15 February 2009

Creative asset proposition

A while ago I wrote a post titled 'advertising and it's creative teams'. It talked about how the creative department of most 'traditional' ad-agencies have been structured and organized since the fifties and how now there is an emerging trend in shifting that established model. A shift especially seen amongst some, vastly expanding, digital agencies and creative 'hotshops'. Shortly after I noticed some reactions of other 'bloggers' who seemed to be occupied with this issue as well. Mark Tungate, author of the book 'Adland' reacted with some interesting insights on the topic in the comment-section as well DuvalGuillaume's CEO Guillaume Van der Stichelen and DuvalGuillaume's former web strategist who maintains a blog at Pietel.be. Few days later I received a reply from @Janso who asked me to participate the conversation on this topic running at his blog janso.be. Yes, Janso, I know, your utterly right to call me a 'slow fuck'. Your tweet as call for my participation dates from 18.01.2009 and only now I post this ping-back. But hey, I've been having my hands full with a newborn and I've been sweating out a 39.5 degrees fever last week, so please forgive me.

I found the conversation important enough to get back to, even if it has now been 3 weeks since we last posted. First let's analyze the conversation top down and then I'll add what's been tossing my mind about this.

My first post on this topic wasn't intended as a suggestion for the reformation of creative departments in the future. I just find myself cornered, sometimes, in working with a fixed team and nothing but that team. That is team as in 2 other creative thinkers (check last post for insights). To be working as 'a creative' and being bound to planning issues and time-sheets. The out-most reason for the post was the fact that we have a rare structure of working in teams of 3 instead of 2. Lots of people who work at other agencies ask me about it and that spored me to write something about it.

International and network restraints
Pros and cons about working with a team of 3 I thoroughly discussed in the initial writing on this topic but I dropped some info I'd still like to share considering this new post. Namely, you must know, 'international' was absolutely against this reformation. In other words, there was a huge pressure for stopping this 'new model' of working with team of 3 coming BBDO/Proximity supervisors at global levels. It was our current CEO, Gert Pauwels, who led and created this structure within the creative department and he was called to explain why he worked this way. As a matter of fact he was quite enthusiastic about this but needless to say he wasn't quite encouraged to continue his act. He received an e-mail from the some guys up the ladder (they'll probably fire me for write this but anyway, nobody should shoot the pianist). At that time (some 16 months ago or so) he was head of the creative department (guiding 6 creative directors, 7 creative concept teams consisting of 3 creatives, about 10 front-end designers and a graphic design studio of 12), member of the board and creative partner (meaning he is one of 8 stockholders of the company). For the record: Gert also runs a Cuban bar (Barpopular in Mechelen, Antwerp) and a company with his brother. That company, named Boardcast, rents remote controlled digital posters, but this post isn't about Gert at all so let's scroll back to the subject.

All balls on the table
Anyway, the e-mail he received shortly after he reformed the structure of this creative department wasn't all too long: "Stop teams of 3, now". Pretty obvious what there is to do then, right. He decided to keep the setup of 3 persons a team and had a hard time convincing his superiors that this setup was indispensable for the success of the merger at that time. They bought it, luckily. It is only the question now if we will continue to work this way or not. But at this time there is no reason why we should not. If this model wouldn't have paid our check there would be no way we could have continued working like this last 2 years. By the way the revenue of our company didn't drop after the merger occurred and the model of working in teams of 3 ways set into play. Of course you understand that 'international' was against this with a very reasonable explanation: the money. Briefing a team of 3 people in stead of 2 tremendously increases the hourly cost for your clients, and company. The so called profitability would be at stake here. And as you probably know profitability is of a much bigger importance to stockholders than the level of creative output. There are pros and cons to this way of working, naturally. Working with 3 on one briefing gives you extra firepower to take on bigger briefs in demand of delivering a through the line campaign on shorter notice, this way you can deliver faster and clients can enjoy a fast-food service and still be served a quality meal. There's lots and lots of even more pros and cons to light up on this but I'm not planning to write a book so on to the next topic in this conversation.

The 'stuckture' of departments
I've been an opponent of departments my entire life. Maybe more correct to say, an opponent of structure 'an sich' but I understand that people want, and need, some kind of frame to keep chaos from raving. Things must get done, money must be made, what's new. But yes, departments. Sometimes I secretly dream about restructuring the flow of the company I work for. And not only the current company I work with. But then again every model has it's flaws. Anyhow I would like to share my thoughts on the current way we work and the utopia I have thought of from time to time later on in this post.

A dogma called creativity
Next I am noticing your horror for the word creativity. What is creativity? Who is creative? Hmmmn, this is indeed a very subjective topic within this current conversation and I do not wish to spend to much time tossing my mind about this, I can only say this: everyone can, and is creative, yes no doubt. A good idea can come from anybody within the organization. The difference is that not everybody knows how purify an idea and extract the right ingredients from it to make a delicious meal. Moreover, it's given only the happy few that can make it their job, and do a good job. To me, a creative contribution, one with value can be every-ones add. But then again, it is not only the idea that can be accounted for 'creativity' or being creative. On the other hand, having met this situation myself many times now, I do think it is important to be able to claim the idea if it was yours. Award-shows are a way to measure whether you are doing a good job. Since thinking, and it's product: the idea, are so hard to grasp and evaluate sometimes. It is important to be able to appoint who's idea it was because that person gave birth to something that happened, something that gave a lot of other people some recognition as well. I see it as a baby, of which the originator of the idea is the father (or mother). It might as well be that the teacher and the child's friends have influenced it more than the parent but still it remains the child of it's parent. The teacher and friend will be mentioned and thanked whenever the child achieves greatness in it's life but the parent will remain more important to the child in the end. The parent will probably receive more recognition in being thanked, for without the parent there was no child. Of course sometimes an idea evolves, that's when it gets hard to define who's idea it was...

Direct feedback to the first comment
I must admit to agree with Pietel, I kinda missed out on your point writing about the topic in the post but regarding the fact that you were on Sunday mode I don't blame you. As matter of fact I wouldn't have blamed you either way though.

Direct feedback to the second comment
Of course I have nothing to add to what Guillaume said on the topic of creativity. To me he is one of the Godfathers of creativity, in Belgium that is. Not that I claim that he's the most creative person in the Belgian advertising industry, yet I'm not saying he's not but that is not what I intend to point at glorifying him with this mafia title. He was the first, of course together with André no doubt, to not only focus on creativity within the organization but to build a new one entirely incorporating this creativity as a center-point. And of course this is (very) old news Mr.Wulleman but, in my opinion, it has never been about creativity but always about relationships. Relationships are the real center-point of the theater. Communicating with a constantly renewing spirit fueled with innovation and creativity is what builds a lasting relationship. If I bring my wife red roses every Wednesday and fuck her doggy style once a week that relationship is bound to crash anywhere soon. Bringing her different things on different days, making love in different ways in different places is still communicating the same boring message of "I love you and want to forever hold you" but I estimate my chances a lot higher in establishing that long-term relationship doing the latter. And that's exactly what Guillaume has showed many of us. Let God thank him for this. For now we are all rallying that same believe.

The prize of growing fast, the price of being big
I had breakfast with Guillaume last week. And of the many things he said there's at least one thing I'd like to talk about in his post. We briefly talked about the way the structures are now tighter then in the past, especially in his company were growth tends to parch creativity and freedom. The bigger the company gets the more people get involved in managing the company, thus the more people have to share the money, thus the more importantly the aspect of profitability becomes. Of course the growth of the head-count mustn't entirely be devoted to the growing importance of profitability. The sell-out to large networks accounts probably for the significant part of this change in attitude. Yet it is inevitable. Only few agencies of this size have been able to resist being bought by the networks. As a matter of fact I can recall only one: Famous. Or have I missed out on any news? Even they were very close to selling out to DDB. On the other hand why shouldn't they, these larger networks amplify the agency to fish for clients in the ocean rather than to stick to local rivers and lakes. Needless to say this hammers in on the ease of how one is comforted to create. To mark Guillaume words: "the business of advertising used to be simple. The clients had a 100 to spend and the agencies were assigned 15. For that 15 we could spoil the client until he'd be happy. Just do whatever, things that suited his needs, 'basta'. The real quids were coming from the commissions the agencies git out of the major media contracts and as in any business some guys got greedy and gradually the pressure was put on the agencies as larger commissions faded to media-companies and clients became more demanding. And now it's all about the hourly cost of things." The hourly cost of things.

Meet the timesheet
Guillaume: "Can you imagine? I would have never thought someone would be able to 'create' within the boundaries of a day-to-day planning. It's has got even this far, hear me out. I was in the Antwerp offices and I had a wild idea for one of our clients. I stepped up to a designer that was still sitting there and asked him if he'd like to work with me on the visualization of this idea. The bloke simply prompt me: I can't I have be been 'planted'. (I'm sorry 'booked' that is, as in I'm scheduled for the daily planning, planted just sounds so funny and in dutch planted and booked is the same word :)) I was left standing and roughly sketched it out myself." I was folded by laughter hearing this story. It reminded me of my crusade against the schedule I meet daily.

Oldschool spreadsheets and two cups of coffee
We have 2 traffickers who handle and arrange the bookings for the jobs and projects. They assign every project to the assets requested to handle the job. That happens in time-slots on a day to day basis. Starting from were we are now. No fancy project-management tools where bookings are made project based, nope. Just some old-school spreadsheets and two fine ladies filling up the holes to get things covered. There is no way I could possibly oversee who is working on a project that I started nor can I check out on people that run projects coming my way. Just day to day spans of a scattered back-planning that is probably stashed in some accounts pile of papers. No ins or outs of before or after the period of time I handle a specific job or project. But hey, what do I know, maintaining a project-based planning doesn't seem profitable for traffickers so I write down one paragraph on the subject and that's that.

Direct feedback to the fifth comment
Someone aliased as Sideburns questions the use of 'a creative brainstorms'. Probably because they tend to consume a lot of time and they seem to be fun hours to the ones not participating it. A perception most likely initiated by lazy and lame 'creative' people at the agency who get noisy and loud during their brainstorm sessions. There are different ways: a brainstorm session can be held short, powerful and (very) effective but those are mostly very demanding of energy and not always easy to establish because they require a lot of focus from participators. Crucial in a brainstorm is the level of interaction, or communication, contact between the participators. If it is not a small coffee it can be a long one and those are mostly the ones recognized as the ones where 'creatives' are going berserk and waiving away decent authority and respect. Sometimes that works. Pushing the boundaries and boredom. It is a way of looking for a new entrance on the matter confronted with. Often a mind-map is sketched out. A brainstorm is literally piling up or spitting out information and insights in the left (or was it the right) part of the brain so all the sudden some nerves would pop and 'thé' idea can come out. But, dear Sideburns, they are useful you know. They might not bring forth direct results but they lead to it, if properly practiced. Not to mention, a client is willing to pay for that time. The brainstorm exists to dig into the givens. The idea (more often than not) comes unexpected but is fed by the time spend on the matter during the brainstorm. It initiates the activity that established the forthcoming of that one idea that can come out anytime, anywhere, or not.

And then, finally, some direct feedback to the third comment
The current model of our companies, ours and many others (in Belgium at least, I can't include the ones across the borders since I've never visited one), divides the structure in different departments: commercial/accounts, PR/marketing, strategy, creative, production, CRM, finance, management. This is mainly done, I think, because of planning reasons. Larger companies work with a strict work-flow chopping up the flow, from brief to delivery, into manageable pieces. It is also assumed that grouping and teaming up people with comparable profiles takes care of a large portion of knowledge-sharing within the company. While some state that combining different profiles would make a generalist out of everybody. Well well the eternal question surfaces water again: "do you want to be a generalist or a specialist?" — The generalist knows little about a lot, the specialist knows a lot about little — quite a nut-cracking dilemma if you ask me.

Together or not together
Combining profiles works very good for a 'hotshop' of front-end designers for example. If front-end, or flash, designers can work in small teams (4 to 6, maybe 8) they will, over time, be able to easily share their codes with each-other. A lot of 'scripters' tend to have different approaches and ways of writing code. Because of this, it is sometimes hard to collaborate or join projects with each-other. If these designers have different scripting methods or handle and manage assets and 'codewriting' differently they can be literally be inaccessible for others which holds them from bouncing for each-other, when someone is ill, or fired let's say. It also is a barrier for working on larger projects. When they are able to team up regularly they can start sharing their methods and develop a small standard of handling things within the group. This way projects can easily be passed on, or joined. But this is not the case for all profiles in the structure. For creatives the cards are shuffled from different decks. We're not really talking about technical skills here. The strength of a creative department is more based on thinking and visualizing. So directing them into one big pool leads to the dangers of consensus. Maybe even the development of the same style, level, strength, thoughts even. The danger of reaching only mediocrity. Of course within companies that have the nature and philosophy of striving for the best creative work and being better than the others in the same team can lift the level of output tremendously but again this is not always the case and but few companies harvest this positive drive from spontaneous competitiveness.

My creative asset proposition
My utopian proposition for restructuring the assets (*) and abandoning the departments would be to divide the block into smaller formations housing all profiles and working as brand-teams. Could be seen as creating small companies inside a big company but this is not entirely the case. I would try to amplify those micro-structures with plug-and-play Bishops, or wild-card profiles. Let me zoom in on the that. Or may I first point out that this would only be manageable for companies with more than 100 or so assets. A different model would apply for smaller companies, yet I don't think that smaller companies suffer from the weight of departments.

How would it be done?
Well according to the amount of assets in a middle management the blue-chip clients must be selected and appointed. Let's say there are 4 account directors and 4 creative directors. You have a list of clients with 8 significant account accounting for about 80% of the companies income. That sounds pretty sane to me. Ok, checking reality tells me that a lot of companies have a big-fish in their wallets, eating by large the accounts of the next accounts on your account-list but that to me is more off on the edge for a healthy balance amongst the services you provide to each client. If your big-fish chooses open waters you'd have to fire a significant part of your organization so let's stick to purity and take on the fact that the 8 top-clients of the company is accounted for 10% of your income, each. The setup would be this: 4 groups, led by 1 account director and 1 creative director each. Every account director leads 1 (or 2) account manager(s) and 3 (to 4) account executives. Every creative director leads 2 creative teams. That creative team houses 2 copywriters, art directors with different specialties and backgrounds (preferably 1 above, 1 online and 1 below), a graphic designer (with skills reaching from print over simple animation design and web-design) and 2 desktop publishers. Every group enforced by 1 strategic planner, 1 project manager and checked by 1 finance. These brand-teams work on two blue-chip clients supplemented with smaller income clients in order to cover the load. The test would be to equally divide the weight of the clients in terms of income for the company and workload for the group. Key in this micro-company model is the wild-card teams. Wild-card teams are teams that can bounce whenever a group is hot, or when needs suit specialties not included in the group formation. A first series of wild-card teams would be made out of front and back-end developers or code-designers as you please. To comply with the numbers used in this example: 4 teams of code-designers existing of 3 front and 1 back-end developer. They are able to be appointed to a group but individuals can also shift on working on different projects whenever task-force is demanded. A second wild-card team is the current CRM dept. Like the code-designers their best to be directed together. This seems better for remaining the power of sharing specific knowledge, taking care of issues in group and remain the ability to constantly update on new services and they way the processes are handled and monitored. They count 12. R&D (4) is checked in the CRM team here, they brief the strategists casually. Then, not quite a wild-card team, yet in a way acting as one. In fact one I should have started with. The grease to the entire organization: the management team. They supervise the organization and can in my opinion hardly be devoted to one team only. They are, in this model, the only ones that still remain working within the structure of the old departments. They are ideally 4. 1 mainly new biz and public relations, 1 client service, 1 creative partner and 1 strategic partner. We now have an MT of 8 or so but that is of course due to the merger of the former 3 companies. Next to this pool of wild-card teams there are the wild-card individuals that enforce whatever group is in need of an extra pair of hands. These wild-card individuals contain the necessary functions: an HR and marketing manager, an extra PR or new biz manager, 1 or 2 production managers, 2 for handling traffic, 2 IT managers, a network administrator, an event manager maybe 2 to 3, a media (2 would be comfortable if you would think of a planner and a buyer as two different profiles) and art buyer. The completion of the wild-card individualists would be to supplement it with seniors, specialists and experts of the former strategy and creative departments. One senior of each specialty should surely do the job and might even be overkill but could though give extra draft and support to the appearing weaknesses within some groups. Oh and an office manager would come in handy to be complete. By working with devoted groups supported with wild-card teams and individuals the organization, I think, can be freed from the pressure of the frustrating inertia. And simultaneously reposition to be the lean mean fighting machine that serves it's clients well, gives sufficient oxygen for the people on the floor and at the mean time is able to create cutting edge through the line campaigns motored from the digital center-point desired in so many cases.

A round up of the indicated numbers, top down a total organization of 120 sharp.
• the management team: total of 4
• the core groups: 4 (total of 76)
—> 1 group = 1 cd, 1 ad, 2 am, 4 ae, 2 copy, 4 ad, 1 gd, 2 dtp, 1 strat, 1 fin, 1 pm
• the wild-card teams: 2 (total of 28)
—> code-designers: 4 teams » 1 team = 3 front, 1 back
—> CRM dept: total of 12 (4 R&D)
• the wild-card individuals: total of 16
About the size most big single companies are in Belgium. That is; companies inside Belgian networks, working from different locations across the country, not accounted for.

The benefits
Why go through all this trouble of creating micro-companies and restructuring the whole organization?
This thought sprung up out of the idea that departments work limiting to some extend. We needed to get rid of the departments and the current structure with which agencies, or their base, tend to struggle. Working groups with these groups allows people from the organization to work closer with people from different backgrounds and still not be forced into total independence and being left to working alone. The synergy of the groups will, to my opinion, allow people from top down to be involved with projects from start to finish, maybe not entirely but at least more than before. Also, and more importantly, skills of different profiles within that group will be able to but more value to the projects they are involved with. 1) because they will know more about the clients the group maintains and get in on more of the insights of the brief. 2) because they will, on a daily basis, be able to work closer together with people from different backgrounds and thus will be able to fully grasp the outcome and stretch of the project. 3) projects will, hopefully, be taken to the next level because all possible profiles will be involved. They will be creating together and will no longer have to struggle over making interpretations of certain concepts or ideas to work in other media.

I think this model would be able to give creative agencies more possibilities to fully grasp the stretch of the resources provided per project. Offer ideas using the suited, not demanded, media. And most importantly, create concept-frameworks that can act as platforms to role out specific declinations instead of medium-fit solutions that don't fit the bigger picture.

Of course I am very aware of the fact that this idea is kinda 'utopian', and as well as any other structure-model has many flaws. No, I am not a business-consultant nor do I have experience in building, managing, organizing let alone maintaining or running a company. I'm just writing down my vision and ideas to start a conversation with people who do know about these things. Also writing about eases the way thoughts evolve and are handled inside my head. I appreciate you reading or scrolling this far down the post and would like to invite you to re-post or comment on this topic if you feel a need to correct or complete my writing. If you sincerely think what I wrote is complete crap, bullocks, bullshit please keep your guts and don't comment anonymously I'm open to take on the beating and learn something.

Kind regards on this.

(*) People within creative and production departments are referred to as resources or assets. Usually they do not work in a pro-active sense, their job is to execute or act upon what they are briefed, asked or told to do.

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