Creativity Agency

Creative agencies are devolving into one-stunt shops

By Miriam Plon Sauer | Executive strategy director

August 8, 2022 | 6 min read

The industry’s creative heavyweights are resorting to empty, one-off stunts rather than genuine change-making efforts, argues AKQA executive strategy director Miriam Plon Sauer. It’s time for a reawakening.

Hand holding compass in cold environment

Are purpose campaigns leading agencies in the wrong direction? / Simon Migaj

We have become so obsessed with purpose that we have forgotten our purpose as an industry: to help brands and businesses grow.

A woman in a hijab swimming in a water tank in Dubai; a new coral reef spelling the word HOPE in the Indian Ocean; a deceased youth football player brought to virtual life as an EA sports character; six Belgian prisoners teaming up to form an e-cycling team.

If you believe creative award shows are viewed as a mirror for what is happening in the industry, it may seem like we’re all just selflessly doing our small part to improve the world.

Over the last couple of years, there has been a tremendous surge in work with a supposed purpose attached to it. In fact, at the recent Festival of Creativity, 23 of the 27 grand prize winners were raising the banners of a more significant cause.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ll be the first person to swear that we have the ability and responsibility to use our creative powers for a more significant impact. But that impact needs to support and align with the business strategy – it cannot simply be a stunt.

The question is: is the widespread interest in purpose due to a collective realization of the true power of creativity? Or is it simply vanity? In my opinion, we have forgotten our purpose as an industry on the all-encompassing hunt for fame and gold.

As creative agencies, our purpose is to help businesses grow and thrive. That means more than just focusing on quarterly business results. Companies have a responsibility to all stakeholders – not only shareholders. And as agencies, we can help with all these responsibilities, not least identifying and executing a company’s purpose. But it should never be viewed as a task separate from building the business.

I doubt that a water tank in Dubai with the fuzzy line ‘Beyond the surface’ is making a difference to either Adidas or to the women who want to feel more confident in the water.

I also wonder whether an 18-minute-long mockumentary on eating human meat is helping the Swedish Food Federation on its sustainability mission – or even making the public aware of it.

In an IPA report published in 2019 during Cannes Lions, Peter Field revealed what he called The Crisis in Creative Effectiveness. The study showed that while Cannes Lions winners in the period leading up to 2008 had a creative efficiency multiplier of 12-to-1 compared to non-winners, by 2018 that ratio had dropped to 4-to-1. And even though there are no updated numbers on the 2022 winners, it doesn’t seem like we’ve cracked the curve.

By making purpose activations the standard of celebrated creativity, we’ve deteriorated the concept of purpose itself. If used correctly, purpose is one of the most effective tools for aligning positive impact with business results.

It seems purpose has become to agencies what transformation has to consultancies. What was once a point of differentiation and a way for agencies to use their skill set more holistically to create consistency and relevancy for brands across touchpoints is now relegated to a buzzword tactic.

If one-off stunts and gimmicks are all we can accomplish when trying to use creativity for positive impact, we are wasting much more than money and time. If we forget to drive businesses forward in our hunt for awards, we decimate our reason to exist. We become NGOs and lose the ability to make change where it matters.

There are plenty of issues to tackle in the world – societal, environmental or just plain everyday matters. And we – companies and agencies alike – have a role to play in tackling them. But it has to be part of a long-term strategy, it has to be credible from a brand perspective and it has to be relevant to the customers.

One Cannes Lions Grand Prix winner that succeeded in reflecting this level of continuity, relevancy and differentiation is the NikeSync app. It is based on Nike’s long-lasting mission to create inspiration and innovation for every athlete globally. It’s relevant to at least 50% of their potential audience and supports their future growth.

We can only survive as an industry if we understand that creating a positive impact in the world cannot come at the expense of business results. The two can and should go hand in hand.

Miriam Plon Sauer is executive strategy director at AKQA.

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