Emily Tan
Sep 15, 2016

Building the ideal conditions for creativity to thrive in Asia

COVER STORY: From long work hours to a lack of diversity, are Asian agencies inherently ‘uncreative’ places to work? What are the best agencies doing to fix this?

Building the ideal conditions for creativity to thrive in Asia

The spate of diversity scandals rocking adland has shown that in many cultural and structural ways, it remains in the 1950s. Setting aside the sexism-blind views voiced by Saatchi & Saatchi’s ex-boss, Kevin Roberts, there is an underlying assumption in his statement that leadership roles must exist at the expense of happiness. The sentiments imply that an individual—male or female—must be willing to sacrifice family and personal well-being on the altar of work.

These ideals fly in the face of modern research on creativity and productivity. The correlation between giving brains a chance to rest and creative productivity has been well documented. Gender diversity is likewise a factor that drives innovative thought and business success.

While these two issues are endemic to the industry globally, it’s arguable that Asia, in particular, has a real problem. In terms of work hours, the region—excluding Australia and New Zealand—worked an average of 38 percent more hours in 2015 than Western Europe, according to data compiled by The Conference Board. Asia also worked 26 percent more hours than North America, and 20 percent more than Latin America. Tellingly, employees in Australia and New Zealand worked around the same number of hours as those in North America in 2015.

Putting a bunch of people on beanbags won’t magically make them creative geniuses.
Will Sansom, Contagious Insider

Within the advertising industry, long work hours were linked to the deaths of two young employees at Ogilvy & Mather China and Y&R Indonesia in 2013. A recent study by Font Talent indicated that long work hours remain an issue. One in five of the marketing professionals who responded said they were planning to change jobs in 2016 in pursuit of shorter work hours.

When it comes to gender diversity, Asia-Pacific again lags behind (see coverage of our recent 'Women to Watch' roundtable). A 2016 study by Korn Ferry estimates that in terms of gender equality in senior management, Asia will take a decade to catch up with the US, the UK and the European Union. The study found that in Asia, women made up just 10.2 percent of all directors.

Are just these two factors taking a toll? Perhaps. For all its size and economic clout, the region continues to underperform at global awards shows, such as the Cannes Lions, when benchmarked against the US, UK, Europe and even Latin America. Not including Australia and New Zealand’s impressive tally, the Asia region took home just 10 percent of the 1,360 Lions handed out at this year’s Cannes. Australasia alone accounted for 9 percent. Europe (including the UK) won 36 percent of the awards, North America took 27 percent and Latin America, 14 percent.

Of course, these are just two factors in the complex stew of conditions affecting creativity the region. What other workplace factors make a difference, and what are Asian agencies doing to improve their creative conditions?

Diversity and the death of the Rockstar

For this year’s Cannes Lions, Contagious Insider partnered with Razorfish to crunch through
15 years of awards data and come up with useful insights for the industry. One of the strongest statistics it found was that submissions which had more individuals credited had a higher win-rate. Winning work had an average of 26 percent more team members credited.

This correlated with the fact that submissions that credited a larger share of below-director-level individuals were likewise more successful.

“The most creatively successful agencies [based on Contagious I/O, the firm’s database of creative work] are killing off ‘rockstar culture’ by building capabilities into the organisation rather than individuals,” says Will Sansom, director of Contagious Insider.

(Story continues below)

The habits of highly creative agencies

1. They choose their battles

David Droga told Contagious: “As much as clients vet us, we vet them.” 

2. They eschew rockstars

Nick Law, global CCO at R/GA New York observed that rockstars are unlikely to bring in someone with a skillset he does not understand. “People aren’t prepared to relinquish power.”

3. They stay fluid

Pioneer agencies are placing emphasis on making teams flexible, allowing different disciplines to work together in a less rigid way.

4. Their leaders are the support

Forsman & Bodenfors CEO, Erik Sollenberg described his agency’s management as a support function with only one main task: to help people do their best creative work. 

5. They collaborate with clients

Sollenberg also involves clients a lot earlier in the process than most agencies. “You want to create a situation where the client feels a part of the team. You don’t want to feel that they are your opposition.”

Source: Alex Jenkins, Contagious Magazine

A highly awarded creative head who focuses more on glory from awards than effectiveness may not necessarily be able to inspire his team, echoes Abhijeet Dutta Ray, a partner at Creative Joy Consultancy and VP of client and media services for Barrett & Welsh. “A creative head who focuses more on creative effectiveness than fame may be more inspirational,” he says.

The old formula of the lone Don Draper pondering on his couch simply doesn’t work when set against the breadth of work an agency now needs to produce for a successful client campaign. “It’s very difficult for any one single service provider to meet the needs across the range of creative options,” observes Nick Waters, CEO of Dentsu Aegis Network, Asia-Pacific. “So our thinking is to create an environment internally that allows a free flow and integration of skillsets.”

The move towards creating cross-discipline client-teams is indicative that agencies have recognised this fact. “We interviewed the CEO of the agency behind the Volvo Trucks campaign and, more recently, the SKII China ‘Leftover women’ campaign, Forsman & Bodenfors for our research into the world’s most contagious agencies,” shares Sansom. “Erik Sollenberg [F&B’s CEO] said the agency had flat, collaborative client teams that were assembled around briefs and the agency would rally behind these teams to give them the support that was needed. These teams are comprised of both junior and senior people which matters as it means agencies are not solely dependent on ‘rockstars’.”

Without the clash of ideas that comes from different backgrounds, different ways of thinking, you lose creative energy.
Tom Crampton, global MD, Social@Ogilvy

Tom Crampton, global MD of Social@Ogilvy, believes the interplay between individuals in a team leads adds a crucial factor.

“Creativity comes from friction, and you need to create dynamic friction within a team,” he says. “As such, diversity is not a politically correct initiative, it’s an imperative for any business that wants to stay in touch with the world. Without the clash of ideas that comes from different backgrounds, different ways of thinking, you lose creative energy.”

In Asia—due to a cultural tendency to respect group consensus and hierarchy—it can often help to take steps to actively encourage dissent. “I’m not saying it’s exclusive to Asia, but there may be more of a need in the region,” says Crampton, who has worked across four continents. “This can be done by setting a goal of disagreeing. Everyone has to start a sentence with ‘Yes, but…’ It often starts out as a joke but what it does in the long run is it gives people permission to disagree. People are more willing to take a position and it depersonalises the debate, leading to a profileration of ideas.”

Physical change

The diversity imperative, at least across different skillsets, has been the one aspect agencies are tackling head-on. From Martin Sorrell’s war cry of ‘horizontality’ in 2012 to the establishment of Havas Villages and Publicis Groupe’s recent restructure, agency groups have been both strategically and, in some cases, physically rearranging their businesses to ensure greater collaboration. Other examples include Dentsu Aegis Network choosing to co-locate their agencies as leases expire, and the WPP Campus in Shanghai which houses 26 different businesses owned by the group. Some have embraced hot-desking or no-desking but all have opted for open plan. The days of the agency corner office appear to be over.

While many of these new offices are either new or in the process of being established, there is some evidence that the process helps spur creativity. Clients nowadays expect more in the way of convergence and integration from their communications advisors.

“That is exactly what we provided when we adopted the ‘Together’ strategy centered around the Havas Villages,” says Yannick Bolloré, chairman and CEO of Havas Group. Bolloré credits this strategy with the win of Orange and LVMH in Paris, along with the Europe win of Teva Pharma, thanks to a collaboration between Havas Worldwide New York and design agency Conran Design Group, and a tie-up between HPS and Havas Media that won JDE. “People looked askance at us at the time, but now all our competitors have indeed pretty much followed this integrated model.”

Related Q&A: Why R/GA gave up on the traditional agency model

In the case of the WPP Campus in Shanghai, a strong bonus of co-locating into one building has been a stronger sense of identity, says Bessie Lee, CEO of WPP China.

“The group is massive, people don’t know how wide and deep our expertise goes,” she explains. “By co-locating as many operating companies as we can, we’re backing up our commitment to horizontality with physical action.”

The campus houses 3,000 employees and takes up 80 percent of a 50,000-square-metre building and as such WPP gets to name the tower after itself. “It’s a first for WPP to have a big sign at the top of the building,” Lee says. “Ours is both in Chinese and in English and you can see it as you drive down the expressway. For the Chinese, it shows the firm’s size and strength.”

Co-location has helped encourage and smooth ‘horizontality’, she adds.

Community building: Bringing various agencies under one roof in ‘Havas villages’ has enabled the network to establish a connected culture and brought the benefit of cross-pollination of ideas.

“Before this, we had to pick an agency office for meetings, Shanghai traffic being what it is, there were late arrivals, no-shows, but now it’s punctual attendance and a much higher level of interest among colleagues.”

Waters says that sharing an office space allows free-movement of people, which with the right number of collaboration spaces will allow creative people to run into mathematicians. Dentsu Aegis Network Asia-Pacific has established group offices in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Mumbai, Dehli, Jakarta, Manila and Kuala Lumpur and is in the process of moving its Singapore offices. “We place a lot of planning emphasis around the agencies that should be proximate without an office apartment, and agencies that need to be kept apart, if they’re servicing clients in a competitive category for example,” says Waters. “It can be quite the Rubik’s Cube.”

However, just being under one roof is not enough, notes Vishnu Mohan, CEO of Havas Media Group Asia-Pacific, adding that it has to be more than just economies of scale. “It’s just the start,” Mohan says. “In fact, ‘togetherness’ [for Havas] is really about effectiveness and not [commercial] efficiency. For many of the agencies the latter drives the housing of units under one roof”.

The right culture

“Putting a bunch of people on beanbags won’t magically make them creative geniuses,” says Contagious Insider’s Sansom, dryly. He says he has reservations about the effectiveness of just implementing a more ‘creative’ physical space and throwing the entire company into hot-desking. Corporate culture and the leaders that foster that culture have a large part to play, he explains.

Rob Campbell, head of strategy at W+K Shanghai would agree: “A lot of companies have started to appreciate that the physical space has a huge benefit, but the actual culture matters more. If Lehman Brothers had a room full of beanbags, do you honestly think they’d encourage anyone to go in an relax? They’d go, ‘What the fuck do you think you’re doing?’”

W+K is perhaps the agency most famed for its culture, but all it’s based on, says Campbell, is the desire to “do the best work of our lives”. “When I joined, I’d heard so much about the culture but I was absolutely cynical and sceptical. But now I’ve been here longer than anyone wants me to and it really is genuine,” he says.

I could make them swap desks—which drives them mad but has results—or kick them out of the office to go have an experience.
Rob Campbell, head of strategy, W+K Shanghai

The agency is known for its quirkiness—for experiments around cutting off after-work emails, for fun internal awards—but all this is a product of the culture, not the cause of the culture. “We try stuff. Each office tries different things around removing hindrances to doing great work,” says Campbell.

As a boss, he views his main role as creating an environment where his team can do the best work possible. “This could mean I make them swap their desks—which drives them mad but has results—or I kick them out of the office to go have an experience. I have to lead this by example and behaviour.”

Pat Law, founder and CEO of up-and-coming boutique agency Goodstuph, says her agency’s ‘rules’ are also entirely based around the work and the attitude that one can always do better. “Beyond that, anything goes when it comes to work, so long as we deliver on brief, and on time.”

Law says she believes that an agency is defined as much by what it will not do as what it will. “We don’t sell Facebook pages as an idea just because we are in the business of social media. We will say no to a project if we know from the get-go that we can’t meet the deadline. And we will never present a scam ad to a client to endorse for an award.”

Culture is something Dentsu Aegis Network has spent a lot of thought on, says Waters. “When we merged, we merged two businesses with strong and quite different cultures. It was important that one culture wouldn’t override the other, that we could create a blended hybrid.”

Since its establishment, the group has worked hard to determine and establish a set of values, he continues. “We want to be ambitious, pioneering, agile, responsible and collaborative. We build our culture by running everything through the lens of these values.”

Work-life integration

Conversations with numerous agency heads indicate less of a move towards establishing formal work-life-balance rules and more about the enabling of a flexible approach to work. “There are days when everyone’s out of the office by 6.30pm and there are days when we’re in the office till 1am for eight-days-straight,” says Law. “It’s the nature of the business, whether we like it or not. The long hours are very real. But no one’s going to stop you from having a haircut at 3pm if you’re having an easy day, and we have approved all lengths of annual leave so far, the most recent being a full month.”

It matters, though, that management is seen to care and the work is meaningful. “I try to not let the late nights be about cleaning someone else’s shit up,” says Law. “We provide mandatory time-off-in-lieu for every unexpected late night and weekend.”

Asia’s strong work ethic can translate into long hours becoming more about preserving face than productivity. When Waters first arrived in Asia in 2001, he found that offices in Vietnam and in Shanghai saw a lot of people working late into the evening. “Not sure they were producing anything, they just wanted to be seen as working late.”

I try to not let the late nights be about cleaning someone else’s shit up. We provide mandatory time-off-in-lieu for every unexpected late night and weekend.
Pat Law, founder and CEO, Goodstuph

While this aspect is not unique to the industry, agencies do need to make sure employees have “the space and freedom to think”, says Waters. “We try and ensure that time-spent is not what’s valued at our organisation, but rather work produced.”

Sansom, however, thinks the industry is a little overly enamoured with the culture of long hours and needs to take a more active role in curbing it. “I was at a dinner very recently and the topic of work-life balance cropped up,” he says. “To be honest, I was slightly shocked at the things said. One agency leader talked about catering for its agency staff, with loads to eat and drink and a nice environment [so] they don’t want to go home. That is the same logic casinos use. It’s the responsibility of employers to make sure staff are in the right medical and physical condition to work.”

Senior leaders who say they don’t need a formal HR rule around work-life-balance because junior employees need to take responsibility is “bullshit”, adds Sansom. “They’ve forgotten what it’s like to be young, hungry and desperate.” However, that is not to say that the occassional late night with the team forcing out creative work doesn’t have its place. “It can result in great creativity. There are no absolutes. But you can’t keep people in a pressure cooker all the time.”

It’s also about the clients

When it comes to client relationships, agencies can get fixated on having the right brief from the right client. “It’s a myth that you have to have a great creative brief from an exciting client with a big budget to do great creativity,” says Sansom. “In our analysis of great award-winning work, we found little if any correlation between media spend and win-rate at Cannes.”

A factor that absolutely moved the needle, however, was trust. “When we charged the client-agency relationship over a 10-year period, we found that relationships that exceed 10 years have twice the win-rate at Cannes than before. Great creative relationships take time but once established, it should almost negate the need for a brief.”

It’s the responsibility of employers to make sure staff are in the right medical and physical condition to work.
Will Sansom, Contagious Insider

David Tiltman, head of content at Warc, also pointed to trust as a major factor determining the creative effectiveness of the work produced by an agency on behalf of its client. “It takes a level of trust to allow an agency to really understand the business,” he says. “One of the things we repeatedly find is that to produce effective creativity you have to know in advance what measures you want to effect. That means the client has to trust the agency enough to share the right kind of data with them.”

While Tiltman can’t speak directly to the level of trust between clients and agencies in Asia-Pacific, he can point to the region’s performance in the creative effectiveness category at this year’s Cannes. Only 8 percent of Creative Effectiveness Lions came from Asia—a fairly lacklustre total when compared against 36 percent from Europe, 13 percent from Australasia, 24 percent from North America and 12 percent from Central and South America.

“I’d like to say Asia is gaining ground in terms of client partnerships, but that would be overly optimistic,” says Waters. “My observations would be that MNC marketers for many businesses are under pressure and have been from some time. That pressure gets pushed outwards to their whole supply chain. It has become harder to secure long-term valued relationships.”

Strong cultural influences are also influencing the dynamic, observes Waters. “What I’m about to say is a generalisation, but there is truth in every generalisation. Many Asian markets and business cultures are highly transactional, and I think that can be a little bit short-termist. Another aspect that can’t be overlooked, is that some Eastern cultures a supplier is by definition subservient to the client.”

However, any agency that thinks it’s in a full partnership with a client is fooling itself, says Sansom. “Agencies are a vendor. The client is the leader. But good leadership needs trust.”

The value of creativity

A conclusion that can be drawn from the interviews for this article is that many Asian cultures and markets don’t place a high value on creativity, or the creative process. The late Tim Broadbent, former global effectiveness director at Ogilvy & Mather, once observed in an opinion piece for Warc that much of the work asked of them by Asian clients was extremely functional.

“There is plenty of evidence that creativity is effective, but short-term goals have halved that impact,” says Tiltman, citing an IPA study.

The client’s perception of creative work isn’t aided by their creative and media agencies competing with each other, comments Levent Guenes, CEO of Havas Worldwide Southeast Asia. “There’s an undoubted desire in the marketplace to have greater unification of creative and media thinking throughout,” he says adding that the Havas Village approach is aimed at filling this void.

Perhaps the ideal creative condition Asia’s agencies have to strive the hardest for is one that values creativity and the creative process. The challenge for the industry’s leaders, then, is to communicate these values clearly to clients.

“There is a strong cultural element to what type of work is valued, and leadership can go a long way towards setting the tone,” says Waters.

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