How Creative Tension Fuels the Best Advertising Agencies

5 min readJun 25, 2021

Advertising agencies are all unusual in similar ways

Advertising agencies are all unusual in similar ways. They are organizationally distinct from client companies. They have the traditional accounting and HR but usually their core departments have different philosophies and approaches to the same work. The objective of the agency structure is to house a system that enables creative ideas and development whilst ensuring that client needs are met. This is an alchemical balancing act, because different skills are needed at different stages of the process.

There is limited research into agency structures, but one study identified three pillars:

“professional systems that develop and maintain the identity of specialized functional expertise, client-centered systems that facilitate the interface between client and agency; the organization system that maps out vertical command, control, and communication lines.” [Kover]

Within a creative agency, the primary specialist area is the creative department. Account managers and planners are functionally part of the client servicing organization, although planners have a bridging role.

In other types of agencies this tripartite structure isn’t common. Practitioners are also client liaisons inside media or public relations agencies. This is because historically the ‘creative’ aspects of the industry were mostly handled by the creative agencies and managing creativity is complex.

Creative ideas don’t respond well to evaluative pressure at the outset. “Psychological safety”, coined by Amy Edmonson, is a requisite condition for creative thinking. A context in which people feel free to share ideas and respected enough to assume they will be taken seriously, whilst feeling able to share dissenting opinions without fear of reprisal.

In a culture of psychological safety people feel safe to criticize the ideas of others — respectfully — regardless of their place in the pecking order. This is necessary to overcome the inherently hierarchical nature of organizations. If it overwhelms then only the HIPPO [the highest paid person’s opinion] matters, which prevents collaboration and diminishes the output.

Andrew Osborne, the O in BBDO, invented brainstorming specifically to address the issue of hierarchical creative paralysis. Ed Catmull, founder of Pixar, writes in Creativity Inc. that they…




Hello! I'm Faris. I'm looking for the awesome. Founder/Genius Steals. Itinerant Strategist//Speaker. Author of Paid Attention.