Thoughts 19.03.18

Don’t take Marc Pritchard’s calls for staff ratio changes literally

It’s not about exactly how many people are in each job role, but creating the right culture and focusing on outcomes.

This article was originally featured in Campaign, written by our CEO Marc Nohr.

When Marc Pritchard called on his agencies to boost the proportion of creatives to account teams on his business he made a simple enough rhetorical point: Procter & Gamble places a greater value on creative than other agency capabilities and expects its agency teams to reflect that emphasis.

What followed was a flurry of polite or expected commentaries from those who either have P&G business or want it. Further responses identified creative thinking in places other than the creative department: in strategy, in data, in technology and more. If we define creativity broadly enough, the problem goes away – because we’re all creatives now, aren’t we?

But the debate doesn’t end there and nor should it. There are at least two other major issues that deserve attention: commerce and culture.

The commercial question is this: should clients pay agencies based on inputs, or something else? Whenever I find myself in conversation with a client (or their procurement department) about how many hours are required of an account handler or strategist in a monthly fee, I realise how pointless that debate is. It’s bad practice and we should stop it.

Whether you’re procuring business services or buying a new consumer product, investment value shouldn’t be judged on inputs, but on outputs or outcomes.  Not on the time required to make the thing; but on what that purchase helps you, the customer, achieve.

Far better, then, to judge agencies’ value on what they make and the competitive advantage the work confers. The difference we make to the client’s business is the most logical KPI there is, especially if it aligns our remuneration with the client’s so our fortunes are intertwined.

Reassuringly, most smart clients agree. In a recent negotiation with a major brand I made this point and the chief marketing officer revealed they have never been comfortable discussing hours or ratios and would much prefer to discuss outputs and outcomes.

That’s the commercial point – what of the cultural one?

When brands choose an agency, on what basis are they really choosing? Track-record, reputation and capability are all perfectly good criteria. But fundamentally, agencies are defined by how they attract, nurture and combine talent to get the optimum result. In other words, their cultures.

There’s method and magic in how to do it well, but it needn’t be an entirely black box process. There are demonstrable features to every creative shop in the world – from the big networks to the independents – for their clients to examine and understand how great work gets made.

From the office space to the diversity of backgrounds and skills in the team itself, and how those are combined, many factors add up to the creative whole. The sum total of those influences is an agency’s culture, and that is where creativity lies, as opposed to the ratio of one department to another.

So let’s not take Pritchard’s words too literally. The central question is how do we maximise creativity to best add value to our clients? And by creativity here I don’t mean words or pictures, still or moving. I mean, to borrow George’s Lois’s lovely phrase, “the defeat of habit by originality”.

For some agencies that might mean increasing the ratio of one department to another department to better diagnose, develop, implement or sell the solution.

For others it may mean engineering new roles or processes – super-producers, strategic account handlers, preditor – the word combinations are endless. The point is, it’s the task of agency management to create the conditions in which creativity flourishes, and then to be able to sell that creativity and justify its efficacy.

Unbundling a culture into its component parts, or reducing culture down to headcount, is a destructive act and one we shouldn’t collude in. At a time when audiences are changing their mindsets and experimenting in media which the industry has yet to learn about, the definition of creativity and innovation has never been broader.

Forming new habits, perceptions or behaviours – the essence of every brief that comes through our doors – is a process for an entire agency. It draws on the skills of everyone we employ.

While creative genius can indeed come from any individual along the way, the right agency culture creates the conditions for ideas to be conceived, to grow, protected and nurtured until they are ready to emerge blinking into the daylight.

If Marc Pritchard’s comments trigger any change within creative agencies, it should be introspection from us as creative leaders. When the buck stops with us, we must be the epitome of our agency’s culture, championing and selling its commercial benefits.

If we do that well, this may be the last we hear about creative ratios.