Creative departments need to regain stature, confidence

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No one scores many brownie points these days expressing sympathy for advertising creatives. Historically treated as neo-gods and oracles of creative wisdom, in public they are feted as geniuses-and in private bitched about as over-indulged and out of touch.

This business downturn has been harsh on the creative department. No longer immune to cutbacks, it has also somehow become unfashionable. This is the defensive era of the ascendant "suit." There is a second great difference in this downturn: technology. I don't just mean the Mac, the Flame and other tangible breakthroughs in hardware that help in creation-but also the advent of cable TV, the personal digital assistant and more, which have changed forever the means of distribution.

In this context, the Luddite creative is a new stereotype. He still has (it still usually is a "him") an understandable propensity to stick to his knitting (in the shape of a 30-second TV commercial). This has created an opening for others not traditionally seen as creatives.

Creative ideas, once the preserve of copywriters and art directors, now can come from anywhere: from planner or account exec to record company big cheese, trend-spotting futurist to celebrity agent, and even from the new breed of "membrane" who links Madison Avenue with Hollywood. Never was a more insecure group faced with a wider array of new reasons to be paranoid.

This was the mood, then, as the American Association of Advertising Agencies convened its Creative Conference in San Francisco-a mood compounded by the honoring, in a funny and moving speech by DDB Worldwide Chairman Keith Reinhard, of industry greats Phil Dusenberry and Hal Riney with lifetime achievement awards.

The first Jay Chiat Memorial golf day, and appearances by Jerry Della Femina and a soon-to-retire Rick Boyko, added to a feeling of the passing of an era. The November event attracted some 220 attendees, not bad in this business climate. This, in turn, says a lot.

In truth, much of the agenda (and the star names) could have appeared ten, even 15 years ago. That's not to say the meeting wasn't lively. Clearly, there are many who would like to set up their own agencies, judging from the response to the panel on creative boutiques. It's just that-the inevitable BMW presentation aside-advertising creativity has allowed itself to become too narrowly defined.

Every speaker on the subject states "it's all about the idea," as if anyone would dispute that. However, that "idea" continues to be expressed best, or at least most tangibly, through the TV commercial, heightening the sense this is what creatives really want to do.

Somehow creatives must regain both their standing and their confidence within the marketing mix. They have to be seen embracing the new while not throwing out the past, to be part of the new melting pot from which ideas can emerge while maintaining their position as creative catalysts.

It will take guts, hard work and inspiration. And it's a task that calls for new leaders to emerge. But you know what? In the history of advertising, they always do. Somehow. Food for thought over those holiday turkeys!

Stefano Hatfield is editorial director of and Creativity.

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