Co-Creation Utopia Debunked

In his recent Adweek article, “Co-creation Is Key to a Successful Agency-Client Relationship,” Matt Eastwood, chief creative officer of DDB New York, argues that partnering more intimately––or “co-creating”––with clients is a more effective way of working than the traditional model. By bringing clients into the idea-generating process, we allow them to feel a sense of ownership and confidence in the campaign idea. Furthermore, he argues, our clients know their brands better than anyone else, and this can be incredibly useful to the creative team.

The roots of the divided agency/client relationship are often attributed to its genesis. In a bid/spec situation, an agency is typically asked up front, “What can you do for our brand?” Starting with “You’re the agency, now wow me” sets precedent for future behavior and communications.

I find it hard to reconcile this beginning with Eastwood’s concept of co-creation. Clients often spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on new campaigns, so I wonder how seamless the transition from hired contractor to co-collaborator is. How does the agency go from, “We’re brilliant and different” to “We’re brilliant, sure, but if you have any ideas for a new campaign we’d love to hear them”?

A savvy client is usually quick to become part of the team, and that’s great, but ad agencies define themselves by their ability to generate unique ideas—it’s how they build their reputations. How do agencies justify their cost or leverage their value simply by being good teammates?

I love the thought of new clients understanding the process of coming up with concepts. (Justifying four weeks of idea-generation is always hard to explain to a client who doesn’t fully understand the process.) Do we really want our clients to see behind Oz’s curtain, though? We all know that a great idea can come anytime, anywhere. So how will this affect our own process? Will it add unnecessary structure to it?

To paraphrase Eastwood, having the client be a part of the process of idea-generating allows the team to get a truer sense of the brand and its audience. While I agree that no one knows the brand better than the brand itself, I can’t imagine a world where we’d want the client in the room while we are coming up with creative concepts. History has taught us to never ignore a “bad” idea. We allow creatives to throw as many ideas on the wall as possible and not veto them right off the bat because of brand standards. Finding the big idea is most important at this stage––the filtering can happen later.

As an account person, I find the notion of giving the client more ownership of the idea––and thus ensuring that responsibility for its success or failure is equally shared––comforting. But as a creative purist and realist, I think this co-creation process brings with it too many new challenges to be feasible.

Author: Eric Swenson

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