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Agency Creativity Is Essential for Best Client Outcomes

By Shannon Robichaud

Consultant Michael Farmer caused a bit of a stir recently in an industry Q&A. Farmer recently documented the transformation of Huge by CEO Mat Baxter in a book entitled Madison Avenue Makeover. On the heels of this, in a Q&A published by Contagious, he echoes themes from his book that takes the agency world to task for worrying more about awards than delivering performance and creating thoughtful business models.

While there is some merit to Farmer's perspective, it strikes me as a bit dated and unfair, particularly his harsh dismissal of creativity. He clings to the old trope that agencies are more concerned about racking up industry awards than generating client results, however, he just might be guilty of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. To dismiss something as elemental as agency creativity because it doesn't fit into a neat model that a consultant can sell is a mistake.

While it's true that the traditional agency model is in need of remodeling, and many folks are struggling to reinvent themselves, there is one core tenet that is unassailable — creativity is essential to generating positive client business outcomes. Yes, not only does creativity matter, but I would say it is the key to effectiveness. What Farmer fails to acknowledge is that we are getting better as an industry at proving out that our most creative work is also our most effective work. And in a world where generative AI and other innovative tech tools will continue to democratize access to execution and distribution, the big creative idea is going to become even more valuable to clients and critical to their success.

Regardless of how client-agency relationships, compensation, and business models evolve, creativity will be central. Because at the end of the day, no matter how well you nail process, people, productivity, profitability and short-term performance, if your brand is in it to win it over the long haul, then creativity is the fuel that will sustainably drive every successful brand marketer's engine.

While it is naïve to think that agencies can still wave the same banner of creativity that David Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach did in the heyday of the Mad Men era, it is equally shortsighted to think that getting agency business models right for these times will solve what ails us. It is an "and" construct, not an "either/or." Bleeding edge technologies, processes, tools and a newfound mutual respect between clients and agencies, as well as a deeper and sincere commitment to talent, can enhance creativity and therefore performance and brand-building.

By the way, for Mr. Farmer's information, there are actually lots of agencies out there fighting the good fight and leading with a focus on business results, having made business transformation central to their agencies' ethos. His proclamation that agencies are all obsessed with creativity only is simply not true. There are many client partners out there who take a consultative approach to the business and obsess over every detail — from the logic that makes the triggered email journey work to nailing the culturally appropriate strategy of where to place the message and who should deliver it as well as the big creative idea that makes the brand relevant in the first place.

In fact, most agency billable services are not even creative-focused. The best relationships will always be partnerships whereby the clients trust and let the agency into the fold on shaping the business alongside them, and where agencies bring strategic solutions to the challenges clients face.

That can typically range from the big bolt of creative inspiration that puts a brand on the map to a loyalty strategy to maintain membership renewals with personalized promos and best-in-class rewards. These success stories abound. At the risk of tooting my own horn, our agency helped a leading personal services brand take this outcome-based approach to partnership and registered 23 percent in-store growth (120 new locations) in 2022. Mr. Farmer may be well-advised to seek out some of these players who are flying under his radar; he may come away with a different viewpoint.

At the end of the day, agencies aren't just selling ideas. We are selling successful implementation and measuring impact on the bottom line, at every store, for every promotion — not in ROAS, but in real, earned revenue for the business.

The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.

Shannon Robichaud is SVP of business development at Archer.