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November 5, 2009
From Cliff To The Abyss

Can there ever be ad agencies with unique styles?

When I was in advertising school, I wanted to work at Cliff Freeman. Lots of my classmates did. Why? The advertising they did was funny and memorable. Which meant working there was probably great fun along with hard work. Who doesn’t want to be part of that?

The news that Cliff Freeman & Partners closed its doors came as a sad moment to lots of people in the ad world for some very simple reasons: The agency created some of the most memorable advertising ever, and was very uniquely identified by its humorous creative style. Both of which are incredible rarities, now more than ever.

Can an advertising agency have a unique creative style and stick to it these days?

For a while, Creativity magazine featured the “Cliff Freeman Comedy Corner” in every issue, a tribute to the shop’s regular output of goofy spots. Personally, I think the humor got a bit darker in an attempt to be “edgy” and that hurt the agency in the long run, but that’s another discussion for another time.

If you want to call advertising a form of art (and I do, albeit a commercial art), then you can create an unique style just as other artists do.  Architects can do it -- you know a Frank Gehry building when you see one. But rarely does an advertising agency claim its work to be of one style, something that’s so distinct you know who did it when you see it.

While some agencies attempt stake out a position of one kind of another, like a specialty in B-to-B or automotive clients or direct marketing, few agency vision statements say anything about the tone or style of the work they do. Agency vision statements are usually some version of “Being passionate about brandlytizing for our clients.” Or something like, “every day, we look for ways to forge more and better ideas, faster and more effectively, for our clients.” (Ironically, I wrote the former statement before I discovered the latter—which I found on the last version of Cliff Freeman’s agency website).

It’s a shame, really. Ad agencies go to great lengths to preach the virtues of differentiation to their clients, yet rarely do it themselves.

Part of the problem is, most agencies chase after any client they think will spend money, without regard to whether there’s a style of work that client may want. Anytime you see new business announcement PR release where agency or client says, “We really thought there was a culture fit,” they’re not talking about the style of creative work; rather, the level of mutual butt-kissing.

Most agencies attempt to do it all, style-wise: serious-minded work, goofball humor, sophisticated humor, “edgy work” (whatever that is), and every now and then a real sentimental tear-jerker. Few, if any, agencies do it all equally well.

What would you need to create another agency like Cliff Freeman? Well, I’m not sure, but I’ll take a guess.

It takes a leader, and style-setter who can then impart that style to the succeeding generations of talent. Someone who can define the sensibility and codify it somehow so others can adapt to it and improve upon it. A strong personality, but not so domineering because other people need to share in creating ideas around the vision. And someone who has a vision of how a style can translate in today’s different media. And through it all, acheive results. Don’t forget, Cliff Freeman was a great retail agency—much of its Little Caesar’s work featured a particular menu item, so there was always a selling objective of some sort.

The agency would need a strong internal culture but also a vision that carries through to its client relationships. It needs a fiercely independent streak, and the wherewithal to pick and choose its clients, and cut off a bad marriage if one appears.  While there are some very small agencies that can pull it off, larger ones have a tougher time. The higher the overhead, the higher the stakes. You gotta keep up the cash flowing, and often times that comes at the sake of being choosy about the clients you take on. And forget it if you’re part of a publicly owned company, like a holding company. You can hardly choose the cubicle colors if someone else owns you.

This is the era of being everything to everyone, or anything to anyone, at any price. Hence, it’s not an era very conducive to an agency like Cliff Freeman.

It’s why I keep thinking the future of advertising lies with smaller, entrepreneurial shops. Some of them can craft a vision and stick to it, if only because there’s not much at stake when they’re small.

I hope there’s another Cliff Freeman, or a few Cliffs, out there. I think there are. Because now more than ever the advertising industry needs people who know where the beef is. And can bring a little Crazy! Crazy! at the same time.


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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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