Conformity is death.

(I know this seems like there’s a lot of death going on, sorry, it wasn’t initially my plan but I do listen to a lot of heavy metal.)

Conformity is death.

This was a slide on a presentation at the AWARD Leadership Course I attended some years ago.

It really stuck with me because people have been trying to force me to conform to their ways of thinking, speaking, acting, dressing, etc.. my entire life. And any time I tried to do so, it was bad. The suppression of instinct, self-expression, emotion, humour, spontaneity, basically all the things that made me feel human, had a terrible effect on my mental health.

A corporate career in my early 20s failed for this very reason.

It wasn’t until I was sitting in an agency, a somewhat legitimate place of business, reading ridiculous scripts and holding up weird drawings while seemingly important people laughed and clapped and egged me on, that I actually felt I could be myself in a workplace. The people were different. The energy was different. It was a good different. (Aldi logo.)

I imagine this is a common experience for many creatives. Years spent thinking they were saddled with weaknesses they never knew were strengths.

As time goes on, I’ve realised this is a microcosm of the advertising business at large. This constant identity crisis of who we are and how we fit in. When, really, we just need to become more comfortable and confident in the ways in which we don’t.

We think like they can’t.

That’s the strength of the business. It’s why it exists in the first place, and it will be the sole reason it continues to.

As budgets shrink, technology shifts (and becomes sentient), and brands continue to ‘in-house’ their creative output, having an external, objective, lateral-thinking human brain is our eternal point of the difference.

It’s the unique proposition we tell clients is so important, yet often buckle when selling our own.

Instead, we say ‘yes’ to clients too often, which leads to producing the exact work they think they want. Work they can easily replicate themselves. So they do. And it vanishes in-house.

We let giant digital media platforms tell us how and why and when advertising should happen. And so, our clients started just going directly to them instead. I mean, if we’ve abdicated our area of expertise, why wouldn’t they?

We’ve even started speaking in the same buzzwords and corporate jargon we were so desperate to escape in the first place.

And if we continue this pattern of conformity, we will one day successfully render ourselves redundant.

Creative agencies are like a business refuge for the non-conformist. The misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers. There’s nowhere else for us to go. (And if you’re a client reading this, you should be just as invested in keeping us around. Even if you have your own in-house people, because they’re too close to the brand and all have to follow the same set of rules.)

In the past two weeks, I’ve worked on a beer, a telco, a major sporting code, a tech giant, an airline, and I’m about to get a brief for an ice cream. That’s in the past two weeks. I’m not sure you can ever in-house that kind of thinking.

And I’m not sure you’d want to, anyway.

Clients have an incredible wealth of knowledge in their particular field. Of the product. The category. The inner workings of the business. And we shouldn’t think we know better (because we don’t). But when you’re that close to the coalface, the value of an outside perspective and a good dose of lateral thinking can change the entire course of a brand.

The bean counters of the world may wish it so, but breakthrough creativity and conformity do not go hand in hand.

And as product parity becomes more the norm, and we’re all floating in a sea of same, the biggest point of difference any brand can have, in any industry, in any environment, is the creative leap. And we do it better than anyone.

Look at a problem on a page from an angle they would have never seen it from.

Because we think like they can’t.


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