The Devaluation Of Creativity

Today I am reprinting parts of my talk from the IAPI/ADFX awards in Dublin, Ireland last week. For the sake of brevity, I am leaving out some sections and focusing solely on my comments about creativity. Hope you enjoy. 

Thank you for inviting me here tonight.

I’m not usually invited to speak at high class affairs like this. I usually get invited to horrifying events like the “The Programmatic Real-Time Digital Insider Summit” or some other majestically titled festival of horseshit.

But, thankfully, tonight is different. Tonight you are recognizing the best of Irish advertising. And I am honored to help you do that.

I love good advertising. I started my career as a copywriter. After a while I got myself promoted to creative director for a few agencies. And after proving myself to be an utter failure as a creative director, I was demoted to ceo.

But the one thing I always really wanted to be was a great copywriter. Sadly, my copywriting career consisted mostly of holiday-weekend mattress sales and low, low financing on every Corolla in stock.

Despite my mediocrity, doing creative work was the only thing that really interested me about advertising. The rest was torture.

As far as I was concerned, the agency business worked like this: the creative people made the ads and everyone else made the arrangements.

What I could never understand was why it took 5 times as many people to make the arrangements.

I guess you could say I was a creative department chauvinist. And to be honest, I still am.

We are here tonight to celebrate effectiveness in advertising.

I know how had hard you clients, and you account people, and planners, and data analysts, and media strategists worked for the awards you’re getting tonight, and I congratulate you.

But I want you to know in advance, that I’m not going to be speaking about you. I am going to be focusing on the contribution that our creative people make to advertising effectiveness. And the peril they, and we, are facing.

Regardless of how brilliant the briefs we write are, and the strategies we develop are, and plans we implement are, at the end of the line are the people who will take our plans and strategies and briefs and turn them into magic or turn them into trash. They’re our creatives.

For better or worse, the consumer never sees the briefing documents or the strategic rationale. All she ever sees are the ads. And if the ads stink, the whole thing stinks.

Over the past few years I have been doing a lot of traveling and speaking about advertising. Wherever I go in the world, I invariably hear the same two themes.

First is that advertising has become less effective.

And second is that advertising is less creative.

It is hard for me to believe that these two things are not related…

…The problem we are facing today, I’m afraid, is that the creative side of our business is being devalued. Creativity is quickly and quietly becoming a support service.

The alarming thing about this is that I believe creativity is the agency business’s only unique value to clients. Everything else agencies do clients can get somewhere else.

They can get business strategy from about a million different consulting firms. They can find media planners and buyers on every street corner. They can buy data by the truckload with two clicks of a mouse.

The one thing every successful marketer needs — and the one thing agencies can provide better than anyone else — is imaginative ideas about brands.

But apparently, the advertising industry has decided it can no longer support itself by focusing on creativity.

If you remember the aborted marriage between Omnicom and Publicis last year, the rationale for creating the biggest agency in the world had nothing at all to do with creativity. The primary reason given for the merger was their presumed ability to compete with Google and Facebook in the collection and utilization of data.

It seems to me that the agency business is betting its future on playing the other guy’s game. I think this is a mistake.

Over 25 years ago I left the agency business for the first time. Two years earlier we had sold our independent agency to a publicly traded  “global” network. And after the two worst years of my life, I decided it was not the life for me.

For three years thereafter I did creative services on my own directly for clients. In that three-year period being outside of the agency business I learned a very important lesson. Clients, I want you to cover your ears and not listen to this — Okay, agency people, here’s what I learned. Secretly, clients don’t like agencies.

They put no value on “account service” — or as one client told me “all it does is keep the agency from fucking up, it doesn’t do a thing for me.”

Behind our backs, they chuckled about our “strategic abilities.”

The value they saw in agencies was in creativity. They believed the only place they could get good ads was from an agency.

But creativity is in trouble.

There’s a mantra I hear in agencies back in the States. I don’t know if you hear it here, too. But it goes like this. “We’re all creative” or “Creative ideas can come from anywhere.” In my opinion this is bullshit.

True creative talent is a rare and precious thing.

Have you ever wondered why there are so many shitty songs, and shitty TV shows, and shitty movies? I’ll tell you why. Because it is really fucking hard to do a good one.

The same is true with advertising. No one sits down to write a crappy ad. Mostly they just turn out crappy. Why? Because it’s really fucking hard to do a good one — and there are very few people who can do it.

If you really believe that we are all creative, then you have to believe that it’s just a coincidence that Shakespeare wrote dozens of brilliant plays and Donald Trump didn’t.

Now, I stipulate that when we talk about creativity, the word is confusing. It has two very different meanings. And the new bigwigs of advertising are trying their best to muddy the issue by confusing the meanings.

In the first meaning, creativity is seen as a method for accomplishing a practical goal. So you can approach any task in a creative manner. In this meaning creativity is a way of thinking. So you can fry an egg the traditional way, or you can be “creative” and fry it in alligator oil or something.

In the second case, there is a special meaning for the word “creativity” that is specific to the communication arts. This is the kind of creativity that makes music and art and literature and, yes, sometimes even advertising, extraordinary and delightful.

Sure, the guy who printed the tickets to Hamlet, or made the popcorn, or counted the proceeds, may have found creative ways to do so. But he didn’t write the fucking play.

That’s a whole different kind of creativity. And a whole different meaning of the word.

But the current generation of ad industry kingpins are trying very hard to dilute it into meaninglessness by asserting that we’re all creative and that creativity can come from anywhere.

If you think I am overstating my point, let me read you a recent quote from Martin Sorrell, the ceo of WPP and the most powerful man in the history of the agency business. And, by the way, an accountant by trade.

”The snottiness of believing that creativity just resides in the creative department of traditional agencies, that media people can’t be creative, or data people can’t be or people who do healthcare or promotion or CRM can’t be creative – it’s a nonsense and it’s insulting to the people who are in those areas.”

He’s equating doing a practical job in a creative manner, with creating something unique from scratch. He’s saying they are the same thing.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against account people, or planners, or data people or CRM people or anyone else who thinks smartly and does a job in an imaginative way.

But I resent that the talents of our great creative people are being dismissed as the same thing.

This is not healthy for the ad business nor is it healthy for the people who work in it.

Our industry has been hijacked by aristocrats with private jets. They have made the agency business leaner and meaner.

They have made it more efficient. They have made it more productive. They have squeezed all the fat out of it. And in the process, they are also squeezing the life out of it.

They are money managers, and investors and financial wise guys. The one thing they are not is advertising people.

… read on at

Originally posted by Bob Hoffman on his blog, The Ad Contrarian
26th September 2016