The Future of Your Agency Is Not With Creatives -- It's With Creative Culture

Small Agencies Need to Develop a Cross-Discipline, Collaborative Approach

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Some people are creative, some aren't. It's a view many of us gain from childhood, and our job titles only confirm this division -- if you're not a "creative," you've no business attacking client briefs. But this view isn't just wrong, it's dangerous.

A multitude of once integral industries -- photofinishing and movie rental stores to name a few-- are being rendered obsolete by digital technologies. In the midst of this turmoil, established brands are turning to agencies to make sense of the disruption. They expect the "creative agencies" to give them an injection of creative thinking at a higher standard than they could achieve on their own. The presumption is that the creative industries are more adept at, and more committed to, building systems that harness the creative abilities of their individual employees.

In a Journal of Consumer Marketing article, Dennis Pitta, Van Wood and Frank Franzak argue that "in reality, the majority of marketing organizations enjoy neither creativity nor innovation. One fault is that these organizations fail to build a culture that values creative or innovative ideas from all of their employees. The result is lost profits, opportunities and a wasting process that may lead to failure."

Why? Many agencies continue to take a closed approach to answering briefs, in which employees are asked to perform one specific task and to think only about their expertise. As the creative industry becomes more complex with ever-expanding digital capabilities, serving an ever-more diverse and demanding audience, successful agencies need employees who can collaborate across disciplines to ensure that every aspect of a client brief is planned for. In a world where developers and designers all have a part to play in building ideas for brands, they should also be involved in creating them.

It's about accepting the notion that creativity is the art of juxtaposing two or more existing ideas in an original combination and that new solutions emerge when people from different backgrounds combine their perspectives. Widening the variety of perspectives increases the chances of achieving exceptional creative ideas. It would appear that our ability to be creative is linked to our confidence to speak in front of colleagues without fear of criticism, to be comfortable making mistakes, to feel confident in disagreeing with the consensus, and to hold a belief that employees are part of a team striving above personal ego. This can't be achieved by agencies that allow the creative director to monopolize the creative process.

Sharing the creative responsibility across jobs roles demands a shift in the types of employees forward-thinking employers are looking for. We are moving into an age where multi-disciplinary employees will prosper. Tim Brown, CEO of Ideo, describes multi-disciplined employees as "T-shaped people" -- the vertical stroke of the "T" is the depth of skill that allows them to contribute to the creative process, and the horizontal stroke is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines.

Brown also states that companies with "I-shaped employees" (employees asked to work and think in a closed manner) struggle to collaborate and build on each other's ideas due to a lack of empathy, especially within a creative brainstorm.

By employing a team of multi-taskers, who understand their field but also appreciate the art of collaboration, agencies can expand the size of their creative team from pairs of copywriters and art directors to creative gangs filled with UX specialists, account managers, developers, producers, designers and even invited clients. In small agencies, the benefits of including all staff in the creative process include:

  • Increased efficiency
  • Better communication between staff
  • A greater pool of ideas, drawing on all areas of expertise in the business
  • Ideas informed by experience and technical knowledge
  • Increased client interest due to early involvement in the creative process

In any other industry, it would be considered madness to count two-thirds of the workforce out of your core activity. Ideas are our stock -- the more we can deliver, the higher our productivity and potential for growth.

As small agencies realize the benefits of this cross-disciplinary, collaborative approach, the game could be up for the creative director.

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