The exercise of power in a creative age

What do the following have in common?

1 - The_Last_Judgment_Michelangelo

2 - David

three-graces-clothes

15 - Da Vinci - Virgin of the Rocks

22371346783183598-1

Bataafseeed

rembrandt_night_watch

 

They were advertisements -for ideologies, for empires of thought, for families, dynasties, and institutions of power.

Moreover behind each and every one there was a client  – a patron – who had commissioned and funded it. Serious men like this:

Andrea_Mantegna_-_Portrait_of_Carlo_de'_Medici_-_WGA13952

But what, you might ask, has any of this got to teach us about marketing and advertising in this, the twenty-first century?

The answer is simple. Everything.

Because they were created at the nexus of creativity and power. 

Creativity that would endure, that would continue to surprise, delight, teach, shock, inspire, move and enthral for hundreds of years. 

And power beyond anything wielded by today’s corporate clients – the kind of power that could make or destroy reputations, careers, and lives. The kind of power that invaded nations. That could put a man to death.

And therein – in this meeting of vast power and sublime creativity – lie the lessons.

***

But let us first start with a truth felt daily by those on the agency side, but rarely spoken of publicly – the last twenty years have seen a profound shift in the balance of power in client-agency relations.

The supply-side of marketing communications is over-populated like never before. Simply put, there are too many agencies pursuing not enough revenue. And so, as in any marketplace, the consequence of over-supply is inescapable. The buyer is in the driving seat – the terms and conditions, and the value put on ideas are increasingly set (and even dictated) by clients.

This is not some kind of wistful nostalgia for the halcyon glory days of old. It’s just simple – and brutal – economics.

One need only look to the steady erosion of agency margins, the increasing prominence of procurement in agency relations, the phenomenon of the unpaid pitch, and the invidious and unilateral extension of payment terms as evidence of this shift.

But while clients are more powerful than ever before, the nature of creativity has not changed. It is still a fragile, emotional, personal, mercurial, and unpredictable enterprise, one that cannot be bullied into existence. The fact still remains that fear is rarely a spur to greatness, and brilliance is rarely the product of a set of suffocating edicts and requirements. 

So the question now for every client is this: How can such power be a force for good? 

How can it liberate rather than stifle creativity?

How can it stimulate the kind of creativity that exceeds the imaginations and expectations of the client and paymaster, rather than that which merely panders to them?

How can it achieve its ambitions without fracking to exhaustion the very sources of creativity upon which it relies?

In this environment, the patrons of old – those who enabled such genius minds as da Vinci, Michelangelo, Carravaggio, Rubens, Bernini to create some of the greatest works of art in the Western world – have much to teach all of us.

There are four lessons in particular that are worth reflecting on, and taking to heart.

***

First, the achievements of patronage teach us to nurture creativity.

It is no accident that the word patron, in Latin, means Father.  A patron of the arts is one who “begets” and protects the Arts.

And while for most of human history art was a servant of power, both political and religious, the patrons appreciated the arts, liked them. Loved them, even.

Back in ancient Rome, Maecenas was one of the first and most famous patrons of the arts. While the purpose of his patronage was magnifying and extending the glory of Rome, he was also had a reputation for being more than just The Money, but being a man of taste and judgment. 

GiorcesBardo42

Indeed that appreciation extended beyond the work of the poets he supported, but to them as individuals. For example he happily provided the great Roman poet Virgil with a subsidy that allowed him to write without having to worry about living expenses.

Ruthless, avaricious, corrupt, self-serving, grasping, venal, cruel, vain, selfish, greedy, they might have been. But the great patrons of old believed in the power of art. And they believed in the talent of those responsible for creating it. 

There was nothing half-hearted about the patrons belief in art. And it could make for a difficult relationship. The likes of Michelangelo and Carravaggio were famous for the headaches they caused their patrons. The painter Salvator Rosa once told an imprudent client who had his own idea for a picture to “go to a brickmaker as they work to order”. But it was a friction borne of the patron’s fundamental belief in the power of art.

Moreover, patrons did not just commission work – such was their belief in the power of art that they actively worked to develop nascent artistic talent, and to create an audience for its works. 

Michelangelo was talent-spotted by the Medicis at the age of fourteen.

sistine-chapel

The aristocratic Italian banker, art collector and intellectual Vincenzo Giustiniani was a torchbearer for the intensely ascetic religious art of Carravaggio. Many found his emphatically humble vision of the origins of Christianity troubling. Giustiniani however, worked to advertise Carravaggio’s approach to devotional art, seeking to secure him papal favour. Indeed without this support, many of Carravaggio’s most remarkable paintings might never have been created.

10 - Caravaggio - Taking of Christ

***

Secondly, the achievements of patronage teach us to be ambitious.

The patrons of Renaissance Italy were nothing if not full of vision, ambition and purpose. 

Art existed to serve the needs and agenda of the institutions of power – church, state, guilds, corporations, and families. 

So whether it was appreciation, awe, reverence, piety, humility, envy… patrons wanted to have an effect on an audience. 

Full of ambition and purpose, Bernini’s Ecstasy  of St Theresa was born of Conaro’s resistance to the reforms of Martin Luther that treated religious imagery as evidence of worldliness and corruption. In contrast to the Protestant belief that the written word was what mattered, it was work of art born of a belief in the power of imagery to inspire the faithful.

But it goes beyond this, for it dared to embrace mysticism – the possibility and desirability of an individual union with God. Something that the both the Protestant and Catholic Church unsurprisingly found deeply threatening.

And yet here she is, reclining on a cloud, her head thrown back in a sigh and her chest offered for yet another thrust of the arrow from God’s angel, all with Cornaro and members of his distinguished family looking on.

bernini_st_teresa_avila

***

Third, the achievements of patronage teach us to be generous.

If there is one thing that characterizes patrons across the ages, it’s their willingness to lavish cash on the artists and their projects.

Luxury spending flourished in Italian courts and cities even as the country’s wealth was ebbing.  So even while Italy was being sidelined by the discovery of Atlantic trade routes in the 16th and 17th centuries, such was their commitment to the arts, that the baroque popes lavished cash on marble and invested in the genius of Bernini.

14 - Bernini - Rape of Prosperina

Over a period of 37 years Cosimo Medici spent a sum equivalent to 10 million dollars supporting the arts, building churches, villas, the Medici Library, and aiding Greek scholars who were fleeing Constantinople in 1453. 

The journalist and art critic Jonathan Jones writing for The Guardian puts it well:

Let us remember that most of the world’s great works of art are the fruit of spendaholic patronage by magnificos who knew how to tell the accountants where to go… The best argument in favour of generosity is that no one remembers a skinflint fondly.”

***

And finally, the achievements of the patronage teach us to build to last.

We operate in a corporate world handcuffed to quarterly reporting cycles, in which the average tenure of the CMO is just forty-three months, which still struggles to grasp the fact that sustainable, profitable brand-building is a long-term undertaking, and is aided and abetted by a communications industry that fetishizes short-term bumps, blips and buzz.

Consummate brand builders, the patrons of old created not just for the here and now, but for generations hence.

The cathedrals of medieval Europe are a vivid example of the concerted and sustained patronage of prelates, kings, nobles, merchants, craftsmen, guilds,  and their will to see the glory of God permanently and physically embodied.

SDC11952

***

So, dear clients. You are wealthy. And you are powerful. But when it comes to to creating an environment in which creativity can flourish, you are perhaps in need of new heroes. New role-models. And a new standard. For power is just as capable of stifling creativity, as it is in liberating it.

The relationship between power and creativity, between mammon and the muse has always been a complex one. Good clients  – be they emperors, kings, dukes, popes, cardinals, bankers, and yes, even marketers – have always been alive to this truth.

However as the possibilities of our creative revolution continue to expand and bloom before our very eyes, more clients – if they wish to take advantage of them – will need to wake up and accommodate themselves to the very real risk and potential of their own power.

This is most certainly not to indulge in the lazy fantasy that clients become pliant, fawning “I love it, run it!” pushovers. The relationship between patron and artist after all, could be a famously fractious, even combustible affair.

Nonetheless, how to exercise a much expanded power in a way that properly stimulates creativity rather than fracks it to exhaustion feels like one of the more urgent issues before any corporation.

And in a world in which the explosion of creative possibilities has been matched by an expansion of corporate power, those who exercise the levers of finance and power could do worse than think and act like a patron.

To nurture creativity.

Be ambitious.

Be generous.

And build to last.

For when married to creativity, intelligent, nurturing, generous power, power with taste, ambition, and vision, is capable of achieving marvels.

Birth_of_venus

***

 

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15 comments

  1. rosario di dio

    As an Italian, a nostalgic of Renaissance and a marketer, I cannot help warming to such a passionate (sorry for the commonplace…) call for a quantum leap for the agency-client relationship and marketing in general.
    Still, there is something there that leaves me wondering…especially about the “build to last” part…might write some more articulate response sometime soon…
    In the meantime, thanks ever so much for 10 minutes of feeling a possibility for a higher purpose to our profession.

  2. Shann Biglione

    This is inspiring and well told, but overall I think this is wildly overstating the importance and quality of advertising work (old and new).

    1/ we are comparing the work of two men (artist/patron) with the product of large committees. OK, this is practical, but it matters (this might also be why Apple’s advertising, for a long time the product of two men who agreed with each other, worked well).
    2/ the purpose of advertising remains to sell another product, not itself. For agencies it might sound like it’s the same, but it’s not. Our work is an intermediary, which means as a form of expression it will remain a forgery.
    3/ clients should be investing their patronage efforts with customers, not with agencies, if at all.
    4/ patronage was also called by a higher purpose. It was not just a matter of keeping your job, it was motivated by the sense we are depicting something of importance, and something that would make our name known through the ages. Clearly there is desire in the advertising industry to achieve this, but let’s not kid each other here… At the end of the day when we sell Heineken we don’t participate to the elevation of the human condition.
    5/ we are commoditized because there is very little craft that needs to go into our work nowadays. I don’t want to downplay our importance as agency people, but let’s be frank here, we are not holders of a particularly inspiring savoir faire. Other areas have long overcome our capabilities. Even amateurs can now kick some ass.

    • Cecil B. DeMille

      Just a few thoughts but:

      1/ Then the obvious outlier here is the committee – a construct whose time has come. Too many people covering too many asses, and not one pair of testicles (figuratively speaking) to be found amongst them.
      2/ You’re talking about art. What’s at hand, though, is creativity. Art is simply the allegory. I think you’re being a bit literal, but that is an opinion.
      3/ Again, what’s at hand is the creative process and the results of that process. The be a patron to your advertising creatives is to invite and obtain great creative results – in this case, ads. Which have the effect of increased business. Advertising is not divorced from customers, it’s the bridge to them. Invest in a better product first, yes, but better advertising should be next.
      4/ Again, too literal an interpretation in my opinion.
      5/ This is the root of the problem in advertising. If you don’t think there’s a need for craft in advertising, you’re the problem we’re trying to solve. You are being jaded, and the result of a jaded mind is cynical, flat, uninspired work. No one got into the creative side of advertising to produce shit. If that’s what satisfies a creative person, then, by definition, they are not creative people. Advertising needs more creativity, and it needs to be nurtured and not calculated within a micron of its life. I see Martin’s point here. Think about it like you would as an aspiring creative.

      And after all, what harm would a bit of patron thinking do clients?

      • Shann Biglione

        1/ Yep, this is a core problem for the creative process I think.
        2/ Sure, my only point is that I don’t think advertising creativity and expressive creative come from the same guts and instincts. One is a lot more reflective and controlled than the other. Some might see this as the problem of bad advertising, but I don’t agree, a lot of things that are great creatively are not necessarily great advertising, and vice versa.
        3/ I don’t say advertising doesn’t have a role to play or that it isn’t important. My only view is that I think the key relationship is the client and his attachment to his customers, a respect and understanding for what they want. Then we can talk creativity.
        4/ Well I’m not the one who introduced the parallel / metaphor in the first place, and this is actually a little bit my point, I don’t think it’s the best metaphor one can make.
        5/ I truly think great creativity can come from anywhere and that creative agencies are less and less often the place to find this. I see little value in the fully professionalized craft of advertising – I understand its necessity, but I don’t think this is the right way to get great creativity, and it more often leads to arrogance and condescension than to real creativity. The fact is, the best ad I’ve seen for Doritos came from kids in Australia. I know there are some great creatives out there, and in my opinion they will always be the most important people in our industry. But yes, I think creativity is much more commoditized than it used to be, because it is available to a lot more people than it used to be.

        I’m all for patron thinking, but if we are to be honest about it, it should be the role of agencies and their leadership to drive that with their staff, don’t you think? (how many times have I seen creative directors completely unable to get the best out of their staff and blaming the client for it).

      • Vic @ Sell! Sell!

        I agree with you on pretty much all of this Cecil.

        Shann, on your point number 5, I think this is where advertising needs a big slap across the face with a large, wet fish.
        We are confused about what ‘craft’ or creativity is in advertising, or at least many people in the business are. Advertising creative craft at its best isn’t merely styling, or thinking up a funny or entertaining thing with the product somehow involved – yes they are things that many amateurs or “kids in Australia” can do. But that isn’t good advertising creative craft, and probably that Doritos ad isn’t really good advertising, it’s just funny, or entertaining. Proper, great, advertising creative craft is about searching for that thing in the product or service that will mean something to the consumer, it is about understanding what the consumer wants, what will motivate them, understand how people work, how they decide, and putting all this together in compelling ways that show the consumer what’s in for them, in ways that are engaging, interesting, unexpected, relevant, intelligent and memorable, that are robust and enduring, that build companies and grow brands over time by getting more people to buy more product or service more often.

        That is advertising creativity.

        It is only because we underestimate and misunderstand what real advertising creativity is, that we think “anyone can do it”.

        Proper advertising creativity isn’t just creativity.

        But the industry has downgraded a whole generation of creatives to merely being being stylists and producers of branded entertainment.

        Advertising will not get itself out of the confusing fug it is in until we reverse that trend and remember what proper advertising creative craft is, and understand and re-engage with the value it can give to business, and put that thing back in the centre of the business.

        PS, great post Martin, I agree with you.

      • Shann Biglione (@LeShann)

        Vic, I don’t disagree and it’s good to keep focused on this intent, but I honestly think we very often tend to attribute great advertising (when it happens) as the fruit of a complex, well thought out process, and attribute bad advertising to bad planning. This is a perfect halo effect fallacy. I think we lie to ourselves when we do this, I’ve seen good, effective work just come out of someone’s guts or balls and terrible work coming out of well planned, well researched and meaningful ideas. Please explain to me how Cadburry’s gorilla (very effective in growing the brand!) answered any of these questions. With hindsight we can probably find 20 reasons why it worked, but this is just not the way it came to life.
        The core issue I see at the moment is a general lack of understanding of heuristics and memory structures. Most advertising fails because it lacks distinctiveness, not because it lacks meaning. We build layer of complexities, consumer insights and many other post rationalised bullshit when things are often more simple than we would like them to be.

        This is not to say good advertising is easy peasy, but equally we have to let go of the language making us believe we are rockstars, an enlightened elite who just knows how to get it right.

        Anyhow, this is probably me playing the devil’s advocate more than anything, I do respect what you, Ccil and Martin think a lot.

  3. Antonin Jamond

    There is nothing such as ‘art’ in advertising. Inspiring aesthetics combined with functional designs are being mistaken for art.

    Yesterday, Patrons held the powers and commissioned artist unlocked creativity. Art was the result.
    Today, clients hold the powers and commissioned agencies unlock creativity. Ads are the result.

    If both glorify something in order to move people, something changed fundamentally over time. Patrons became richer; power and money-wise, but lost taste and judgment on their way.

    They evolved with a mass-market logic, which replaced what they were once accountable and respected for: preserving the Arts. What was once separated (art and industry, fashion and art, avant-guard and business…) got democratized and lost in hybridation to fuel mass consumption and allow for mass understanding.

    From designers’ toothbrush to car mats, literally everything bears some kind of artful characteristics. The products, the brands and their communications. No need for culture, taste or judgment here.

    I enjoyed the read and the metaphor. I believe we do not have a noble enough purpose to be associated with art or to be considered as artists. We do work at the crossfire of affect and effect. But we do not produce art.
    The nature of creativity isn’t changing, the context of creativity is.

    • Martin Weigel

      Antonin,

      I encourage you to read my post again, for you seem to have missed the point entirely.

      My purpose – with the exception of one sentence – was not to draw a parallel between art and advertising, but between patrons and clients, since both must create the environment and conditions in which creativity can flourish. Hardly a metaphor, and surely a legitimate line of inquiry.

      And while I do not wish to engage in a futile discussion about what ‘art’ is, I also encourage you to read your art history.

      The purpose of the art I referring to was to enhance status, and promote ideologies. Arguably not that much more ‘noble’ than selling beer or soap. Art as noble ‘self-expression’ is a relatively modern phenomenon. And the idea that it is entirely divorced from the grubby realities of the market and from money is a naive assumption.

  4. David McLagan

    Advertising equating itself with da Vinci, Michelangelo, Carravaggio, Rubens, Bernini! This is without the funniest article I’ve read in a very long time.

  5. Pingback: ADnjus | Advertising Needs A Big Slap Across The Face With A Large, Wet Fish
  6. bob hoffman

    A very enjoyable post, Martin.

    I agree that superior advertising usually comes from a client/agency relationship that mirrors a patron/artist relationship. Sadly, this is a very rare bird these days. I have written that the best an agency can do usually correlates to a good personal relationship between the “real decision maker” at the client organization and the “real creative leader” at the agency. The larger the number of people who interpose themselves between the two, the smaller the chances of excellence. Unfortunately, corporate structures and personal egos on both sides usually make it impossible for the “real decision maker” and the “real creative leader” to clear away all the irrelevant complicators and just sit down together and get something good done.

    BH

  7. Carlos Riveroll (@CarlosRiveroll)

    Back when I was in art school, the first thing you’d learn in art history 101 is the definition of art. At least the definition according to art historians: Art, is a reflection of society. That’s it. That’s how history defines art. And really, only history has the authority to tell us what society at large has judged as art in hindsight; because a lot of times what we now consider “art” was not considered such in its day. You only need to consider Van Gogh, who died convinced he was a complete failure, as an example.
    Whether today’s ads will be tomorrow’s art, remains to be seen. I’m sure at least some of them will be: Toulouse Lautrec’s posters, which were just plain ads at the time, are now priceless. How will tomorrow’s society judge today’s ads? Who knows.

    But while it wasn’t necessarily Martin’s point to draw a parallel between advertising and art, the truth is that there really are a lot of similarities in the way both have come into existence. Both are commissioned by someone other than the creator to convey a message. Plain as that.
    And really everything is the same now as it was then… Except for one thing, as someone already pointed out –committees.

    There’s a few things that renaissance artists had from their patrons back then, that today’s ad maker’s rarely have:

    1) Confidence in the message. In other words: a clear brief, delivered with conviction.
    2) Respect and faith in the artist.
    3) Clear direction.
    4) A high creative standard.

    You will find that whenever a talented team is provided with those four things, the work they’ll deliver will be as close to art as ads get. But those things are harder and harder to get from clients nowadays. This is because people care about their jobs in the short term. They don’t really care about the brand. A long term vision of the brand is irrelevant to most marketers because they’re not gonna be there forever. They’ll be at another job in a few years, so why bother.

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