On the changing economics of creativity.

Okay, here’s the thing: I envy the very talented people getting into the ad and design business right now. They can do so much. They have so much cool tech at their fingertips and zero expectations around the concept of cost and value.

To them, everything is free.
Tools are free. Code is free. Music is free. Media is free. Distribution is free. Research is free. Images are free. And if it’s not free, it’s so close to free that it’s not really even worth mentioning. $9 for a professionally scored commercial music track? $5 for a crowd-sourced logo? $12 for a sponsored ad that reaches 20,000 targeted souls on Facebook?


At the risk of sounding like a cranky, old “you-kids-get-the-hell-off-my-lawn” guy, I must note there was a time when the economics of this business were dramatically different. In my career, I have worked on radio spots with $10,000 music budgets. I have penned brochures for which we spent $50,000 on photography. And I have been on location shoots where the bar tab exceeded the out-of-pocket total of the two TV spots my team produced last week by $50.

This sounds like a wild exaggeration stated for effect. I assure you, it is not. It’s merely a statement of (sober) fact. We cannot spend (nor drink) that way anymore. Our clients (and our livers) will no longer tolerate it.

There also was a time when creative folks could go and do their time at a big publicly held ad agency, become vested and leave with enough money to justify the heaping piles of human feces they had to ingest during their dread-filled times there. They could retire. Write screenplays. Or start their own agencies. Today, those paydays are rare. But the menu is essentially unchanged, or so my friends in high places tell me.

Thomas Wolfe said it best, albeit using far too few full stops, so I will paraphrase: You can’t go home again. There’s no going back. The way is forward or not at all.

In an age when people can literally shoot a feature film on their phones, there’s no room for $2M TV budgets unless you are operating at the very highest echelon of high-volume consumer creative services. You can count on your fingers and toes the number of agencies that consistently get to do that level of work today. And, if you believe Google, there are 13.3 thousand agencies in the US right now.

So what can the other 99.85% of creative organizations do? Well, here’s what we do.

First, we try very hard to push back in the area of quality. Free and cheap stuff is great until you look at the state of stock content. It’s all so generic and contrived. There’s very little life or craft in it. If you are doing truly ground-breaking conceptual creative work, it’s very hard to rely upon so-so stock imagery in every instance. (Although, I will admit that we have used stock to good effect recently, so it depends upon the idea.) And stock music is starting to all sound the same. (Honk if you love ukuleles!!) We’ve had the opportunity to work with a great composer recently and the results have been extremely fresh and satisfying. With zero ukeleles.

Second, we try to do more and more of the craft work ourselves, when we can. We’ve created our own music from time to time. We’ve shot our own video and stills. We’ve recorded and edited our own podcasts and VOs. And this trend will only continue. (30 years ago we weren’t setting our own type, but we do it every single day in 2018.) Hey, we are creative people. We actually should be creating this stuff, if only to better understand the process.

Lastly and most importantly, we continually stress the value of the idea. A banner ad with great thinking behind it will always out-pull a banner with no idea. An email campaign that tugs at a reader’s emotions will always net better results than one that simply vomits the expected strategy. Clients are well within their rights to not want to pay $10,000 for original music and sound design in a radio spot these days, but the day they stop seeing the value of creativity, insight and new ideas is the day the agency business dies completely and we all become employees of accounting or management consulting firms.

Some people think that the state of creative is already terminal. But I disagree. It’s changing. And we all need to change with it. Simple as that.
Consider the people I envy who are getting into the business now. They are super creative and super energized. And they see huge possibilities. Largely because, as I said, everything is free. And, best of all, they put it out there. Some of what they put out there is meh. Some of it is good but not quite great. And a small percent of it is freaking brilliant. I love the attitude: Let’s make cool shit and put it out there.”

What could be more creative than that?

There is hope, folks. Keep the faith. Now get the hell off my lawn.

Grant Sanders is the CD at Mintz + Hoke Advertisng in Avon, CT and his biggest budget line item these days is travel as he commutes each week between work and his home on Nantucket Island. His lawn consists of at least 19% actual grass.

Essays on the creative process from Grant Sanders. Creative astronaut. Art and copy switch-hitter. Brand strategist. Client confidant. Founder, SAND.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store