Mike Fromowitz
Aug 5, 2011

Is ad agency 'star power' overrated?

Two nights ago, I found myself at a local pub engaged in a rather heated discussion with some agency colleagues. The topic was about whether ad agencies should or should not hire rock-star ...

Is ad agency 'star power' overrated?

Two nights ago, I found myself at a local pub engaged in a rather heated discussion with some agency colleagues. The topic was about whether ad agencies should or should not hire rock-star creative people to build their reputations and their bottom lines. The following are the highlights from that discussion.

The hiring of rock-star creatives can increase an agency’s ability to win new business,  perform better in awards shows, raise awareness and enhance the agency’s reputation.  On that point, everyone agreed. For some agencies, however, it’s proven to be a rather brief engagement.

Unless the ad agency has developed a culture for creativity that runs through the whole company, star-power can sometimes be a short-term band-aid. When the star performer picks up and leaves and takes his talent to another agency, the recognition, and the awards go down the elevator and out the door. Sometimes staff and clients follow.

Star power does not always guarantee the long-term success of an ad agency. A rock-star creative can drag down an otherwise positive environment. They are talented, no doubt about that, but when they are totally focused on their own interests, their often fragile egos and destructive bad habits can cost the agency a great deal of time, resources and make peoples’ lives miserable.

Primarily because of their past successes, star creatives are also unwilling to fit easily into the new organisation, without wanting to change it. Moreover, they don’t often stay with agencies for very long, despite the astronomical salaries firms pay to lure them away from their rivals.  Once stars start changing jobs, they often keep moving to the next highest bidder.

Star power is no guarantee

For these reasons, agencies do not always gain a competitive advantage by hiring rock-stars. Instead, they should focus on growing talent within the organization and do everything possible to retain the stars they do create. Agencies shouldn’t fight the star wars, because winning could be the worst thing that happens to them.

The arrival of a highflier can result in creative coworkers becoming demotivated. Weeks before his arrival, they may worry that their jobs are in jeopardy—should the new star creative not think highly of their work. Stories are rampant of newly hired creative directors cleaning house and hiring on people they’ve worked with before. Coworkers’ suspicions are further fueled by the fact that the star creative will provide more resources to his newly hired staff than to the existing creative stalwarts. Loyal employees become embittered, because without similar resources they cannot perform as well as the new hired guns. Worse yet, they believe the new guy isn’t interested in tapping their potential. That often results in a demoralization within creative groups.

Most of us have, in our minds eye, an image of the rock-star creative. The person has extra-ordinary intelligence, has commitment, is a non-conformist, shows some absent-mindedness, can be stubborn, reveals a bit of volatility bordering upon madness, and above all, exudes an egocentricity so powerful that it often disregards the attitudes and opinions of others. Indeed, the star creative is not quite like the rest of us. Thus it is important for agency management to identify and understand the differences, as mismanagement of the star creative can lead to poor results, and can stifle his creativity rather than induce it. The most common mistake management makes is to “manage” the creative star by using the same standards they apply to their more conventional members of staff.

The cult of the creative personality

What drives creative people is plainly different than what drives others in an agency. Indubitably, they crave and enjoy fame. They don’t, in many cases, care about making money, either for the company or for themselves. Their motives are different. They are prepared to be judged by their output, a very important decision in their life. The work is their focus. It’s proof of their worthiness. They have a great need to be appreciated. Only politicians and sportspeople are equally subject to the cult of the creative personality. The vast majority of workers do their job anonymously, while the names of star creatives glitter around the world at the awards shows.

The fact that the creative star is judged by his/her output, exacerbates and makes them dependent upon egotism. Without an ego, creatives don’t seem to get very far. They are much more influenced by their own, inner standards than they are by those set by their profession. Indeed, this does breed some negative by-products. For example, most creatives are career-driven rather than company-oriented. Their innate rebelliousness inevitably leads them to dislike taking orders, and because creative genius is so rare, agencies have to learn to live with their whims and their tantrums.

The majority of star creatives are driven by the need to create and to achieve perfection, and difficult and painful though it often is, they put their hearts and souls into their work. A simplistic explanation for this would be that creative people enjoy what they do far more than others do.

The best creatives want to work in an agency with a creative reputation

To build their business, agencies often attempt to hire a creative person they can easily plug into their existing culture. Some agencies hire a creative star to increase the agency’s reputation. The smart ones, hire a creative star who has leadership qualities and who understands the importance of building a distinctive, long-term ‘creative’ culture.

It’s always been a bit of a controversial issue for the advertising world, but from my point of view, it’s really important that the agency Creative Director build a strong, award-winning team for the ad agency, rather than build his own reputation first. The ‘star’ model  does not always guarantee success, and may be shortsighted and sometimes harmful to the agency and its image.

Without a creative reputation, however, most agencies are unable to recruit top stars, top writers and art directors, top talent of any kind. The talent will be concerned about the effect upon his own reputation for working in an agency with a poor creative image. The best creative people want to work with agencies that already have a creative reputation. That way, they believe they are guaranteed some good work for their portfolios. Some may accept less money and even lousy working conditions to do so. Working alongside top creative stars also helps to burnish their talent and provide them with the opportunity to enhance their own reputations and value for the future.

One of the creative directors in the group opined: “You can’t argue that someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good. If you hit it lucky, you may have found someone who is a thousand times better.”

He added: “I think smaller agencies often do not try to hire the best and the brightest, because they are incapable of understanding real, game-changing talent. Usually, when a small agency hires a star, the star rocks the status-quo too much because the small agency just doesn't understand the brilliance of the creative idea,  or the idea just scares the shit out of them.  But larger agency brands have to jump on the next shining star, or their competitors will.”

Creative stars keep the agency culture alive

The big agencies groups have jumped on the trend to find star talent, enthusiastically buying up a string of small start-ups, especially digital ad agencies. Neither the acquired nor the acquirers like to talk numbers. But the acquisitions are generally for a lot of money.  Agency heads say the deals are worth it because they need creative stars and entrepreneurs who can help them keep their creative culture alive.

There is not a lot of proven creative talent in areas like social networking. Some ad agencies are sure to look back and realize that they overpaid in some cases. But in the heat of the moment, clients have put the pressure on agencies insisting on more creative ideas and engagement. Since they don’t believe they have a lot of options, agency management feels justified in hiring creative rock-stars.

I reflected on the time when, after six years with The Ball Partnership, I was headhunted by the chairman of BSB/Bates out of New York. I was not at all interested in joining the agency because of its lackluster creative image and its “suit” lead management. Word on the street was that the ‘suits’ got in the way of the creative work, and many creative staff were disgruntled and ready to bail. The Ball Partnership, on the other hand was an ad agency where every suit did a great job. They lived and breathed their work; they believed in the creative ideas and in selling them with conviction. Not all suits do that, and unfortunately, Bates had a number of them.

However, Carl Spielvogel, the Chairman and founder of the company, was able to convince me that I could turn this to my advantage. He pointed out that “here was a unique personal opportunity, to improve the quality of the work and build the company’s creative image”. His strategy worked on me, and after our second breakfast together in the Mandarin Oriental Grill, I felt like a hawk inspecting a tasty morsel. Turning around a big lumbering agency is never easy. You have to work hard to make the dream come true. But it can happen if you can get everyone to focus on great creative work.

Talent is everything

No discussion on the topic of “star power” can take place without some great examples of creative star performers. One name kept surfacing in our discussions—David Droga, the young creative star who happily traded his dream of becoming the next great copywriter/art director for a shot at superstardom as a creative director.

No one in the business has won so many awards as David Droga and he’s still on top with his own agency Droga5. David has won more than 40 Cannes Lions, a dozen D&AD awards and 23 One Show pencils. He’s achieved the Global Agency of the Year at the Cannes International Advertising Festival in 2002, 2nd Most Awarded Agency in the World according to the 2002 Gunn Report, was named the World’s Top Creative Director by Ad Age Magazine 2002, and was named one of the 40 most influential people in Europe under the age of 40 by Media Magazine 2001.

David started at Omon in Australia and after winning a few lions, he became creative director and partner at the age of 22. He was then hired as Creative Director of the Saatchi & Saatchi operation in Singapore. The agency rapidly became the best in the world, and Droga was promoted to Executive Creative Director of Saatchi & Saatchi in London. Of course, the agency became the best in the world some years later, promoting him once again as Worldwide Chief Creative Officer of the Publicis group. Naturally, he became bored with it all and wanted to return to his true creative roots, so he escaped and opened his own shop Droga5 in New York and Sidney.

Another brilliant creative man who really doesn’t need an introduction, is Neil French. Neil, who led Ogilvy’s worldwide creative for many years and then moved to oversee the entire WPP network, put O&M’s culture in perspective: “Talent is everything. Don’t look at what people have done: Look at what they could do, given the chance.”

Mr. French, a brilliant writer, wonderful art director and savvy Creative Director said:  “I wouldn’t hire recognised creative ’stars’. I’d hire people I admire, who’d quite like to be stars, but wouldn’t lay down their lives for it. Want some names? Al Jackson, Richard Johnson. Edward Ong, Mike Sutcliffe, Tim Crowther, Jack Fund. Never heard of most of them? I’ve got dozens of names in my file, all of whom could be demi-gods, and some of whom will. With these people an agency would become great in no time. Talent is everything. Don’t look at what people have done: Look at what they could do, given the chance.”

It’s hard not to admire what creative people like David Droga, Neil French, Tham Khai Meng, Gerry Graf, David Guerrero, and other creative stars have accomplished. In an economy that relies more heavily now than ever on creativity and innovation, the gap between what a highly creative and productive person can do and what an average creative person can do is getting bigger and bigger.

It must have been close to midnight, yet our discussion group of nine senior ad agency  executives remained fully engaged, especially with the following questions being tabled:  “If you are building a company, would you prefer one standout person over one hundred pretty good people? If you were launching a new ad agency or a product, would you rather have one great creative mind rather than 100 average creative people?”

Can one star outperform 100 mediocre people?

Perhaps the question of superstar vs 100 good people will continue to be debated for years.  Is success tied to individual brilliance or group genius, self-possessed superstars or well-rounded teams?  Are we fielding a team, or assembling a small collection of creative people lead by a rock-star?  Is one Shakespeare worth more than one hundred Bukowskis,  Dostoevskys, Huxleys, Steinbecks. Tolstoys, Faulkners, Joyces, or Hemingways?

In today’s ad industry, the strong may take from the weak, but it’s the smart that take from the strong. As was noted earlier, large agency brands shell out big dollars to acquire a company, not to buy clients any longer, but to hire a few creative superstars and make a huge impact.

Case in point: WPP’s buyout of Batey Ads in Singapore—the ad agency famous for creating the ‘Singapore Girl’. The agency was known for bringing in creative stars from around the globe. Their work was often times nothing short of brilliant. But it was also a swinging door and its creative stars never stayed on too long. However, once it was bought out by WPP, and its long serving management had left the agency, its unique culture was no longer.  Today, the agency doesn’t exist, though its reputation still lives on. The same holds true for The Ball Partnership which hired Neil French as its Regional Creative Director. The company was bought out by RSCG, the name was changed, good people moved on, and the culture slipped out the door. The Ball Partnership name no longer exists, yet it’s reputation as one of Asia’s top ranking creative shops far exceeds that of it’s buyer.

Certainly ad agencies like DDB, O&M, BBDO, Leo Burnett, and JWT have stayed in the game for decades because they understand that groups are as important as individuals, that character counts along with credentials. Yes, they have bought their superstars and mavericks, and in many cases they have made their companies more attractive to young hotshots that might otherwise gravitate to companies like Crispin Porter, BBH, Wieden & Kennedy, Goodby Silverstein, Fallon, Mother, and Taxi. Or to digital agencies like Razorfish, R/GA, AKQA, Organic and Sapient. To their credit, they have immersed themselves in a system that emphasizes group cohesion and collaboration over me-first individual achievement.

Some companies continue to believe in star creatives, because they don't believe in systems. In a way, that's understandable. Groups don't write great TV scripts, and committees don’t conceive the next great campaign idea. Ad agencies don't just create, they also produce their ideas and coordinate the efforts of many different people. The system is the star.

Is their more to long-term performance than the excellence of one individual star player?  Are winning teams more than just a collection of talented individuals? Do you think that most creative directors of ad agencies hire people better than themselves?

David Ogilvy once said: "Hire people who are better than you are, then leave them to get on with it. Look for people who will aim for the remarkable, who will not settle for the routine.”

This article is certainly not an argument in favour of mediocrity. Nor is it a plea for some ad agencies to give up their superstars. Perhaps it is more a plea for agencies to find a way to navigate a world that goes in and out of endless booms and busts, of bubbles and popped bubbles, battles for talent and extended periods of unemployment for some very talented people.

A few more points were tabled by the discussion group before we broke up at about 1:30 in the morning:

  1. The best creative people to get great work out of are the ones that want to please themselves, rather than please you.
  2. It can be frustrating to work with some star creatives. The secret is not to deal with them but to deal with their work. Liking them or disliking them need not come into it.
  3. You have got to be willing and able to work with star talent you dislike. Otherwise you could cut yourself off from a great deal of good talent.
  4. To manage creative people you have to understand their personality traits and idiosyncrasies, and never treat them like weirdos.
  5. Smart creative people surround themselves with even smarter people who do the things they can't or don't have time for.

Your turn. How do you manage star creatives? Are they worth the trouble?


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