Opinion: Why creative cannot be commoditized
It’s Cannes 2019. The marketing industry is converging on the South of France to ponder the world’s best work. The Palais is open for business, as are the cabanas and suites and beach campuses that line the Croisette. Delegates are negotiating invites to meetings and panels and parties, and every affordable hotel room in Cannes will soon be occupied.
In the bustle of programming and planning, it’s easy to forget why the Cannes Lions ultimately exist. To celebrate (and elevate) creativity. Powerful stories well told. Captivating ideas that inextricably link people to products, with more than a passing affection.
Cannes used to be dominated by creative giants who converged on the town with an air of celebrity. Then the world changed. People changed. Marketing changed. And the creative rock stars lost a bit of their swagger.
Partly, because “creative” is no longer a title. It’s a mission. A mission of magic and also a mission for business. The swagger may be gone, but the creative super power can’t be diminished. Stories still matter. Ideas still rule. And today’s mystical power of creativity can be made even stronger through the applied science of data and tech. A perfect storm.
Consider the draw of Cannes today for C-suite members, who once barely had the festival on their radar—CEOs, CIOs and CTOs alike are descending in droves because they, too, now believe creativity is their mission. It’s even been proven good for the bottom line.
But many marketers, many more than will admit publicly, are behaving more like accountants, clawing back from agencies whatever functions or services they believe can be reproduced for a lower cost or more efficiently. And the harsh reality is that, to some degree, elements of programmatic buying, account management and production can be kept in-house or handed off to a less-expensive partner. And that, folks, is here to stay.
Creativity, however, cannot be forcibly in-housed. Agencies still have a superpower that is hard to duplicate. Super Creativity (upper case “c”) allows creators (lower case “c”) to be extraordinary. Think about it: the ideal position for any company is to have something nobody else in their industry has—something valuable that can’t be duplicated, copied or knocked off. Creativity is the opposite of a commodity. Run with it.
Full disclosure: I grew up in agency land. Now that I’ve spent three years on the “outside,” working with companies across the marketing ecosystem, I see the agency world with fresh eyes. I’m still a fan. I know there are mighty competitors and companies that do many things as well as (or better than) agencies can. But it is proving difficult to match the level of creative storytelling that made agencies so vital to their clients.
I think of the Whopper Detour work and the agency team from FCB that refused to give up on the idea, bringing it to life on mobile and shaking up the industry with a disruptive, geo-fenced prank.
Who can watch Nike’s Dream Crazier from W+K without experiencing goosebumps or shedding a tear? This kind of work is not created so much as it is crafted … by people who know, live and love the brand.
And clients are willing to pay for their superpower. But care must be taken to protect it. ("We want to pay for great creativity and great creatives; we don't want to pay for excess overhead,” P&G Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard told Business Insider recently.)
And it’s not the consultancies that will kill the agencies. They have superpowers of their own, including an amazing amount of creativity. What hurts this industry is complacency. Fight it like tooth decay.
I say this with love. The agency business model, size and structure need to be transformed. There is plenty of evidence that agencies are still protecting constructs that were set up for a world of TV-heavy clients. But there are nimble, cheaper and more modern options coming at brands from every corner. And don’t doubt that the consultancies are cracking the code on powerful stories informed by data. There’s a reason why they’ve been acquiring top-notch creative shops over the past three years. They have learned what agency land has known for years—that creativity is the magical ingredient that, when blended with brilliant talent, strategic chops and access to data and technology, is able to turn everyday “metal” into beautiful, coveted Gold Lions.