Tag Archives: creative department

‘Where did the creatives go?’ (Part 1)

Many years ago, while I was at university, one of my friends (also studying communication / advertising) remarked, ‘I wonder where all the art directors and copywriters go when they get older. You don’t see many in ad agencies.’ However, we didn’t spend too much time pondering (it was Bar Night at uni and we were in a hurry to get to $1 Drinks).
Many years later, that question still seems largely unanswered.

Look at the creative departments of ad agencies – they’re all stacked with people in their 20s and 30s. But where are the older creatives? You know, the ones you once showed your book to and gained mentorship from. Surely they haven’t put enough cash aside to retire at 40? Where do they go for the second half of their careers?

Some might start their own agencies. Maybe others find variations of their job, using their skill set outside of the hectic pace of ad agency life. And perhaps there would be those who walk away from the advertising business altogether.

Some time ago, I set out to find the answers…

Part 1: Matt Cumming
Thursday, 31 July 2014
I met with Matt at a café in North Sydney. I hadn’t seen him for a few years. He looked well. He was in Sydney working on a project but later that day, boarded a plane and returned to his rural home on the far north coast of New South Wales.
So, how does an advertising creative end up living on a coastal farm? This is his story:

Matt Cumming

Matt Cumming

I entered the industry as an AFA (Advertising Federation of Australia) trainee in 1985. The traineeship required me to spend time within different departments of an ad agency, but when I got to the Creative Department I simply stayed there.

The agency was Dancer Fitzgerald Sample – a US-based agency that held the global Toyota account. They had set up an office in Sydney to service the Australian market for Toyota.

At that stage, my time in the Creative Department was spent primarily using my illustration skills to create storyboards.

To progress my career as an art director, I then did AWARD School. That course had only been running for a few years and was set up by the industry to help foster aspiring art directors and copywriters. It’s still the most popular way for people to get a job in the creative department of an Australian agency.

After AWARD School I teamed up with a young writer named Danny Ginges.
(Incidentally, at the time of our meeting Danny was in New York, where he’s operating a successful musical called Atomic.)

Dancer Fitzgerald was then bought by Saatchi & Saatchi. Saatchis seemed to be buying everything at the time and, in this case, they essentially bought the Toyota account. By that time, Danny and I had earned a reputation at the agency as being a fairly good team, and our new bosses – Bob Isherwood and Ron Mather – kept us on.

It was a good creative department with plenty of people who would go on to accomplish many things in the ad industry. I was working alongside people like Matt McGrath, Paul Fishlock, Tom Moult and others. I stayed there for around 5 years, and then the recession hit.

The recession meant retrenchments right across the industry, of which I was one. However, because of all the retrenchments there was plenty of freelance work around.

Anyway, I used the payout Saatchis gave me to produce a play. It was a fun thing to do, although it was fairly stressful and I didn’t make any great profits from it.

My next stint was at The Ball Partnership. Tom Moult had become the CD there, and I stayed there for another 5 years before taking 6 months off to go travelling.

When I returned from my travels, The Ball Partnership had been bought by Euro RSCG. Tom Moult was still the CD, and the internet was in its infancy.

Tom said, ‘You like the internet. I’ll give you a room, a computer and a year.’
That was the birth of their Digital Department. After a year, enough was happening with it to justify its existence. I had poached Brendan Tansey from our print studio, and we were good at just jumping in and getting stuff done rather than sitting around talking about it.

My role with Euro’s Digital Department continued for a few more years, until Tom left. Then they gave me his job as Executive Creative Director.

The agency was doing well but it was challenging. Volvo kept changing Marketing Directors, and subsequently pitching. After the third pitch, I left to go surfing.

Leaving Euro felt good. It was quite brave to leave a big salary and not know what I was going to do.

After 6 months of surfing I got bored. I came back to Sydney and wrote a list of 6 agencies I’d like to work for. It comprised 3 agencies who I respected due to the work they did, and 3 agencies included on the basis of ‘they’d probably pay shitloads’.

I then created a direct mail pack to send to all 6 agencies, informing them that I was back, I was excited about one-to-one marketing (both digital and direct), and that I’d like to work for them.

The mailing got a 100% response rate with replies from all 6 recipients, and interviews with senior people at 5 of those agencies. There were job offers from 3 of them.

I chose M&C Saatchi. I respected their work and Andy Pontin, the MD, was fairly impressive. They also had a good IT infrastructure in place. From my time at Euro, I knew I’d need that help and support to grow the agency’s digital capabilities.

The M&C Saatchi bosses, Tom McFarlane and Tom Dery, were wary of digital as they’d been burnt before by people who over-promised and under-delivered. However, clients were starting to grow into the digital space and were willing to pay for the services of a Digital Creative Director.

After 6 years at M&C Saatchi, I left to go surfing once again. By then, my wife and I had a house in Bronte (Sydney’s eastern suburbs) and a holiday house at Sussex Inlet (on the New South Wales south coast). We decided to rent out our Bronte home and try living at Sussex Inlet for a while.

We lived in Sussex Inlet for 8 months. Our kids went to school down there. I joined the sailing club. Living in a town of only 3,500 people was a lot different from the hustle and bustle of Sydney.

We returned to Sydney and I worked at a place called Bienalto – a digital analytics and solutions company. They felt like a family business. You had lots of freedom and client contact and no agency politics. I stayed there for about 18 months before a headhunter approached me for a job at another ad agency – Lavender.

I stayed at Lavender for 6 months but it just wasn’t for me, and by now I was looking for a bigger break. By that stage my wife and I had a block of land at Byron Bay (the far north coast of New South Wales). We were looking at selling it to fund our life in Sydney, but instead chose to sell our Sydney home and live at Byron Bay, downsizing my commitment to advertising.

I’ve been in Byron Bay for 2 years now. We live on a 2-acre block of land but share 80 acres with our neighbours. It’s not a commune – more like a gated community in a rural setting.

Within that community there are different jobs, and one of my roles is to keep the lawn mowed. When you have 80 acres, mowing the lawn means having cows. So my job is to move the cows around. Every year the cows have calves that are then sold to offset some of the community’s maintenance costs. But cattle farming isn’t the reason for having them, lawn mowing is.

It’s a much easier life up there. So far, we’ve built our house and I help look after the kids. My wife is a hair and make-up artist, so she’s often travelling around the country for work.

DSC_4552

The building of Matt’s house at Byron Bay.

I’m currently working on writing and directing a music video for a local artist. Byron Bay is a good place. There are lots of smart people there, lots of retired business people, good food and entertainment. I still work in advertising. I usually work remotely and come to Sydney or Melbourne when I have to, for things like presentations and the like.

I take most briefs via phone or email, with work increasingly from clients directly rather than via agencies. They’re mostly people who have heard of me through someone else and require the services of a consultant.

Looking back, I realise I resigned every 5 to 6 years, just to refresh and recharge rather than jump straight into another job. As a creative, you’re ‘always on’ and I don’t think anyone can maintain that over an extended time. There’s always a deadline or a live brief that’s ticking over in your mind. You can’t love the work if it’s month upon month of tight deadlines and working weekends.

It’s important to ‘jump out’ every once in a while to refresh. That’s why I would go surfing or travelling. I hadn’t saved heaps of money, but I had enough so I wasn’t stressed about it. I wasn’t overburdened by the mortgage. I just needed time out.

This last ‘time out’ has been my biggest. I don’t have the energy I did when I was 30. I wouldn’t come back to a full-time position right now, but that’s not to rule it out in the future. I’m enjoying the bits and pieces I do now as a consultant. I still get excited about the work.

I think this is the new form of retirement. I think people chose to ‘taper down’ and shift to a more reasonable work/life situation. That way, they can continue it for a longer time. I’m still only 53, and with the younger of my 2 kids still in the early years of primary school, I plan on being around for a while yet. I’m just going to pace the rest of my life better.

Matt Cumming Advertising

Matt and his wife Annette at their Byron Bay house.

I think the absence of older people in the creative departments of ad agencies is because we’re all commercial artists. At some point, we say to ourselves, ‘I want to do more art’. We find ways to apply our ideas and thinking without it necessarily being through advertising.

Note: Matt has remained true to his ‘time out to recharge’ ethos, and since the time of writing, has leased his Byron home and returned to Sydney with his family.

Are ad agencies and creativity getting a divorce?

I look at the advertising industry these days and it often looks like the side of a spanner is being used as a hammer. Or to put it simply, it’s not the right tool for the job, but we’re trying to make it work.
But before we discuss that, it’s probably worth a quick look at how we got here (but if you want to skip the history lesson, just scroll down):

1841 – A chap named Volney B. Palmer sets up what is believed to be the first ad agency in Philadelphia. His clients create the ads and he places them in newspapers. (So these days, we’d probably refer to him as a Media Agency).
Ultimately, it was this media placing that gave birth to  a commission-based remuneration model for the advertising world.

Early 1900s – The Industrial Age arrives and with it comes mass-produced products. With mass production, manufacturers began to differentiate their products through branding and packaging.

1922 – Broadcast radio realises that it can fund its existence through advertising.

1929 – The Stock Market crash puts greater pressure on advertising to prove its effectiveness, so research becomes a player.

1938 – Radio ad revenue surpasses that of magazines.

1941 – The first TV commercial for Bulova Clocks airs. At this stage there are only 4,000 television sets, but by 1954 CBS becomes the largest advertising medium in the world.

1960 – The creative team of Copywriter and Art Director is born at DDB.

The 1980s – Personal computers make desktop publishing easier.

2000 – The Internet has 400 million users, making it the fastest growing medium ever.

So history shows that ad agencies were born to allow marketers to communicate with their customers. They did this through interrupting media that the customers were already reading/watching / listening to. To negate this ‘interruption’, creativity was engaged to make the message seem more informative or more emotive, or a point of difference.

However for many marketers, the relationship with creativity has always been an uneasy one. That’s because, understandably, marketers seek certainty. Creativity, by its very nature, isn’t certain. Creativity is unpredictable. At times, it can be erratic and wild.

And sometimes, creativity simply isn’t the answer.
Just recently I had lunch with a friend who left the agency world a few years ago to go client-side. He’s now National Head of Managing Something Or Other. He said that with a lot of the work they do, creativity just tends to get in the way.

This kind of thinking is happening in a lot of places.

It also reminded me of a recent article about former advertising creative, Yanni Pounartzis. In that article, Yanni suggests that creatives won’t exist in agencies in the near future.
I’ve seen this first hand. There are agencies out there that simply don’t have a creative department or ‘creatives’. In many ways, it does seem that ‘advertising’, as we know it, will simply become the management of data.

I do think creativity will live on. That’s what it does. It will find a new home.
But if you were unencumbered by history and were building a business today for the purpose of communicating with customers, I doubt that an ‘ad agency’ is what you would end up with.

Are Creative Directors actually creative?

humorless_blob
Recently I was reading Simon Veksner’s blog. It was a story about Matt Eastwood and discussed the idea of how one’s appearance might affect their career progression. Amongst the comments was this:

Anonymous said…

I’ve been a ‘creative’ for a very long time and your article solved what has been a continuing mystery for me.

Many people have said over the years ‘why don’t you become a creative director?’
And I’ve always replied ‘why would you?’. The thrill of being in creative is thinking of an idea. Sure the money drugs and babes are cool too, but creating ideas is what defines ‘creatives’.

The moment you become a ‘creative director’ is the moment you stop being creative.
You become an inspirer. A seller. A buffer.
In other words you become a suit. And this was obviously Matt’s goal.

I don’t mean that as a pejorative. Great suits are as valuable as great creatives, often more so.
If work doesn’t get sold it may as well not have been conceived.

But it always bugs me when those who have chosen to don the literal or metaphorical suit continue to pretend they are still part of the creative department, or creative brotherhood.
They are not.
When you stop doing ideas yourself, you stop being a creator.

Worldwide CDs like Matt are the epitome of this. He doesn’t create anything himself. He doesn’t even see any work before it goes to clients let alone influence it.

He travels the world raising the profile of the network by chairing awards, then he chairs meetings of selected ECDs where everyone agrees to be much better, then he sacks some ECDs who didn’t get much better even though their clients won’t allow it.

This is not being creative. It’s being a suit.

If the role of worldwide creative director actually involved being the most creative person in the network, wouldn’t you expect such a demi-god to actually think of stuff when there’s a world-wide pitch?

Why hire someone who used to think of things, to not think of things?
It’s silly.
I hope Matt reads this. Because I now know how he became a CD, I just don’t know why.

This got me thinking. It reminded me of a book that came out a few years ago called Creative Director: Year Zero. It’s a collection of thoughts from CDs about their role.

I think there were two main things to come out of that book.
The first was that the term ‘Creative Director’ has taken on a whole new meaning. With the advent of so many new titles, a Creative Director these days is what a ‘Creative Group Head’ used to be (i.e. they’re like a deputy, and they’re usually responsible for a particular client). They still have to answer to a CD (who is now called an ‘Executive Creative Director’, or ECD). In some instances, there’s even a ‘Chief Creative Officer’, but that usually only happens when there’s a real pissing competition going on.

What it all comes down to is this: if you’re not the one making the final creative calls on work before it leaves the agency or if you have to show someone else, you’re not really the Creative Director (actually, these days, many of the people making creative calls aren’t actually from the Creative Dept, but that’s a blog for another time).

The other point is that a Creative Director’s job is not an extension of being a Copywriter or Art Director. It’s not like the ‘Suit side of things’ where you have Account Executive, Account Manager, Account Director, Group Account Director and Managing Director, with each role being an extension of the one prior.

By moving from Copywriter or Art Director to Creative Director, you go from making or creating ideas to suddenly reviewing or presenting them.
Or in other words, you go from playing to coaching.

In a way, this is a very weird situation. Imagine pulling one of your best players from the field so he or she can yell advice from the sideline.
It gives rise to the question, ‘do you have to have been a good player to be a good coach?’

Logic says you don’t. There are plenty of great coaches who weren’t great players.
However, a General leading his troops into battle will almost always have greater respect from his soldiers if they know that he’s spent time in the trenches too.

For example, Vince Lombardi played gridiron on a college scholarship. Sir Alex Ferguson was top goal-scorer in the Scottish league for 1965-6. And Sir Graham Henry played for the highly respected New Zealand provincial side, Canterbury, before coaching the All-Blacks and being named IRB International Coach of the year 5 times.

Advertising – there’s no magic formula

Here’s the trailer for a great documentary I first saw at The Sydney Film Festival  back in 2009.

I’ve posted it here because I’d like to talk about the opening lines delivered by the gravelly-voiced Hal Riney:

“The frightening and most difficult thing about being what somebody calls ‘a creative person’ is that you have absolutely no idea where any of your thoughts come from really. And, especially, you don’t have any idea about where they’re going to come from tomorrow.”

But hey, hang on a minute! That’s not what most agencies would have you believe. Just look at any agency credentials document, presentation, or  website. They nearly always put up some sort of diagram or chart and proclaim it to be their ‘magic formula’ for producing great ideas.

Well, as a person who has spent plenty of years in the creative department tasked with coming up with those ideas, I can say that there is no magic formula.

A few years ago at Cannes, John Hegarty broached  the subject while on stage. He said that he understood there were a lot of marketers in the audience who were desperately seeking a formula for creating great advertising. He then told them there wasn’t one.

So why do so many agencies pretend there is?
Well, I reckon there are a few reasons. First, many clients have an easier time buying an idea if there’s the perception of science behind it, rather than art. That’s because science is predictable – two plus two will always equal four.

Second, the process and operations of an agency may help facilitate an environment for ideas but if you’ve ever been an art director or copywriter, you’ll know that the real process actually happens inside a person’s head. And if agencies were to admit that, they would be putting the equity of their business in the hands (or in this case, heads) of individuals. Instead, their ‘magic formula’ is something they can own regardless of staff turnover. Sure, some agencies do have a certain style of work. But that’s usually influenced by the Creative Director (again, an individual).

Whichever way you look at it, pretending there’s a 100% fool-proof recipe for creating successful advertising is a bit like measuring poetry.

A word on timings

A former colleague passed this on the other day. It shows that sometimes the cost of finding (or making) more time for a job is well worth it.

 

 

Mark Fenske’s Nincompoop Forest

I recently came across a story that talked about Mark Fenske (at the time of writing, his site was offline) and his ‘Nincompoop Forest’.

Put simply, he talks about the importance of fighting for great ideas, and it goes like this:

For an idea to live, it must journey from the mind of its originator out into the ears of others, into the world.

To live, it must cross an area that is dangerous to the life of an idea… an area between the mind of an originator and the world where other people live who fight against ideas and try to kill them. This area, that challenges every ad idea the moment it is born, is called the Nincompoop Forest.

To find your way through the Nincompoop Forest, it takes heart, intelligence and determination.

There are many obstacles lying in wait. Some people fear big ideas, or are afraid to defend them, or don’t know how to explain or sell them.

Some people are afraid to buy big ideas because, by their nature, they have never been done before and can be scary. (It’s been said that if you’re not scared of an idea, it probably is not a big idea at all.)

You’ll have to save your idea from all the people who want to change the idea, “help” the idea, compromise the idea. They want to “make it better” or safer or less expensive or more comfortable.

All great ideas have to beware of the Nincompoop Forest.