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Claire Beale: We need more, not less, of the cult of creative leaders

I was at one of those industry dinners recently where you get the chance to frock up and listen to someone famous tell you how they got there. I can't remember who the speaker was, but I remember the marketer who bounded up to me at the Champagne bit in a state of sweaty agitation.

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It turned out he’d rushed straight from a tense meeting with his creative agency and was looking for a sympathetic ear. I lent him one.

"They just don’t get it," he fumed. "That whole cult of personality thing in agencies, that’s dead now. We’re in charge now. But they just don’t get it."

His problem was that his creative agency couldn’t crack the brief he’d given them. At least he thought they couldn’t; the agency, on the other hand, clearly reckoned they’d come up with something pretty special and had put up a robust defence of their idea. At which point the marketer stormed out.

If all you want your agency to do is what they're told, then you'd better be a brilliantly creative conceptualist yourself

I don’t know how often client/agency relations get so bad that storming out seems like the only option. It’s a bit like the grown-up version of sticking your fingers in your ears and singing "la, la, la". Or not so grown-up. But I do know that it’s not the first time I’ve had a conversation like that, where a marketer has vented their frustration that their agency won’t just do what’s asked of it. The damn agency challenges the brief, questions the decision, pushes another route.

I guess by "the cult of personality", he meant the agency’s impassioned (creative) leader whose veins run thick with belief in the transformational power of creativity. Anyway, it was a pretty brutal dismissal of the very reason I thought creative agencies exist: to come up with dazzlingly brilliant ideas that marketers can’t come up with themselves. If all you want your agency to do is what they’re told, then you’d better either be a brilliantly creative conceptualist yourself or accept that you’re basically looking for an extension of your marketing department with all the bland functionality that implies.

For a time-strapped, data-overloaded marketer, finding the space and the confidence to deal with challenging creative ideas from your agency might be a stretch. But how did we get to a place where marketers think they know better than the creative specialist? Is it because creativity is so democratised now (just look at the make-up of the Cannes delegate list) that agencies can no longer claim the magic?

Or, in the new-normal climate of relentless ROI, do we need to redefine magic? Ceding the "cult of personality" doesn’t seem like any solution, though. Quite the opposite. Bring back the cult, as long as the personalities are brilliant enough to create magic that actually sells stuff.

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