LONDON (AdAge.com) -- If you thought that the ad community that was on top during the days of one-way communications would continue that leadership position in our more chaotic time, you were wrong.
The London ad scene, which has long produced groundbreaking TV commercials that are the envy of New York creatives, is suffering through an identity crisis. Slowness in adapting to the digital reality is causing some intense navel-gazing, with many concluding that U.K. agencies and marketers have to get up to speed -- and fast.
David Droga grew up in Australia admiring British advertising as the best in the world, and at age 29 was made executive creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi London. Mr. Droga has since moved on -- he left London for New York in 2003 -- but he claims that U.K. creativity is still pretty much back where he left it nearly seven years ago.
"There is no question that TV, press and outdoor are still the primary focus in the U.K.," Mr. Droga said. "There is less integration there, and a tendency to default to the safety of TV and posters."
The accusation stings at a time when marketers need utility-based solutions and help conversing with consumers, and when brands are increasingly built on customer service and the product itself -- rather than the TV commercials British agencies have excelled at.
Steve Henry, founder of radical agency Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, former exec creative director of TBWA, London, (now in a non-executive role at digital agency Albion), fails to leap to the industry's defense.
"Creativity is at an all-time low in the U.K.," he said. "The old model of one-way communications has produced astonishing work over the years, but success leads to complacency. ... The new interactive model requires a new mindset and a new skill set. Not everyone is able or willing to make the transition."
The U.K.'s past success in TV and print advertising may be a factor in its hesitation to embrace the future. The famous Guinness and Levi's TV spots of old, and more recently Fallon's "Balls" spot for Sony and "Gorilla" for Cadbury, serve to keep the U.K. creative community focused on the craft of traditional commercials.
"Fallon certainly tries to look at communications beyond the stop and start of the medium it's in, and I have such high regard for the traditional work at DDB London," Mr. Droga said. "You don't need to drop perfection and an eye for craft; you just have to spread it wider. The starting point is not the script but the idea – if I can migrate, anyone can."
"I think Dave has a point; we are at a classic crossroads and we are struggling to find a direction," said Jeremy Craigen, DDB London's exec creative director. "We all need to be educated to think differently from the word go, but it's not just a creative habit, it's the whole process that needs to change. We'll get there -- we have the talent -- and some people, like Mother, are already doing it well."
Mr. Droga also thinks that ad-literate consumers may be partly to blame for the U.K.'s delay in embracing digital advertising. "They talk about good TV and outdoor work much more than they do here in the U.S."
Trust is the main factor in pushing boundaries, Mr. Henry said. "There's a lack of confidence and a breakdown of trust between agencies and marketers. Creativity comes out of an atmosphere of trust, which allows experimentation. Agencies have not risen to the challenge or brought in new skill sets, and their clients are looking elsewhere," he said.
In the U.K.'s defense, it's not as if everyone else has perfected non-traditional advertising -- the whole industry is learning on the job. "Crispin Porter and Droga 5 are doing interesting stuff, but it doesn't really feel like people are doing it right anywhere. It's a watershed moment," Mr. Henry said.
Mr. Droga agrees that it's not just the U.K. that needs to wake up. He said, "Lots of big agencies tolerate the new opportunities reluctantly. It depends who's running the agency– some of them are comfortable in their skin and are just holding on until it's someone else's turn."
It's also worth pointing out that at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival this year, three of the top 10 interactive agencies were from the U.K. (The Viral Factory at No. 6, AKQA at 8 and BBH at 9), and three were from the U.S ( Goodby Silverstein at No. 1, Crispin Porter at 2 and 42 Entertainment at 4). Daniel Bonner, a European chief creative officer at AKQA, said he believes that a new generation of U.K. creatives has slowly but surely been creeping up on the old guard. "Much of the U.K.'s advertising glitterati and heroes of the TV age have left themselves open to criticism when you consider the diversity of their creative product," he said. "For more than 15 years, the U.K. digital industry has had a pedigree of pioneering alternative and meaningful ways to connect brands with audiences; way before many of today's commentators found anything other than traditional formats and formula remotely interesting."
Mr. Bonner is not alone in his defense of British creativity. Adam Kean, joint executive creative director of Publicis, London, said, "Droga might have been right a couple of years ago, but we are rapidly catching up. In the year or so that our management team has been together, we've massively changed the way we work. We approach things in the opposite to a linear way – we try to find what is at the center of a thought that's going to be relevant to the audience."
And it's not always the agencies that are to blame, according to Mr. Kean. "Sometimes we present ideas but the clients aren't having it. We talk and talk but they don't necessarily want to make a big stir, and say things like, 'maybe next year.' A less linear campaign can look daunting in terms of money and workload."
Mr. Kean was part of the Publicis London team that pitched for Pernod Ricard's Malibu this year against Droga 5 -- and won. The winning idea was the sort of non-linear work that Mr. Droga himself would approve of. Publicis created an online radio station, Radiomaliboomboom, which was at the centre of a campaign that also uses TV and print to drive traffic to the site.
"I very much admire what Droga 5 is doing," Mr. Kean said. "Advertising has always been about finding original ways to say the same thing -- a product is better, faster, tastier, more lovely. The new channels give us a more relevant and original way to say it. We now have a bigger area to play in."