So, how many advertising people does it take to change a light bulb? Or put another way, to bring a brand to life? Until relatively recently, the answer was simple: however many teams the creative director threw at it.

Creativity has always been about collaboration. In the case of advertising, it’s usually the collaboration between an art director and a copywriter.

Traditionally the hallowed pair would work in solitary confinement, protecting the ownership of their ideas from everyone bar the head honcho and praying that their ideas would be the ones to go before the clients, to win the pitches and go into production.

That way of working served the industry pretty well until recently, but back then the communications landscape was a lot more predictable. Because traditional campaigns needed money and equipment, you could see the competition from a mile off. Digital channels and audiences have shaken up the industry, and things are starting to look radically different.

In the digital realm, we have a rapidly changing, ever-expanding list of deliverables, constantly in prototype and with the added intricacies of a medium that is more personal and an audience that is at once increasingly demanding and more-or-less able to manipulate and contribute to our output.

But it’s not just the medium that demands new ways of working; the people working in digital seem to demand it too. We are throwing ourselves into deeper collaborative processes within our own teams (or lack thereof), our clients, our consumers, and even with other agencies.

With the growth of “media-neutral” briefs and integrated communication plans, this collaboration is lifting us out of the “digital ghetto” and is essential for survival.


Why does collaboration come so easily to agencies that have grown from digital? Is it to do with it being a medium in its comparative infancy? Is it to do with how the “digital industry” has developed and the companies and individuals leading the way? Or is it just because the projects are bigger and more complicated, requiring a workforce able to change roles, software, and team structures at the drop of a hat?

In fact, it’s all three, and it’s a great success. That’s why any “traditional” agencies worth their salt are looking to digital agencies as models for change. However, by the time they get there, digital roles will have changed again, as what we are asked to create takes another leap forward – not only into new delivery platforms, but into those that were until recently associated with old-school advertising. Lucky for us, not just embracing change, but actively encouraging it is our lifeblood.


Since they started popping up around fifteen years ago, and particularly since the dot-com crash of 2000, digital creative agencies have been the underdogs. Digital has been to “above-the-line” advertising as photography was to fine arts throughout most of the twentieth century:- a medium by and for the people, seen as overtly utilitarian and creatively poor, and lacking in grand advertising “auteurs.” Instead, digital grew in the margins and was developed by innovators who were mostly young, self-taught, and ready to make do with DIY tools.

The digital pioneers got started through a shared passion for the new or for the technology, or for the excitement that interactivity provides – not for the money. That momentum has continued in no small part because of the crash. After all, who apart from a maverick would seek to work in an industry that’s shutting down around them? It should be no surprise that their young, independent, and hungry agencies look and feel quite different from traditional companies and place a great emphasis on the social – on conversation and the discussion of ideas that comes from authentically shared attitudes.

There’s no standard set of requirements for many of the positions available. We’re still small enough as an industry to adapt to the rapidly changing advertising landscape, and we haven’t found the perfect team structure yet. Maybe there isn’t one, and that’s the point.

So our industry is made up of people from a very broad base of multiple skills and experiences. We’ve matched a rich array of skills with a willingness to experiment, creating a myriad of agency set-ups and individual kinds of creative departments. People in digital feel that it’s possible to do something that makes a difference. Their can-do attitude comes from having had to solve problems with less for so long. Most importantly, digital people are doers.


By their nature, digital projects require a great deal of collaboration. Whether in-house or outsourced, the complex production processes involved can’t be separated from the conceptual stage as cleanly as with older formats. The killer idea could just as easily be a technical solution as a traditional advertising concept. So digital innovators are interacting with one another in new ways, acting as suppliers and partners to get the job done and calling on one another’s expertise and point of view.

Within digital agencies, collaboration is essential to the creative process. It enables us to select from a myriad of possible channels and techniques, from mobile to web to digital outdoor, and increasingly more traditional media, such as events and film or all of the above.

A creative teams up with a “creative technologist” one day and an “experience architect” the next. Or perhaps one of the media planners. Or all of the above. Without deep collaboration, we can’t ensure that our work is usable and accessible or successfully social. We can’t be agile enough to take advantage of all the opportunities that rapidly changing technology affords us. Collaboration allows us to think big or small, move fast, and develop ideas that are truly integrated.


Embrace the tenet that collaboration doesn’t mean compromise. Being precious and secretive about your ideas has no place in a truly collaborative environment, and working with the best possible people means that you won’t need to compromise on the quality of the idea, even if that idea changes somewhat in the process. The ownership of the idea is shared, and all are better for it.

Bring everyone into the process, and don’t be territorial. Pull in inspiration from all over the place. Choose your project team early, based on their skill set, and brief them together at the very beginning. Encourage the project team to work as a matrix of skills, not a hierarchy with the traditional creative team at the top.

Creativity comes from diversity, so make sure that brainstorms are open to the entire project team and that the “creatives” can ask as many questions as possible. One of the most successful brainstorming techniques I’ve experienced was to bring in anyone in the company – even the receptionist – who had a particular affinity with the brand. The “creatives” then had a full arsenal of ideas at their disposal to dismiss or shape into whatever they desired, with the help of the rest of the team.

Encourage feedback on the ideas and make creative choices sooner, with the understanding and backing of the whole project team. Speak with your client and their consumers as often as you can. Good agencies understand that they make better products if they collaborate with their users earlier in the process.

Finally, be totally transparent with your client about your process and methodologies, particularly about outsourcing work. You can’t really be collaborating if the client doesn’t know about it. Blog about your work. Share your research and bookmarks, and get the client to contribute too. Rather than the comfortable way of doing things, with a front about how capable you are, show off your collaborative credentials.

Explain that you’re going to use third parties because they’re the best of breed and the best equipped to do the work. The client doesn’t have to manage these relationships, so be open and honest to them and maybe even bring the client closer to the project as well.


Only very recently has “digital” shown up on the grand advertising radar as something that people should pay attention to. Perhaps it’s even doing the unthinkable and becoming just a little glamorous. But in reality, a lot of us are just geeks and dreamers.

Our agencies may all be different, but what we do have is camaraderie and a real sense of shared passion. And we love to collaborate with one another, even if we’re also fierce competitors. In fact, when we do work together, we see one another more as partners than simply people providing a service.

Creative Social is one example: creative directors from the world’s “best of breed” digital agencies regularly getting together to share ideas, unfinished work, inspiration, and vigorous debate. We also work together as a team to propel ourselves further into the broader advertising universe.

The organisation SheSays is another example: a cross-agency organisation with a growing membership, where event topics and organisational growth come directly from the members themselves.


It was not by accident that the ideas of “open source” and “creative commons licensing” appeared first in the digital realm. Every home computer with an internet connection has the potential to be a content provider and media producer. As a consequence, brands themselves are increasingly becoming facilitators, rather than town criers – facilitators for over a billion end-users to collaborate, create, debate, comment, and share.

It’s the antithesis of what advertising used to be all about and what Guy Debord imagined in Society of the Spectacle, where relationships between people are mediated by commodity and image, and where “passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity.”

Instead, authenticity is paramount. Participation is the new spectacle, and that means digital agencies have had to develop fresh rules for collaboration with these newly empowered consumers. They are no longer a captive audience but now offer a sliding scale of authentic engagement and potential contributions and critique.

We have had to let go of the creative reins and our sense of authorship in a way that runs contrary to how traditional agencies – and some clients – like to operate.

Offering a genuine opportunity for consumers to collaborate with you is a brave step, but letting them do so creates a sense of ownership and a desire to become part of a brand in a truly deep way. Want “word of –mouth” to work for you? Deeply collaborate with your consumers, and you’ve got it.


Creativity grows best in the fertile ground of conversation. Just imagine…advertising has never been so much fun. Deep collaboration is often boisterous, energetic, and on the edge of chaos, so how do you get results out the other end? As the head of a digital creative department, your staff may include (but are not limited to):

Traditional Creative Teams (art director/copywriter)

  • graphic designers
  • flash developers
  • front-end developers
  • animators
  • illustrators
  • photographers
  • motion graphics and postproduction
  • lighting technicians
  • storyboard artists
  • information architects
  • sound engineers
  • experience architects
  • creative technologists
  • video editors

…and sometimes even planners

So what constitutes good creative leadership? An eye for detail? A great head for copy? The ability to spot a good idea? These traditional values are a good starting point, but effective creative leaders who embrace collaboration have a number of other common traits that make them successful:

• Be reachable, be conversational, be transparent. Listen as well as talk. Have conversations with your staff and remember them. Deep collaboration relies on those involved feeling comfortable about expressing their ideas in front of you and on you being able to steer the team in the right direction with universal buy-in.

• Be open to good ideas coming from anywhere.

• Be able to put together the best team for the job. Know people’s strengths and play to them. Pair people with mentors so that every project is a learning experience.

• Be clear about the project boundaries. Provide a clear and compelling sense of purpose to help engage the team’s collective imaginations. Lay out some simple rules, and let the team manage itself, rather than telling them what to do.

• I once heard someone say that imagination without memory is like building bricks out of papier mâché. As a creative leader, your job is to be the collective memory for the project. What has happened in previous projects? What obstacles do we need to look out for? Why did it work so well last time? In an open forum, you need these reference points to come to quick, beneficial decisions.

• Be a good facilitator who can enable others to keep a project focused and under control.

• Fight for the time in project preparation for your team to absorb. Everyone involved needs to assimilate the idea for it to stay on track.

• Spot and enable another good leader. Good leadership in a collaborative atmosphere relies on leadership at many levels, not just from the top down. Don’t be afraid of resting responsibility on other people’s shoulders and empowering them to take control.

• Be a motivator. Invest in social capital. Be inspirational, and constantly funnel inspiration to your teams from as many sources as possible. Attract interesting people to join you.

• Say thank you. Set clear incentives and rewards.

Leading innovation and creativity is often like leading a creative conversation. That is why open and collaborative ways of working demand new open and collaborative approaches to leadership.


In digital-centered agencies, hierarchies aren’t as steep, department boundaries are more porous, and job descriptions are more open. Teams are modular and skills-based. Deep collaboration takes place within our walls, with our clients, with our consumers, and with one another.

Employees increasingly need to be flexible, self-motivated problem solvers, not rigid rule followers. More jobs will involve the investment of imagination, creativity, and empathy – factors of production that are difficult to measure. People will be expected to multitask and deliver and execute effectively, but also to innovate and learn. A performance-based pay system that rewards individual efforts and output will do little to encourage new ideas and collaboration.

We are in a good space. But even those bigger, older, and more traditional advertising agencies are learning from the way we work so that they can remain effective. The clever ones are already embracing it. They are becoming more democratic, open, and egalitarian to match the innovation capacity of “digital.”

Perhaps when these changes are more widespread we really will have no such thing as a digital agency anymore. But for the moment, regardless of the work we’re producing, our digital heritage and its collaborative mindset will still set us apart. The most important question for us now is, where to next?