Creative Crisis?

Two of the UK’s top ad agencies, Saatchi & Saatchi and Ammirati Puris Lintas, have taken the unusual step of hiring foreigners to head their creative teams. This provides more evidence that London’s reputation as the centre of the creative adv

Two of the UK’s top ad agencies, Saatchi & Saatchi and Ammirati Puris Lintas, have taken the unusual step of hiring foreigners to head their creative teams. This provides more evidence that London’s reputation as the centre of the creative advertising world is slipping, and comes after a year of lacklustre performance for UK agencies in international creative awards.

Last week, Saatchi announced that Australian Dave Droga, creative boss of its Asian operation, is being parachuted in over the heads of the London team as UK executive creative director (MW October 22). Two weeks earlier, APL said that Steve Rabosky would be coming over from the New York head office to head the London agency’s creative department (MW October 8).

These moves come after American agencies walked off with most of the top prizes at the Cannes International Advertising Awards in July, leaving their British counterparts straggling behind. And some London agency bosses are complaining that there have been no “great advertising campaigns” for three years.

Adam Crozier, joint chief executive of Saatchi in London, explains the choice of Droga: “If you look at where the big, simple ideas are coming from, it’s not the UK. The UK agencies have been trounced in awards at Cannes, New York and other places. London was the centre for a long time, but at the moment a lot of work is over art directed with too much style over ideas. We need big, simple thoughts.”

Some, however, suspect this may be a smokescreen for the internal machinations in Saatchi’s worldwide operations. In July, Kevin Roberts, Saatchi’s worldwide chief executive, moved to impose his own control on the London office and shuffled chairman Alan Bishop into an international role. One observer speculates that Roberts wants Droga to be his “eyes and ears” at the London agency, though Crozier denies this.

Saatchi’s record over the past year demonstrates it may have lost some of its creative sparkle – it has been fired by Camelot and Schweppes and lost the Vision Express account just months after winning it. These losses, however, have been offset by a number of wins such as Guinness Africa, Lloyds TSB, European Rothmans work and the European Space Agency. But it is clear that the agency wants to bolster its creative credentials.

At APL, there are parallel suggestions that the appointment of Rabosky may be down to worldwide chief Martin Puris wanting to put his own man into the London office, which has also had a patchy performance of late. Again, the agency’s London bosses deny this. Chris Thomas, London chief executive says quite the reverse is true, and he had to fight hard to persuade Puris to allow Rabosky to take up the post.

Thomas dismisses talk of a fundamental problem with London’s creative status. “London is a hotbed of creativity, but each agency has got to look to its individual circumstances to work out where it needs direction and focus. For agencies like us, with strong multinational business, there is an advantage in having overseas creatives,” he says.

Rabosky believes the problem Crozier identifies with UK creative work has a more general significance. “Younger people are more taken with style than the relevance of the strategy. There is too much work without much direction,” he says.

This is a view shared by BMP DDB’s creative director John Webster, who told MW earlier this year: “Creative people have become lazy. We are now in the age of technical production. Techniques are dominating at the expense of good ideas. All this amazing post-production may be fascinating to art directors, but it leaves the public cold.”

Droga and Rabosky will be the only overseas creative directors running top 20 London agencies. Of course, their agencies may not have been able to find suitable creative directors in London as the best ones will already be tied into jobs, and tend to shuffle between agencies with the best reputations. This was seen in the “musical chairs” of top creatives in January, which led to new creative appointments at WCRS, EURO RSCG Wnek Gosper and BMP DDB (MW January 22).

But the arrival of the two could herald a new era for the agencies – not just in London, but around the world.

There is a growing tendency for agencies to employ international staff, particularly on global brands. This has led to an influx of overseas creatives into agencies in London, though few stay long enough to rise to the dizzy heights of creative director. But at Wieden & Kennedy’s Amsterdam office, campaigns are created by a team of creatives from all over Europe. Jon Matthews, one of the agency’s creative directors, says W&K Amsterdam uses creatives from Spain, Italy, Japan, Canada and there are often people from the US head office in Portland. This is appropriate for international campaigns that the agency has worked on, such as the World Cup ads for Coca-Cola and Nike. Matthews claims that one client, the German bank Hypo-Vereinsbank, insists on the agency using non-German creatives.

Matthews adds that greater use of international creatives could be advantageous for UK agencies. “If the UK had more people from outside, there would not be so many Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer commercials…The best way to keep fresh is to go to a culture you don’t know…When you work on a cross-cultural ad, you are forced to get to an idea that crosses borders and get to the heart of what they want,” he says.

Meanwhile, the “Cool Britannia” tag has fallen out of common usage and talk of “Britpop” has all but disappeared, as have Ginger Spice’s Union Jack trunks. Perhaps the sterility of UK advertising creativity mirrors a wider decline in London’s cultural status.

The idea that London is advertising’s creative capital is being called into question as the focus shifts to the US, Far East and Europe. The globalisation of brands will inevitably lead to greater input from cross-cultural teams. But it could also mean more UK ad agencies looking overseas for the creative talent that they perceive to be lacking in London.

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