Structural Damage

As advertising people, we understand fads for what they are: trends or crazes that come and go quickly. If we buy into a fad, it’s with the idea that we will not invest much of our hearts, souls or future in it. It will eventually become a distant memory.

Brand teams are an organizational fad quite a few agencies have been suckered into using. But they have done more to stifle ad agency creativity than any fad in advertising over the past 20 years. I know because it runs creative people out of their shops and over to me. The bad news is: This fad is not going away. Not yet.

For those unfamiliar with brand-team re-engineering, let me fill you in. The standard agency is organized into departments: account services, creative, planning, media, etc. The members of each department work together in the same physical area, even though they work on different accounts. This age-old structure allows for commiseration and objective judgment of ideas.

The creative department is led by its senior members. Other creatives answer first within their discipline; the account executives second; and the clients third. This way, ideas and techniques are judged first strictly as ideas, not by whether clients will buy them. The scrupulous gaze of all other disciplines comes later. But first and foremost is the cold eye of smart creativity.

With brand-team restructuring, however, departments are cut into pieces and reassembled into client or brand teams. Each team operates like a mini agency: a few account people, some creatives, media and, often, strategic planners. Each team is centered around the clients they serve. All of a sudden, it’s not about creativity or what you do best. It’s about pleasing your clients.

For some, it could be exciting and uplifting. A midlevel media person, let’s say, who might never have been encouraged to offer an opinion before, might now be the senior media person on a brand team. That kind of empowerment is hard to deny. But there are real trade-offs. And brand teams trade off a lot.

No longer is it about doing your objective best. It’s doing what the client likes or will buy. The client is the idol to be worshiped.

How do you feel about your clients playing creative director? Pretty scary, huh? We spend time wondering where and if clients are trained, then we come up with a structure that makes them the center of the decision wheel. Ironic.

Most of the shops I’ve seen that have adopted brand teams either: 1) have mediocre creative and the structure simply helps them get the work out; 2) don’t know what they’re doing and have no idea what they’re getting into; or 3) take creativity for granted and love brand teams because they make the agency look bigger.

Clients don’t care how you structure the agency as long as the work is good, on time and on budget. Ask them. And they don’t want to make the call about what runs, either. That’s what they pay you to do.

Whoever thought up brand teams owes the entire ad industry, including clients, a huge apology. If you haven’t restructured, breathe easier.