Damon Stapleton: The illusion of control

unknown.jpegA blog by Damon Stapleton, chief creative officer of DDB New Zealand

"In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order." - Carl Jung

Recently, I was in Sydney at an award show conveniently called AWARD. A young creative started chatting to me before the show about good and bad agencies. He asked me what the difference was between a good agency and a bad agency. I had written a piece about this before, so I used what I had written. I said the difference was that most agencies have similar ideas but great agencies make their ideas, average ones don't.

He sort of nodded and wandered off to get another beer. I felt a bit weird. I had given this nice little answer. A neat little one liner. But, it felt insufficient. Maybe even bullshit.
Now, it is true that average agencies don't make their best ideas. However, the real question is why don't they make their best ideas.

So, imagine having an idea. Perhaps, even a great idea. It is precious and fragile. It is not perfect but could be powerful. It is new and you believe in it but have no data to back up your gut instinct.  Now, take that idea and put it into an environment where there is a process. This process has many boxes that all have to be ticked. This means a new thought meets an existing blueprint. This mitigates risk. It also creates work that has been made many times before. So, the idea dies. Also, the idea cannot have any imperfections according to the existing blueprint. So, round after round of alterations occur. We are now no longer looking at the idea because it is interesting, we are trying to make sure it isn't incorrect. So, the idea dies.

What happens in a bad agency is that the process becomes more important than the idea. Not being wrong is far more important than being right. And by right, I mean interesting.  This is not an earth shattering problem except for the fact that it kills creativity. Stone dead. Although, at a painfully slow pace.

Creativity is used to break patterns and create new ways of moving forward. Whereas a process is a pattern designed to give consistency. You could not have two more fundamentally different ways of thinking if you tried.

Creativity does not happen in a consistent timeline, a process does. Take the Japanese art of Kintsugi pictured above for example. Process would give you the bowl and discard any broken pieces in a timely fashion. Whereas creativity arrives fashionably late and takes the broken pieces and creates something even more beautiful. Creativity has made something new. Something different. Process creates what exists consistently with an unerring accuracy.

Creativity also needs madness and a fair bit of chaos. Process is all about control. One of the strangest phrases in the English language is 'the creative process.' In essence, they are opposing forces. Control and chaos.

A great agency has the ability to harness both of these qualities. This balance lets ideas live a little longer.  It is an alchemy that creates a measured madness. They make a space for insanity and instil an unyielding understanding for why discipline is required.

An agency often starts to go into decline when one of these forces overwhelms the other.

When an agency is ruled by chaos the decline is often sadly spectacular and pretty quick. It is literally like somebody jumping off a building.

When an agency is paralysed by control the death is a far stranger one. The agency doesn't know it is dead. Often for years everything works. Everybody knows what their job is. There is great comfort in the precision of process. This comfort is what is sold to clients. Not the work. And then, one day, the client says the work you are making is boring. It's kind of a bit shit. Game over.

Average agencies like the comfort of making bowl after consistent bowl until one day they get smashed and nobody knows what to do with the broken pieces.

Great agencies are able to have both structure and chaos. They can make bowls but they can do so much more.

To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, they understand that it's the cracks that let the light in.

(Image: Kintsugi. The Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with powdered gold.)



Jen said:

Oh so youve read KK's latest book

Old CD Guy said:

Damo, for once, I can't fault your thinking.

I have worked for some of the best agencies on Earth, and I have worked for one of the worst.

The best agencies still used 'process' to try to bring science to what is essentially commercial art, thus providing clients with some reassurance that it wasn't all a hunch.

Which is funny, because the best creative is a result of a hunch, and the best creative people work on instinct.

Perhaps my most famous work was conceived at my worst agency.

It was an idea and a style that was totally foreign to that client and that product category, so it was resisted.

The client was nervous, but fortunately the account man believed in the idea.

At his suggestion, 'Process' was brought to bear on the idea. The client only agreed to this because 'science' was involved. Month after month the mocked-up idea was subjected to different forms of research. Surely, this ridiculous idea would be killed!

Each time, the idea not just survived, but flourished - recording hitherto unseen levels of positive response to parameters such as comprehension of the message and the all-important likeability. The numbers were unprecedented.

After 6 months of this arm-wrestle, the client ran out of objections, so the idea was approved and produced.

It was so successful it became the international campaign for the brand.

It was rolled out to over 20 countries.

Conceived as a one-off TV spot, it survived for over 20 years in various forms.

Unfortunately, for every story like this, I have 98 that end with the death of the idea.

Some were great, even iconic creative agencies.

And one was absolute shit.

Philip Taffs said:

Brilliantly written.

Process kills said:

Hands up who's worked at the agency with a process designed to not only minimise the time and cost of actually giving the brief to the creative department, but to ensure the 'idea' is actually conceived in a gang bang brainstorm with the client, CEO, half the suits and the barista from downstairs.

Said 'idea' (normally the one the CEO comes up with) is then rolled into the creative department to execute. And if the creative have the temerity to actually come up with a an alternative the CEO shits the bed and flies into a rage.

Without doubt the worst experience of my (and half of Sydney's) creative career.

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