Charles Wigley
Sep 16, 2014

When high-quality creatives fail to produce high quality

Why the quality of your creative department bears remarkably little relationship to the quality of your output.

Charles Wigley
Charles Wigley

That sounds contradictory, but let me explain. (I am not referring to how successful your agency is at scam. No doubt at Spikes this year there will be the usual swath of winners with unusually small logos, followed by the standard raised eyebrows, denials, exposés and hilariously bad excuses. No, here we are talking about the real, big stuff. The stuff that actually pays everyone's salaries.)

I've worked in a range of agencies over the years and in every one—irrespective of the how good or bad the agency itself is—I've always found a few great people in the creative department. People with commitment, drive and passion. Certainly the usual dead wood is often there too, but there's always been the commonality of a few good men and women.

So everywhere at least some good creative people. But not everywhere good real work. Why?

The answer has to go back to the totality of an agency environment. It's culture, values and sense of purpose as a company. The stuff we all routinely lecture our clients about in strategic documents. 

It is the whole team and what it is driving for that counts and actually makes a difference. Not excellence in just one area. This is why star creative teams often can't make any difference at all when they move from a good agency to a bad or mediocre one, often in more senior roles. It is the system and its inherent beliefs that matters: the entrepreneurship, drive and charisma of its account people; the curiosity and strategic skills of its planners; the aesthetic judgment and organizing abilities of its producers; but above all else the culture that binds all those people and the creative department together.

Advertising is full of multiple specialisms, but ultimately is a team-based sport. And teams need to know how they play best together—their 'system'—and to believe it is the way they can win as a group. By way of comparison think of football. England in recent years have struggled to have any real idea of 'how they play' as a team. Germany after some years in the wilderness now know exactly what their system is. The results are obvious if you watched the World Cup this summer.

The commoditisation of our industry is, at least in part, a reflection of the abandonment of strong, positive individual agency cultures. And the amount of scam in any one year is an indicator of relative cultural health—in an entirely inverse manner, because it is a reflection of desperation to achieve something in cultures that aren't willing to make the sacrifices (mainly financial ones) necessary to drive for real quality.

So if you are looking to improve your agency's output, it may pay not just to look at the people in your creative department, but also at everyone around them and, most importantly, at the system and culture that binds them. What does your business believe in? How does it play best as a team? Does it know how it wins? Or does it play like England?

Charles Wigley is chairman of BBH Asia Pacific

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