Creative Conservatism: Acknowledge It, Tackle It

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The stands are packed up, the stages are empty and the beer bottles have been collected. Advertising Week Europe 2016 has passed through London in a whirlwind of debates, panels and parties leaving no sector of the industry unscrutinised.

One topic that threaded through the sessions this week was the state of creativity in our digital world. I’m more concerned with the state of creativity in a world that’s fraught with apprehension and caution.

This week, Tracey De Groose of Dentsu Aegis Network declared ‘the big idea is dead’, and that executing lots of little ideas will be the way forward – and rightly so too. Focusing on a ‘big idea’ has excused a certain laziness in marketing; people feel the big idea is the answer in itself. There is still a need for a higher purpose or belief, but these days you need to sweat micro ideas beneath it across multiple platforms and directed towards different audiences.

This laziness has gradually paved the way for creative conservatism, and it’s threatening the fibre of the industry as well as the future of our young creative talent.

It all started in 2008 with the global economic crisis, which brought with it an ‘anxiety epidemic’ among clients. This has had a domino effect through to creative agencies; affecting the way creatives think, the way agencies are run and structured, and most importantly, the way the next wave of talent is encouraged. This anxiety is only worsening as we approach the referendum this summer.

Creatives now play it safe with briefs to ensure the client is not exposed to criticism or the remotest chance of failure (where does this sit in the ‘fail fast, learn and reiterate’ philosophy heard on many AWE stages?). On an agency level, new agency structures are emerging too slowly; the hierarchical frameworks synonymous with the big networks are stifling the potential of any ‘disruptors’. Agility and experimentation in the world of tech is being admired from afar, rather than from within.

Great work is still being produced, but more in spite of, than encouraged by, the current creative culture. I’d hold up’s Epic Strut and Paddy Power’s ballsy, opportunist ads for applause. At The Corner we are lucky to have some brave clients too – our work for Coca-Cola’s Oasis brand broke the fourth wall with its strapline “It’s Summer. You’re Thirsty. We’ve Got Sales Targets”, while our Jigsaw client pushed social boundaries with its ‘For Life Not Landfill’ campaign, and e-cigarette brand blu are currently challenging perceptions with the global ‘just you and blu’ campaign.

We need stability, and that will only come from clients willing to invest in longer term relationships with agencies; we need diversity in our hires to remove a conformist mentality – get people in with backgrounds and approaches outside the norm, and we need to blend technology with culture to feed fresh thinking.

Agencies should retain their creative talent by helping employees in their extra-curricular ideas and passions. We do this at The Corner with a programme called Second Life that has helped develop genuine businesses, and allows us to keep our best entrepreneurial talent.

We need to build broader skillsets in new structures, and together with our clients revise evaluation metrics and agree fairer remuneration that recognises a wider breadth of deliverables.

Our experience is that democracy trumps conservatism. Everyone can play a role in the creative solution and should own the execution. Everyone should have a voice, and don’t assume that the ‘old ways’ are the best ways. The perpetually blinkered view helps shore up the attitude of creative conservatism that blocks the creation of inspiring, exciting, grab-you-by-the throat ideas.

Creative conservatism therefore faces two paths: conservatism that continues to stifle creativity, or creativity that forces its way through conservatism.

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