Monday 11 June 2012

In conversation with... Dave Birss

Dave Birss is well-known in advertising: initially working at agencies such as Poke and Ogilvy, he became a man of many disciplines: coach, consultant, author, and speaker.

Dave Birss. Photo by courtesy of Dave Birss

In advance of Birss' forthcoming talk at SCAMP, we caught up with him to discuss the changing nature of creativity within agencies, and the problems (and opportunities) that agencies have in being able to harness the creative spirit.


Tell us about your SCAMP talk in detail.

With the encouragement of SCAMP, instead of doing my talk, I am going to play my guitar. I used to be a busker; I busked my way through university. I have never felt so rich as when I was a busker. I will be talking about the lessons learned from being a street musician, and how it has affected my life in advertising. It's not just about entertaining people; it's about the transaction. "I'm a busker, I want the money". It's about looking to your audience - giving something that is suitable to them but not being too specific. People don't often know what they want, so it's all about adapting as you perform.

There's book that I have in the pipeline, called Stories from my CV. It's about all the ridiculous jobs that I have done, and what I have learned from them. I was a record producer at one point; a musician; a stand-up comedian with the BBC... all these different things. There are so many things that I have learned through different jobs, and I think that it all comes together to make people stronger, more rounded, and with a better understanding of how to approach stuff. The majority of people in creative departments in ad agencies - that's all they've ever done. The idea that I have put to agencies is that everyone in the agency should work someplace different, one day per month. By mixing with the masses and understanding what motivates people and the problems that people have in their own lives - it would improve their work far more than spending that day in the office. I tweeted about this recently, and I understand that a Canadian agency is putting this into action.

I've got an issue that within the industry. We are a white, middle-class, Guardian-reading bubble, and we are expected to talk to the masses from this very sheltered part of society. Most people don't meet the masses unless they need their lawn mowed or their boiler fixed. I'm a great believer that people should have more colourful pasts, and that they should be mixing more across society, to build a greater understanding of the people that they're talking to.


Experience outside of advertising can only enrich the work.

Indeed, and in the early days of creative advertising, people weren't hired 'from advertising' because there weren't that many of them. Great writers, illustrators, artists were hired and commissioned. The early Coca-Cola work was from established artists. I think that it was more colourful, in terms of these peoples' understanding - coming at it from a different sphere. Now, people in the advertising industry have been trained up in 'how to do advertising'. I'm a great believer in what Ken Robinson says about education; it teaches people not to think. I'm worried about how formulaic people's thinking can generally be.

There was one particular ad school that, in recent years when I have gone along to see the end-of-year show, seemed to have the same campaigns in students' books. The students were being taught how to be uniform. How to think in a particular way.

I'm involved with Skillset; we're putting together an apprenticeship programme for advertising, so that teenagers can come straight out of school into the industry and get a very thorough understanding of the entire industry before seeing if there's a particular area of it that they want to concentrate on. The Skillset approach is to get as many people from as many diverse backgrounds as possible [into advertising]. It's something that can only help the industry. I'm looking forward to this autumn when the programme launches; I really hope that the industry embraces it in the way they should.


Should agencies be more of a hub - working with lots of external talent?

I'm up for trying many different approaches, and they depend in the people you get within the company. If you are able to create a culture that can be a lot looser, and you have people that are motivated enough to work within it, then that's terrific. The larger companies don't seem to trust their staff, and they train their staff not to think. They teach them just to do, and give them very hard edges as to what their role entails.

I used to find within large organisations that you had departments whose remit lasted from here to here, and then stopped. It then passed to another department... and so on. There was no overlap. But, overlap and collaboration is where the magic happens. These agencies have taken out the magic and replaced it with a Henry Ford predictability model.

In the last 2 years, I have found that when I train people, they might have a little bit of a spike in their work for a few weeks before they get frustrated and realise that the system isn't set up for innovative thinking... or I can work with the board and persuade them to change the system that the agency works with. The process defines the output more than the people within it. If you have a really bad agency and put the country's top creatives in there, they won't be able to do good work because they system doesn't allow for it. If you have a great agency and you bring in average creatives, they will rise to the task. I think that the structure of agencies is really interesting and really important, and I'm very interested in working with agencies to try out new models.

I'm working with a couple of agencies where we're doing this right now. It has caused me to start working on another book. My book at the moment is on how the creative mind works. The other book that I'm working on is actually about how we have killed creativity; how institutions have been set up to stop people from being creative. I look at the psychological studies that have been undertaken here, and what it is that makes creativity. One of the things that we can do to encourage creativity is to offer more opportunities for collaboration, and that's something that generally isn't there within modern agencies.


There's an irony here. Agencies are asking brands to be challenging and different, yet they don't internally embody those behaviours.

It's something that - and I don't know why - continues to surprise me. For an industry that is supposed to be based on innovation, fresh thought and creativity, there's a distinct lack of that. There are a lot of agencies that are acting as if the Internet had never been invented; as if society is still working in exactly the same way as it was in 1987, with fluorescent popsox and shoulder pads.


What is the future for agencies that are doing something different? Will they be "pulled down" by the gravity of the sector?

That all depends on the leadership of the agency. One of the the things that you often find with entrepreneurs is that the seasoned ones think about the exit strategy before they get going; they tell people how to get out of the business before they have started it. There is a lot of that in people that are starting agencies: "Our exit strategy is to sell to WPP within 3 years". Those companies will become just part of the establishment, and will lose their magic.

I was talking to Andrew Zolti at Breakfast as to whether he has had offers [to acquire the agency]. He said that to be bought out, the acquirers need to define who and what you are. And, as soon as you define what you are, you're dead. One of the things that I'm finding quite difficult with my own company is that I find it difficult to define what I do. What am I? I never really quite know what to say... bit as soon as I define it, I've killed it... and I don't want to do that. I want to be in the position to constantly evolve, to do what I enjoy. If I'm enjoying something, I'll want to do it better.


So, don't think about setting up as an agency. Think about setting up as something else.

Well, it would be easy to become self-indulgent. At the moment there is more opportunity than ever in the industry. Any time of flux, of pain, is a time of opportunity to start something that fills a need, with a new approach.

The problem with large agencies is that they have over-invested in their structure and processes. They have such a history that they become the big oil tankers,m and are a nightmare to turn around. They simply cannot be nimble enough. I think that they will continue to be there, but they will be the ones servicing the behemoth clients that want international work. The more interesting stuff will be done by the smaller agency groups and agencies, coming in with a different point of view, a different attitude, a different way of doing things. Companies that are nimble enough to change and adapt. Large companies are about buying in a lot of the skills that they need under their roof.

From experience, I have found that there is a flaw in that; the very best people in motion graphics, for example, will want to work in a specialist motion graphics company. So, in agencies, you'll get the next tier down, of people that are good but aren't the best. They will come in and have dreams of being the best, but they will realise that they cannot be, and quickly become disillusioned. This is the issue with the companies that try to do everything under one roof. I'm a big fan of the small, nimble companies that outsource to the specialists. At that point, your standard of work goes up and is not dragged down just so certain members of staff can be "filled up" with work.

About 5 years ago, I was trying to get a digital agency to move away from Flash. I said that what they do can be done so much better with other methods. The management said that "We employ Flash people, so we need to bring in the Flash work to employ them". And I realised then, that we [the agency] weren't giving the very best advice. We were, for ridiculous business reasons, making decisions that were not in the client's best interests.


What about the big agency networks and groups? What about their ability to innovate?

Their bank reserves are what has seen them through. The bigger agencies have not been turning a profit in recent years, and they have been propped up by other agencies in the group. It's certainly not an area I want to be in. If I returned to the agency world, I would want to join the smaller agencies, the upstarts, who are creative in business as well as in product.


How should creativity be addressed?

The whole thing about my current book is that I'm looking at creativity. The whole issue with creatives within the industry is that they don't quite understand what creativity is. It's merely a process, and that anyone has got what it takes to be more creative.

I'm working with an agency at the moment that doesn't have a creative department internally. I recommended that we didn't build a creative department; as creativity had been spread throughout the whole company; creativity was a democracy. I'm working with them to raise the creative abilities across the company, for them to judge what is a good idea, and then to bring in people who can develop that into great execution.

I think that creativity is more important than ever. It used to be that clients had to spend their money on two things: on the creative product and on media. Now, thanks to the Internet, in many ways, media can be free. That doesn't mean that you save the money; you have to take it and push it into your creative product, because if you're not absolutely extraordinary on the Internet, you don't have an audience. I'm trying to educate people that there's more importance on the creative product than ever before. With the Internet, that's the way it works. The only way something gets talked about or passed on is when it's truly extraordinary. We need a whole new creative revolution within the marketing industry.


"The user guide to the creative mind" is out now. Further information on Dave Birss is available on his website, and he is @davebirss on Twitter.

Dave is talking at the SCAMP conference, organised by SheSaysUK and taking place on 14/06/12 at Google Campus, London. For further information and to book, visit the SCAMP Eventbrite page.

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