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It seems that the very reason clients choose agencies which appear outwardly professional is the very reason they shouldn’t.

Quiet corridors, collared dress codes, time-recorders, contact reports (etc.) may run a business. But they don’t generate ideas. And agencies are citadels of ideas. They were born to be loud, vibrant, noisy, obnoxious places. The question, of course, is not one of professionalism, at all. But of freedom. The freedom to voice opinions, the freedom to exchange divergent views, the freedom to flirt with danger, the freedom to come late, the freedom to wear what you want, the freedom to be all your multiple selves.

Agencies which harbour freedom (that’s freedom, not chaos) set their people in motion. And motion doesn’t come without friction. A bloody nose in the name of freedom is better than the dry discipline of a workhorse. Consider what Salman Rushdie read at the International Conference on Freedom of Expression in Washington DC in April 1992:“Free people strike sparks, and those sparks are the best evidence of freedom’s existence. Totalitarian (societies) seek to replace the many truths of freedom by the one truth of power (be it secular in our case, or religious in Rushdie’s); to halt the motion of (society), to snuff its spark. Unfreedom’s primary purpose is to shackle the mind.”

Since so much of our business is about the produce of a free mind — about ringing facts with truth — it’s surprising how many agencies willingly muffle their voice with client-speak. Notwithstanding the natural tendency for agencies to please or cooperate, clients who are absolutely comfortable with the work of the minds they have hired to rock the market are doing their counterparts a disservice. Because they are dictating the rules of the game.

John Stuart Mill‘s great essay, On Liberty, explains why: “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation — [robbing] those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. [For] if the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.”

Agencies which harbour freedom do not preserve their freedom by pussyfooting around the opinions of others. Even around cherished beliefs. In free agencies, like free societies, there must be argument and a free play of ideas that must be allowed to collide with passion and division. A free agency, like a free society, is not placid. That is the kind of static and eventless environment dictators want. A free agency is dynamic, noisy, turbulent and full of radical disagreements. Proving again that skepticism is, after all, the Siamese twin of freedom.

At the risk of stereotyping, the born skeptics in our industry are primarily the creatives. And the creative process is similar to the processes of a free society where many attitudes rub against platitudes, where many views of the world are inflicted on, and conflicting within, the artist. And from these varying factions, the friction — the spark or work of art — is born.

Denis Diderot (novelist-philosopher of the French Enlightenment) spoke of the dispute within him between the commercial-rational and the moral-spiritual: “It infuriates me,” he said, “to be enmeshed in a devilish philosophy which my mind is forced to accept but my heart to disown.” Likewise, it is the innate disrespect creatives have — for hierarchies, for rules, for ideologies, for rank, for wealth, for inanity, for corruption, may be even for advertising — that we are capable of producing our best. It only makes sense that this fusion of positive and negative — this brand of electricity they generate — is plugged into every socket of agency life.

Like democracy, freedom’s anathema is purity. Purity of anything (opinion, orders, race, beliefs, etc.) sucks. Purity leads to wars. Which is why the exercise of freedom is freedom’s best defense. So go for it. Kick the door wide open. Raise hell. And make some noise. It’s the most professional thing you’ll do in your career.

 

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