How To Outrun The Inevitable - Robert Campbell

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There are a lot of agencies out there.

In China alone, there’s said to be tens of thousands.

TENS OF THOUSANDS!!!

However amongst all those – not in China, but generally – there’s a few that have a ‘global’ name.

Traditionally, they fall into 2 camps:

Those who are living off their legacy and those creating it.

Yes, that’s harsh – and there’s a whole host of reasons for it – but that’s pretty much how it feels.

Of course, these two states are in a constant state of motion … one good campaign can lift an agency from the past to the present and vice versa … however the agencies that tend to have the greatest momentum are the ones that seemingly are continuously creating their legacy rather than riding on their past.

Now in no way am I suggesting an agency purposefully ‘takes a back seat’ – there are many reasons why that can happen – however the point of this post is that as much as there are many agencies out there who are grabbing a bunch of the headlines right now, there’s 2 that are seemingly always at the forefront of commercial creativity.

BBH and W+K

Now without doubt there are some fundamental differences between the 2 companies – some good, some not so good – however the thing I find fascinating are their commonalities, of which a number of them, I believe, have directly enabled them to succeed while others have fallen.

I should point out that what I’m about to write is my perception.

The fact is I’ve never worked at BBH and while I know many of the guys there very well – I am still basing my views on observation and here-say.

And as for W+K. Well while I have had the pleasure of meeting Dan and his senior management team, we’ve not really talked about this sort of thing … most of the time I’m getting bollocked for something.

But that aside, here are 5 things that have made these agencies so creatively influential for so long.

1. Consistent Management.

The guys who run both these agencies have been at these agencies a long time.

Better yet, they are the people who founded these agencies – so they have a vested interest in maintaining the culture of the place rather than just go after the profit, regardless of the implication.

That said, they are constantly introducing new people into positions of influence and power.

Younger people. Talented people.

People who bring new perspectives and thinking to the table so while the principals of the company will stay the same, the expression of it is at the forefront of the times.

2. Control, Not Controlled.

In short, when you own your company rather than a holding company with masses of shareholders, you can control how your company grows and where your company goes.

Basically, control means you can focus on the longer-term, bigger play rather than purely focusing on hitting the next quarterly target.

It’s probably the best ad for communism you could have, ha.

3. A Willingness To Fail.

Both agencies try stuff.

Better yet, the want to try stuff.

There is a reluctance to rest on their laurels.

This isn’t just because they believe to stick with what you know is the surest way to future failure, but because they are adventurous by nature and they believe great things happen from experimentation, even if on first impressions, the result is not quite what they hoped.

They also put their money where their mouth is.

They don’t expect clients to fund their adventures into the unknown, they’ll pay for it … be it in the activities they do or the people they hire.

For both, failure is NOT trying stuff.

4. Culture, Not Function

When I first joined W+K, people talked about it’s unique culture.

To be honest, I’ve heard this sort of thing before and almost always it’s turned into a crock of shit … because the culture that was there was because of the people in the place rather than the company.

But in W+K and BBH’s case, I believe it’s true.

Sure, the people that work there enhance and develop that culture, but there’s a strong philosophical view that permeates every element of both companies.

It’s not about the press releases or the credentials deck … it’s about their standards … their expectations … their beliefs.

They actively encourage trying new things … exploring new approaches … not going for the lowest-common-denominator or the category convention … standing up for what they believe in …

In short, it’s about filling their company with interesting and creative people who share their beliefs [even if they express it in radically different ways], rather than simply those who can perform a specific job function at the lowest price.

5. Involvement, Not Observation.

Northern wrote a blog post recently where he said he was convinced the reason older, senior people lose their dynamism and originality is because no one challenges them and they don’t get in enough situations to be told something they don’t know.

Very true.

However one thing I really like about W+K is that while the senior guys are ridiculously talented and smart and experienced … they welcome opinion, debate and challenge. From everyone. Literally everyone.

I remember the first time I met Dan and John and had an ‘out of body experience’ where I saw myself telling, arguably 2 of the most respected ad guys in history a bunch of stuff I think we should be doing.

OK, so Dan said, “you’re fired” … but he listened and that’s more than many would do.

The other thing is they are all deeply involved in what’s going on.

Not in the sense of dictating outcomes or decisions, but being part of the chaos – contributing, listening, exploring.

Sure that doesn’t happen on every single piece of business on every single campaign, but you’d be amazed how knowledgable about what’s going on. Seriously, you just need 2 minutes in the company of Dan or John or Dave etc and you know that they are absolutely bursting with dynamism and originality, even though by the protocol adopted by many agencies, they should be put out to pasture by now.

Why are they like this?

Because they still care. I honestly think it’s that simple.

They still want to learn. They still want to do stuff. They still want to push boundaries.

It’s fantastic and I honestly believe that one of the reasons this is the case is because they seek out people they regard as talented and interesting … people who can push them … their colleagues … their clients … and their agency to a different place.

Not being scared of change or youth or provocation shows people who are very confident with who they are … which for all the ego and posturing that goes on in this industry, is very rare indeed.

Of course you might think this is all bollocks … and maybe it is, however I can tell you from my time at W+K and my relationship with BBH that I see all this time and time again.

Sure it’s not always perfect, sure there have been some bad mistakes – but that aside – the fact they have been at the forefront of mass market commercial creativity means they must be doing something right … something few other companies have been able to pull off over 30 odd years which is why I honestly believe these are things we could all benefit from following or learning – whether we work in a company or want to start our own.

Making money is not hard.

Being the creative industry darling for a moment in time, is not out of the reach for all.

However making money while sticking to your principals and being an acknowledged leader in [effective] creativity for 3 decades is, and that’s why W+K and BBH stand out from the crowd.

While both agencies shun propriety processes in favour of being judged by what they do [rather than what they say they do] … the reality is you can’t ignore how their principals, philosophies and approach have directly contributed and impacted to the work that so many of us [general public, not just adland] hold in the highest esteem.

Saying “it’s all about the work”, might make a nice headline that people can gravitate to, but a great creative legacy starts way before the brief lands on the table.

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By Robert Campbell, W+K's Asia Regional Head of Planning. Reposted with permission. Read the original blog post here (and don't miss the delicious comments.)

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