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Why Advertising Urgently Needs More Weird. (Or, the Dark Side of Agency Culture)

By Published on .

Credit: iStock
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I wonder how today's marketers would handle possibly the greatest ad agency creative chief of all time, the late great Paul Arden of Saatchi & Saatchi London, who allegedly locked all the footage from a TV shoot in a safe to stop the client changing it. As far as I know, it remains in that safe today.

Oh, and by the way: that was one of Arden's lesser stunts.

Creative brilliance and weirdness go hand-in-hand -- sadly for our ever-increasingly corporatized ad agency industry.

Psychology discusses creativity in terms of "cognitive disinhibition," where "normal" people have a distinct barrier between the conscious and the unconscious and "abnormal" people have little or no barrier, leading to something called "flight of ideas," the principal symptom of schizophrenia.

In between are rare individuals whose barrier is, let's say, faulty, allowing a certain amount of "slippage" between conscious and subconscious.

This manifests itself by rendering that person not entirely fixed on the matter at hand, but also visited by attendant, peripheral, different thoughts.

When accompanied by a strong intellect, this person can harness these subconscious thoughts into a different, creative level of thinking.

Some can even create the regular ability to have so-called "Eureka moments," laterally solving problems that others can only approach one-dimensionally.

Needless to say, these people – let's call them creative talents – often come with other non-conformist behaviors. While no way mentally unstable or pathological, these people nevertheless have an extra "headfull" of thoughts and stimuli, a circumstance that can make them act differently.

It can make them weird.

Indeed, when I met and spent an hour or so with Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergei Brin (not a humble brag, just an out-and-out brag), the first thing that struck me and the other eight or so non-Googlers with me was how totally and utterly they didn't fit any kind of normal corporate template. For a start they were fresh-faced youths and wore tee-shirts. One wore Crocs.

Compare to the one time I took off my suit jacket once in an ad agency holding company board meeting and got ribbed mercilessly by the CEO and others on the fact that I was wearing a short-sleeved Lacoste shirt.

We haven't even got to the inner person yet and already the mere clothing is being frowned upon -- jokingly, yes, but the true thinking was clear.

I guess I can imagine this being a thing at the client end, but at the ad agency end? At what point did ad agency clients start coming to us because we're the same as them? Never, I would guess. But somewhere along the line (perhaps it was pitch "chemistry" sessions?) agencies came to believe that the best way to win was to look, sound, be like the client.

I can think of no greater killer of ad agency self-respect and, eventually, reputation -- as evidenced by the deluge of clients seeking "creative second-opinions" outside their agencies of record.

My experience with ad agency HR is that, bizarrely, their remit is to ensure homogeneity. A corporate construct that agencies copied from their clients in the first place, HR's big smokescreen is their role as protectors of culture (another corporate construct).

In ad agencies, culture is the new religion -- as in the Marxist sense of "the opium of the masses." It's a tool to regulate behavior -- which is directly in opposition to diversity. The entire point of diversity is to ensure differing behaviors and viewpoints.

Temperamental and intellectual homogeneity seems to me to be utterly inimical to any ad agency statements about their so-called commitment to diversity.

Unless of course, the diversity they have in mind doesn't include diversity of opinion or behavior, in which case what's the point? Optics? Numbers? Experience suggests that the latter is precisely what agencies have in mind.