I’ve worked in this business for 20 years, and I see the same old debates coming around again and again: Why should agencies give away free work for pitches? Can you have a culture that fosters creativity but is commercially focused? Can you have happy clients that are still profitable?
As a young man I thought I knew everything, and as a middle-aged man I still think I know everything but have allowed myself some subtle U-turns on things I once believed to be universal truths.
Everyone’s heard the motherism “You can either make money from a client, or you can win awards,” which usually comes from a client before they try to nail your hands to the floor. So it is accepted that the two are mutually exclusive, right?
Well, when I was younger, I was very much in agreement, and when it came to choosing, I was very much in the mind-set of who wants the promiscuous vanity of awards? Our job is to create work that works, work that changes behaviour, drives demand and makes our clients successful. This in turn makes us successful, as this isn’t a zero-sum game. Chasing awards is a profligate use of client money and a detriment to their business requirements.
The reality is that I am a very poor loser. Anyone who has played any type of sport with me will know that. So I have spent most of my career in the B-to-B space in my early years, when this was deeply unfashionable (dirty trade and tech and channel), and it wasn’t easy to pick up awards on these types of clients. Of course, a lot has changed since then. Companies like gyro have brought a whole new level of sophistication to the market, applying the same standards of insight, creativity and execution that were previously only to be found on the big-ticket accounts. Eventually, I got sick of my mates in the boutique hot shops picking up meaningless awards.
The horn of this debate is really just a microcosm of the bigger discourse that pits “creative” agencies against “commercial” ones. As a numbers man and an economist, I always get pushed into the corner, which represents process, rigour, a focus on ROI and business performance. So clearly I can’t value creativity? Wrong—it’s another false dichotomy.
Agencies make money by producing good work that makes their clients stand out in ubiquitous, competitive markets. Thus, it’s not win-win. It’s win-win-win. Someone once described it as the “creative factory.” It’s what we produce. It’s our output. It’s not some magical thing that can happen only when you throw off the shackles of process and sound business acumen. Quite the opposite.
Whilst I believe that principle from the bottom of my heart, I have to admit I still harboured for many years a secret disdain for awards (and the self-congratulatory hubris that surrounds them). This year marked the end of my Damascene conversion. At the start of the year, I shook hands with a new client on a deal and he said, “I think we will be one of those clients you don’t make much money out of but win some awards.” And I said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we did both?” So, it’s great that to date, we’ve had over half a dozen award nominations for their work. They have exceeded their business growth targets. We’ve outperformed the key performance indicators we agreed to, and it’s been a commercially viable relationship.
I know there will be examples of multi-decorated work that bombed commercially, but, by and large, this is the exception, not the rule. As with many things in life, the outcome is governed by how you see things. If you believe it’s not possible to win awards and make money, your chances of achieving them will be pretty slim.
Danny Turnbull is managing director of gyro in Manchester
Follow Danny on Twitter @TurnbullDanny