The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

Layer Cake …

I was talking to a couple of mates recently.

Both of them are a couple of incredibly talented, highly regarded, multi-award winning creatives and they were asking me what it was like working in NZ.

As we were chatting we came to a revelation about what was causing the decline in advertising standards.

This is a topic that has been debated a lot over the years with a myriad of possible causes. But with the experience I have seen in NZ – plus the experience I have working directly with a number of famous bands and billionaires – we realised there was actually an underlying cause that trumped all other considerations.

It’s not digital.
It’s not consultants.
It’s not holding companies.
It’s not eco-systems or playbooks.
It’s not the wild inflation of strategists.
It’s not cost.
It’s not effectiveness.
It’s not in-house alternatives.
It’s not direct-to-consumers.
It’s not data.
It’s not rational messaging.

It’s the layers within companies.

The multitude of people everything has to go through and be approved by.

Might be on the client side.
Might be on the agency side.
Might be on both sides … but each layer is like a mini-focus group where ‘success’ is when the representative of that particular layer feels something can then be passed on to the next person in their group without it making them look foolish for their decision or choice.

And as the work passes each layer, the work gets diluted or chipped away until the ultimate decision maker gets to see something that is a pale shadow of what was originally intended.

An object that is a trophy to self preservation rather than potency and truth.

And as companies and agencies have grown in their complexity, the work has faced more layers and opinions. Doesn’t matter if you’re independent or part of the most networked agency/company in the history of networked agency/companies … the decline of creative standards is down to the number of organisational layers that now exists within companies.

And why has this happened?

Well, part of it is because of complexity, but the main part is because companies have got into this mad position where the only way they can grant a significant payrise is if the person is promoted.

So we’re in this mad situation where we have increased layers, headcount and complexity simply because we have viewed money as something commensurate with promotion rather than quality.

Now I appreciate you could argue promotion is a sign of quality – but I don’t think that’s right.

Being good at something doesn’t automatically mean you will be good at something more senior. Hell, there’s a lot of people who don’t even want to do something else. They just want to do what they love and they’re happy at.

I remember at Wieden where – for one mad minute – they thought I’d make a good MD.


They didn’t come to their senses even when I told them I wasn’t even the MD of cynic … and that was a company I actually founded.

I didn’t want to be an MD.
I wasn’t interested in being an MD.
I just wanted to do what I loved and was good at.

And while they finally came to their senses [good call, Luhr, as usual] the reality is a lot of companies have a bunch of layers simply because they needed to promote someone to justify a payrise.

And before you know it, every task has to go through multitudes of layers … where most are designed to dull an idea rather than sharpen it.

While I don’t know this for a fact, I would guess the companies or agencies who are doing the most interesting work … the stuff that attracts culture rather than chases them down then beats them into submission … are the ones where they deal with the ultimate decision maker.

We get to do a lot of that in NZ.

I definitely get to do that with Metallica, Gentle Monster and the GTA team.

And the difference is huge.

Because while some of these clients are genuinely exceptional – especially when I’m talking to the founders of the organisations because that gives them a level of power and authority most other clients could never hope to get – I imagine a lot of the others are no different to the clients everyone who reads this blog deals with in London or New York or Tokyo everyday.

It’s just the big difference is instead of work having to appease the comments and judgement of 20 different people, it only has to agree with 4 … so the idea that gets made resembles the idea on the table to a much greater extent.

So next time you have a client that talks about wanting great work, don’t talk to them in terms of what processes, systems or people you can add to the mix, talk about what both parties need to take away.

Because if you want the work to be potent, kill the layers of filtration.

21 Comments so far
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I once heard someone say that “The “right” decision is always the fastest decision”. Would you agree?

Comment by John

No. But it is better than decisions based on pleasing management rather than audiences.

Comment by George

Totally agree George.

To your point John, the longer people have to mull on something, the more they find things they would ‘rather change’ … which is why I like to ask people, “where their energy is at”, because at least that gets to a starting point of intriguing rather than blandness.

Comment by Rob

Good to know that neither of you agree with Mr. Vee.

Comment by John

gary twat vee?

Comment by andy@cynic

This is so good Rob. It’s like you’ve just solved a puzzle that people have been pondering for years but never quite found the answer.

Comment by George

That’s exactly how I felt when Mike and Sam said it.

Comment by Rob

There’s many things I’ll always disagree with you about. But your self awareness of what you’re rubbish at is never going to be one of them. What were WK thinking?

Comment by Bazza

is this uncle why dan retired?

Comment by andy@cynic

This is a good post Rob. Managing up leads to dumbing down.

Comment by Bazza

This should be obvious but it is a revelation. The inclusive contribution culture of modern organisations means they are working against the best interests of the organisation. Crazy.

Comment by Pete

Yep … and why do we have all these layers? Because companies will only give proper pay rises associated with promotions … so they create meaningless layers to give the illusion of growth to employees but the only power they actually have is to kill or blandify work to please the person above them.

Comment by Rob

creatives sort it out as per fucking usual.

Comment by andy@cynic

They’re a pain in the arse too. Hahaha

Comment by Rob

My grandmother used to say the more cake layers you have, the blander it will taste.

Comment by Mary Bryant

In other news, just heard Trevor Beattie designed the poster … and Lock Stock’s. What a legend. It’s also proof how lack of layers gets to better work because in both cases, he worked with the directors directly.

Comment by Rob

beattie is a fucking proper creative.

Comment by andy@cynic

Permboy is still a god.

Comment by Billy Whilzz

Beattie was a thunderbolt. That his work is still impactful shows the level of his talent.

Comment by George

I’m here for Andy@Cynic commentary and wasn’t disappointed

Comment by David

Everyone is.

Comment by DH

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