After Ericsson's acquisition of Red Bee, should other brands buy in creative teams?

The news that the telecoms company Ericsson is set to acquire broadcast services agency Red Bee raises questions about the nature of creativity and the way that the delivery of marketing communications is configured, writes Vicky Bullen, chief executive officer, Coley Porter Bell.

Assuming the deal is approved, Ericsson will pick up a suite of technical services like media asset management, playout and subtitling. In addition it will bag itself a world class creative department with the softer skills capable of producing content, logos, idents, bumpers, ads, and any manner of on-screen ‘collateral’.

Ericsson will join an honourable roll of companies including Google, Channel Four, Samsung, Philips and of course SpecSavers, that all have high quality in-house creative offerings. Google and Channel 4 even won gold prizes at Cannes this year.

When you consider that an estimated £20bn was spent on marketing services in the UK last year, the real surprise is not that techie-geeky Ericsson is buying a creative department, but that more brands haven’t already tried to.

Why don’t more clients just go out and buy themselves a small integrated agency? Why don’t more clients simply hire a few top flight creatives and set them to work?

Why don’t more marketers just go out and buy themselves a small integrated agency, I have been asking myself? Why don’t more clients simply hire a few top flight creatives and set them to work?

Think of the savings on those agency fees. Think of the creative and strategic control. Think of the time saved on agency visits. Think of the speed of turn around.

Or to reverse the question, what’s the point of agencies?

Well first, most clients couldn’t afford to retain creative talent on the payroll - there’s just not enough for them to do. Just as most clients don’t run their own company plane, the majority prefer to ‘lease’ creativity.

More significantly an agency can offer distance. Obviously an outsider tends to have greater objectivity about an organisation. Crucially it is independent of the organisation’s view of itself. That is often a significant brake on strategic and creative innovation.

But the real argument is about inspiring creativity. Creatives are like sharks in that they need a constant flow of ideas to keep them going. Work on one brand for years and they can become dulled and limited. Agencies provide the stimulus of a wide range of problems for different brands and different markets that clients just can’t.

This breadth of experience is not simply stimulating for the creatives, it adds to efficiency. It allows agencies to make and learn from mistakes, so that the client doesn’t have to.

More important still is the matter of culture and creative management. Creativity is like a sponge in that it needs a light management touch. You can’t force air into a sponge and you can’t force creativity into a creative department - even if staffed by creative stars.

Minimising risk

The fundamental problem is that business cultures are often necessarily about certainty and minimising risk. Their processes tend to be geared round eliminating mistakes. And it is a rare in-house creative department that doesn’t carry the shadow of its parent company culture.

So there are all sorts of little things about creating a creative environment - the type of people you hire, (who may not necessarily be house trained), the physical environment, its geographical location, terms and conditions, all of which may not fit in with the client’s way of doing things.

It is precisely because agencies tend to be more loosely managed that they are able to come up with game changing, market moving ideas.

It’s not impossible for clients to develop fantastic creative cultures – as evidenced by the success of Google and Channel 4 at Cannes recently. But tellingly they are media owners, perhaps more similar to agencies than classic client cultures.


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