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Is Your Ad Agency Creative Enough

Many business owners and marketing heads hire ad agencies, marketing companies, and consultants to help them stand out from the rest…or do they? In decades past, ad agencies were hired to come up with creative ideas that would be memorable and influential. However, in modern times, it seems as if creativity has become a lost art. Today we wait for the Superbowl to see creative ads, and quite frankly… most of them they’re not that creative. Number one reason is that business owners either want to play it safe, or they do not want to spend the money on real creativity.


Back in the day, creative ads were commonplace. Most of the household names you know today were forged decades ago by amazing creative directors, brilliant copywriters, skilled film directors, talented graphic designers, pro audio engineers, and on and on. You must ask yourself…what the Effff happened? Why has there been such a brain drain on creative ad work?

It seems as if the ad industry has been invaded by a bunch of imposters running around with a laptop, some cracked software, and a Fiverr account selling ad agency services; services such as graphic design, web design, copywriting etc. Or has it?


Being in the advertising business since the early to mid 90’s I realized that things started to change when marketers started turning their attention from passive advertising (billboards, tv, radio etc.) to intention-based marketing. Once Google won the search engine wars, things started to drastically change. People stopped using the yellow pages / local phone book directories, and they started to search on Google. As Google became more sophisticated, and businesses started benefiting from being at the top of page one, marketing became more technical and less creative. Ad agency creatives, were investing their time in learning the algorithms, manipulating their websites to be first. Copy used to be written for people, now it is written for Google.


Another great contributing factor was the major leaps in technology. Hand drawn ads were now being generated by a computer, photos were no longer shot on film but digitally (same for video). Audio production went from real-time tape machines to nonlinear digital recording and editing (same for video). Technology made it easier for people create across the board. Today, you can simply take a photo with your phone, upload it Instagram, place some text over the photo and boom, you have an ad. It’s probably not going to be a very effective, but nonetheless you still have an ad.


These giant leaps in technology opened the door for those imposters to flood the market. Before this technical revolution there were only two real options for businesses to get their marketing material made. Option A was the ad agency, and option B was their local printer.


The Printer

The local printer usually offered some basic graphic services and would often include it in the price when the customer was making a printing purchase. (Such as business cards, stationery, brochures etc.) Printers are production minded creatures. They are going to put the paper in your hand, so you feel like you bought something of value.


The upside was this was a very cost-effective way for small businesses to fill this need, and business owners walked out of the print shop proud and happy to be holding this tangible representation of their company. The downside was most of this work looked very local and low budget. It often pigeon-holed these businesses into being “lower quality” in comparison to bigger brands. You know, if it looks like crap, it must be crap. However, that is not true. There are many businesses with terrible marketing and excellent products, service, and competitive pricing.


The Ad Agency

When an ad agency was hired, their focus was the exact opposite. They were creative minded selling the intangible. For this group of professionals, the printing and production of any ad was just a matter of getting the right team to execute. Ad agency pros would put together a team of people to think of many different ideas until one of them would stand up to all of their tests. Once the idea was in place, then they started executing graphic design, ad copy etc. The takeaway is ad agencies always started with a creative idea. These ideas were based on market research and current market trends. The idea was the keystone of the entire campaign.


The upside was the work they produced was on par with national brands. Everything that was birthed from this original idea was impeccable in its execution. If you had an ad agency working on your stuff in the 90’s you were at the top of the food chain. The downside was that is was very expensive. Unlike the printing company, you could walk out of a printing company with a logo, business card, stationery, and a trifold brochure for under a thousand dollars. An ad agency wouldn’t sit down with you without the guarantee of over $60,000 – $100,000 per year in fees and commissions to them. Remember this was the 1990’s Today that is between $125,000 - $200,000. This was the minimum.


Translating the cost of the ad agency of the 90’s into today’s numbers…These ad agencies are truly out of reach for most businesses. Their fees now run into the millions per year, and they are servicing the major brands. It is with these large agencies we still find some creativity, but not like before.


Fast forward to 2022, we have services like Thumbtack, Fiverr, and other discount price driven service directories for entry level people to sell their services. Most of these people are copying each other and are more interested in being safe, than creative. This is because they know that if a small business owner can point to something similar, they will feel safe, and they will be faster to hire and pay for creative services. This group of people is what I call the equivalent of the printer back in the 90’s. Very little creativity, average to below average execution, and task focused – not campaign focused. However, almost every single one of these cats will promote themselves as offering marketing and advertising services. Don’t be fooled.


A Typical Local Scenario

Here is a typical scenario. You have a local business owner, and he is opening a small hardware store. He needs a logo, website, building sign, and a video. He hires three different Fiverr people and a sign company to do the different jobs. He himself has absolutely no marketing training, experience or even a clue. He typically uses his trusted friends, family, and employees for input in making his marketing decisions. He does this because he knows that he doesn’t know, but he masks this ignorance with being inclusive to the people around him. Mind you, his brother may be a plumber, and his wife a stay-at-home mom, and his staff part time people with a high school level education. (Also without marketing training).




He will ask questions like…What do you think about this, as he shows them the home page? Which logo do you like? The feedback may be based on his circle’s favorite colors that are present in the design, or it may remind them of something else they have seen before. Not a recipe for success, and definitely not creative.


As the design process really gets underway, the designer realizes that the business owner is clueless, but the designer himself does not have the skills to properly guide the business owner. You see the designer does not have any marketing training either, and did not know how to establish a solid idea from the beginning. The designer is a designer, not a marketing and advertising expert.


The business owner is now confused, frustrated, and begins to doubt the process. The designer is frustrated with endless changes and seems to be going in circles. The target keeps shifting and time is just passing without any real forward movement. This happens with each of the people he hired. All of them just want out of the job and to finish so they can get paid. The designers become mouse jockeys, executing one bad design decision after another for the business owner, who knows even less about design than he knows about marketing. Finally, the business owner is left with unprofessional work that looks like every piece of crap you see on social media today.


But who is to blame? Is it the designer? I don’t think so. The designer ultimately does what the business owner asks under the threat of not getting paid. Unfortunately, this type of business owner thinks that because they are spending their own money, that they should be calling the shots. BIG MISTAKE! Again, what do they know about graphic design? Nothing, and their taste certainly does not qualify as marker for what makes a good logo or ad. Freelancers often do two and three times the amount of work for the same money they agreed on and are usually underappreciated.


As a creative director myself, I find that freelancers can be an amazing asset. We bring them into certain jobs when we want a new design perspective. I have found under the direction of an ad agency pro; a professionally trained designer will produce amazing work.


It’s not all bad news!

With the advances in technology, a real middle grade solution emerged. This is what is known today as the boutique ad agency, or creative agency. These are much smaller ad agencies than the big agencies like BBDO. They can be retained between a few thousand into the tens of thousands per month. They also produce a lot if not all of their own work, and yes they are techy and understand SEO!


They usually have very creative people on their team and can execute on the level of the big boys. They win awards, and often fill the overflow work for the larger agencies when they are too busy to produce themselves.


These ad agencies begin with a creative concept, move into research, they take their time to guide their clients through the process, they measure their progress and are transparent. They are usually very good with customer service. Since their company size is usually under a dozen people, it makes most of them pretty accessible. Accesibility leads to accountability, which leads to good customer service.


So where is the all of the creativity? With so much noise and stimulus being pushed down our throats on all of our devices, it is difficult to penetrate the noise. Every moron with a smartphone is now shooting film, taking photos, and posting it for the world to see. Some of these posts are truly entertaining and some even go viral. I actually had a client come into the shop and ask for a website and viral video. Yes, we sent him out. LOL.

The Takeaway

So…is your ad agency creative enough? If you are using Fiverr, definitely not. If you are using a boutique ad agency probably not, but they absolutely can be! My advice is, have a meeting with the creatives at your ad agency and revisit the creative strategy. Let the group explore, give them the money and resources it will take to get there. Your business will benefit in ways you could never predicted.

Written By: Salvatore Marotta

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