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The Creative, The Artist and The Communicator

by Cynthia Thomas
6 min read
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New agency roles based on and defined by their contribution to the creative process.

There has been much discussion and debate in the recent past surrounding the emergence of the “new agency model.” These discussions focus on the apparent need for ad agencies to work differently in the digital and social world, and on which new model will emerge as the most suitable. In his post New agency models and what we can learn from them, Edward Boches highlights three new agencies with radically different approaches from each other and from traditional advertising models. He postulates that each of these models has the chance to succeed for two reasons: one because of the new digital technologies that are available that allow for new levels of collaboration, and two because “they all started from scratch, free of the constraints, muscle memory or DNA of an existing advertising agency.”

While questioning the norms and trying something new is to be celebrated, deliberately straying from an established approach or model requires a holistic evaluation of the pieces and parts that make up that machine. Most often, new ideas spring from specific frustration points in current working patterns or associated results. An evaluation of these elements leads to key insights and areas for improvement.

Unfortunately, these identifiable areas of change are voiced in narrow focuses: “We need more team collaboration,” or “Our customers need to have a stronger role in our decisions.” The problem with this is that working differently in one area of a model eventually influences every aspect of that model—as it must in order for real change to occur. In the agency world every aspect of the business—from sales activities, client relationship models, creative approaches, and the makeup of talent—must be evaluated for its role in making a new way of working successful.

The biggest hurdle in redefining established approaches is often falsely predetermining the priority areas of change. We become victims of the “muscle memory” of what we have come to know.

Take, for instance, the topic of how we assemble teams. In Boches’ descriptions of the agencies, most of what is touted as “new” are processes or workflows that traditional roles are now working within. These are new approaches to how teams should work to deliver on the new requirements of the new age, but very little is discussed regarding who is on the teams. Disciplines are still the ingredients that make up the recipe of a team. Account service, design, UX, technology, strategy, etc.—each skill-set plays an important part in what it takes to deliver. But this isn’t really new; it is rearranging the same puzzle pieces.

The real need for new agency models is born out of the demand to think differently. This includes being able to react to an ever-changing, hyper-speed, level playing field that is focused on providing seamless interactions with and between brands and customers, and between customers and peers. It has also become necessary to evaluate needs and deliver updates and enhancements in real-time—not scheduled releases—and help companies work through becoming comfortable with transparency and humanizing their brand. The agency’s role today is as a mentor as much as a partner or vendor, and this requires a complete lack of ego in order to help facilitate the ongoing cultivation of relationships required to keep a client relevant.

So which department does that fall under? Which disciplines take the lead on delivering on those roles?

What if we were to explore the roles needed to produce innovative, successful outcomes in today’s world, and not just the position titles that are traditionally the cornerstone of team makeup? It appears that creativity—how it is applied and the ability to articulate the solution—is paramount in the highly collaborative environments we are operating in. So perhaps instead of “UX Designer” “Account Supervisor” or “Technical Architect,” new roles that are based on and defined by their contribution to the creative process are what we look for. The roles of the Creative, the Artist, and the Communicator are interesting delineations to explore.

The Creative

The Creative’s role is to be unbound by guidelines and to guide the team through exploration. They are comfortable being uncomfortable and their ego is checked enough to have found the freedom to think beyond what is known, or what is thought to be known. Their role is also to challenge—to not take anything at face value or as truth. The Creative role excels at making others reframe their own questions and perceptions of any given problem. The role requires ensuring that each solution starts from a clean slate, not a default answer. This mandates continually challenging with the question, “What if?” Not in a haphazard way, but based on connection points and opportunities where others may not see them. Uncovering the relevant dots and connecting them in unexpected ways is an essential talent.

The Artist

The Artist role excels at taking the thoughts and ideas born out of the Creative’s role and breathing life and expression into them. They excel at making ideas or concepts tangible and actionable. They maintain a deep understanding of why the dots have been connected in the way they have, and build from there to establish what is needed to make the output real. The role requires creativity in its ability to marry the non-conventional with the conventional to make something new. The Artist maintains a holistic view of an idea and strategically plans the touchpoints that will most successfully express the true intention. They arrange the dots in the right way to paint the correct picture.

The Communicator

The Communicator traditionally has not been defined as an independent role. Traditionally, the act of communicating ideas, solutions, strategies, or concepts has fallen to the architect of each. Business analysts author their reports. Creative directors present their concepts. But the nuance and talent that makes for a great communicator are specific and unique, and it’s often a disservice to the project to force each role to be solely responsible for telling its story. In this context, communicating is not copywriting. The Communicator excels as seeing the entire picture of the creative thought and the artistry of the solution built off of it, and structures a story tailored to the audience needing to understand it, whether for internal teams or client deliveries.

What would the structure of these new roles look like? There may be multiple scenarios and configurations that could be implemented and customized based on a given agency’s work and philosophies. But in establishing these roles, agencies would have the core advantage of evaluating team members on how they think, not merely for what deliverable they produce.

Agencies traditionally grow in size to support more production. But businesses need their agencies to deliver meaningful, relevant innovations, not just more widgets. There lies the disconnect. At the core, an evaluation needs to be done regarding the validity of the solutions being concepted, and what roles and talent are really needed to successfully deliver those solutions. Is the question really whether we need an art director or UX designer on the team, or is the real question whether we need help connecting dots or bringing an idea to life? The conversation at its core needs to be changed. The ripple effect of redefining our working roles is evident.

These roles may never completely replace the need for traditional disciplines in an agency. But as a first step, in addition to ensuring the representation of each discipline on your teams, the presence of each of these roles should be considered as well. The Creative thinker may live in technology, and the Artist in account service. Who is best suited for the role is not as important as understanding the importance of each of these roles in the makeup of an entire team.

Can one person possess all three? Yes. In fact a key success factor is making it a priority in the new agency model to cultivate and grow each team member across each of these roles. We all need to strive to develop our creative thinking, our ability to translate ideas into relevant, actionable tactics, and our aptitude at telling the story as much as we develop the traditional skills of our chosen profession. A model that encourages this cross-role development is rare in most traditional models. But if we are looking at redefining roles, we must look at how we support and grow them as well. Otherwise failure is inevitable.

Change is hard. Real change is rare. We cannot simply shuffle exisiting chairs and expect to have it result in more available seating. New work and new ideas require new roles to bring it to life. Where do we begin? Start with you. Are you The Creative, The Artist, or the Communicator by nature? Now build from there.

post authorCynthia Thomas

Cynthia Thomas, Cynthia Thomas is partner at Translator, a digital experience agency focused on connecting online and offline, customer and brand, and person-to-person through smartly designed experiences. She leads strategy, conceptual incubation and user experience thinking for agency clients, helping them navigate the digital landscape. Cynthia’s passion for the UX discipline and experience thinking as a whole has driven her focus on studying the social, cultural and behavioral influence of the digital space on human interactions and expectations. A digital native, Cynthia started out in her career both as a web designer and a developer writing code. This hands-on experience gradually led to an interest in strategy and user experience design, which she parlayed into a job within the interactive group at Laughlin/Constable, one of Milwaukee's largest ad agencies. It was there she introduced research, strategy and the UX discipline to LC’s process. In 2005 she joined Fullhouse as an Interactive Strategist, refocusing and establishing the UX discipline and parlaying it into a service offering for the agency. During this time, she also introduced experience design (XD) as both a team structure and philosophical approach to solutioning, helped implement a collaborative work environment. She speaks and writes on the subject of user experience and experience design on a regular basis, and is a frequent contributor to the Translator blog Just Sayin’.


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