Art & Commerce: To Boldly Go

Ditch The Tried-And-True, Writes Susan Friedman, And Let The Creative Superstars Strut Their Stuff
I RECEIVED A CALL from the chief executive of one of the world’s largest ad agencies. He needed to hire an executive creative director–one who might even become chairman–to give a fresh identity to a firm whose creative image had ossified during the economic downturn of the early ’90s. The successful candidate had to be a name, a star, a brand: a Lee Clow, a Donny Deutsch, a Ted Bell.
We spent a full year on the project. The first five “brands” wouldn’t even talk. The sixth wanted his name on the door. The seventh and eighth candidates weren’t big enough names. The company then considered buying a hot shop to acquire its creative star.
How did it conclude? Let me put it this way: We earned our search fee, but there was no reward in the end.
That, in a nutshell, is the great dilemma facing the ad industry today. There aren’t enough creative brands to go around. The question is why?
Part of the problem is economics. But the biggest reason for the decline and fall of the creative impulse is the ad industry’s internally contradictory attitude toward creativity and creators.
First, economics. With the consolidation of the ad business and its financial pressures, agencies have cut back on training programs to the point where they are basically nonexistent. Globalization of markets has also made it difficult for boutique shops to form and thrive, eliminating a source of talent that was vital during the dawn of the creative revolution through the ’80s.
What’s more, consolidation has reduced the number of competitors from which one might hire. Indeed, you can argue that the world now consists of only four agencies and their subsidiaries. Typically, these giants are reluctant to shift creative talent among their holdings. But until the conglomerates encourage internal competition, thereby creating financial and psychic incentives for the truly talented to stay within the larger fold, they will continue to lose the future brand names to more desperate and deeper-pocketed competitors.
Economics, however, pales in comparison to culture. The ad industry has turned itself into an unexciting place for real talent to strut their stuff. Amid an unprecedented economic boom, clients and agencies have, paradoxically, grown more conservative. Succumbing to fear, they depend on formula. At the very moment in marketing history when agencies and clients need to move beyond the double-page spread and the 30-second spot, they are recycling the tried, the true, the dull.
Creatives thrive on the new, the novel, the untested. And who’s providing that now? The Web and cable. Some creative talent is also moving to the growing number of marketers, like the Gap, which understand the dynamics of the “entertainment economy.”
“Entertainment” is the key word. From the dawn of Doyle Dane, the promise of advertising has been the opportunity it provides to entertain and influence an audience with creativity. Maybe the industry has lost sight of what made it alluring to its most daring entrepreneurs. In doing so, it might jeopardize or worse, eliminate, its very future.
But not mine. We started an interactive search division and a corporate creative consultancy. Hey, creative minds have got to go somewhere.

Susan Friedman is president of Susan Friedman Ltd. in New York, a consultancy founded in 1984. She handles search assignments, primarily in the creative arena, for agencies in the U.S. and around the world.