Just coming up to five years ago, right at the end of my time as a sort of semi-detached part of the group to whom I’d sold my previous agency, Tangible, back in 2007, I wrote the only post in the eight-year history of this blog to get me into some fairly hot water.
It was headed “Of lunatics and asylums” (it’s still there, if you want to search for it) and basically it was a bit of a rant about the ideas being promoted by an agency called FACE – which, unfortunately, was then by far the most successful business within the agency group I was part of (and about a million times more successful than my own little agency at that time).
What irked me was FACE’s Big Idea, promoted with great evangelical zeal throughout their website, in conference presentations, in white papers and for all I know on branded umbrellas and golf tees. According to them, when it came to developing advertising ideas, it was time to consign agency creative departments to the dustbin of history and adopt a process called “co-creation,” in which groups of clients and consumers would get together to come up with the ideas for the ads in workshops moderated by…you guessed it, by people from FACE.
As you can imagine, writing as somebody who was at that time just on the point of emerging from a 28-year stretch in agency creative departments, I struggled a bit with this. In a mildly and diplomatically expressed post (honestly…) I said I didn’t at all agree with FACE’s basic proposition, that in today’s world creative things are much better done “with” their target groups than “at” them. I said I don’t believe creativity works like that, and I thought a range of expert witnesses from William Shakespeare to those responsible for the Shake’n’Vac commercial would probably agree with me.
I also said that if I was just a teeny bit cynical, which of course I’m not, I’d be tempted to see this co-creation schtick as a smart and ambitious power-play on the part of the country’s tribe of qualitative researchers, unhappy with the way that their moderation skills tended to play only a minor role in the creative development process (typically checking out the creative department’s ideas with focus groups of C1C2 housewives in Ruislip) and looking for an opportunity to take charge of the proceedings.
The post picked up a few somewhat snotty comments, including one from some bloke in the property industry who said I was clearly a frightened dinosaur. But the heavier flak came up towards me from people in my own building, and especially those in FACE itself. I found myself about as popular as…well, as any of the unpopular things used in similes about unpopularity, if not more so.
Five years later, I’ve just been back to the FACE website to experience the pain of witnessing the triumph of co-creation for myself. The agency is obviously still doing extremely well, which is very good news not least for me as someone who still has quite a few shares in the parent group. And as you’d expect from any agency doing mostly digital work, its positioning and proposition has changed quite a lot over the five years since I last looked.
But the nature of the changes is interesting. FACE is no longer “The Co-Creation Agency” and the website it was promoting called the Co-Creation Hub, which brought together a whole bunch of sad and anxious Cello Group creative agencies under the co-creation banner, seems to have disappeared. FACE is now “a global strategic insight agency.”
Co-creation is still there, but only as one of 13 different products and services on offer. And the description doesn’t say anything about developing creating or communications ideas – it says that the service in question, Helix, is a way to “build disruptive product concepts.” It looks to me as if co-creation, at least as far as taking over from creative agencies is concerned, has come to the end of its brief shelf-life.
Oddly enough, looking back over five years in which technology, in particular, has changed many things but creative work is still overwhelmingly done “at,” not “with,” the only person I feel cross with from that long-ago time is that property bloke who wrote that patronising “frightened dinosaur” comment. To him, I have a nice simple message written on behalf of creative people in language that I hope people in the property world can understand: “Fuck you, tosser. We’re still here.”