Jon Burden, ECD, Naked: "Can creative talent leaving agencies be good for the industry?"

Screen Shot 2017-06-01 at 1.27.27 pm.jpgBy Jon Burden (pictured right with Steve Back), executive creative director, Naked Communications

When a few high profile people left agency life recently, my first thought was it couldn't be good for Adland. This thought was reinforced whilst reading a study from the 4A's in partnership with LinkedIn, which revealed turnover in advertising is higher than related industries and growing at a faster rate, with people moving to different agencies or leaving the business all together.

I recently worked with Steve Back on a project for a client of ours. Steve was previously a Creative Partner at a small agency and before that a Chief Creative Officer at one of Australia's biggest agencies and is now a director at Brilliant! Films. Our time together presented the perfect opportunity to get a relevant perspective about this very subject. We sat down and had a chat about the reasons behind his leap and his new life outside agencies.

Have you always thought about moving into directing?
Ever since I started as a creative. People joke about creatives aspiring to write a book or film; I always had an ambition to start directing because it felt like a pure form of creativity and I love ideas and story telling.
What prevented you from moving sooner?  
Being frank, it was a struggle to get over the hump of a big salary every month. You become a slave because you don't want to risk the pay packet, and so you constantly feel compromised.

But I was also constantly searching for satisfaction in agency life. People were critical of me shuffling between jobs, but as a creative person there's an inherent desire to do new things.

I moved around to satisfy the creative urge, by trying different clients, agency structures and management teams. Even when you're in charge, you don't always have the power to feed that urge when and where you want to.

I had worked overseas, I had worked for massive agencies with 600+ people, and I had come home and worked for places much smaller. I felt like I'd covered the 'big' and the 'small' and everything in between, so I knew it was time to try something new.

Why was this the right time to move?
After 25 years in the business, I was really motivated to get back to being a true creative. I started as an art director, and my drive took me all of the way to CCO, which, as it turns out, wasn't my cup of tea. When I was leading a huge team, I felt like I had lost touch with the creative.

When I came back to Australia and joined a smaller place, I was able to work much more closely with clients and products, and it made me feel like I was in the creative mix again. And I suppose ultimately the reason I took the step to directing.

What's different in this role compared to your former career?
In directing, it's still all about ideas. For me, success is based on the quality of the idea and how you execute it; this is why directing appeals to me.

The difference is the process, which now feels simpler compared with agency life. People come with a solution that's already been processed, and look to me for value. There's less steps that I'm involved in, and I feel like I'm giving more enhanced creative input, at the right time.

How has your own creative style adapted to this new career?
I have a reputation for high standards, and in the past, I have struggled with patience. Admittedly, I was hard about resolving the issues, but I now take a more relaxed approach because I feel more confident about what I'm doing.

What's the best thing about being 'on the other side'?
The general excitement of sitting in other peoples' boardrooms and helping other creative people in Australia is really exciting - we all want to help solve problems.
What do you miss about agency life?
Being part of a wider department was always fun, and being able to bounce ideas around. There's nothing better than having a cool idea presented to you and then selling it and bringing it to life.

What would you change about agency or industry processes?
The way the industry operates is, you put your script out to three directors to provide a treatment, and then you pick. I've never understood this, because creatives have a pretty good idea about what they want. This has a negative knock on effect, because directors want to win the job, and so they have a fear about putting down something that the agency doesn't like. I think it would be better to appoint your director straight away and start from a place of true collaboration, away from other agendas.

What skills are lacking in creative agencies? How should this be addressed?
For an industry that says they're about collaboration, the skills to communicate and operate in a collaborative way are lacking - at all levels. I was guilty of this too.

Agenda, budgets and ego get in the way of collaboration. I think, often, it's a confidence thing; if people are out of their depth, they close down, but to collaborate you need to be open-minded. This lack of confidence comes down to a lack of training, which was why I was a big fan of exposing young people to the process early.

The loss of creatives offers every agency the opportunity to consider the optimum environment and blend of personalities that might persuade that talent to stay put for a while. However, I don't think its all doom and gloom. As the industry continues to evolve, it's inevitable creative people will try different things and it's a win for us all if they land in complimentary businesses. I agree with Steve's point that collaboration is important. We need to realise that ideas don't always have to come from within. Partnering with people who have been responsible for some great thinking means clients get even better value out of their agency relationship, and ultimately results in better work, exciting meetings, and staff that don't feel like they have to leave agency-land to fulfil their own creative passions.


Bah, humbug said:

How is directing a 'pure form of creativity' when you are simply bringing someone else's ideas to life?

It would be purer to direct your own creative solutions from script to screen. But that's not what we're talking about here.

I have always been suspicious of reformed creatives directing other people's ideas because they are tempted to add and impose their own flourishes to an idea that, if it's good, is often fully formed and needs little more than competent film-making.

You don't need a creative for that, you need a competent film-maker.

A good example is said:

Noam Murro. He was a creative for a while and when you work with him he brings ideas that weren't scripted. Steve Ayson is another. Maybe Bah Humbug should try being a little more open-minded.

jen Peace said:

Great piece Jon / Steve. The point about 'partnerships' and the nurturing of them is well made. As our industry necessarily needs to branch out in more directions than ever, insisting that all creativity sits in-house is impossible.

@Bah, humbug said:

you sound like a joy to work with! you actually present yourself more as the problem with the industry. A good Director working with good creatives can bring so much more to a campaign.

let's set it straight said:

Bah, humbug seriously are you a frustrated Director or just a failing one?

Rich said:

@Bah Humbug - maybe you've only ever made Brand Power ads.

Personally, I've never worked with a creative director who didn't add something to the idea. That's what you're paying for.

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