Agencies are strange beasts and are not well understood - Faris Yakob explores the tension at the core of the very best.

Advertising agencies are all unusual in similar ways. They are organizationally distinct from client companies. They have the traditional accounting and HR but usually their core departments have different philosophies and approaches to the same work. The objective of the agency structure is to house a system that enables creative ideas and development whilst ensuring that client needs are met. This is an alchemical balancing act, because different skills are needed at different stages of the process. 

There is limited research into agency structures, but one study identified three pillars: “professional systems that develop and maintain the identity of specialized functional expertise, client-centered systems that facilitate the interface between client and agency; the organization system that maps out vertical command, control, and communication lines.” [Kover]

Within a creative agency, the primary specialist area is the creative department. Account managers and planners are functionally part of the client servicing organization, although planners have a bridging role. In other types of agencies this tripartite structure isn’t common. Practitioners are also client liaisons inside media or public relations agencies. This is because historically the ‘creative’ aspects of the industry were mostly handled by the creative agencies, and managing creativity is complex. 

Creative ideas don’t respond well to evaluative pressure at the outset. “Psychological safety”, coined by Amy Edmonson, is a requisite condition for creative thinking. A context in which people feel free to share ideas and respected enough to assume they will be taken seriously, whilst feeling able to share dissenting opinions without fear of reprisal.

In a culture of psychological safety people feel safe to criticize the ideas of others—respectfully—regardless of their place in the pecking order. This is necessary to overcome the inherently hierarchical nature of organizations. If it overwhelms then only the HIPPO [the highest paid person’s opinion] matters, which prevents collaboration and diminishes the output.

Andrew Osborne, the O in BBDO, invented brainstorming specifically to address the issue of hierarchical creative paralysis. Ed Catmull, founder of Pixar, writes in Creativity Inc. that they carefully manage a culture of criticism divorced from credit. Every morning people share work and have it criticized, intentionally harshly, but the social and structural context supported that happening without it crushing people.

However, balance is needed because freshness is only half the task. The work must be both strategically relevant and something the client will accept. Clients have parameters they have to operate within. Corporations are financial entities designed to manage risk. Account management interfaces with clients and the creative department is largely protected from criticism as much as possible during the ideation phase. At some point however, decisions must be made, the work must be sold. Thus, inter-organzational conflict is inevitable, and even more so between agencies, since they too have different approaches to the same work.

Tensions are necessary but can become dysfunctional. Surveys across top agencies in Australia and USA show wild divergences in attitudes to work. For example, only 24% of account managers felt client interaction with creatives is essential but 56% of creatives thought it was. The research shows that “to creative staff, advertising was more creative when done by creatives working with minimal interference from other agency personnel”, but pure creativity absent of strategic fit and client appetites is irrelevant for an advertising agency, unless they are making their own content with their own capital.

At the same time, there is remarkable homogeneity to agency structures globally. Large creative, or media or PR, agencies are structured like any other, anywhere in the world. They may have some different specializations and departments, but the core is the same. This is partially because global advertising was consolidated by American and British companies through acquisition, who exported their model. Managing global systems requires a degree of conformity.

The last innovation in structure that became standard was account planning, which is ironic, since when it was invented it was as a point of organizational differentiation. When Jane Newman helped pioneer the practice in the USA at Chiat/Day she wrote that “to achieve our creative philosophy of relevant distinctiveness, we’ve applied that same creativity to how we structure ourselves both internally and dealing with clients”.

Mother, one of the most successful independent agencies of the last twenty years, have a different organizational model, in which account management and production are merged. Naked Communications originally had a flat structure made up entirely of strategists that did ideas, client servicing, and production but such structures don’t scale. The &Partnership has a hybrid model in the UK, with recombined media and creative and embedded staff on-site at their clients. 

All creative work consists of managing tensions between different types of thinker, and harassing the functional conflict in a profitable way. Due to competitive pressures and the digital blurring of channels, all agencies are looking to replicate the creative system. We have worked with PR and media agencies on developing their creative offerings, often involving hiring creative directors and planners and a rethinking of workflow. 

Buckminster Fuller coined the term tensegrity -"tensional integrity” - to refer to structures that are held together by tension. Good advertising agencies are, as are good rosters. This means the client needs to be constantly managing and optimizing the interactions between agencies, just as agency leadership must inside agencies, and one good way is to distribute credit. 

The incentives of the industry mean that creatives are keen to get credit for their ideas, which makes collaboration complex.

That’s why I was fascinated by Burger King’s Mouldy Whopper. Not about whether it was repulsive award bait but because the campaign is credited to David, Ingo, and Publicis. They all pitched versions of the idea, the client asked them to work together. So varied creatives had to interact through different agency structures into the same client and production. No wonder the industry revolted.