David Abbott on the value of creative ownership

A few weeks back, Creative Review published a memo that David Abbott had originally circulated around AMV in 1994. In the memo David explains how movements within the ad industry were threatening his core principles for creating great work.

20 years later and these principles still come across as incredibly insightful and valuable. Enjoy:

It’s very difficult to become a good advertising agency – its perhaps even harder to remain one.

The pressures to compromise and settle are enormous. There is no single defence against mediocrity, but over the years we have believed that certain ways of doing things are more likely to lead to good advertising than others.

These procedures were not plucked out of thin air. We brought them with us from other good agencies and they have stood the test of time. One of them has been under threat in recent times and with this memo I want to give notice that it is to be reinstated.

The principle under threat is this one:

“We have always believed that one creative team should own a project until they have either completed it or have been taken off it by the Creative Director

We do not believe in internal creative shoot-outs or ‘gang-bangs’. They are inefficient and more often than not, demotivating.”

In a current Volvo situation seven teams have produced nearly 50 scripts for submission to the client. Last Sunday there were four creative teams in the agency working on Volvo. This is not a new business situation, but a client who is familiar with our working methods and has been so for nearly 20 years.

It is not only on Volvo that the wall has been breached. It is happening on more and more accounts.

Why? Let’s examine some of the justifications given for the gang-bang approach.

1. “There is not enough time to re-do the work if the client were to turn it down or if it should fail in research.”

Just think of the pessimism inherent in that remark. Don’t we believe in our creative teams? Don’t we believe in the originality and saliency of our briefs? Don’t we believe in the strength of our client relationship. If we don’t, then let’s do something about that rather than change a tried and tested way of working.

2. “The client needs to see more than one idea.”

No they don’t. They’re only going to run one campaign. What they need to see is one idea that’s so original, so relevant, so breath-taking that they don’t even think about an alternative.

Even if I accept that, some international clients need to be weaned onto the idea of a single approach, it is preferable that one creative team should show them alternatives – perhaps some of the work on the way to the final recommendation.

3. “There just isn’t time – the only way we can get something to show the client in 48 hours is to open it out to several teams.”

This one doesn’t really need an answer. We shouldn’t be giving creative teams only 48 hours to do great work. It takes longer.

I believe these are the most common justifications for the multi-team approach. Now this is why they must be resisted:

a) It diminishes the quality of the work. Creative teams are at their best when there is a real chance of their work running. They need to feel that it is down to them – that they are not going to be either rescued or trumped by someone down the corridor. The person who owns a house tends it more lovingly than the person who rents it. Great work comes with ownership, understanding and time. Gang-bang work is usually shallow and quick.

b) When you produce 50 scripts for one shoot you are diminishing the value of the work. It becomes a commodity – easily created, easily discarded. Most of the scripts fail at an internal audit -binned before they even reach a client. This is an incredible waste of our talents – it’s dispiriting and inefficient. Eventually, it will lead the best creative teams to other agencies where the system is more supportive.

c) Often we require several campaigns because we don’t have a singular creative strategy.

We have too many catch-all propositions that need creative work to sort out the strategy.

The classic procedure in this agency is to agree the What’ of the brief with the client and then to expect an original and relevant ‘how’ from the Creative Department. We believe that advertising is a development process not a selection process.

d) Perhaps the most insidious result of this catch-all approach is that it destroys our self-confidence.

Since we cannot present three ideas with equal conviction we present none of them with real passion. Most of us are at our most persuasive when we are most convinced – I believe we can only fall in love with one proposal at a time.

We get paid to make choices. I must choose the right creative team (or a job). The planners/account managers must choose the best possible strategy and creative brief. I must choose the best idea submitted by the creative team – or I should choose to send them back for another go. If necessary I must choose to replace them with another team. The account director must choose the best moment and method to sell our recommendation to the client.

In this process everyone is accountable. You have to say “Yes, I can defend this. Yes, I will present it, yes I will fight for it.” This is a good discipline and will make us a better agency than “choose any one from three”.

I am blaming no-one for this state of affairs other than myself. Volvo is top of mind, but we have been through similar exercises on Yellow Pages, Labatt’s, etc and almost invariably now on new business.

Let’s try going back to the old way.

Even on an account like The Economist where its easy to argue that everyone can pitch in with a poster, I’m not sure we’re getting the standard we achieved when one creative team was given sole responsibility for a season’s work.

We must get back to one team/one project.

I don’t doubt this will cause us problems on occasion. It will need better progressing, better timing, better briefs, better work, better salesmanship.

However, the alternative is unthinkable. A giant ad factory where quantity is more important than quality.

Hands up all those who want to work there.

David

It’s a brilliant piece delivered with conviction. To summarise, creative studios should invest their time and effort in creating few, high quality concepts. If they create lots of concepts, a lower value will be attributed to each of them. Creating lots of concepts commoditises the creative product which in turn dilutes the perception of our industry as experts. Don’t try and produce more concepts by giving the job to multiple, independent creative teams. Creatives work best when they have ownership and responsibility. Creating multiple teams only adds conflict into a process that should be single minded,

Hey. I’m Alex Murrell. I'm a Planner at Epoch Design in Bristol where I help deliver highly creative, innovative and effective pack, instore and online communications for some of the world’s biggest FMCG brands. Want to know more? You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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