Three years ago, when I took the job as creative director at Chuck Ruhr Advertising, we were the fifth largest independent agency in Minneapolis. And during that time we grew; the creative department roughly doubled in size. But we had acquired some bad habits along the way. There was too much red tape and an unnecessarily arcane traffic and accounting system.
We were also trying to absorb affiliates-a direct marketing company and a promotion company. They were part of the larger corporation and supposed to give our clients "integrated marketing capabilities." In the process this also gave us three presidents, three management styles and multiple axes to grind. All things considered, however, it seemed the right time to reinvent ourselves, to change the paradigms, as the gurus say.
At first I was enthusiastic about our move last year to client-oriented teams. (Some places call them client clusters, but that always sounds like either candy or something obscene to me.) On paper the new philosophy seems to be touting things creative people have known all along: Be open to ideas from anywhere; structure and bureaucracy are not good for the soul; we all need whacks upside our heads regularly. As a creative manager, I always figured that eliminating levels and BS were my sacred duties.
We were going to be pioneers, and it sounded great. Better working relationships with clients help you sell riskier creative. Living, breathing and eating a client's business can get you beyond the easy and obvious creative solutions to something really unique. Giving creative people responsibility for an account is a good thing. Imagine my surprise when the new regime turned on me in particular, and the creative department in general.
As part of the change we eliminated departments. If there is no creative department, just exactly what does a creative director do? And how do you involve creative teams completely without turning the creatives into account people?
This is where I started resisting. Suddenly everybody started getting into everyone else's act-especially mine. In a situation like this, who decides what work goes to the client? Does the team reach a consensus? That tends to make for compromise, not the best way to push the envelope, as they say.
I had spent a lot of time setting up boundaries designed to protect the creative. I had made a lot of speeches about how creative should not be compromised, pecked to death by ducks or revised by committee. I had made a lot of account folks mad. Now I found myself feeling like a throwback, a bit like the Queen of England-I had the title and some ceremonial uses, but I didn't really do anything. Was I just miffed at my diminution of power? Did I miss the fights? Was I upset because we were entering a kinder, gentler time?
The basic tension between account and creative has always been based on different goals in life-client happiness vs. the best work to do the job. I'm not talking about an egomaniacal need to make all work win at Cannes, nor am I talking about account types who want to make clients comfortable at any cost. But even in the best of circumstances there is a yawning gap between comfortable and original. Even the best account person would balk at trying to sell something that seems to be completely off strategy, scary or perhaps a bit too unusual.
I don't think creative people can do their best work in a client-oriented team. At least that was the conclusion I came to while trying to run a department that had disappeared into fiefdoms based not on what the agency stood for but who the client was and what the client wanted.
I think creative people need to be inspired by, to goof off with and to compete with other creative people. I felt our esprit de corps evaporating, our identities disappearing. I started having impure thoughts. Maybe we did need to get together and complain about clients and account people. Maybe that feeling of exclusivity was part of what we needed to feel creative. Maybe we could be too close to client problems.
While I was wrestling with all these moral dilemmas, and trying to see that the work got done while we changed the way we did it, here's what happened: We lost our way. Every team had a different agenda. Were we going to be creatively driven, or client service driven? Collateral specialists or broadcast experts? How do you staff to be all those things? And what kind of new business do you chase?
Speaking of which, we started losing it. Small pieces of Hormel and Target first, then Wilson's Leather, a retail chain, Jennie-O Foods, TCF Bank and finally Hardee's. Some of it was normal account attrition, some was bad luck. Some we probably deserved to lose. During the period from the summer of '94 to early '95 the agency shrank from 120 people to fewer than 40. It was circular; we reorganized because we had problems, only to find we had more problems. In January of this year I lost my job. Who needs a creative director if there's no creative department? I couldn't figure out my role. I didn't know how to do my job anymore.
I suppose since I was a part of this failed policy, my predictions may be considered suspect. But having been on the front lines, I feel I have the right to make them, so here they are:
Creativity will not become a team sport, which is to say creatives will share a creative vision, not offices and accounting practices.
Things will get smaller and more entrepreneurial. The middle will go away. Big full-service agencies may survive, a few of them, to serve some of the needs of big clients (media, international), but the days of the medium-sized, nonspecialized full-service agency are about over.
Freelance and project-oriented work will flourish. Creative people will take advantage of the fact that we have marketable skills and they're all inside our heads and our souls, not inside a corporation. Someone who's self-employed will win the Grand Prix at Cannes (assuming they give them out again). We will definitely live in interesting times.
I was a believer. I bought Tom Peters in hardcover. How could you not like someone who writes slogans like, "Success begets failure." Maybe I still am a believer, too, but now I think advertising may be the exception. It's a weird business-not art, not science, not salesmanship, not service, but something in between. And the creative part of it is the strangest part of all. I sure hope