Monday, July 16, 2007

Creative Generalism Rears Its Head Once Again

There's a post today over at Serendipity Book asking "Is creative generalism the answer?"

Well, let me answer that question.

It isn't.

In fact the idea enrages me so much that every time it pops up I feel the need to reach for a hammer, like I'm playing a blogging version of whack-a-mole.

If you want to know more about this accursed theory - which is godless, anti-capitalist, and contrary to all good sense - then Rusell Davies has written about it here and here. There's even a whole website dedicated to its evil.

Here's my Top 5 reasons why Specialism is better than Generalism.

1. You go ahead and try to staff an agency with generalists. There just aren't enough of them out there. Think of it like football. How many players can defend, create goals, and score goals? Not many. Johann Cruyff maybe, but that's about it.

2. Great advertising requires different skills - creative, strategic, inter-personal. How often do you find lots of all of these in the same person? Not often. For example, who is creative and organised? Not me. I've just basically made the same point twice in a row.

3. You need different personality types too. Take the Enterprise. They had Spock, Bones, Kirk and Scotty. Ah, now that would be quite an agency line-up, wouldn't it?

4. The advantages of specialisation are well known. It's been over 200 years now since Adam Smith showed how "the main cause of prosperity... is increasing division of labor." Don't these people ever learn?

5. Let's get hypothetical. Here's my team of specialists - Johnny Hornby (CEO), Paul Feldwick (Head of Planning), Richard Flintham (ECD). Could anyone put up a team of three generalists, that would make a better agency than HFF? I doubt it.


Dan said...

Simon - I'm with you on this, and am particularly annoyed by planners who think that they are the 'new creatives'. Phhhfft.

Without skill, what are the odds that what's made will touch people? There's a model of creativity out there that says that 'anyone can be creative' or worse, 'a big idea can come from anywhere', both of which are espoused by frustrated creative people hiding in planning and account management departments.

Let's get this straight. If you have a great idea and you happen to be a planner, fine. But don't forget that your role is to get the thinking right. Participating in other parts of the creative enterprise should be contingent on being excellent in your area first.

I think that good agencies need to make a case for creativity as not a state of random play, as many would like to believe. It's about hard work - seeing beyond the constraints of the problem for a new solution. Otherwise, we are just mollycoddling the next generation of advertising staff to the detriment of all our livelihoods.

It takes work to make good stuff. It takes temperament, and talent, and practice. The case has been made elsewhere that anyone can have an idea. The value is in people who can make it real.

Thinking "I can flatten space and change the way Western art explores the human soul" ISN'T the same as being Picasso.

Will said...

Simon, I agree as well.

In fact, I had a tongue in cheek post with Steve Hardy about Creative Generalism (as a concept) being shite:

Read his response here:

I want to learn planning. I'm not a creative, nor would I ever pertain to be. If, say, my brand idea thought becomes the final line - all well and good. But if it doesn't, no bother. It's all about what is most appropriate.

I'm nodding my head with Dan when he says 'It takes work to make good stuff'. Damn right.

New York Punk said...

This is what happens when planners (who actually think they can do everything, if only they had the time) start to blog.

New Rule: Screw freedom of speech. If you are a planner or a suit, you can't blog.

Anonymous said...

interesting topic. dan talks a lot of sense. the only problem with trying to make people appreciate creativity is it's a bit like going to the moon. if you've never been it's hard to appreciate. i think the best creative organizations achieve respect by embodying creativity.

i do think though that the digital revolution means creatives will have to think a lot more strategically in every way. we used to know what we were doing. and now we have to become planners and media thinkers. it's going to hurt.

Anonymous said...

Yes many Planners are frustrated creatives and they are a farking pain in the arse. One of the worst culprits is a certain planner who is about to start an agency with 2 other colleagues. This pretentious knob writes end lines as propositions and then tries to bomb any work that doesn't use his line - even if the creatives have worked with it and found it unworkable. If a planner really wants to be a creative here's some advice: get a book together and try to get hired as one

Anonymous said...


I think you read me wrong. Whilst I used the term creative generalism I had a very different idea in mind.

Let me explain.

Triggered by Gordon Torrs's piece in Market Leader about the systematic deskilling of the creative department I said:

"Is planning deskilling creative? In our attempts to be more efficient through the division of labour into specialisms have we risked turning our creatives into idea monkeys by removing them from the more discretionary decision-making about strategy? Is creative generalism the answer or will there always be a role for specialists?"

In other words, rather than advocating that planners take on the role of creatives I was suggesting exactly the opposite: that creatives risk being deskilled (cf. Taylorism) unless they continue to take on some of the responsibility for solving the problems that exist within the client brief. The creative generalists I was thinking of were not therefore planners that want to be creatives but creatives who help to define the strategy.

While I’m on the subject, I would also argue that planners also risk being deskilled in turn unless they reach up and solve some of the upstream problems (which may include media / comms planning, brand strategy, market segmentation etc.) that the client needs to solve before they turn up at the door of an agency with a (too) focused communications brief.

You may not agree with that either but that's what I was blathering on about. I'll be clearer next time ;-)

All the best,


P.S. Gordon did email me to explain his position -- I've told him about this post of yours so maybe he'll choose to share his thoughts here too.

Anonymous said...

Amidst all this talk of deskilling planners and creatives can I ask what i think is a more pertinant question - what is the role of the Account Man these days? With Creatives (esp CD's and ECD's) expected to attend every meeting , to be slick presenters, to spend more time with clients in social situations etc what do Account people actually do and do we need them? Most client meeetings I've been in have seen the planner and creative director do 95% of the presenting and the suit just switches the power point on and off and does the intros

Anonymous said...

But it's impossible to deskill an account man, surely?

The Torr said...

There are several really bad ideas that keep getting in the way of the production of really good ones.

The first, and the most dangerous, is the notion that everyone is creative. Somehow this has become an article of faith, not only among ad industry technocrats, but in the wider world of business management.

And one of the many reasons why it's so dangerous is the following: If you believe that everyone is creative you're just a ballhair away from managing the creative process the way you would manage the manufacture of baked beans.

Anonymous said...

Let's get this straight. If you have a great STRATEGY and you happen to be a CREATIVE, fine. But don't forget that your role is to get the CREATIVE right. Participating in other parts of the STRATEGIC enterprise should be contingent on being excellent in your area first.

If you fuck off out of my sandpit, I'll fuck off out of yours.

All fantastically grownup, really.

Anonymous said...

in the post-TV digital age, isn't the whole planning thing going to go away now that the strategy for everything all the time will be: get attention.

isn't/wasn't planning, and advertising in general, predicated on the assumption of the mass audience?

Anonymous said...

This is where connection planning could prove more valuable than strategic planning - in helping to define where that attention is most likely to be gained

Anonymous said...

Sometimes creatives come up with the strategy as well as having the creative idea for it. Planners never do both; it's often neither. So we rule, and you suck.

Anonymous said...

Whats with all this gutless anonymous commenting Scamp?

I have a real fear that planning has led to the deskilling of the creative discipline and then because the planning is not fucking good there is a intellectual hole at the heart of the whole enterprise.

By deskilling I mean the instinctive understanding that great creatives (my closest experience was Abbott) had about how to sell a client's product as opposed to simply finding a brilliant way to dramatise a proposition.

Scamp said...

Richard I agree that sometimes the planning isn't good but sometimes the creative isn't good either. I still stand by my argument for the virtues of specialisation. Maybe David Abbott was a great strategist as well as being a great creative. But few are. I still think you're more likely to get good work with a great creative and a great planner working together, rather than two generalists.

p.s. i don't mind anonymous commenters. Honesty more valuable than identifiability.

Anonymous said...

i agree with richard. as a creative i've always felt that the planning part was the most exciting part of the whole process. the "what the hell are we going to do?" stage is always the most exciting and challenging.

and any creative worth their salt sees the big picture and can come with a great strategy. you mention David Abbott. great example. that generation of creatives saw it as their job to do it all - planning/creative. they were thinkers first and foremost.

let's face it, if you have a brilliant strategy, the ads are easy.

yours in continued gutless anonymity...

Dan said...

I do sometimes worry about creatives not being strategic enough, or at least not having enough strategic nous to have the right conversations with planners. If that is what's meant by 'deskilling', then fine. Let's make sure that creative people don't become so specialised at making stuff that they lose the ability to work strategically.

I don't think that's the real danger that's being pointed out, however. The real danger is that with integration still being at the top of the client agenda, we are now relying on people with no talent, temperment, or practice in lateral thinking. At their best, agencies like Naked and Michaelides and Bednash are brilliant, but at their worst they don't do the bit that makes a brand worth experiencing.

To take it a step further, one of the reasons why the UK television creative work is still effective is that it's still worth engaging. If we drift towards the 'media-neutral' space then the type of deskilling we'll see will be the loss of craft. Knowing what makes a good piece of film is valuable. Knowing what makes a great piece of direct marketing is valuable. Knowing how to generate press momentum is valuable. None of these craft-specific skills seem to be taken into account by creative generalists. If anything, skill and craft are ignored.

This is why it is a galling to hear fellow planners go on how they are the 'new creatives' at PSFK's conferences. That's hubris. In very rare instances we can reach the same level that creative people have worked most of their lives to reach. Bear in mind, though, that in most instances, we will merely be pretending.

Better to concentrate on helping everyone make the hard choices: defining the task, focusing on the right needs and fears, etc. In the integrated world we need fewer creative generalists, and more hard-nosed strategists to inspire creative specialists.

As for moving upstream into communications planning and media planning, I think the problem is that these are not upstream skills at all. Great comms and media planning are creative skill disciplines and not necessarily strategically focused. That media plan and that communications architecture also requires years of lateral thinking practice to get good at. Assuming that planners can just pick up a few charts and get it done generally doesn't work.

And I don't know where anyone on this thread is working, but if your account managers merely turn the lights on and off, then you really have seen some serious deskilling. What makes great account directors could make another post somewhere!

Anonymous said...


Great post. I particularly thank you for calling out the utter hubris of those lauding planners as the ‘new creatives’. As a planner I find it ill-conceived, arrogant, and just plain unhelpful. To my mind, it’s the differences between creatives and planners that when partnered together, make for better work.

The comment about the deskilling of account people rather irked me too. As in every profession (or craft) there are people who are a waste of space. No department or discipline has the monopoly on mediocrity. For every content-free account person is an insight-free planner and big-talking creative hack. But what really, really bothers me is when we seem to suggest that account people are by their very nature bottom wiping, ass-kissing empty suits. It's the casual dismissal - the suggestion that what with the brilliance of planners and creatives, there’s nothing much for them to do but turns on the VCR - that gets up my nose, so I just wanted to provide a different perspective.

I’m not going to be so arrogant as to presume here to define what the role of account management is in the era of ‘Everything 2.0’. Frankly, I’m tired of people blogging about what other people should do. But here’s what I’ve observed, and have been privileged enough to experience.

One thing is certain. They're got more endless stinking shite to shovel than any of us lucky Big Thinkers and Creative Geniuses.

I see people to make space for the work. Because they care about it. They make space in the minds of conservative or unwilling clients, they help make space in our own organisations for the work to be done, they fight for time, they fight for money, they fight for resource. They navigate difficult teams and precious planners through the maze of client politics. They protect our thinking and they protect our newborn ideas. They make space in client organisations for our creativity and cleverness and mop up the mess when we're truculent. Or late. Or crap. I see people who work to open up the eyes of clients to the power of creativity. I see people who work to get them to take their heads out of their asses and have ambition and vision. And for all that they have to put up with being called asskissers, flunkies, and empty suits.

I see people who actually understand the business of our clients business. They know how the organisation works, where and how it actually makes the money. They actually know if business is up, down, or just plain flat. They know the impact of our ideas on base sales or the share price or value share or whatever. When many of us have no idea. And when the rest probably don’t give a damn. And they bring that knowledge to bear on all we do. Because if what we do isn’t connecting with the outside world, and with the cogs of our client businesses, it isn’t worth a damn. They make sure that our ideas are solving the right problems, that we’re not being given spurious issues and objectives. And so they challenge the thinking and work of both planners and creatives.

They cop all the blame and shit and aggro. If there isn't eight weeks creative development time it's their fault. If the ad doesn't get sold, it's their fault. If the budget's too small for the creative extravaganza, it's their fault. If the extravaganza goes over budget it's their fault. If the client thinks the 8pt Helvetica logo is too small, then it's their fucking fault. They put up with everybody - producers, creatives, traffic people, directors, clients, planners, suppliers - all thinking and saying that they could do their job better. If the creative work is self-evidently nothing more than irrelevant Cannes-chasing material they nonetheless dutifully pitch up at the client presentation ready to throw themselves on their swords just because it's work the creative director "really believes in".

They're not about theory. But about making things happen and getting shit done. They're more connected to the process of actually making stuff than certainly we planners are. What does it actually take say, to get a script from storyboard to being on air? What exactly happens? They make sure that all that theory and creativity actually results in something... on a billboard, on the interweb, in a TV break. They're engaged in the process of actually producing stuff. They're into the practical real world minutiae of casting and shooting and editing and constantly think about how these variables make the difference between good and great... They can name more directors than planners can and know their work. They work at the speed of business.

They make stuff happen when most planners forget that to plan is a verb, i.e. a DOING word and would curl up into a foetal position weeping uncontrollably if they had to contend with a fraction of what account people put up with. If a campaign fails, it’s account people who get the blame – from clients, from management. What planner ever got blamed for an ineffective campaign? And when was the last time creatives were held responsible – by client or their agency - for the commercial impact of their work? They’re the ones who get shouted at. The ones who have to endure the Agency Review every year and defend what we do.

When the notion of time is largely an alien concept for many of us in agencies, I see them making things happen on time. They juggle a thousand and one different things and somehow manage to get it out into the real world when it's meant to happen.

They make things happen on budget. When us planners and creatives can get away with floating about happily ignorant of all things relating to how much the stuff we make actually costs to produce... and woefully ignorant as to how much our account is actually making for the agency. They wrangle and fight with clients over fees so that the agency gets halfway close to being decently remunerated for the ideas that builds their business and makes them wealthy. They fight the client for fair bonuses that let the agency invest in itself. They put up with people in finance and head office who know the price of everything and the value of nothing shouting at them that the margin on the business is unacceptable.

I know that if I start an agency I am going to make damn sure there's a shit hot account person by my side.

Some see relationship managers, schmoozers, politicians, and VCR operators. I see people who get shit done. I couldn't be an account person. Could you?

Phew. Not sure if this comment has a place in this thread, but I couldn't resist. And I do feel better for getting it off my chest.

Anonymous said...

here are other players that can defend, create and score: Julio Baptista, Andreas Pirlo, Samir Nasri

Anonymous said...


you speak the truth. the ability to get great things done is what differentiates creative entities. every thing else is just puffery and smoke. creatives, do you really need someone else to tell you what humanity is like? if so, sad.

Anonymous said...

Scamp, funnily enough, to say you only need Richard Flintham running the creative dept. means he IS a creative generalist: Art Director/Copywriter.

Shouldn't he have a partner? (Not Andy McLeod or course)