from anywhere, at any time, if the will is strong enough, and where eyes on to future growth of the business and of the individual is rewarded.

Teams are made, modified and disbanded as required – adding skills expertise and inspiration in an agile manner to maintain momentum and get to the answers quickly.Where ‘no fixed model’ is a mantra one can start to see the correlation between an open approach to continued learning and the benefits to business that a passion and depth of knowledge can provide. I’m not talking industry qualifications but continued academic studies, running parallel to professional life. I’m talking academia. Masters, MBAs, PHDs even.

Agencies meanwhile seem to follow a more linear, traditional path of expectations and development, awaiting anointment from management at sporadic moments in order to move to the next rung on the ladder. Where external areas of passion and interest are viewed as just that - external. There seems to be little recognition of ambition or interest in what happens outside of the day-job.

Ironically, less acknowledgement that creative minds run fast and deep, offering other benefits to the agency and the thinking if only they are spotted. This is particularly true when it comes to the creative department where interests or strengths outside of the lens of ‘creative’ – particularly academic - are viewed as an uninteresting anomaly or even opposite to required thinking - rather than adding to the rich mix the individual brings to the agency. This creates siloed thinking – where individuals must almost splice their brain to work and non-work mode – what is recognised as useful and what is not - rather than whole-brained action with a diversity of strengths. This feels symptomatic of expectations to what a ‘creative’ should be and therefore what skills are useful. However thankfully – these times are changing.

The conflict between what a creative professional should be and their academic interest or ambition brings to mind the recent rallying cries for the value of creative leaders at the top rungs of business. How can we possibly ready creatives for the heady air they long for in the C-suites if we are not enabling them to skill-up and soak up the know-how?

Rather than a dynamic model as shown in tech, accelerated trajectories seem only currently possible by moving agency, or leaping into creation of your own shop – both times when new expectations, boundaries and horizons can be drawn.

Yet drive and ambition is something smaller agencies make their living from – the sheer will and belief of the team that they can do better and better work for clients is their lifeblood. The necessity of having to use all skills and talents that show themselves, in order to provide an edge, make a valued difference to the business and win more business. Yet this accelerated style and broad embracing of talent in all forms appears to disappear as agencies grow. With numbers they seem to revert to a more rigid, traditional stance with specific talent pools and processes defining how and who is recognised and nurtured.

So what happens to the brains for which this style of progression is not responsive enough? For those whose brains keep spinning and whirring well beyond the hours and horizons of the day job? For those whose love of learning and growth is a constant need, not one cast off the exit doors of higher education? For those whom starting their own agency is not yet a financial possibility they can afford to undertake? Well this is where the cost of ambition becomes clear.

The cost of this thinking is threefold: The cost to the ambitious individual as they find the only way to pursue and accept places is by taking on tens of thousands in personal debt. The intellectual cost of not being able to take up the course and grow, therefore feeling dissatisfied and divided. And the very real cost to the business of keeping eyes on the ground and not on the future, sticking with the known rather than embracing individual ambition that makes the tech giants mode of working so attractive to individuals and clients alike.

With the current pressures on the advertising industry with shrinking budgets and tech takeovers, the question in my head is surely the costs are now too high to bear.

Becky McOwen-Banks is an Adland creative director and is currently looking for funding in order to accept her eMBA place at Berlin School of Creative Leadership.

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