When I set up my call with Colleen DeCourcy, Global ECD at Wieden + Kennedy Portland, we were primarily meant to be chatting about Callen, a new independent creative shop that has been launched in Austin, Texas by former Wieden + Kennedy Group Creative Director Craig Allen (alongside Holly Petitjean and Niklas Lindström, formerly of Huge and Droga5 respectively), and received investment (with some unusual conditions) from the W+K network.
During the course of the conversation however, we roam across the range of issues that DeCourcy sees are weighing the creative side of advertising down today – from the structural, controlling nature of holding companies, to the subsequent breakdown of the creative-marketer relationship, and the need for the industry to adapt to changing times to attract talent – plus the light that she is beginning to see emerge at the end of the tunnel.
Let’s start with Callen though. The shop is one of a new breed of agency that is springing up in the ad industry that aims to offer a more nimble style of creativity by matching talent directly with brands in a more fulfilling way (see also the recently formed Uncommon in London, and BETC’s new office in LA).
The Austin venture sprang, according to DeCourcy, from Allen’s experiences at Wieden + Kennedy and the famously independent spirit that is central to the network. “As happens a lot,” she says, “we see great talent that leaves the building because they grow up and they want to go on and do their own thing. The interesting thing about raising creative people, and Craig has been with us a long time, in a Wieden + Kennedy environment, is they all grow up fiercely independent. That’s good, but we do tend to raise leaders and at a certain point, having looked up to the model that Wieden + Kennedy started, that Dan and Dave started, some of them – I won’t say all, because all creatives are different – some of them want to do it themselves.”
While wanting to encourage the venture, DeCourcy was concerned that Allen avoid the pitfalls that she’d encountered when running her own independent social media marketing agency, Socialistic (which was backed by Havas), before joining Wieden + Kennedy in 2013, specifically the almost predatory sounding nature of holding companies. “Holding companies will always want to buy a creatively-led start up because they’re all trying to buy creativity as fast as they’re selling it,” she says.
The downsides of this process, in her view, is that shops have little time to develop their own creative stamp and too quickly are forced to meet margins that will damage experimentation. “You realise that there’s a lot of dangers out there – that too many creative people are flipping their companies too soon … [and this] is starting to damage, we think, the quality of the agencies that are out there. We think it’s bad for creative people, we think it’s bad for creative product, we think it’s bad that that’s become the de facto process for the industry. We think that agencies that are constantly in a state of hitting their numbers are forced into making decisions that might not be primarily about the creative opportunity.
“And we think it causes clients to deal with us in certain ways,” she continues. “I think that agencies and clients are more afraid, or are disinclined to go through the natural tussle that is part of the creative process. And when one party needs the money more than the other party needs the work, there’s an inequity, whether people intend that to be the case or not.”
The solution, in the case of Callen, is for Wieden + Kennedy to provide hands-off backing to the start up, but with one significant condition: that it will never sell and will remain an independent outfit, as W+K itself has always been. DeCourcy hopes that this might be the first of many such ventures that the network will back, and that in turn, this will give wider creative strength back to the industry as a whole.
“It’s good when your competition closely resembles you,” she says. “We really do believe that this corporate infrastructure, the industry complex that has become advertising agencies, fundamentally takes great creative thinkers further away from great marketers. With systems, with review processes and hundreds of people wrapped around it, what you start to see develop is a creative department that is [separated off from the rest of the team]. They’re paid well but they become a camaraderie of themselves, and it’s ‘us against the world’. They’re managed and delivered and their output is taken to marketers by layers of people and then the marketer looks at the idea and shoots at it. And then it goes back to the creative people and they go ‘fucking clients’.”
DeCourcy sees the issue of the creative-marketer relationship, and the need for this to be one of trust and respect, as well as experimentation and risk, as being at the nub of what the industry needs most today. She sees the slow breakdown of this relationship, combined with the evolution of the media landscape and all the upheaval this has wrought, as having created an extremely tough environment for creativity to flourish.
“As a creative it’s intimidating right now,” she says. “First of all, there’s a massive loss of confidence. It’s been 15 years of ‘hey, your big ideas don’t matter’.
“We’re not sure where to put our work. So you start spending time thinking ‘how do you reach people?’, and then you’re doing two jobs at once. And then there’s competition, from everywhere: publishers, social media, consumers…. Much of it’s like an amazing opportunity…. So we’re not afraid, it’s that our share of voice got weak. Then I think you just look at this lack of partnership.
“Not to overplay how hard the job is, it’s advertising and we get to make things for a living and it’s by and large still a pretty beautiful job. But you’re walking in trying to bring really unusual creative ideas into a situation where everyone at the table is looking at their watch and thinking ‘well if I can’t find anything in this I love, I can always go ask x and x and x and x and x’.”
Ads for Sainsbury’s from Wieden + Kennedy London
While DeCourcy stresses that she’s in no way anti-competition, she highlights the lack of any kind of nurturing environment for creatives from marketers as damaging. And as a result, she’s found that agencies with a creative bent have started reaching out to encourage and nurture each other themselves.
“Creative people do better in an environment of ‘I love you and I know you can do this, and it’s going to be special because it came from you, and mostly I believe in you’. As opposed to ‘come on, what have you got?’ It becomes a cattle call of creativity and I don’t think that’s helpful,” she says.
“And I think if you look around you start to see all of us pulling together a little bit. More than I can recall ten years ago. You know, I will email Richard Brim [of adam&eveDDB] and say ‘fucking nice piece of work’ or Ted Royer [of Droga5] will pop up and go ‘god I love you guys’.
“We’re all starting to kind of self-care, and I don’t think it’s because we’re hanging on, I think it’s because what we’re starting to notice is the second you shut off the dollars on those frequency and retargeting machines, the sales go down. The minute you stop running the TV, it’s not front of mind. So we’re not building brands over time the way the current system’s working, which tells me there’s going to be a correction, and you just need to keep going with what we believe until it gets here, which I don’t think is going to be very long. I’m already noticing clients saying ‘what we need is the great big idea’. It’s like ‘yes!’”
The LGBTQAlphabet for Equinox by Wieden + Kennedy New York
Am I Typecast? for The Atlantic by Wieden + Kennedy New York
Alongside the obsession with the media landscape, it seems like the ad industry has been embroiled in navel gazing for some time over the question of how to attract and keep new talent, particularly diverse talent. DeCourcy is fairly forthright on the doom-mongering that goes on around this – “I think saying ‘the talent isn’t what it used to be’ is kind of like saying ‘I don’t know about this music these days’,” she says. “I think that it’s there, it’s about ‘are we recognising it for what it is?’”
“The last ten-year freak out about media shifting has distracted a lot of companies from training up, about what’s a great idea, how does it work, making it – craft,” she continues. “I think we took our eye off the ball so we have some catching up to do.
“Then I think people have different ideas about life right now…. The world looks different than it used to, and advertising is a business that’s about culture. We need to reflect culture, so that brings different ideas, and different sets of means. Like the balancing of parenting – all those different things that come into play that have to be addressed. We need to redefine what works when you drastically expand the kind of people that have to work in it.”
What Are Girls Made Of? for Nike by Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam
Da Da Ding for Nike by Wieden + Kennedy Dehli
As a network, Wieden + Kennedy is addressing these problems in a variety of ways across the different offices, reflecting the varying needs that arise locally. In London, this comes in the form of the agency’s request for all staff to log off on evenings and weekends, a programme that’s now being undertaken in Tokyo too, while Portland has a ‘Courageous Conversations’ programme that aims to tackle issues arising from diversity at the agency. For a company that has in the past had the nickname ‘Weekend + Kennedy’ for the amount of hours people have felt obliged to put in, these are signals that cultural change is afoot. And long overdue, says DeCourcy.
“Let’s be in honest, in America anyway, in New York, the way an ad agency’s day unfolded had everything to do with what time the trains arrived from Connecticut and Grand Central Station. And the fact that everybody’s family was out in the suburbs and the wives were making dinner for the kids and they didn’t have to be home in time for it. And it hasn’t been that way for a long time!
“So you know,” she concludes, “if we’re going to remain relevant to people, then the system has to work for different kinds of people. I just think we’ve been a little slow on the uptake.”