Jeremy Bullmore, the former J Walter Thompson chairman and Campaign columnist, who died earlier this year, liked to tell a story about the long-term impact of an Aston Martin advertisement.
Bullmore had been out to lunch with an advertising friend, Len Heath, then in his mid-40s, who had recently sold his stake in an ad agency. Afterwards, Heath insisted on driving Bullmore back to his office, even though it was only 10 minutes’ walk away.
“When we got to his car, I understood why. It was a shining, stunning, elegant, arrogant, latest-model Aston Martin,” Bullmore recalled in an essay a couple of years before the pandemic. “It was the first time I’d been inside an Aston Martin and it didn’t disappoint.”
Heath said: “You may be interested to know why I bought this car. I bought it because I saw an advertisement for it.”
Bullmore was a little underwhelmed to hear that. “But that’s not the interesting bit,” Heath responded. “What’s interesting is that I saw that advertisement when I was 14.”
An ad from 30 years earlier had generated a £50,000 sale – proof of the intangible power of creativity and brand-building over the long term.
“Nobody questions the necessity of capital expenditure in the protection of a company’s tangible assets”, such as machinery and factories, Bullmore noted. Yet intangibles such as a company’s brands can be their “most valuable assets” and they need “regular, budgeted maintenance” and “nourishment”, just as much as tangible, physical assets, he urged.
I was reminded of this Bullmore story because I have been thinking about the role of creativity in advertising and more broadly in marketing services and business over the long term. It is not only because this is the final, quarterly UK print edition of Campaign but also because 2023 may turn out to be a watershed year as artificial intelligence has gone mainstream, even if it is in its infancy.
Commercial creativity is still at the heart of advertising. It is the soul of the industry and at the core of building brands, arguably more so in a digital environment where companies can scale quickly and want to differentiate themselves.
Many of the world’s most dynamic companies – from Apple and Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton to the new breed of digital disrupters – pride themselves on their creative and design credentials and have built strong in-house teams.
Within the ad industry, Cannes Lions, the most important annual gathering and awards show, is a “festival of creativity”, and WPP, the largest agency group by revenue and employee headcount, calls itself the “creative transformation company”.
Yet the paradox is that the creativity is under renewed financial pressure in some parts of the ad industry. Constraint is nothing new in the commercial world and a shortage of money or resource can sometimes spur positive change.
Creative investment in decline
But the history of the past decade shows a lot of companies have been reluctant to invest in creativity and brand-building – partly because they are seen as intangibles that are hard to measure in a data-driven world and also because procurement teams have got tougher on costs in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis.
Instead, marketers have focused on media buying, data and technology, ecommerce fulfilment and the broader customer experience and digital transformation. These have been growth areas for the big global agency groups – not creativity, at least not in the traditional sense of making 30-second TV ads and chunky, “agency of record” retainers.
An industry that champions creativity is struggling to generate revenue growth from it. Arthur Sadoun, the chief executive of Publicis Groupe, the best-performing agency group since the pandemic, acknowledged this paradox at its recent financial results.
“In the industry, creative is today not accretive to growth but in our case, we consider that creative is still essential to our own growth” as part of Publicis Groupe’s suite of services, Sadoun told Campaign. “So, creativity is still at the centre of our business model. It is today backed by data and powered by technology to deliver breakthrough ideas that can be personalised.”
Context is important. By its nature, creativity is connected to culture, which tends to be local and does not always scale easily across multiple countries. The rise of new, nimble agencies such as GUT (which has spread from the Americas to seven markets) and Uncommon Creative Studio (which sold to Havas in July) shows there is always room for entrepreneurial creative thinkers and doers.
There are also lots of examples of creative services that are in growth mode, including digital production and social media and influencer content. In an era where we are bombarded by ads and some consumers actively seek non-commercial environments, brands and their agencies are talking again about bringing paid advertising and public relations closer together.
Perhaps, then, what the industry needs is a new narrative. As Tammy Einav, the executive chair of Adam & Eve/DDB, the most successful UK ad agency of the last decade, says: “Creativity is the greatest lever there is to help brands command a premium in their own right. Perhaps in recent years, that narrative has got lost or been diluted in the wider conversation around artificial intelligence and automation as competing forces. It is down to us as industry to tell that story effectively and help brands which are increasingly under pressure to justify that decision.”
It is clear that the future of creativity will depend, at least to an extent, on harnessing the power of technology and AI, not spurning or ignoring it. Coding and customer experience can be as creative as making an advertising message.
Ultimately, however, creativity requires risk-taking, which some commercial businesses struggle with. That’s why it helps to have a mixed model with additional sources of funding such as public subsidies, which are not “profit-optimising”.
This has served the UK particularly well, according to David Abraham, founder of Wonderhood Studios and former chief executive of Channel 4. “The combination of public-service broadcasters, lottery funding and the strengths of the creative education system combine with private enterprise in a way that promotes opportunity, creative risk-taking and innovation on a globally competitive scale,” he says. “This plurality of models is uniquely British and in a world of increasing media monopolies, it matters.”
Or to adapt what Bullmore said, creativity will always need nourishing. That is a good mantra as we brace for immense technological and climate changes in the years ahead.
Gideon Spanier is UK editor-in-chief of Campaign