How Agencies Fool Themselves

I got hired by an agency that had a slogan: Creative First. And as a creative person, I was delighted to join an agency that subscribed to this idea.

But it didn’t work quite like that.

One of their clients had absolutely no interest in creativity.

They were a bank and a rather stodgy bank at that.

Once in an internal meeting, I joked the agency slogan ought to be:

Creative First – Except the Bank.

Because when it came to the bank’s rather large slice of business, creativity was simply not required.

There was no real client agency fit and the work simply got ground out.

The agency didn’t like this.

But they put up with it.

In another meeting, I suggested that the agency fire the bank.

(I was a little naïve in those days in case you’re wondering.)

The way I saw it, firing the bank would send a signal that the agency was serious about: Creative First.

So serious they were prepared to live by it.

New accounts would arrive to fill the vacuum.

Better accounts.

More creative accounts.

Maybe this scenario would have transpired, but one thing was certain.

Firing the bank would hurt the bottom line.

Still, someone at the meeting was at least partially listening.

Because a couple of weeks later, instead of firing the bank, the agency fired me.

It was a blow at the time.

But a few months later I experienced a hit of schadenfreude when the bank fired the agency.

I still don’t really understand why the agency couldn't acknowledge, internally at least, it was Creative First – Except the Bank.

True, it doesn’t have the same ring to it, but what was so wrong with admitting they had to do some dull stuff to pay the bills?

Why adopt a slogan that was 70% true at best?

Why not reposition the agency, instead trying to live up to an unattainable ideal?

More recently I worked for an agency that didn’t have a slogan.

They swore by a somewhat long-winded version of account planning.

So instead of a slogan, they had a manifesto.

“We are extremists”, it commenced.

Seeing as they were based in the Middle East, it was funny.

It was ballsy.

It was also sadly untrue.

They were more like waiters.

And not even wonderfully polished waiters, the type who’ll gently steer you away from the three-day old fish, and towards the fresh lamb.

They just took orders from clients.

Admittedly the Middle East is not the easiest place to work.

When the Sheik says “Make the logo bigger”, you basically just suck it up and make the logo bigger.

But not every client was a Sheik.

In spite of which, this “serve the Sheik” mentality, seemed ingrained in the account people.

I wondered what Allan Kazmer, my old boss would have made of it.

Allan used to say, “It’s a service industry not a servile industry”.

That’s an important distinction.

Because recruiting people with the promise of extremism but a reality of ordinary work builds an atmosphere of frustration that doesn’t help the agency.

Why endorse a manifesto you can’t live up to, when you could just position yourself differently and live up to that instead?

We’re extremists disguised as realists or waiters or whatever.

Positioning is what we’re supposed to get isn’t it?

Agencies also fool themselves without the aid of slogans or manifestos.

I worked for a small agency in Toronto, that sometimes pitched against big agencies.

The big agencies would invariably mention to the prospect that they had bigger resources.

And that these bigger resources translated into bigger and better talent.

Well yes and no.

Big agencies may be able to lure established talent with big salaries, but they’re not necessarily any good at spotting talent.

A few years before I worked at the small agency, a guy was about to graduate from the University of Toronto.

He was interested in the advertising industry.

He wrote to the 18 largest agencies in Toronto asking for an interview.

He got 18 rejection letters.

So eventually he got a job writing for the New Yorker.

And then became a best-selling author recognized as one of the most original marketing minds of his generation.

His name is Malcolm Gladwell.

And not one of those 18 agencies could spot his prodigious talent.

Now, if an agency is fooling itself, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s fooling its clients.

But it’s almost certainly not getting the best out of the people who work there.

Which means it’s unlikely that clients are getting the best out of the agency.

And isn’t that the point?

What I've learnt from the good agencies I’ve been lucky enough to work at is, they invariably aren’t fooling themselves.

Opportunity Knocks, Just Say No Toronto

Toronto doesn’t make your jaw drop like New York, Paris or Sydney can. It lacks that killer architectural app like the Statue of Liberty or the Sydney Opera House or the Eiffel Tower.

Instead, it creeps up on you the way Melbourne or Amsterdam or Singapore might, subtly in layers.

I like this low key cutting edge approach.

I live here.

In February 2011 the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Toronto 4th of the world’s most liveable cities.

Helsinki came in 6th so I’m guessing weather wasn’t a criterion.

OK I can just about buy it; liveability being kind of a loosey goosey concept.

This month the accolades continued.

A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers named Toronto a city of opportunity.

Amazingly, according to the 10 indicators used, Toronto is the number 2 city of opportunity in the world, second only to New York.



More opportunities than San Francisco with its proximity to Silicon Valley and access to all that venture capital?

Or Singapore, with their explosive 14.5% GDP growth in 2010?

What about Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai, major players in the world’s biggest marketplace -- ever?

Hey, I’m as susceptible to flattery as anybody, but for flattery to effectively massage the ego it has to be vaguely grounded in reality.

And I’m not convinced this is.

At any rate here are some opportunity indicators the report evidently missed.

The opportunity to cheer for really bad sports teams and pay some of the highest ticket prices in North America.

The Leafs make the playoffs so rarely that even a last-minute charge ending in heroic failure will send the city delirious.

The hockey religion is strong here.

How else do you explain legions of fans that have given up on excellence but won’t give up their season tickets?

The opportunity to experience really bad gridlock, at least you can enjoy a nice view of the city while you’re stuck on the Gardiner Expressway.

If you’re stuck on the Don Valley Parkway, better get in touch with your inner Zen.

And don’t worry, with a commute time that averages 24 minutes longer than Los Angeles, you’ll have plenty of time to cultivate it.

Not only are the highways jammed, but the condition of roads in and around the city is the worst it’s been since I moved here from London in the early 1990s.

As another summer of re-surfacing delays looms, take it from me, they have better roads in the Yucatan than we have in Toronto.

Agreed, the climate is kinder on infrastructure but it’s Mexico; in the middle of a drug war.

The opportunity of paying large electricity bills while enjoying frequent power outages.

The ageing delivery system frequently fails to deliver, plunging areas of the city into darkness on an almost weekly basis.

And not only have rates increased by maybe 40% over 5 years, but the Supreme Court of Canada found Toronto Hydro guilty of gouging on late payment charges.

The solution -- a rate increase to pay off the $7.7 million in legal fees gets rubber stamped by the Ontario Energy Board.

No I’m not kidding.

Kafka must be pissing himself laughing.

The opportunity to travel on North America’s most expensive public transit, the only major transit system in the world to receive absolutely no central government funding.

Clearly successive Federal Governments know something about transit that’s escaped the rest of the world.

And let's not forget the opportunity to subsidise the rest of Canada to the tune of $8 billion a year.

While the city’s infrastructure crumbles around us the taxes we pay get spent somewhere else.

Predictably certain sections of the media are cranking up the hype wagon.

The Grid, a re-launch of a free listings magazine formally known as Eye Weekly, ran a story on the PWC study saying we won.

Actually what they said was, “The good news: We won! We won!”

The basis for this pronouncement being that NYC is unbeatable, so coming 2nd is in fact winning.

Note to Leafs.

For reasons known only to them, The Toronto Star ran a story headlined, Forget Paris.

I’m not sure if they have a beef with Paris or are randomly referencing a 1995 Billy Crystal movie that three people saw.

Did I mention I’m as susceptible to flattery as anybody, but for flattery to effectively massage the ego it has to be vaguely grounded in reality?

I just don’t think this is.

And if you live in Toronto I hope you don’t either because what this city needs is less, not more complacency.

Anyone Can Draw a Tiger

Everyone knows when they have an Aha! Moment. But nobody really knows where these Aha! Ideas come from.

Or what happens at that moment when the mind recognizes a thought as a new idea.

A 2004 study by neuroscientists Mark Jung-Beeman and Edward Bowden found an increase in neural activity in the brain’s right temporal lobe occurs during these moments.

So we know there’s increased traffic in the brain, but neuroscience seems to be years away, from really understanding the genesis of ideas and answering the question, what happens in the nanosecond an idea comes into creation?

Wired editor and author, Steven Johnson tackles the question from a social and cultural perspective in this excellent animation, Where Good Ideas Come From.

And Seth Godin knows they don't come from watching television, which must be a blow over at the The Discovery Channel.

Not to be out done, by these two luminaries, over the years I’ve conducted my own field research.

I’ve enjoyed some stimulating conversations and a few beers in pursuit of the answer, with the assistance of all kinds of creative minds,  from advertising people to architects, musicians to furniture designers.

Not forgetting a couple of astrophysicists I met at a fiesta in Merida.

And the result of all this collaborative investigation is…I still don’t know.

Sometimes ideas come as a result of grinding them out “Just work the problem harder,” as Einstein said.

Sometimes they come out of the blue, while you’re driving or taking a walk, or in a dream.

And usually they come from somewhere in between the two extremes.

There are some people you work with, and you riff off each other as effortlessly as  John Coltrane and Miles Davis.

And other people you work with where the process seems to internalize and feels like pulling hens’ teeth.

Fortunately, you don't need to know where ideas come from, in order to recognize them.

About a year ago I had my own tiny Aha! Moment.

It led to a very simple theory of creativity.

The clearest way of explaining it is to imagine a child’s dot to dot drawing book.

Anyone can draw a tiger if they just connect the dots in sequence.

Remove the numbers from the dots and it becomes a little harder.

Remove the dots all together and some people can still draw a tiger if they know that’s what they’re meant to draw.

But what if they don’t?

And that’s the point.

Because my very simple theory says: creativity is connecting dots that don’t exist.

And the magical thing is – when you connect them, they do.

We Are all Plagiarists Now!

When I googled “We are all plagiarists now” I got 8 hits. So the title isn’t original but I kept it anyway.

Incidentally, neither is it plagiarism.

I’m not trying to pass it off as original, so there's no intent to deceive, although a citation would be good manners*.

It’s not just Lady GaGa who gets hit with charges of plagiarism.

Plagiarism.org wants to prevent it in high schools, which is laudable.

Sites like copyscape.com claim to be able to detect it, I have no idea how well it works, but I’m pretty sure no one can detect paraphrasing.

Writers have always stolen from each other.

Hence when Oscar Wilde remarked, “I wish I had said that”, Whistler famously quipped “You will Oscar you will”.

To stop it getting out of hand, there’s an unwritten rule.

You can steal the idea, but you can’t steal the phrase.

It’s a bit unfair if you ask me.

If Duchamp can hang a urinal and get away with it, why can’t I nick a page of Ogilvy, re-print it in a different typeface and color and take the credit?

Critics could say, “The exquisite combination of chartreuse and Van Doesburg sheds new illumination on the subjunctive clause.”

The Flarf movement approaches this, by turning found language mostly from the internet, into random poetry which is sometimes funny, sometimes bad, and usually forgettable.

A description which also applies to the output of most agencies -- appropriate perhaps when the Flarf type mash up is not unknown to advertising.

In fact, the unwritten rule of advertising is that you can steal from a movie, book or just about anything as long as you don’t steal from another ad.

The principle at stake beneath this smidgeon of idealism is real.

It is -- that originality sells.

So finding that sliver of originality appropriate to your client and their product is the holy grail of advertising.

However, I think the internet is changing our notion of originality, from what we might call pure originality of the lone genius in an attic type, to a more widespread adaptive or collaborative type of originality.

Remember those Youtube mash ups from a few years ago?

If you haven’t seen A few Good Creative Men an old favorite from 2007, you must be new to the industry.

While the Internet transforms our view of what constitutes originality, paradoxically it’s made it easier to both plagiarize and detect plagiarism.

You can steal ideas from ads of the world or you can use it to check you’re not inadvertently ripping-off ideas.

That seems like a pretty level playing field to me.

So are we are all plagiarists now?

Or have we always been?

* www.slate.com