The relationship between an agency’s creative and account management departments has traditionally been about as smooth as cactus. We, the creatives, and you, the suits, have a genetic propensity to avoid each other. We, the creatives, are embedded with a bias that the instant you will be offered employment by a client, you and your love for advertising will evaporate. And why not, we’ve all got to make a living. And you, the suits, have a genetic bias that our job as creative professionals is structured to deliver your life from anything resembling a challenging sale. You have instilled in us your very fear of the client — which, mind you, is not a result of awe-inspired trepidation, but simply out of a lack of effective client management. And you have used this UFO (Unidentified Fear of Objections) to leverage your way around the agency as a way to deflect supporting the creative process. Not all the time, but mostly.
Harsh words? You bet. To be powerful in advertising means making powerful ads. And if the assigned custodians and guardians of advertising can’t do their job, they shouldn’t be doing it. But, perhaps, there is a way out. Perhaps there’s a system of working where no one individual has to face the music or bear the total responsibility of advertising that doesn’t make the mark.
It happens like this: Every now and then, an ordinary agency will release an extraordinary ad. A unique word and picture combination that releases a current of triple-bolted envy among the trade — resulting in a veritable barrage of inquisitive and intrusive queries from the industry directed to finding out who, what, where and how this brilliance got past the client? For an industry exhausted by its daily production of mediocrity, notice how we look at brilliant advertising as an accident of nature and not a solution.
But whatever it is — solution, accident, fate, luck, blackmail or threats of self-immolation — its creation is valuable enough to make a considerable difference in the atmosphere of the agency. Suddenly, a slouching, inactive creative department begins to feel the pulse again. The client services manage their accounts with a degree of assertive authority — rather than the servile ineptitude we’re so accustomed to. And the higher-ups make it a point to use this strategically framed piece of brilliance as a point of reference in new pitches.
Funny what a halfway decent ad can do.
So how do so many creative-bled agencies become creative-led? What gives them that silver edge that, in essence, makes the agency feel powerful again and its clients feel privileged to be working with them? The answer, fortunately, is not blowing in the wind. Look at the best agencies around the world — that is, in terms of their billings as a result of their work and not the other way around — and you will discover that nearly all of them follow the Principle of Blocking in some form or the other. A principle that is lacking in the modus operandi of most local agencies.
You will find, if you are true to the craft, that you are not only alone in your pursuit of brilliance but fundamentally cornered if you work for a typical agency structure. Neither agency nor client tend to risk upsetting their business relationship on the basis of what is commonly dismissed as decorative mumbo-jumbo. More proof that it takes an inordinate degree of patience and courage to persistently redefine the edges of creative excellence. Which means, you need to rally the cause by mobilizing — or hiring —an enthusiastic (support) group of advertising believers (let’s say, your account group) and start practicing blocking routinely.
Blocking is a tactical manoeuvre in American Football that suggests that if one player is holding the ball and running towards the goal post to score, the other team players need to ‘block’ the opponents from getting in the way.
The ‘ball’ in this case is your idea and the ‘opponent’ is anyone who will compromise your mission to getting your ad seen by the world. So it’s not necessarily the client. Your opponents — when it comes to dedicating yourself to brilliance — is everyone from the over-worked designer who bottlenecks and delays your work to an incompetent AE who thrives on selling your concepts through obscurity. From any one of your creative supervisors who seek refuge in mediocrity to, yes, even your CEO if his emphasis on creative integrity is a poor translation of his emphasis on the bottomline. And the list goes on.
Blocking is a critical job responsibility. It requires all the qualities inherent in talented professionals. While every agency environment can practice it, blocking has to be custom-tailored to fit your agency’s unique strengths and weaknesses — both internally and externally — to benefit the end-product. For example, good AE’s can play a pivotal role in this process by using their natural ability to dodge and manoeuvre the course of a sale than inarticulately defend a concept if they don’t quite ‘get’ it themselves. Unrecognized creatives with the right attitude and caliber for making presentations might be ordained as ‘official presenters’ for their agencies if they can draw the connection between the logical and the emotional compellingly enough. It might even mean having a single presenter for the entirety of a new business pitch. Or not even pitching for business at all. In other words, blocking means plugging and re-plugging the circuit to see what works and what doesn’t — until you get what you want.
Advertising Hall of Famer, Jay Chiat‘s classic words ‘Good Enough Is Not Enough’ are an icy reminder of what today’s creatives need to live up to. For years, advertising practitioners have argued the case for creativity and intelligence in advertising. And they have done so not because they wanted to risk their jobs or sound ‘different’ among peers, but because they have proven time and again that creativity and business success are connected by an invisible and inaudible dialogue most unimaginative minds just don’t get. While it takes a lot more to get good work through, blocking is one tactic you can use to get past those champions of banality.
So your good work can build your reputation one block at a time.