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Managing Marketing: The Crisis In The Loss Of Creative Confidence

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Managing Marketing is a podcast hosted by TrinityP3 Founder and Global CEO, Darren Woolley. Each podcast is a conversation with a thought-leader, professional or practitioner of marketing and communications on the issues, insights and opportunities in the marketing management category. Ideal for marketers, advertisers, media and commercial communications professionals.

Nick Cummins is a creative partner at the Australian indie creative agency The Royals. Nick shares his experience as an agency creative who has built two businesses in his career and the driving role insecurity plays with creativity. He talks about the function of industry awards and the need for a trusted relationship between clients and their agencies. And his belief that the current pandemic disruption is the ideal time for agencies and marketers to be more creative in the face of uncertainty. 

You can listen to the podcast here:

Follow Managing Marketing on SoundcloudTuneInStitcher, Spotify, and Apple Podcast.

Transcription:

Darren:

Welcome to Managing Marketing, a weekly podcast where we discuss the issues and opportunities facing marketing, media and advertising with industry thought leaders and practitioners.

Today I’m sitting down with an old friend, Nick Cummins, creative partner at the Indy creative agency in Australia, the Royals. Welcome, Nick.

Nick:

G’day, Darren, good to see you, mate.

Darren:

It’s good to see you too. In fact, I’ve followed your career from when we first worked together, and I won’t say how long ago that is because it ages both of us. For a creative person, you’ve had a really interesting career.

Nick:

Yeah, it’s a great industry that we work in; it’s always interesting and it’s always different. And you become a little bit of a micro expert on different clients, industries, pillars, but then you get to work in different cultures and companies.

Most people I know of in advertising have had interesting careers. It’s very unusual for someone to stay at a business for 20 years and just do the same thing. And that’s one of the things I love about the industry. Having been involved in starting a couple of agencies, for me when I’m sitting in a nursing home it’s something I’ll look back on as quite interesting.

Darren:

Well, Nick, that’s what I meant by interesting because for a creative person you have backed yourself twice now in being part of setting up your own agency. The first was Sputnik and now The Royals. The reason I say that’s backing yourself is that a lot of creative people will go through their whole career working for someone else, working for an agency, one of the big multinationals but it must feel like going out on the tightrope to actually start your own agency.

What was it like? Take me back to when you first started Sputnik.

Nick:

I often say I started Sputnik by accident. To be honest, it was because I was sacked. It was one of the first times I’d ever been sacked and it’s still a bit of a mystery as to why that happened. I went out and started looking at places to freelance and there wasn’t really anywhere that I was in love with. At that stage, I’d been working for 10 years and I’d done pretty well.

I found myself in a place where I wasn’t passionate about it. I was still at that age where I probably would have worked somewhere for free if I really loved what they were doing. I had a good friend, Tim Homewood and he introduced me to this thing called the internet. And I thought it looks a little ugly, it’s kind of interesting and the internet was designed by either coders, and it looked really ugly or it was a designer who threw a DL brochure up onto the web and called it a website.

I was really interested in it and what drew me to it was that it was permanent. In advertising so often we do a 30-second spot and it’s gone in a month—you’ve done your best work and it erodes. I liked the fact these websites could be up forever and you would build them and you could add to them. I’m a bit of a tinkerer and I like making things.

So, I started Sputnik with Tim and a few other people and then Rob Stock joined shortly after that. We started doing websites our own way. We started educating clients about what the web was and why you would do it. Really that was accidental but it was really exciting. I’ve done it twice because I love culture and I love people, growing a business and feeling like you’ve got some skin in the game.

That might come from I grew up on a dairy farm and my father was always solving problems or being entrepreneurial in his own way so that was something that was in my genes.

Darren:

The reason I think it’s quite a leap is often people will say creative people produce their best work when they feel secure. And running your own business, the stats say a large number of businesses fail in the first 3 years—you’d have to say you’re giving up security, the security of the fortnightly or monthly paycheque, of someone else handling all the business problems so that you can just focus on being a creative person and solving client’s problems by coming up with ideas.

Nick:

I think it’s the opposite. I think that most creative people you will meet are anxious and nervous and that anxiety and uncertainty (will I come up with it, will it be good enough?) actually fuels creativity. I know a lot of people in our industry, especially in the creative space, suffer from anxiety and nervousness about the quality of their work and that pushes and fuels them.

For me, in the early days of Sputnik, that anxiety of just surviving really fueled what I was doing. I used to have a recurring dream about running across one of those Indiana Jones rope bridges with little slats of wood above this huge ravine and I was halfway across and down where I’d just come from the bridge was on fire and I just had to keep running like hell to get to the other end.

That was my visual analogy of what the business was like. I was always running to try and get to that milestone whether it was another client or hiring a couple of more people and that propelled me creatively and as a business owner. I soon realised you do get to the other side but there is a whole heap of other shit whether it be pygmies with poisoned darts or whatever it is there will be another thing.

I think that nervousness propels. Whenever I’m comfortable, relaxed, or don’t have a deadline, or feel like I’m just doing something the same way over and over I get lazy, I slow down, I don’t actually produce good work.

Darren:

So, you subscribing to the necessity is the mother of invention; that the pressures, challenges, insecurities are the things that drive you to look for more creative solutions?

Nick:

Yes. I wish it wasn’t like that because it makes life sometimes quite stressful. But it is often the thing that propels us.

Darren:

It’s an interesting metaphor that you dream of running across the Indiana Jones swing bridge and it’s on fire. I was talking to a marketer in New York last year and he said, ‘the day I got appointed to this role (a very senior global marketer) it was like someone fired a bullet at me and I’ve started running from the bullet and as long as I outrun it I’ll keep my job. That’s why the only people I want to talk to are people who can make me run faster.’

It was a really interesting metaphor again for this sense of desperation, of constantly being under pressure and that if you take a moment just to get a breath you’re dead

Nick:

Yes, and creative people are always trying to do better. I don’t think you ever get to the point where the work is good enough. No one will ever say to you that their work is good enough, they’ve hit their sweet spot and they’ll just keep doing that. In some other industries, you might get really good at doing one thing and everybody comes to you for that.

Every time we do a job it’s new, it’s different. There’s a different brief, strategy, audience so you start from scratch every time. So there is that uncertainty constantly. I remember getting a pay rise when I was quite young (it was $100,000) and I went home and burst into tears.

Darren:

Why? Because you didn’t think you’d be able to prove your value?

Nick:

Totally, I’d finally got to a point where I had to deliver. When you’re a junior in advertising you would have a crack, you’d go hard and be really creative and you’d get it wrong most of the time and someone would ruffle your hair, pat you on the back and say, ‘good on you, you gave it a crack—it’s a bit shit but keep going’.

It’s a beautiful time when you’re young, a junior. I say to juniors make the most of it because whatever success you have when you’re young it’s times three; you get to a point like that time when I got that pay rise that you realise I have to deliver. And I think that’s where the anxiety and stress comes in and that often fuels creativity or pushes you into different spaces.

Part of what we do in our industry it always has to be fresh, new, it has to cut through and be insightful. We’re not in an industry of just cookie cutters, just do it the same. There is a lot of work out there like that and I’m not saying that all the work I’ve done is always fresh and different and exciting but that’s what you’re always striving for.

Darren:

The idea that you’re only as good as your last campaign, ad or idea that must also put that pressure constantly on people.

Nick:

Yeah, it does. I often think about the things I’ve created in my career and you’ll have a few campaigns that you’ll always carry around with you in the back of your mind and you can use those as a confidence builder sometimes, that you know you did something that everybody else thought was great, and applauded it and it won awards.

But every time you step up to a brief you’re only as good as your last job and that’s probably more pressure that we put on ourselves than our clients. Keeping clients happy is reasonably easy. It’s keeping yourself feeling that you are pushing our industry forward or that you are doing something that is different or interesting or that will connect with people.

Darren:

You mentioned the awards word. It’s an industry that has more award shows than there are countries in the world. It’s not like there is an award for each country. The last time I did a count there were 700 different award shows listed on a website. What is the role of awards? If people say that’s a big award-winning campaign, clearly you’ve done a good job, here’s your pay rise or someone poaches you to another agency.

What is the role of awards from a creative perspective?

Nick:

It’s a really good question and it’s quite loaded and a lot of people will answer it in a different way. For me, the importance of awards are for people’s egos and importantly for people to move through our industry. If you’re a mid or young creative and you win an award you are more likely to have people looking at you and possibly poaching you.

So it plays a role in maybe getting a different job or pay increase and moving through the industry. Awards exist because we’re in such a subjective space. The thing that is the biggest challenge in creativity is everybody’s got an opinion and has the talking stick these days. We’re in a time when everybody should have a voice at the table and that’s not great for creativity.

Because of that, we feel we need people to go ‘yes, that’s good work; no, that’s not such great work’. And the system’s flawed. We’re starting to realise that. The number of times I’ve entered awards and didn’t really think I was going to win something and yet did win a Cannes award or something. And then there are times when I’ve thought it’s a grand slam, enter everything and get nothing. It’s so subjective. I think it’s becoming a problem for our industry and it means people are taking their eyes off the ball.

Darren:

I’ve always wanted to understand how things worked and the cynical point came when I realised how many awards were being run by private companies purely to make a profit for their shareholders and not really about moving the industry forward. They have more categories than ever before so they encourage more entries and it’s the entrance fee where the money comes from.

They get all the judges to largely do it for free (they get their travel and accommodation) so it becomes this beautiful business model as a way of milking the industry of its hard-earned cash.

Nick:

Totally.

Darren:

You have to say there are still a lot of creative people who are obsessed with awards.

Nick:

Really really obsessed. But I’m finding that there are a lot more senior people who are walking away from them and rolling their eyes and pushing up against them. Maybe that’s from the luxury that they’ve had long enough careers and their own personal brand is well respected and they don’t need the awards.

I love awards. I’ve got an ego. I love standing on stage and having people clap but the people for whom it’s most important are probably individuals in businesses and that’s their way up and to make more money. Having a couple of my own businesses; that’s where I got my satisfaction. The satisfaction of it being a well-respected brand, a great culture, happy clients and a few pieces of work that we look at and know are award-winning quality.

Back in the days of Sputnik, I didn’t really enter many awards because I could either give 3 people a pay rise or I can enter a whole heap of stuff into Cannes. I chose back then to give people pay rises. I thought that was much more important. It was great for me because it made me feel good but I realise it would have been great and important for some of those staff to win awards because they’re not always going to be with my business and they need to move onto other places and jobs.

Darren:

You recently wrote a terrific article in Campaign Brief, which was about creative confidence. And especially in this time of the COVID pandemic, we’re seeing a lot of agencies laying off people. There are estimates that globally 10 to 30 thousand people are going to be lost from the industry.

This is a time of incredible uncertainty. What’s your belief about the impact that could have on creativity?

Nick:

It could have a terrible impact on creativity. As human beings we like certainty, we want a light at the end of the tunnel. When we feel like we’ve lost certainty and the world’s crumbling around us we often go safe in all sorts of things; not get a bigger mortgage or not change jobs and even down to our creative solutions.

But when you look at it now is the perfect time to be creative and to come up with different solutions. I think our industry has got some incredibly talented people; strategists, creatives, or thinkers, hackers or tinkerers, people who have got or honed that skill to be able to look at a problem and solve it in a different way.

Because of COVID we’re starting to see momentum and things happen because we’ve just got to get shit done. I think if you look at problems in different creative ways and I’m not just talking about making ads; I’m talking about solving problems and I think agencies can do so much more to help their clients than just doing clever headlines in a nice 30-second spot.

You’ve got that challenge of people going into their shells; they’re not being brave, creatively, but it’s the time when we really do need it. And we have an industry that can help solve problems.

Darren:

It’s an interesting thought because earlier you said that creative people are already often insecure. That can be masked by having incredible egos and what will often look like over-confidence but it’s really masking inner insecurity. The other part of this is it’s also the clients that are feeling insecure at the moment. So how can agencies, if you’re going to be driving change, take their clients on that journey?

They’re going to be resisting change because they want security.

Nick:

Yes, and that’s where we as an industry have evolved quite well to go from not just here’s something pretty or clever or funny; do you like it (cross your fingers) to using data in a much better way. At The Royals, we talk about undeniable creativity. The undeniable part is the data or strategy or insight and research. Where you really spend time to get to know a problem, an audience you find a solution within that intelligence and then you wrap it in creativity which will get people to pay attention, build connections, help people to resonate with that idea.

Yes, clients will be and are nervous and our job is to still be creative and brave but we’ve got to back it up with that data, intelligence, strategy and insight. And we all know those sorts of decks when you look at the problem and the audience and find something really interesting and 72% of people are doing this so we believe if we do X they’re going to do Y.

You can see the client go ‘oh my god, that’s it.’ And then we talk about how we wrap it up in creativity. And that’s subjective and interesting. That’s the way to do it.

Darren:

So you’re talking about delivering those strategic insights that can lead to tangible actions, not just an observation but an insight into customer behaviour or sentiment that can then create leads to the idea?

Nick:

Yes. That’s where what we do gets really exciting. We’ve all seen those sorts of insights and briefs where you look at something and it resonates.

Darren:

Rarely, Nick, that’s one of the issues that insights are such a rare commodity and often people are passing off a data aberration or some sort of interesting fact as an insight.

Nick:

Mums are busy.

Darren:

That’s the point, isn’t it? Do you think the industry has lost some influence over their clients? We’ve seen over the last 20 years for instance that the balance has gone from agencies and clients at best-being partners to supplier and buyer.

Nick:

Yeah, I think we have. I think we’ve lost a lot of our influence and sway and today we’re talking about confidence because as an industry we’ve lost a bit of our confidence. We’re second-guessing clients, often watering down solutions and human nature can sense that.

As an industry, we have lost our confidence and swagger. Creatives struggle with an ego a lot because if you’re so sure about your idea or you have so much creative confidence it can be seen as being ego. Ego can be such a dirty word.

Darren:

It sounds like the title for a song.

Nick:

It does but you need creative confidence. You look at other industries; architecture, art or any of those other sorts of things, most of the incredibly successful people are dogged about their creative vision and it’s theirs. And they don’t really care about what everybody else thinks.

We’re in an era when everybody has an opinion on everything and that’s the way we run our world. And there’s some really lovely stuff about that; everybody should be able to have a voice. But it often kills creativity.

Darren:

Well, it’s ideas by committee—it’s no idea at all because it’s constantly compromised rather than improved.

Nick:

100% and I’ve always had that battle in my career; how much of my ego, how much shouting and stomping and this is what we’ve got to do, do I do? And how much do I listen to everybody in the room? I remember pitching an idea to 12 people in a room to a client and they brought the work experience kid.

And we went around the room and the marketing director always asks everybody else what their opinion is and you see them get very nervous because they don’t know what their boss is thinking. We have a human trait to err towards the negative in a sense of safety. And the work experience kid said it’s a no from me. He’d obviously been watching America’s Got Talent and been learning from Simon Cowell. I think 14 people had an opinion at that meeting.

And I remember thinking this is where we’ve got to. I always struggle with that because part of me goes yes, everybody should have an opinion and part of me goes there’s no way we’re ever going to do great work with 14 opinions.

Darren:

We call that the Dr No syndrome where everybody in the room but one has the ability to say ‘no’ but only one has the ability to say ‘yes’. And that’s the problem. There will always be one person and they’re all sitting there trying to 2nd guess the boss but to say ‘no’ means they’re not exposing themselves except perhaps to being ultra-conservative and not wanting to change anything.

The creative process itself is actually a solitary one isn’t it? We’ve worked as a team. You’ve worked in teams but it is actually a solitary process isn’t it?

Nick:

It is. You do have to throw your mind into freewheel. You’ve just got to let it go wherever it wants to go. You go down certain paths and you’ll find yourself coming across an idea. It’s finding those raw, rough, ugly diamonds that are uncut and unpolished and to get to them is very solitary.

What is exciting about our industry is when you’ve got that little ‘aha’ but you don’t know what it is yet but it smells like a great idea and that’s when the collaboration is really exciting because then people can help you cut that diamond and put different facets on it.

Darren:

That must require a huge level of trust. That ‘aha’ moment is an individual thing, even if you’re working in a team one person has the aha and puts it out there. They have to trust that the other person’s not going to squash it, that they’re willing to have a look at it—let’s see what we can do with it.

Nick:

And that all comes down to who you share it with. I believe we’re all born with creativity. I remember looking at my kids and the drawings they did when they were 3 and 4; they were amazing. I was jealous of them. They were so beautiful and pure and creative because they had creative confidence.

And then they became teenagers and lost that purity because they started worrying about what other people thought. And to your question is someone going to be squashing your idea, I think that’s where you get great creative partnerships where someone else is brave enough to look at it and say there is something there and what about this and what about that?

It’s when you get other people who haven’t had the experience in coming up with or creating ideas who just voice their opinions and the idea hasn’t even got there yet. I’m a big fan of Ideo as a company and they talk about ways to give feedback. And I think it’s really important to give feedback as in a build or what if question rather than finding the reason not to do something.

So many great ideas die because someone brings that seed of doubt and as soon as that doubt comes in creative people can get wobbly and walk away. Too often things are killed by people who don’t have the experience coming in early and doubting an idea before it’s ready.

Darren:

De Bono talks about the western ‘rock’ approach and eastern ‘water’. And western ‘rock’ comes from the early Greek philosophers who said you put the idea on the table and metaphorically everyone brings their rock into the room and sees if they can smash it. And if it survives that it’s a good idea.

Whereas in the east their attitude is ideas are like water; the first person puts their drop and everyone comes and adds drops to turn it into a river. And the Grand Canyon is a good example of what can be created if you get a river going long enough. You mentioned collaboration and this idea that everyone participates and we see these workshops, ‘sprints’ where everyone gets together in a room.

It’s not actually a creative process; it’s about collecting a whole lot of perspectives because the creative process actually happens after that event.

Nick:

Yes. You’ve touched on a really great point. I’m a visual person and when you get groups of different minded people with creative skills or skills to solve problems sitting around a table (technology people, copywriters, strategists, designers) and you talk about the problem you’re trying to solve. I always imagine a large lump of clay in the middle of the table.

And we start to beat it into shape. We don’t know what it’s going to look like as the finished product but we start to ask is it going to be long, thin, flat or tall or fat and round? And that’s when you start to go ‘it’s something like this’. It’s a great social campaign, it’s got a lot of emotion in it, a lot of craft or it’s loose and fast with a street vibe and we should do 60 pieces instead of 1.

That’s the big lump of clay. You don’t know what the idea or really beautiful part of it is yet but if you all leave that room and go into that personal space when you come back you’re all in a similar space because you’ve all had a similar vibe. Then you can share ideas and the best ideas will float to the top.

I’ve been in situations a million times where people say let’s get in a room and try and solve it. It will never ever happen. But I think you can get everybody on the same page and then you go away and then come back.

Darren:

James Webb Young, an early major influence in J Walter Thompson wrote a great little book called A Technique for Producing Ideas. Basically, the process is understanding the problem and spend lots and lots of time delving under the surface of the problem, not just what they think the problem is and then you allow yourself lots of time to allow your subconscious to process that to get to the eureka moment.

And then the hard work begins he says. But it needs a big deep dive. Things like these workshops are a good way of collecting a whole lot of information efficiently but then the time it takes. I bring that up because working with Michael Farmer, he started looking at creative agencies back in the 90s and he said the average creative person would produce 2 campaigns a year and that was because the average client would produce around 100 pieces of work a year.

Now we’re finding it’s like 5 to 10 thousand pieces of work because of social media. What impact has that had on creativity?

Nick:

Time is so important and we’ve lost so many stages. There used to be a time for craft but now we leap to solutions because of the internet and mock-ups. When you and I started in this industry you would sit down and come up with some ideas and do some really rough scamps and go to the client and show them your ideas.

They’d probably pick one and then you’d go back into your office with a heavily stocked bar because they were the good days in advertising and you’d start thinking about craft. O.k. we’ve got our idea but is it going to be a photograph, a claymation animation, am I going to get a typographer in? How do I craft this particular idea? And that took time and the work was beautifully crafted and well-thought through.

We’re moving so fast now and doing so many things and we’re not going out and exploring and gesticulating or percolating those ideas like we used to do. I remember a great story about David Abbott—he was doing a car ad (a famous ad) where he was lying underneath the car suspended by this chain and it was a striking image but it came from the fact that he went out to the factory and started talking to the guys building the car.

And they hated the car and he asked why. And they said it’s got 5 times more rivets than the previous model to make it stronger. Because he took the time to go out to the factory and talk to the people on the factory floor he found that great piece of information.

Darren:

Which you would never find in a creative brief would you?

Nick:

No, you wouldn’t find it in a creative brief and you probably wouldn’t find it on the internet. We leap to solutions too often because we’re moving so quickly and that’s why so many ads look like so many ads. The montage ad—there are some beautiful montage ads and some of them affect me greatly and there are a lot of shit montage ads that are like 15 shots of happy Australians doing something, a slightly poetic voiceover with some lovely piano underneath it and there we go.

Darren:

You’ve just described why all COVID ads look the same on YouTube? It’s because they all look the same; beautiful, calm, peaceful shots, and piano music. It’s a formula and people resort to a formula when they’re under pressure rather than think of something new.

Nick:

Totally and that’s what confidence is all about. It’s bloody hard and you don’t get it right every time. So many ads look the same because time is really tight and there is a lack of confidence. That’s sad for our industry. There used to be some crazy people in our industry and some really weird and interesting things and people were more like artists than ad men and women. In a lot of cases (not all) we’re losing that.

Darren:

The professionalism of creativity has actually made it less creative.

Nick:

Totally and most creatives now are 20% strategists, 30% suit, they know how to talk to a client. When I started in this industry you had accounts service people, because creatives were so crazy, mad and weird that you couldn’t put them in front of clients. Now most creatives, myself included, have become a little bit more accounts service.

Darren:

You’ve had to learn to sell your own work because it’s difficult to find someone to sell it for you.

Nick:

Yes, totally.

Darren:

Going back to creative confidence. When I moved from science into advertising I did a thing called Copyschool and one of the agencies we went to was the Campaign Palace and there was a writer there, John Turnbull but he looked incredibly middle class. He was perfectly reasonable but the man was so talented that he said whenever an accounts services person brought him client changes he’d go ‘clearly the client is not happy with this concept, I’m going to do another one’.

Rather than make changes and compromise the idea he would come up with a completely new idea. How’s that for confidence?

Nick:

It’s fantastic. It’s great advice and a great way to do things because there is always another idea. I don’t mind clients not liking ideas. And sometimes you get clients articulating why the idea is not right and it’s incredibly insightful and intelligent and you learn a lot.

But when you start to chip away and water down an idea that’s when it becomes ineffective for everybody and it’s often better to just start again.

Darren:

Nick, I’ve just noticed the time. It’s great to catch up. Thank you for making time and coming and having a chat on Managing Marketing.

Nick:

It’s been a pleasure. Thanks, Darren.

Darren:

One last question. Of all the campaigns and ideas you’ve seen, which is the one you most regret that’s not yours?

Ideal for marketers, advertisers, media, and commercial communications professionals, Managing Marketing is a podcast hosted by Darren Woolley and special guests. Find all the episodes here

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Darren is considered a thought leader on all aspects of marketing management. A Problem Solver, Negotiator, Founder & Global CEO of TrinityP3 - Marketing Management Consultants, founding member of the Marketing FIRST Forum and Author. He is also a Past-Chair of the Australian Marketing Institute, Ex-Medical Scientist and Ex-Creative Director. And in his spare time he sleeps. Darren's Bio Here Email: darren@trinityp3.com

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