The Bad, the Good and the Ugly: in defense of an efficient creative culture
Posted on 2016 Oct,18  | By Omar Boustany

With 16 years of experience in advertising, Omar Boustany has had the opportunity to work, as a creative, for many multinational agencies such as Leo Burnett, Saatchi & Saatchi, Memac-Ogilvy, TBWA/Rizk and Havas Worldwide. As creative director, both he and his team won more than 15 local and international awards. In the following, he talks, without reservation, about the various cultures ad agencies employ and the differences some of these models have on the work created and the way such philosophies are translated in reality. He also explained that the only reason he took on this delicate subject, is for the sake of improving things, enjoying better ads, and supporting the new generation.


The Internal Setup

‘Agency Culture’ truly exists and I experienced huge differences between agencies throughout my career. While some have a very strong culture and hold fast to the international network values and philosophy, others dramatically lack these, as they do not apply on a local level. 

Working at the latter, the creatives are perceived as the production unit, or workers who should deliver and complete their tasks then go home, sleep a bit, and come to work the next day and do it all over again, which is similar to working at a printing factory. 

The overall mindset at those agencies is that creatives are the blue-collar workers and the client-servicing department comprises the white-collar employees. This model persists even when that same agency evolves towards a more modern organisation. In other words, the old-fashioned mentality lingers long after the changes are applied. 

Sometimes, the problem is clearly special. The client-servicing department is located on the upper floor where the reception area is alongside the conference rooms. On a different floor, you find the creative and production departments with the studios downstairs in an area that is almost never frequented by outsiders. 

The explanation is simple: they are here to work and not to be disturbed, because creative minds tend to be a bit lazy, so it’s better to isolate them so they can concentrate on their jobs…

In this case, this makes me wonder why the client servicing people and creatives are not interacting further. After all, it would be much healthier and productive for the management to build the right synergy within the agency. 


In some kind of agencies, the creative is at the center of everything. He's viewed as the one bringing the added value.


The Advantages/Disadvantages

In the first kind of agency, the creative is at the center of everything. He’s viewed as the one bringing the added value. At the end of the day, the creative’s work will be shared with the public. Here, the excellence criteria is more in terms of awards and quality than in terms of deadlines and amount of work accomplished. 

The real difference between agencies is a pre-established general attitude, a dominant philosophical hierarchy: who is allowed to think? In some agencies, the creatives are the star thinkers and the account directors should listen, understand, build, follow the trend, raise their concerns, and try to please their clients. 

At other agencies, the client servicing people and planners consider themselves the thinkers, who in some cases, also have creative and strategic ideas. Worse still, they are more difficult than the client when it comes to assess ideas. They kill all the ideas and filter everything before the client can give his/her opinion. The client ends up with a very limited set of options. In this scenario, the actual creatives are just there to meet the deadlines and execute what was thought by others… 

Sadly, few employ the merits both models have to offer by combining account directors and creatives into a single team working hand in hand for a brand they know very well and want to push forward. 

Without this synergy, the infamous saying applies perfectly, “A camel is a horse designed by a committee”, where all the originally presented creative ideas now look very much alike, having lost their freshness, strength and soul if not their meaning. This kind of agency culture kills any type of creativity by replacing it with boring or cliché work. The approach also kills the very soul of the creatives and their appetite for creation…

Some agencies I knew were not even used to have a creative director, considering that each creative should simply follow and execute the briefs of the account managers based on the brands assigned to them. Here, the line between 'Creative Department' and  ‘Production’  seizes to exist. Instead, all these individuals become ‘The Computer People’ who execute things. It’s not really the big idea that will create a buzz and make a difference, rather the amount of ‘jobs’ delivered by the day.

Ironically, and in the haze of it all, management is surprised at the absence of a productive atmosphere. They are further puzzled by the way creatives thrive in chaos considering that they rarely deliver on time and their output is very often not aligned with the brief.  

To remedy the situation, or at least restore some kind of order, management ends up hiring a creative director to assume the role of traffic manager. Instead of amending ideas and art direction, requisitioning briefs and strategy, organising brainstorming sessions and fine-tuning the work, he ends up doing nothing more than making sure deadlines are met irrespective of the final quality of the work, which in most cases turns out to be mediocre. 


... Any creative policy launched by Leo Burnett worldwide in Chicago or London is taken very seriously and applied everywhere else to an exacting degree.


An Ideal Model

I grew up in advertising as a 'Burnetter', which I should say is definitely an agency that puts creativity and awards at the center of the process. Everything is optimised for the creative to make full use of their potential. The deadline can be moved, the brief can be challenged or even changed, the strategy can be revisited, and sometimes even all of that comes after, or is rewritten, which is when the genuine creative idea is born. 

At that agency, any creative policy launched by Leo Burnett worldwide in Chicago or London is taken very seriously and applied everywhere else to an exacting degree. They really make you feel part of a global family with the same exact values and objectives. Here, the true meaning of agency culture comes out. In other words, if you put people from the agency in Amsterdam, Rio, Madrid, Beirut and Dubai in the same room, you would not be surprised to learn that all use the same language, have the same objectives, and approach the work using a similar methodology.

People at this agency are truly forward-looking individuals who are at the top of their game and market trends. They invest in seminars and workshops to locally implement these new global policies. They send their creatives to Leo Burnett London on a regular basis for training and workshops. They also send their top as well as junior creatives to Cannes’ International Festival of Creativity to contribute and learn while staying in the know. In addition, they also hold yearly sessions called “Initiatives” dedicated to award-winning campaigns and out of the box ideas where everyone, creative and account directors are deeply involved. 


Assessing Value

To properly and accurately evaluate these initiatives and new ideas, Leo Burnett uses a tool no other agency has, namely ‘The Human Kind Scale’, an internal global agency system to rate creative ideas on a scale from 1-10. So, when you say 7+, everyone knows what that implies. Also, the rating system is so widespread that it’s really part of the day to day culture of the agency. This common language with very precise measurements creates a real shared culture. The idea is based on a scientific, pedagogic and democratic approach, which allowed me to win many awards.

Another strategy we at Leo Burnett used to take very seriously is brainstorming, which has its own tools and methodology, a reality that rarely happens elsewhere unless when preparing for a difficult pitch or an extraordinary brief. The actual brainstorming session at other agencies is at times the result of one man’s thoughts executed on a computer without a real input from a senior creative. This not only negatively reinforces the ego of a creative being a ‘genius’, but also leads to harsh competition within the creative department and an uncalled-for element of secrecy. 

What most fail to see and understand is that it’s important the idea is shared by the entire team even if not all the individuals in the team have actively participated in its creation. This reinforces team spirit and the feeling of belonging to one school. It shows the way for those who want to progress and offers the juniors their first opportunities to shine and win awards.  

At the end of the day, the mission of the creative director is not to create and keep all the ideas to himself, rather to create the conditions and atmosphere for others to have the ideas by demonstrating to them the process, growing their talents, fine-tuning their way of thinking and improving their knowledge while giving them tools and methods to perform. 

On an equally important note, the elements that were selected to create any idea should also be applied to elect a production house and director. Again, some agencies are not allowed to make that call due to a pre-established financial arrangement with a production house or photographer. This is when you end up having a great campaign shot the wrong way. Of course, creative people should be aware of budget restrictions and not dream of Hollywood. But they should definitely have a final say on who’s directing or shooting their ad as well as be present throughout the entire process as we used to.


Winning Awards

Here again, the policies broadly diverge. Some agencies are not interested in winning awards, a reality I can testify to, which caused me great frustration. The heads of these agencies only believed in bringing new business, winning pitches, and making the client who was willing to leave, happy. This leaves no time for awards and other such initiatives…

What some fail to grasp is that winning awards is very difficult, as that calls for a tremendous amount of effort based on a highly-coordinated system. For that reason, it becomes absolutely impossible to win any award if the client servicing people are not involved and motivated by this objective, especially if they consider that it’s a creative hobby that is nothing more than a waste of time.

In the famous Walt Disney movie Ratatouille, “Everyone can cook” was the motto of famous Chef Gousteau… provided you have the right tools, the right guidance and the inspiring atmosphere. The same is true for creative advertising: “Everyone can be creative”, it all depends on the agency culture.

We can compare the culture of an agency to the one in the kitchen of a restaurant. If there’s a talented chef, fully supported by the management and in love with what he’s cooking, this spirit will become infectious and in turn motivate the entire team toward creative excellence. He sets standards that are easy to follow and that everyone understands. In parallel, instead of aiming to win a Michelin Star, this particular creative aims to win an award.

In conclusion, what should be clear is that you can opt to eat at a fast-food restaurant run by a businessman who prefers to establish himself as a separate singular entity only concerned about turnover. Or, you can choose to enjoy a dining experience that will linger in your mind for years on end. 

In both cases, bon appétit.