Where now for the idea?


Most professionals provide an easily identifiable service. The lawyer offers his advice and representation, the dentist his drill and pink water. But the stock in trade of the professional creative is a little harder to pin down. Is the designer proffering Mac skills, visual awareness or a way with colours? Is the copywriter serving up a way with words, a cleverness with headlines or the ability to spell? Probably. But it's the ideas clients really want from us.

 I have never fired anyone (I'll leave that to Lorshugger), but I did once rubber stamp the dismissal of an Art Director. His crime? He persistently attended internal agency meetings and said he 'couldn't think of anything'. To me this was worse than drunkenness, lateness or poor personal hygiene. It was the one part of the job he couldn't shirk. He (and we) are paid to waive our right to that luxury  we must always have an idea. Ideally, many ideas.

Or that's the way it used be. Perhaps I'm getting a bit long in the tooth, but I'm starting to notice cracks appear in the solid ground on which the idea once stood. Of course there have always been clients who are as flexible as granite and who assume the agency is there to follow the minutiae of their instructions without deviation. It's the fact that this is becoming the norm that perturbs me. It is no longer unusual to hear the phrase 'We can't do that.' And the reason is often 'guidelines'.

Now, I understand the strength and value of a well executed brand. Indeed, it is probably a modern commercial essential. But I suspect the intelligent brand is being superseded by the dictatorial brand. Brands were once designed to provide a framework for unique and compelling ideas. They were the body on which a variety of dashing, striking or stylish clothes were placed to convey different messages to various audiences. However, there is now a creeping tendency for brand guidelines to dictate the entire content of a piece. This then becomes less an exercise in creative communication and more a process of piecing together a jigsaw.

Any creative team working on a campaign must by now, be well used to the dreaded request for a 'safe' option. This is shorthand for an option which won't challenge the client, upset the brand guardian or puzzle any one of a number of people who must sign off on the work. Worse still, it can frequently be the route which is most like the work they have done in the past (whether that was effective or not) or scarily, the work which is most closely resembles a campaign they have seen someone else using.

Am I just being grouchy (perish the thought) and paranoid? I don't think so. The evidence is there in every TV ad break. For every drumming gorilla and Russian meerkat there are a hundred cereal, phone and haircare clips using sub-indie, whimsical, female singers and soft filtered, idealised, young lifestyle footage. One can almost hear the client's Marketing Director pointing at a Special K campaign and saying 'I want one of those'. Even if they are the MD at Special K.

We're probably all to blame. In an appalling financial climate, creative originality is considerably less important than client retention and maximum spend. Challenging ideas are harder to sell, take more time to refine and risk an unaffordable cautiousness from the client. So, the Account Director is more inclined to opt for easy wins in response to briefs which lean towards the 'safe option'. In turn, the creative team are less likely to present work which takes the AD by surprise as the battle to push the original idea becomes so much harder to fight.

I'd also suggest that 'brand guardians' are far too ready to stamp on work which pushes at boundaries, simply to demonstrate how well they are doing their job.

But there's a paradox here. I know of many account reviews where the client announced they were dissatisfied because the agency never challenged them. I've also seen expensive campaigns fall flat because the work was too trite and tame. The lack of adventurousness and originality has produced the very effect it was supposed to avoid.

In professional creativity the idea is king and the king isn't dead. But if he's unwell, shouldn't we all be doing our level best to ensure he recovers? Otherwise, what are we for?

Magnus Shaw - copywriter and blogger




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