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Boutiques and indie agencies are the future of creativity in advertising

There will always be a place for TV ads, but how has the landscape changed?

The future of the creative industry may lie with indies and boutiques, argues Ian Haworth, former Wunderman Thompson chief creative officer.

I love making TV ads. There will always be a place for them. But today, creative has evolved into a complex, exciting world. It runs the gamut from fast-paced, iterative content to feed the digital ecosystem – S4 Capital tells me the story in 1.7 seconds – through to a creatively-led experience, a service or a solution to someone’s everyday problem, and everything in between. A creative response no longer has to be a piece of communication, and for people like me that’s both scary and liberating.

The lens through which we view creativity, how we get our ideas out, has changed. We remind ourselves that creativity is not about an act, it’s that original thinking, the big idea that builds value. And it’s more important than ever in a world where there are so many channels and iterations of that big idea flying around at a dizzying pace. It’s the lodestar that guides us as we attempt to balance agility with focus, without going mad.

We’re in a world where some clients are threatening to walk if they’re presented with yet another TV-led approach – “show up differently or I’m going home.” But as they lurch away from TV, some risk thinking purely in terms of social strategies. Wherever they find themselves on that spectrum, you can be sure they’re looking in new places for their creative solutions.

In some cases, global brands are taking a bet on small, agile squads or collectives who demystify the creative process, delivering a big idea at speed, as opposed to retreating to an ivory tower for a month. They pay these experts a fee for the thinking – no timesheets involved – then hire doers to do, choosing the right kind of shop to deliver anything from rapid production to beautifully crafted film. Faster, better, cheaper applies to the process of getting to the big idea as well as to the creative execution.

The creative race is on. For the legacy groups, the issue lies in putting data and technology to work fast enough to fuel the solutions clients are demanding. That’s a tough cultural and structural challenge, but seen positively, a really exciting ride. Strong leadership is responding constructively to resistance from within, framing today’s environment as an opportunity rather than a threat to creativity. The networks have the capabilities in bucketloads; it’s more about making them work closely enough together to nail the transition. I’m confident many of them will in time.

It’s not only Sir Martin Sorrell’s purpose-built S4 Capital that is setting this new agenda. I believe there’s no one better placed than Dave Droga to put a creative heartbeat at the center of Accenture Interactive without turning it into an ad agency. I suspect we will see him and his team building an offer that will set the template for years to come, harnessing data and tech as the catalyst for creativity. Their top-table client relationships and the salaries they can afford to pay – adland simply can’t match them – make them a fearsome competitor. Their market cap also gives them plenty of resource to buy up the right kinds of creative businesses.

I mentioned earlier that a creative response can take the form of a service or a life-changing solution a brand develops to a physical or emotional issue it identifies, pushed out via a phenomenal piece of film. And while this is home territory for the management consultancies, I’m seeing a real shift in adland as agency startups are configured with experience design at their heart. Their default is to explore the experiences they are going to create on behalf of brands, as opposed to what brands are going to say to people. New Commercial Arts is a great example, co-founded by a former colleague Rob Curran, a customer experience expert.

All of this might sound like a challenge too far, a world where traditional craft skills have been forgotten. But I simply don’t think that’s true. Yes, digital-first agencies are increasingly looking to build creative solutions that work across all channels, following the faster, better, cheaper mantra, but I see a real opportunity for independent agencies and all kinds of specialists. Digital advertising may (just) have overtaken spend on traditional media, but there’s still a lot of the latter left.

That means there’s plenty of space for boutiques that choose to focus on TV, cinema, radio, podcasts, gaming, purpose, DEI or whatever, producing iconic, cultural work. Digital is not the only game in town and traditional media can still play a blinder – the Christmas ads always remind us of that at this time of the year.

All in all, I think it’s a great time to be working as a creative.

Ian Haworth is founder and creative director at Haworth House. Previously, he was chief creative officer UK and EMEA for Wunderman Thompson and global ECD and WPP Team GSK.

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