The tools for the job
I’ve been helping brands be more human for nearly twenty years—at network agencies and boutique studios, at in-house creative departments and as a consultant to large organisations, NGOs and startups. And almost everywhere I’ve found teams struggling to navigate processes or, more often, absence of adequate processes. All too frequently this shortfall undermines creative excellence AND frustrates commercial success.
As is my way, when in doubt I look at how other fields do it, and how these learnings might apply to the current context.
My first graduate job was promoting nights at an underground music venue. The creatives had complete autonomy and ideas were executed quickly. It didn’t always work out, but the work got made. Lessons learned. Move on. When I entered the world of ad agencies and clients, I was shocked at how drawn out and complicated it was to make anything at all.
The DIY-aesthetic of early house music and the underground scenes that emerged around it created a new breed of creative that is both artist and engineer, performer and producer. I’ve frequently tried to apply some of that thinking and attitude to making commercial work.
In the years that followed I learned that not all agencies are created equal, nor are all clients the same. I was taught ways to mitigate and get around the gaps between the differing expectations, values and priorities you find along the creative process. I discovered that when creatives are admitted to the process earlier, it can help: carving out conceptual territories or ‘organising-narratives’, working with a loose set of project objectives, market and audience insights to identify potential spaces, characters and plotlines; mapping these story sketches to relevant activation points. If it happens at all, this stuff tends to take place before the creative brief exists.
At its best, the output of these processes, while abstract, would give teams a sense of purpose and genuine alignment—at least at the outset. I noticed that getting buy-in for an organising-narrative or ‘story platform’ was much easier than getting everyone onboard with a (still quite abstract) creative ‘concept’. It was also more stimulating, and more inclusive, for project teams to think in terms of the story we might tell rather than jumping straight into concept-design and visualisations, which are inevitably more divisive and plagued by matters of personal taste and cultural bias.
Over the past few years my focus has shifted from trying to ‘solve’ my clients challenges to giving them the tools, the concepts and the confidence to make it for themselves.
To this end, I’m developing self-service kits: tools, products and practices that empower teams to create compelling content for themselves and become the authentic voices that today’s brands and audiences really value. I see these brand and storytelling toolkits as fundamentally disposable, or ‘single-use’. Like a Happy Meal, or something from IKEA. People hear the word ‘toolkit’ and they think it’s going to be expensive and complicated and elaborate, because that’s the way ‘brand toolkits’ have been conceived, whether it’s a corporate, agency or startup context. But what if these kits could be cheap and fun to use, and we could unleash an outpouring of creativity, like the prolific output of early Trax Records or the way IKEA democratises design?
My goal of taking this approach is to widen access, reduce dependencies and enable teams of all kinds to be autonomous while at the same time nurturing brand equity, strategic oversight and creative excellence. That’s a tricky balance to strike. Progressive organisations want to give teams the ownership they need to create impact and express themselves authentically. Pragmatic organisations know that there need to be safeguards and processes in place that protect the integrity of their brands and the long-term interests of all stakeholders.
With the acceleration of remote collaboration and digitisation of processes as standard (intensified by the pandemic), I’m seeing a new urgency to close the gap between the desire for autonomy and the need for authority. This tension is not just an issue for large organisations or commercial entities. I’ve never worked with a team that doesn’t recognise what might only be a crack but can easily become a chasm between those defining the strategy and those tasked to deliver it.
The old agency models never really worked. Too many people were excluded: cultural as well as organisational biases tended to be perpetuated. There was too little accountability and too much space afforded to egos. Even today, outsourcing your creativity can signal to those inside your organisation that they are ‘not creative’ or at least ‘not creative enough’. This has the twin effect of putting external suppliers on a pedestal while dampening the confidence and abilities of internal teams to think and act creatively. Yet bringing in specialist creative talent at the right moments can be a game-changer for organisations — yes, for the output they can deliver, but also as catalysts for creative cultures that can grow inside organisations.
Shifting from a service-based model built on supply and demand to a toolbox approach that hands the means of production to frontline teams requires a change in thinking from all sides—not least from creatives and people who work at creative agencies. Throughout my career I’ve laughed at, but mostly indulged, the idea of the creative as hero, coming in and ‘solving’ clients’ business problems using our superior imaginations (Pow!) and our ability to read between the lines of a brief (Whoosh!) to create ‘magic stardust’ (or whatever we were calling it).
It’s a fantasy, obviously, a myth that is both inaccurate and incomplete, missing as it does the foundations of any collaborative creative process: the way teams come together to conceive a project and turn it into a live brief. The over-emphasis on ideation ignores the outsized contribution of production and post-production teams in the creative process, as well as the storytelling work of teams that frame, target and manage campaigns once they go live. By allowing the myth to persist, we do everyone a disservice, ‘creatives’ included.
While there’s no such thing as a one size fits all ‘agency model’ (agencies and clients have always found fulfilling and bespoke ways to work with each other), tensions within teams and in creative processes continue to manifest themselves in different ways. Projects still frequently fall short in terms of performance and accountability. Too many briefings remain thin and lacking in focus. Goal posts get moved or removed altogether. And, too often, teams get excited at the start of a creative process only to become weary and beaten down by disappointments by the time it reaches delivery. This can’t be a good way to do things!
It’s easy to condemn classic agency campaign processes and branding exercises as anachronistic; irrelevant to today’s dynamic workplaces and always-on culture. But what should replace them? How do we close the gap between the brand activations we imagine when we set off, and the realities of a complex creative collaboration?
Across a series of posts, I will try to shine a light on these topics, exploring creative collaboration from multiple angles by tapping into radical ideas from architecture, machine learning, branding and storytelling, and attempting to answer the big question: what role will creativity play in the workplaces of the future?
Stef Macbeth is a Berlin based writer and creative consultant specialising in topics of inclusion and brand storytelling. Learn more at stefmacbeth.com