Kevin Chesters: How creative agencies could get more creative

Kevin Chesters is the incoming partner/CSO of The Harbour Collective and former chief strategy officer of Ogilvy UK.

credit: Photo by Ladd Greene on Unsplash

There is a Korean proverb that says “the frog in the well never sees the ocean”. For the hard of thinking this means that if you spend all your life in one place you don’t get to see the depth and breadth of everything the world has to offer.

I’ve spent nearly 25 years working in what we describe as “creative agencies” but what everyone else in the world would probably just call advertising agencies. Let’s face it, whatever most agencies make – telly stuff, digital content, direct, PR – most people who live in the real world would just call it adverts. The stuff that businesses create to get you to buy something that they make and sell.

I’ve worked for big and small agencies, independent and big network agencies. I’ve seen a lot of change in that time. I’ve seen the canvas for creativity grow and stretch. But in the greater scheme of creativity I’ve increasingly noticed that most agencies still see ‘creativity’ through an incredibly narrow industry lens. This is especially true compared to the rest of the world. I think I’ve what come to realise that I’ve spent a most of my career at the bottom of the aforementioned well regardless of the size or style of agency I’ve been at.

So, what made me reach this conclusion? Firstly, I did a project last year which was triggered by people saying that people working in communications were ‘story-tellers’. I interviewed a teacher, journalist, sculptress, film director, a documentary maker and a vicar to see of the rules of storytelling changed if the story output was different. It made me realise that we rarely look out from our own little industry bubble for the lessons that can be learnt and applied to what we do. Soichiro Honda always said that we “learnt at the edges” (he had a weird analogy about baby spiders that won’t go into) but we rarely do this in ad land. We read the same blogs, we retweet the same tweeters, we read the same case studies about the same campaigns and we pass around the same received wisdom from the same industry luminaries.

In most ‘creative’ agencies the problem solvers still tend to solve problems with one form of answer. My gran always wisely counselled – ‘never ask a fishmonger what he recommends for dinner’.

The second thing that happened was a recent rather lovely six-month period of paid garden leave. I spent the time visiting galleries, reading books, attending lectures on things, talking in cafes to mates who didn’t work anywhere near my industry – basically spending time NOT rewriting another deck about ‘The Long & Short of It’ or talking about the same advertising case studies. It was incredibly eye-opening to not be ‘in the well’ every minute of every day. It was also – here’s the crux – enlightening, terrifying, humbling and embarrassing to see how widely the rest of the world defines ‘creativity’.

Now most of you won’t be lucky enough that an employer will pay you for six months to wander galleries and gain life experience, but the more enlightened bosses (I think of Stu Smith when I worked at W+K) won’t think you’re skiving if you visit the odd gallery or attend the odd lecture ‘on company time’. And clients should be open to thinking that that their problem could maybe be solved outside of their ‘main’ agency – because I can tell you from experience this is where the more creative thinkers lie.

And finally, I’ve now started a new job. And it’s not quite what I did before. I’m at the heart of a collective of 20 specialist agencies (and, by god, in some cases do I MEAN specialist). And this has given me a new and (over-) excited appreciation of the depth and breadth of creativity that exists outside of the well of ‘advertising’ (even in the broader network agency sense). Now, I love adverts, I always have and always will – and they have a brilliant and vital role to play in the communications mix. But the world of creativity is an amazing sandbox outside the world that I’ve been living in until recently.

The dictionary definition of creativity is “originality of thought” – and this can and should be applied to any output of an agency for a client. Everything can be approached creatively. The worst kind of people in our industry are those who only see creativity as creative work.

It has been amazing to sit down with a data science business, and a local media specialist business, or proper experts in experiential brand proof. It’s been the most ridiculous learning curve to sit down with people who genuinely make long form documentary content (rather than people who write a slide saying we should ‘make long form documentary content’). The questions that people ask are different when the output is different. You tend to talk to different partners, you are exposed to different references, you genuinely get to see more ‘creative’ (ie original and different) answers to clients' challenges.

If you want to be a creative problem solver then it’s probably best that you don’t creatively problem solve with the same tools, case studies, research sources and creative solutions that everyone else is using.

We should all get out of the well. If we are to cut through in an increasingly complex and noisy world then we are going to have to differentiate. Creativity is about being original; and if we want to get to different answers it is time to ask different questions to different people.

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