First published on http://www.mediaupdate.co.za in October 2015
When we say ‘ad agency’ what comes to mind? A tribe of hipsters wielding MacBooks and cappuccinos? Bearded men working all hours with a stiff drink in hand? Don Draper from Mad Men? We chat to some insiders to dispel the myths, and confirm the clichés that cling to this industry’s culture.
By Remy Raitt
Advertising agency culture has a purpose. In an article for ADSUBCULTURE, Ed Burgoyne says this reason is that “an agency’s culture is part of what the shop is selling to a client”. Michael Udell, a managing partner of Punk, a digital agency within the King James group, agrees. “Clients buy into agencies to do things they can’t do,” he says. “In the agency there’s a freedom of thought which starts from a completely different place than it would if the client did it themselves.”
This place is creativity.
Sterling Cooper*, who has worked at ad agencies of varying sizes across South Africa says the misconceptions and clichés of ad agency culture are all rooted to the creative process. He believes the biggest misconception is “that the process of creativity is akin to f***ing around and being less than professional in its approach,” while the biggest clichés is that “outwardly, it can look a lot like f***ing around”.
Hipster home base
Cooper confirms the cliché that ad agencies are where many of the trendy set make their money. “The industry is like a Venus flytrap for young people, its aesthetic is more appealing than a lot of other starchier, white-collar institutions,” he says. “High School graduates and career flounders are drawn in by the promise of getting paid to do something more fun than spreadsheets. MacBooks, and Apple in general, provide the tool of choice. They are handsomely priced but well suited. And the only thing more prevalent than high-tops and thick-framed, non-prescription, bamboo spectacles is caffeine in all its forms.”
Udell agrees. He says a relaxed dress code is the norm in most agencies but believes most employees would resent being labelled. “We are culturally aware and therefore adopt trends. I’m 43 and I have a beard and a MacBook, but I would hate to be called a hipster,” he laughs. “I don’t even think the hipsters in our office would like to be referred to as hipsters.”
“For me, the best agencies allow for an environment where employees can feel safe while taking (creative) risks and communicating, unafraid of making mistakes, open to questioning, doubt and curiosity for going beyond what is being asked,” says Burgoyne.
Udell says this happens in creative social spaces. “These spaces allow the team to detach themselves from the work at hand and get some perspective,” he says. A game of foosball or pool would usually do the job, or perhaps a drink at the bar, which Cooper says is usually stocked with an affiliated client’s alcohol brand.
Raising the bar
“A creative environment is a push-pull struggle with deadlines, creating fresh ideas and executions with sound underlying business strategies,” says Cooper. “It’s stressful. That leads to drinking. Generally from the well-stocked bar.”
It’s no secret that most agencies have bars in their offices. This does not mean creative directors and copywriters are getting all Mad Men on the daily. In fact, both Udell and Cooper believe bankers are way bigger boozers.
Creativity has no clock
Udell says drinking is a part of the culture because creativity doesn’t work nine to five. Employees work overtime, why not with a drink to help the process?
“You can become excellent at creating an environment, mentally and physically, for coming up with the requisite ideas,” says Cooper. “But you can’t force them into existence. Relatively often that means burning the candle at both ends. Plus the bar only gets unlocked after 17:00.”
But this overtime work isn’t done begrudgingly says Udell. “There’s commitment to the idea, which at times pushes us. It’s a collaborative effort. People are committed to the craft and the final product.”
The crux of the culture
Udell says what it all boils down to, is that when it comes to creative people, “advertising is not just a job, it’s a passion”. He says the commitment to the production of ideas is what ultimately creates the culture. Well, that, and the free beer of course.
Do you work in an agency? What do you think are the biggest misconceptions or clichés? Tell us below.
*Not his real name