Once upon a time at BBH a hapless traffic “router” (rhymes with “outer”) walked into Nigel Bogle’s office and said “Nigel, have you got a couple of seconds to look at this?” He then handed Nigel a press ad concept, or it may have been a piece of artwork, mounted on board with a sign-off sticker awaiting his signature attached to the reverse side.
Nigel took the board, looked the router in the eye, counted “One. Two”, and handed it back unsigned.
I’m pretty sure that this story is true, not apocryphal. Certainly anyone who knows the agency will find it easy to believe.
Nigel was not being arsey for arsey’s sake. He was making an important point. And he was making his point in a way that was guaranteed to spread like wildfire throughout the agency. Word Of Mouth internal marketing at its best.
At the time (early 90’s), every piece of creative work leaving the agency had to have the signature of John Hegarty and one of John Bartle or Nigel Bogle. There was a B and an H on every piece of board and every video tape box that went out of the door.
This wasn’t just an empty piece of ceremony. They put their names to every piece of work and they didn’t do it lightly. They cared. And if they didn’t feel it was good enough they’d send it back. If the account director was in reception, artbag in hand, waiting for the router to supply the signed-off concept and dash to the client presentation, that was his or her problem.
The worst accusation that could be levelled at a BBH account director was expedience. Taking the path of least resistance rather than the path to great work.
Quality control should never be a formality.
In a creative business, quality control should never be a “that’s good enough” rubber stamp exercise at the end of a process.
The reason this story came back to me was that I’d been thinking about the role of 40 and 50 somethings in our business.
There are plenty of people in this age range who have made the transition from vocational to managerial roles, and quite a few who are effectively coasting (often expediently) towards retirement.
There are others for whom the desire to play a part in great work burns as brightly now as it did when they were 21.
These latter people have a lot to offer, combining as they do youthful hunger and years of creative business combat experience. They know how to make work better, and they know how to create environments from which great work can originate and in which great work can make it through to publication.
These people should be involved at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the quality control process.
If an agency process, or an expedient account director, restricts their involvement to the end only, then these people reserve the right to be a pain in the arse. An account director doesn’t want to hear that their client’s work is not as good as it could and should be, along with wise counsel about how that could and should be achieved, just as he or she is about to present it.
That same opinion and counsel sought and offered much earlier would have made the work better and, ironically, the account director’s life easier.
Quite coincidentally I found myself thinking about this story and writing this post in the week that BBH turned 30.
BBH Labs have kindly posted an internal letter from Nigel Bogle to the agency to mark the occasion.
Spot the burning desire. Spot the lack of expedience. Spot the hour long reel of incredible work spanning three decades.
Like it, Phil. Many thanks for that. On a similar theme: a couple of years ago, I was thinking about an article I’d read in Campaign back in 1997. It had been written by Naresh Ramchandani, and concerned a meeting he and David Buonaguidi had had with Jay Chiat.
I contacted Naresh, and he put me in touch with someone who was able to disinter the article for me.
(Oh, and to give it some context, Phil, Tim Ashton at Dorlands was, at the time, giving the creatives in his department a financial incentive to get their work into the D&AD annual.)
OPINION – RAISING CREATIVE STANDARDS RELIES ON REJECTING BAD ADS.
17 January 1997
(c) 1997 Haymarket Business Publications Limited . No part of this data may be reproduced without prior written permission of the owner.
By NARESH RAMCHANDANI, joint creative director of St Luke’s.
It is not cash rewards but quality control that helps to improve the reputation of an agency, Naresh Ramchandani says. No reason is good enough to excuse bad work.
The 20,000-watt spotlight turned on Tim Ashton’s methods at Bates Dorland has made Dave Buonaguidi and me think a little about our own system. The contrast is interesting.
Before we were offered our job at Chiat Day, Dave and I were interviewed by Jay Chiat who took us to a Japanese restaurant in Mayfair that was so expensive the menu didn’t have prices.
After a minute or two of nervous small talk (all made by Dave and me), Jay weighed in with his first question. ‘So, in your opinion, what is the job of a creative director?’ We coughed a bit and pretended to choke on the green horseradish stuff, at which point he put us out of our misery.
‘Do you know what I think it is?’
We looked at him meekly.
‘The job of a creative director is to make sure that no bad ads get out.’
And there it was. It was crushingly disappointing. It wasn’t to lead from the front. It wasn’t to create new standards of excellence for the rest of the agency to follow. It wasn’t to be flamboyant and inspiring at all costs.
It was to make sure that no bad ads get out. And the thing is, he was right.
An agency is really just a factory. It has a production line (research, brief, creative work, research, creative development, production, final ad – or something like that), and it has a product which, in the case of the more interesting agencies, is creative and strategic excellence.
Being a creative director is like being the quality controller at that factory.
So what do you do when you’re appointed to oversee a factory that’s producing a poor-quality product, like Chiat Day in 1993 or Bates Dorland in 1995?
Well, if an agency is used to doing poor work, then the first job is to stop that.
Because poor work is like poison. Its ‘mitigating circumstances’ spread throughout an agency and become precedents and excuses for poor work on other accounts.
So the creative director/quality controller has to focus as much as possible on eliminating the crap. It’s not the most glamorous route. It’s certainly not a quick fix.
But once the agency can do quite good work as a matter of routine – and once it fully understands what doing quite good work feels like – then it’s in a position to raise its standards and do some reasonably good work.
And once the agency knows how to do reasonably good work, it’s in a position to do some very good work. And then, after that, it can reach for excellence.
After three years, that’s where I think we are at St Luke’s. Very good work happens as a matter of routine. And just occasionally we produce something wonderful. The production line doesn’t know what it feels like to produce poor-quality work and so doesn’t produce it.
And I’m not joking. If you doubt me, then drop me a line and I’ll gladly send you the five worst ads we’ve done in the past year. As long as you’re prepared to send me yours. (No cheating. You have to dig deep into your small-space stuff.)
But to return to Ashton’s approach. You inherit the dysfunctional production line, gather the workers together, then tell them you’ll pay #20,000 to anyone who produces something special.
Sure, there’s plenty of motivation, but does anyone know how to do it?
That’s an observation. But I also have an objection. An objection to that particular style of creative direction that sets as its objective a couple of ‘hits’ – one or two award-winners that will hopefully convince the industry that you’ve succeeded – and also look good on the CV.
I mean, it’s one approach. But it’s no way to turn an agency around – you have to do that the hard way.