Ben Kay on the price of creativity

Ben Kay traces the combination of recessions, booms, busts, overconfidence, fragmentation and “a million decisions, big and small, with unforeseen consequences” that have resulted in the plummeting price of creativity in adland

When it comes to advertising and money there are many issues to explore: the way creatives are generally kept away from the financial aspects of the industry; fee structures and how the fragmentation of media has affected them; what came first, the money or the talent?; The deathly grip of Wall Street on the holding companies….

Perhaps we can collect all those points together and examine the one you really care about: why an advertising creative’s salary has gone down so much over the last decade or two.

In the interests of getting a thorough answer, I asked a few different people for their opinions: a financial journalist who has written about the business world since the 1970s; a creative director who has owned various agencies since the 1980s; and the current finance head of one of the UK’s best agencies. I’m also going to throw in a few of my own theories for good measure.

In the early 1980s, a copywriter called Geoff Seymour was considered brilliant enough to be worth a salary of £100,000. This was such a seismic occurrence that his surname became slang for that amount of money. Later in the decade, people would move agencies for a ‘Seymour and a half’ or a ‘double Seymour’.

Back in those days the average house cost around £20,000, so Geoff could buy five of them for a year’s wages (taxes aside). Nowadays that average house costs around £240,000. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that if Geoff merely wished for a so-so home miles from central London, he’d now have to save for years.

But here’s the kicker: £100,000 is still at the high end of creatives’ salaries. So while inflation has made everything cost a lot more, you no longer have a rock star salary to pay for it. Yes, £100,000 is still an obscene wage when compared to that of a nurse, fireman or teacher, but if we leave that thorny point aside, the last 20 years have seen ad agency salaries drop through the floor.

So what happened to make that happen? I don’t have the spare word count to go into the consequences of the great crash of 2008, but let’s just say quantitative easing and enforced austerity didn’t help matters. However, the downward trend was already in place before that, so we need to look at a few situations that started much earlier.