The future creative department should be more Kraftwerk, less Nickelback

Advertising has changed, but has the creative director? In this series, Wunderman UK chief creative officer Ian Haworth explores the changing nature of the role in the modern media world.

“Eurgh.”

Did you hear that?

That’s some of today’s creative departments pulling their muscles, wheezing, sighing as they slump into moth-bitten armchairs.

They’re tired, no longer fit for purpose.

Everything’s hurtling forward at extreme pace, and the typical creative department structure is struggling to keep up. Other industries are beating us at our own game – tech companies, games developers, the film industry. They’re harnessing the power of their people to do new things, interesting things, things that make you stamp your foot and grumble, ‘I wish I’d thought of that.'

Is that a creative department, a new way of harnessing creativity? Or is it not – is it a new kind of technology?

I think it’s the former. I’ve harped on before about the creative workplace being forever beta, and I stand by that. It’s always changing. It’s fluid. You’ve got to innovate or you’ll be irrelevant – that’s what scores of forward-thinking, digital-focussed agencies have cottoned onto.

In advertising’s early days, creative was a simpler concept. A narrower career path. You were part of the ‘studio’, which later became known as the creative department. You were the artist. The copywriter. The designer. You didn’t really mix with the straight-laced side of the business, the account managers, the finance team. Numbers? Didn’t need ‘em. Shoot them into the sun.

But there’s been a shift. A creative practitioner in our industry now requires a multi-faceted skillset, and they’re required to be proper polymaths. Having fingers in all the pies no longer suffices – they need their arms submerged in pastry. Experts, not generalists.

There are more strands of creativity now, more instances where surface-level knowledge just doesn’t cut it. It’s not just TV ads or big OOH campaigns. Data can sit at the heart of amazing creative output. You can pick up a virtual paintbrush on your desktop. You can create a music track from your office desk. The future creative department must capitalise on this flourishing disparity of talent, rather than try and squash it, or box it into anachronistic, dusty structures.

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.

That’s what Charles Darwin said. Clever bloke. What he said applies to Dodos, dinosaurs and agencies. Because creativity is built into the bones of our business. It’s not a thing you sell – it’s a thing you do, a thing you are.

Clients are clued up on this too. They want change. Earlier this year, P&G’s Marc Pritchard said he wanted the creative output to make up three-quarters of an agency’s resources. Fewer account managers. More creatives.

Creativity needs collaboration to thrive, and vice versa. That’s where the future creative department will find its feet – ivory towers are being smashed in favour of swarm-like structures, proper collision methodology, marrying all disciplines.

In this context, yeah, the data expert is a creative. What they bring to the table is just as vital to the end product as the art director, the copywriter.

Processes, systems and structures will flatten hierarchy. Get the right people from experience, data, whatever, on a project at the right time to deliver the work to its highest standard. This doesn’t mean sheer anarchy – there’s a fine line between loosening up and it being a elbow-barging free-for-all. As long as you have the core components, the creative heartland of people leading the charge, then you can pick and choose.

That’s what Kraftwerk did. They’ve done ok.

Kraftwerk changed music forever because they did what they wanted to do, swapping members outside the main two but always retaining their identity, their oomph, their woof. They didn’t tinker on their keyboards thinking about how to please music listeners. They didn’t do a Nickelback, using their talents to spoon-feed the masses (albeit in a very catchy fashion). They strove to make the best thing possible. That’s it.

And that’s what agencies need to get in their heads. They need to look beyond their own industry. When you look at the output of Silicon Valley names, gaming companies, brands like Pixar – these are all the most innovative, creative, forward-thinking companies on the planet.

Pixar has its Braintrust: a collective feedback mechanism where the relevant people meet to discuss the progress of their films. It’s brutally honest and comes from a place of true love and knowledge – but how deep does this methodology go? Surely it can’t stop there. People with different specialisms and interests are what make Pixar’s work so varied and brilliant – it’s hard to believe that just stays at the top of the employment ladder.

We’re shifting from a service industry to a product industry.

And that’s what we need to be. The service is still important – you don’t go to a restaurant based solely on how charming the waiting staff are – but the product is the end game.

Around 30 years ago, when I was a young oik, I was a business partner. Four of us formed an agency based on a honeycomb structure – desks were filled with creative, planning and client service employees, all working on the same pod of clients. It worked then.

But we were an aberration, worlds apart from an industry that tinkered away in silos. New technology came along and agencies chased it, believed it was the answer. It wasn’t. Tech is a tool that aids creativity – it doesn’t replace it.

Nowadays, that’s become a little more accepted. People realised that they could use tech to kick down the doors of creativity, to optimise their creative output; to link everything together not just during campaigns, but across the entire business. The creative mindset of yore is making a comeback, Tour de France Soundtracks Kraftwerk style. Not repeating the past. Using it as a trampoline into something new.

That can be with planners, data, design, UX. All creative. All collaborating. All making great work together.

Pleasing our clients shouldn’t be our main objective.

Our main objective should be creating the best work we can. And that’ll please clients.

Ian Haworth is chief creative officer UK & EMEA at Wunderman

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