Why we need more primadonnas.

will ferrel

The term ‘primadonna’ is usually intended to be the ultimate crushing insult for a creative.

Worse than being a talentless creative is being a petulant, precious one.

It implies a fluffyness, a puffy sleeved temperament and an irrational obsession for all the icing on the cake not the sponge and it’s intended to cut right through to your strawberry jam heart, ouch…you called me a what? how very dare you.

Well, excuse me but ..er….I wish I was more of a primadonna.

You see, one man’s primadonna is another’s creative expert.

The more creative agencies know that actually, if they are going to produce great work, you need people obsessed with great ideas not comfortable ones, with exceptional production values not acceptable ones, painful though it can be.

So I think this so called ‘insult’ reveals a deeper issue when used and it’s about one word: Respect.

You wouldn’t call a doctor a primadonna if he or she insisted that you had Diabetes and wouldn’t hear otherwise.

When I worked on a big car account in a previous life I had a senior brand manager who was the consistently designated shoot attendee and consequently after several trips, mainly to LA, ( those were the days) we began to attain a sort of, if not exactly a friendship, a system of interaction that wasn’t entirely aggressive.

let’s call him Bernard.

He was about 40 then, he looked like an insurance salesman and had a sort of fastidious doormouse-like personality.

He was a dullard but he was our dullard and despite the sometimes odd client/creative dynamic I liked him.

At most car manufacturers, much like pharma companies, the role of marketing is something you pass through on your way to more important jobs. A successful stint in sales? fancy trying your hand at saying no to agencies for 18 months.

Invariably you’d just get a client to understand what it was he or she was looking at and then they’d really get in to it (or not) and they’d be off.

Bernard started to get in to it.

All he had to do was approve the car shots and as long as we covered the basic animatic we’d researched he was happy. And I can’t deny it, a two week shoot in LA saw a lot of swanky meals in swanky restaurants, sometimes spotting the odd celebrity and a good deal of sunshine. Then after a while, on location, we saw him having a look through the viewfinder, he started to not like wardrobe choices and he might feel strongly about a location or a cast member he felt was more ‘on brand.’

And like most agencies we went along with him in the most part, indulging him where possible. Arguing the toss occasionally.

You might feel these are all quite legitimate elements of his role.

But what exactly gave this man, dressed head to toe in M&S, the idea he was any good at wardrobe?

Well, I suppose to an extent, we did.

Then one day, back in the UK, my ECD came to me with a dilemma.

Bernard had had an epiphany. He wanted to join the agency.

No, not as an account man.

Or planner.

Oh Christ, not a…

Oh yeah.

And what’s more, guess who he thought would make a perfect art director for him?

Bernard had never really written anything before. Not for fun, never really had any real urge to create anything, not a poem, not a song, not an outline for a movie, not drawn anything, not built anything just for the pleasure of it, never had an idea in his head about a new invention. He didn’t really watch movies, play an instrument, watch much telly or really pursue anything creative just for the fun of it.


Maybe you have met creatives like this, but not I. At least not good ones.

Most of us, by the time we enter an actual agency have spent a lifetime honing their ‘creative’ work. Just for our own pleasure. We’ve even gone to college and studied it, we know about creativity and ideas in a way that a safari guide knows where to find a cheetah that most of us would miss because we’re too busy looking at the interesting tree.

To his credit, Bernard had apparently had the exact same idea for a brief as the one we had presented to him recently. So, you know…he was clearly a natural.

But back at the agency this put us in a somewhat awkward position.

Say “sorry no” and we risk him resenting us and doing everything he could to make our lives hell.

Saying “yes, welcome aboard” would mean we could hire him and then fire him in a couple of months as he would no doubt be useless and we get a new client in to the bargain. (We actually considered this but felt the agency would not be thanked by his previous colleagues and would make us look like immoral bastards – with some merit.)

The third option was to dissuade him of the whole preposterous notion.

As we sat at lunch, somewhere in Soho, I heard the full epiphany.

He had been on holiday in Greece and got caught in a huge wave that had sucked him under and he thought he was going to drown. As he somersaulted in the surf he swore to himself that if he ever got out of this alive he would change his life. Stop doing this stupid job of his and do what he really wanted to.

Become an ad agency creative director.

The more generous among you may have thought I missed out the 4th option. Give him a chance, go on..take a risk, you never know. Don’t be so cynical.

But Bernard was 40 (no crime). He wasn’t prepared to drop his salary ( I don’t know what it was but I’m guessing around 80k) and he wanted to waltz in to a senior job without ever having written an ad or earned his stripes within an agency, leap frogging other writers and art directors in the process.

What gave him the right, no….the flaming fucking arse-wobbling nerve to think he could even ask?

How dare he?

Would he expect to be taken seriously if it was a firm of solicitors he was having lunch with? An architect firm? A vet practise?

“Yes, well I have really enjoyed looking after my cat and I’ve visited a few farms in my time so I thought that it might be a natural progression to start treating Mastitis in dairy cattle.”

What was it that made him think that it was just a matter of physically being able to write and spell, that qualified him as a copywriter?

The cheek of it, you might think. But then, we do exactly what clients want more and more, every day we have to take on board their taste and artistic talent and accommodate their ideas and all in the name of collaboration and idea neutrality lest we be accused of primadonna…rism.

Well, it looks easy. Didn’t we just walk in off the street with some poems and a fancy haircut?

Look, don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked with some ‘creative clients’ in my time. But what makes them so isn’t because they think they can do our jobs it’s precisely the opposite. They embrace creativity in the way I embrace football, it doesn’t mean I’ll be getting a game at Stamford Bridge any time soon. And I also think – to be absolutely clear – agency/client teamwork, both exercising their own skills to create the best work, is essential, rewarding and ultimately truly effective.

But all that is beside the point if your client thinks you don’t like their idea because you are being ‘precious’.

If you want to be a creative in adland you need some evidence of talent. You need to create a spec portfolio and you need to get work experience, or go to college or evening classes and learn the craft. How to think. Very often it involves a couple of years trolling from one agency to the next on month long placements, no actual job, showing your work to senior creatives, trying to get an interview with a CD, hustling and working hard. Always writing new campaigns, thinking of ideas, filming test ads getting them critiqued, learning and doing more campaigns. It’s bloody hard and only a few actually make the grade. Others make the grade but quit when they realize they have no life.

And the few who get a job have to put in the years tackling all the unglamorous stuff the seniors won’t touch any more.

But as I told Bernard all this, encouraging him to maybe do an evening class or two, try putting a book together,  he blinked back at me through his NHS glasses and clearly didn’t see why it would apply to him.

This was about fifteen years ago, but the culture of ‘everyone’s a creative now’ is now generally accepted as a way of getting clients to buy in to the idea, so they can feel ownership and that is all well and good, but I hate to put some cautionary brakes on this joy ride.

We need to be careful it doesn’t devalue what we do. Or we will no longer be the pros who will go away and create magic out of thin air from good strategic thinking, but a co-worker in a committee-based ideation conglomerate.

It seems such an easy leap to make if you’ve been on enough shoots, sat in enough workshops and seen enough agency ideas that you’ve shaped according to your own creative skills, honed over many years working in a…er…pharmaceutical company.

And Bernard? As I recall, we spoke to his boss and explained our predicament. They took pity on him, as they were decent people, and found him another job within the company better suited to his dreams.

I know what my favourite quote from any client is and will always be.

“I’m not sure, but you’re the experts and I trust you”

Unless we maintain our reputation and be the doctor to their patient then we will always struggle to sell good work. So argue the toss, put your point of view across. You know your job, be a bit….precious.

Because, guess what, the client’s had an idea.


Oh stop being such a primadonna.







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