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Building a creative culture

Director at Citypress, Ruth Lee, discusses the importance of building a creative culture.

It’s no secret that agencies are trying to up their creative game - Edelman's plan to add 600 ‘earned’ creatives and planners has been widely talked about and there has been a lot of industry soul-searching following an unsuccessful Cannes Lions for the PR specialism.  

This focus on creativity is no surprise either; it is what clients want. The recent ‘The Business of Marketing’ study from Kantar and Campaign reveals that creative thinking is the agency service clients value the most, with 84% citing that they would outsource creative work.

The fact that award winning creative work has been proven to out-perform non-creatively-awarded work on every measure*, from sales gain to loyalty growth, is a testament to this. Indeed, Kantar Millward Brown’s recent analysis of BrandZ data revealed that brands that are perceived to be creative have grown their brand value by an average of 69%.

So, what can agency leaders do to foster a creative culture to meet the increasing demand for creativity?

Hire diverse minds

As with any aspect of agency culture, it starts and ends with talent. Ensuring you don’t take a cookie-cutter approach to recruitment is the best place to begin. You need different brains to get different thinking. Hiring from non-traditional routes, increasing diversity in age, gender, race and background and addressing neuro-diversity through tools like psychometric testing, is essential.   

Create a space where people feel comfortable to fail

Leading psychologist, Oliver James, spoke at Cannes last year about how people are at their most creative as children – when they haven’t been marred by under confidence, expectation and fear of failure.

Creating a feeling of safety – where people can share ideas that are risky, not-thought-through or might-not-work without judgement – is hugely important. Within those wild and wacky ideas is usually the germ of something brilliant.

But clients are often risk-averse too, so instilling the confidence – through coaching and proof-based techniques (i.e. focus group validation) - to enable your teams to sell-in creative ideas is crucial to ensuring brave ideas aren’t left on the cutting room floor.

When Diesel were encouraged to sell own-brand fakes in their ‘Deisel’ pop-up or Burger King were asked to allow consumers to ‘burn’ competitor ads with augmented reality, do you think they worried about the risks and felt a level of fear? Of course they did. But, they went for it.

Inspire people

It might feel like a no-brainer, but making the time to see and hear from inspirational people and campaigns, both inside and outside of your respective discipline, is crucial to a creative culture.

Give time and structure to creativity

Structure and creative might seem like a misnomer but the former helps the latter. Just look at Heineken’s frequently-cited creative ladder, which has had significant commercial impact on its brand.   

Insisting on a minimum two to three-week turnaround time to creative briefs provides the opportunity to gather insights, hold a well-planned creative session and build and test any resulting ideas.  

To give this process more structure, it is wise to consider developing creative agendas for each creative session – breaking down the different tools and exercises that will be delivered and what the intended output is. A warm-up exercise at the start will always serve to get people’s brains in gear, establishing rules like ‘no black-hatting’ at the beginning will keep everything on track, and giving teams the opportunity to present back and build ideas allows you to spot the real winners.

The old-school way of gathering an entire team around the table and asking for ideas has long-proved to be ineffective. Breaking people into smaller groups, focusing them on different aspects of the brief and using fun games to relax people and help generate thought-starters is a useful technique.

It’s also worth looking at doing away with the creative session altogether; we have found that concentrated, intense bursts of creative development can be a fantastic alternative. Look at the stellar work that falls out of the Young Cannes Lions competition process each year, in which participants are given 24 hours to turn around creative ideas for a brief.

Be hard on yourself

The culture and structures that foster good creativity are hugely important but as leaders, it’s incumbent to only let the best ideas out of the agency. Be clear about creative standards from the start and ruthlessly critique and question the resulting output to ensure they are as strong as possible. If you don’t, the client will.


*The Link Between Creativity and Effectiveness - The Gunn Report and the IPA Effectiveness Databank.