Creativity Isn’t Valued, It’s Being Managed Out. Here’s Why That’s A Problem

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President Trump may have postponed the State of The Union address but in that other land of the free – the Ad Industry –  a number of surveys offer us a view of the current state of our industry and it ain’t optimistic.

According to The Blueprint, a “design and talent consultancy”, the state of the advertising industry is “as depressing as shit”. According to Campaign, the consultancy’s “Truth about talent” report paints a picture of an industry where creativity is not valued and indeed being ‘managed out’; wisdom and experience undervalued and there is a ‘race to the bottom’. The respondents, under the guarantee of anonymity, pull no punches in their assessment of their industry and careers. The agency business model is broken.

Over at Marketing Week, ad people are sounding off too. The magazine’s annual “Career and Salary Survey” supports the magazine’s line that there is an urgent need to make marketing a “desirable destination”. This goes beyond the survey highlighting that marketers are wanting, but unable to secure, flexible working and career breaks; the continuing gender pay gap and the career trade-off between better training and job security in big firms or influence and impact at small ones. Marketing Week, like The Blueprint, report a more existential crisis. There is something broken.

Maybe the malaise is linked to the dawning realisation that our industry has been systematically screwed (as Bob Hoffman, pithily puts it) by companies inflating their social media reach and power. Maybe it is an increasing awareness of our complicity in what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism’s role in “automating us”. Maybe it’s just Brexit, but there is something slightly depressing in the air.

If the surveys are right, maybe the industry is not ready for the new thinkers, the innovative researchers and the rounded individuals we aim to graduate.

And that makes it a really bad time to be running (and recruiting for) a degree. The start of the year is the start of the recruitment cycle in Universities. Course Leaders polish their rhetoric and best jokes and run Open Days for possible recruits. The PowerPoint deck always includes slides about the power and possibilities of the “creative industries”, the rates of employability and pictures of happy, smiling graduates with captions such as “Junior Creative at…”; “Intern with…” The future is so bright, we assure our potential customers, you’ll have to wear shades.  Of course, parents of potential undergraduates and career-changing postgraduates themselves have questions. But they are often straightforward and utilitarian. What is taught? What are the industry links? (see my previous AW360 pieces). Easily answered. Examples and statistics are given. Advertising and marketing are at the cutting edge of technology and media creativity and new strategic thinking. Ours is an industry that works with innovation, experimentation, creative strategy and strategic creativity. This is a great time to invest 1-3 years in exploring that future, becoming that future. The industry needs you. The industry wants you… But The Blueprint and Marketing Week reports temper that optimism (easy, maybe from within the safe confines of the University), cast a pall over that message and leave those of us looking to build a mutually beneficial industry-academia partnership with a nagging feeling that maybe we’re spinning… just a little.

If the surveys are right, maybe the industry is not ready for the new thinkers, the innovative researchers and the rounded individuals we aim to graduate. Worse, maybe it doesn’t want them and is sending that message out.

One respondent to The Blueprint survey said: “The thinking and talent that get rewarded are the people that are status quo and make the leader look good. Not the people challenging convention and coming up with bold ideas. That’s a fundamental challenge in the industry.” Another said: “We’re not hiring enough people with an original point of view.”

If these surveys are right and the message from industry is one that doesn’t value flexibility and diversity not just in personnel but in thinking, then those recruits we excite and motivate with visions of possibility will take their entrepreneurial spirit, their creative and strategic innovation into other sectors.

Marketing Week forlornly calls for the industry to: “maintain a future pipeline of talent that is fit to contribute towards business growth.” Many of us in education and training are doing that, developing courses and students fit for the future but unless the agencies, companies and brands offer environments that nurture and develop that talent, it will go elsewhere and, further down the pipeline, the training courses we are building will find it harder to recruit the best.

Facing the challenges it does, the industry needs innovators, radicals and dreamers. Together we can train them, but if that innovation is ignored, that radical challenge stamped on and those dreams managed out… well yes, that is “depressing as shit”.

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