In late October I went to Torrey Pines Lodge, north of San Diego, for a Creative Leaders' Retreat run by the One Club. Somewhere in this spectacular, mahogany-lined golfing mecca, where fighter jets roared across the manicured landscape from the nearby Top Gun Fighter School, I went searching for answers. The theme was loosely about integrating design and digital into agencies, with discussions among some of the smartest creative leaders in America. While our agency is now very much a modern, progressive one (as indeed many of us are), I was there to ask – what could we do to keep on evolving? How could we future-proof our business in the face of clients using multiple agencies, the rise of procurement, and the constant demands of more for less? What did “full service agency” even mean now? How do you continue to build a modern creative agency and creative department?
First up was a keynote from R/GA CCO Nick Law. R/GA New York is one agency equipped to grow into the future because it’s actually already there; Law’s perspective is that brands and media are primarily experienced through an interface now, so it makes sense to start there. As a self-proclaimed “agency for the connected age,” they engineer work for networked mediums, and connect products in a way that Law says “surrounds a consumer”. For him, it’s all about symbiosis: filling your team with storytellers and systematic thinkers, the co-existence of broadcast and digital, and the balance of art and science. It was all in danger of sounding like a philosophy paper, then Law brought it back to earth by showing brilliant work that proved his point: Nike Plus, Fuel Band, Beats films (featuring Richie McCaw) and the phenomenally huge and ultra-basic “Straight Outta Compton” social campaign. Four brilliant ideas that either created new platforms, made the most of existing ones, exemplified integration far beyond campaign into culture, or used stirring storytelling mixed with silly fun. At the break I went to the very friendly wait staff and asked for a strong coffee.
From then on it was a mix of more incredible talent, and I soon noticed how many of these creative leaders from self-proclaimed ‘full-service agencies’ (“and I’m not ashamed to call ourselves that” one ECD said, tellingly) started in coding and design. Jeff Benjamin, the man behind Burger King’s Subservient Chicken, Mike Geiger from David & Goliath, Will McGinness from Venables Bell & Partners, and Matt Murphy of 72 & Sunny are all artistic nerds.
But they were exactly what I hoped them to be – human beings who talk not in code and digital language, but in human terms, and were funny bastards to boot. In an industry that still struggles to convince clients (or even itself) that it’s digitally savvy, and overcompensates by talking about the platforms over ideas, it feels like we’ve tipped too far into science and data - prompting Nick Law to wonder if they should hire a “Chief Analogue Officer.” He was only half-joking.
Among all these impressive problem solvers was a common realisation that you can’t ever have it solved. The session with Will McGinness started surprisingly: “I have no answers,” he said, a phrase met not with incredulity but relief for many of the ECDs and MDs in the room. Even PJ Periera, a man at the forefront of branded content and the brains behind Intel’s 'The Beauty Inside', gave an entire talk about successfully creating content, then concluded by saying “I’m sure of around 60 percent of this.”
Ultimately, a kind of answer was revealed: every agency is in constant flux. We make the mistake of thinking that change is going from completed state to completed state. As Debbi Vandeven of VML said, “there are often criticisms within agencies that ‘we don’t know what we are’. But locking yourself down is counterproductive – you evolve no matter what.”
All this was wrapped in the universal acknowledgement that agility and speed was now the new table stakes. It’s a given that content in most marketers' eyes means “fast and cheap to produce” and there were a few suggestions of ways to meet the challenge. Will McGinness talked about the “Creative Prief” – a preliminary conversation between client and all key people involved in a brief, to sort the whole process. Matt Murphy described the tight and compact unit of the three-legged chair – planner, CD, suit. Not revolutionary by any means, (Vancouver agency Taxi named itself years ago on the premise that all the people you need to drive a client’s marketing should fit in a cab), but the challenge is definitely for larger, siloed agencies to act like smaller, energetic shops. Even among protests that clients do their brands a disservice by compressing timelines and reducing budgets, the mantra was clear and uneasy: we have to get to good, sooner.
After two days of group therapy, theorising and excellent catering, I came away feeling that even talking about being a digital or integrated agency is a bit old hat. At the cusp of 2016, everything is digital, humans are integrated, it’s just life. The best question asked was “what would we do if we started a brand new agency from scratch, now?” to which Jeff Benjamin replied “(one that’s) radically different, rather than marginally better.” The strong message was that agencies clinging to only what they know are no longer going to suffer a slow decay. Like typesetters after the creation of the Mac, they’ll be gone before they’ve even bothered to look up.
In the end, among all the thought-leadership from heavy-hitters in one of the world’s biggest and toughest ad markets, there were no massive revelatory answers (which marketing evangelists love to deal in), except one: stop looking for them. I went looking for clues and found instead a sense of liberated optimism. We’re as ahead of the game as anyone in the world. Change just comes from doing, which comes naturally to us in New Zealand. It’s as simple as choosing to ponder the future, or just making it as we go.
But no matter what form the future takes – and it won’t be one form, but many – it will still be driven by principles that aren’t changed by distribution models, platform innovations or data wrangling. Bravery still wins. Belief trumps knowledge. And most clearly of all, the agencies that succeed will be the ones who embrace the chaos.
Corey Chalmers is joint-executive creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi NZ.