Agency Creativity: The Devil Is in the Department

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Recently, Millennial Art Director Guy railed against the agency layers he says are killing creativity. We all feel his pain, but the real cause goes deeper than the meeting, and he's a part of it.

The devil is in the department. That's what creates the layers and makes otherwise rational human beings think a 30-person meeting is a viable path to excellence.

Departments are mini profit centers, with disincentives for helping others. They establish and hone singular perspectives and biases, which Millennial Art Director Guy, unfortunately, exemplifies (the creative department bias: Just keep the strategy and other people out of the kitchen, and we'll create amazing advertising).

That subverts the purpose and relevance of advertising in a multiplatform world. In this way, agencies unwittingly conspire against themselves and their clients -- baking the most insidious conflict of interest into the organizational design.

As advertising takes more forms and moves faster than ever, more kinds of talented people must depend on each other. Yesteryear, creative had the baton. Today, it moves around, but the sequence of activities remains (research, strategy, execution).

We need to recognize the tremendous value that people with different perspectives bring to the work, and create the opportunities for their melding to be an everyday dynamic.

Ideas can't develop at full speed within the department maze, where feedback is confused and corrupted by approval. Feedback is essential and rooted in rationale; approval is about position and title.

That's not to say that higher-ranking people within the same discipline can't make an idea better. The market recognizes the value of experience, and so should a creative enterprise. But it's not their sole purview. Other points of view challenge an idea into its greatest form.

With Slack and similar software, agencies have tools at their disposal to facilitate the continuous sharing of ideas and feedback. And given the open-plan layouts that continue to predominate Ad Land, it's simple enough to put work in progress up on the walls for people to chime in on. (My agency does this.) In both scenarios, feedback is just feedback. There's no approval tied to it, and it's hard for anyone to pull rank the way they do in the meetings that Millennial Art Director Guy hates.

There is only true boss: the marketplace. No one's job is to make a mark in the agency. Rather, everyone's job is to help other people create new ways for clients to keep winning. We can start by blowing up the department.

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