Holistic strategy/creative approach is new only to big ad agencies

In case you missed the item in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, CarMax, based in Goochland County, just hired New York agency Amalgamated to do its creative. That’s interesting, but what’s more interesting is something an “expert” source was quoted as saying about Amalgamated’s approach. According to the article, Peyton Rowe, who teaches advertising at the VCU School of Mass Communications, said, “The structure of the agency seems very in line with the current trend…to marry strategy and creative at the beginning of the process rather than start with the strategy and hand it off to creative.” She further concludes, no doubt on the basis of her extensive one year of total advertising agency experience with a small outfit in West Columbia, SC, that this approach “is on the forefront of the industry.”

But is it really?

A 50-year-old hot new trend

Now, integrating strategy and creative at the outset is a good thing. It assures, among other things, that the creative team doesn’t jump on their horse and go riding madly off in all directions in search of a strategy – while at the same time they’re not saddled with an ivory-tower strategy that looks good on paper but just doesn’t execute. It’s also a great way of assuring that the final advertising isn’t a brilliantly compelling way of saying a disastrously wrong thing. (See Apple’s “The computer for the rest of us” campaign.)

But it is a new thing? No way.

As anyone who’s spent more than one year in the advertising agency business can tell you – either from first-hand experience or from second-hand industry knowledge, breaking down intra-agency monopolies has been the defining trend of advertising agencies since the 1960s.

As late as the 1960s, copywriting and art direction were two separate monopolies. The writer would write the copy and get it approved, after which it would be handed to the art director (or “artist,” as they were still called then) to illustrate and design. When Doyle Dane Bernbach merged the two disciplines, stronger, more involving ads resulted, with better ideas and the images actually contributing to (rather than just illustrating) the message. The result was the classic VW Beetle campaign and a way of working that revolutionized the way all agencies made ads from then on.

In the 1980s and ’90s, account planning broke up the research and marketing monopolies, integrating both disciplines to give the creative teams (and others in the agency) valuable insights into the product and sales problems from the target audience’s viewpoint. The Got Milk? campaign and another revolutionary new way of doing things resulted.

The 2000s saw the adaptation of Toyota’s lean production methodology to some of the smarter advertising agencies. This resulted in non-hierarchical, non-departmental, horizontal agency structures, divided into small teams where each advertising discipline was represented and everyone helped shape the final product.

The book Lean Advertising (full disclosure: I wrote it with Stephen Hawley Martin) describes this phenomenon. And it came out in March, 2003, some 18 months before Professor Rowe began her one year of extensive advertising agency experience.

Small agencies have worked this way all along. (They had to.)

Of course, what’s the hot new trend for college professors and for large agencies struggling to overcome the limitations of their past compartmentalization has been a way of life for smaller agencies. In all fairness, this has usually been more a matter of necessity than of choice.

Small agencies are, by definition, small. As a result, for sheer sake of survival, their people have to be good generalists. They’re good at their specialties, but not ivory-tower specialists. The structure is flat and horizontal. There are no monopolistic walls because everyone talks to each other and often helps out with tasks outside their strict job descriptions. And strategy and creative are likely to be integrated from the outset because the same person will be doing both. (I know that’s how it works in my agency.)

Good news for Richmond advertisers (and advertising professors)

So if you’re looking for stronger advertising that results from an integrated, holistic, lean, unhierarchical approach to advertising, you don’t have to look as far away as New York. You don’t want to look to most big ad agencies.

Just look to all the good, small agencies here in town.