The creative agency Peter Principle – reputation gone wrong

879094_80a1447caf_m.jpgComing across some really bad advertising and branding lately, from some of the world’s leading agencies, I realised the following:

Every creative agency evolves to the point where it has the highest chance to have bad ideas approved by clients and implemented.


  • Every creative process involves the creation of some bad ideas along good ones.
  • Creatives are often not objective about their own ideas, and will occasionally try to pitch them to clients.
  • You’d think that the better an agency’s reputation is, the more clients expect, but the reality is that this reputation will have a certain voodoo affect, intimidating clients into believing that maybe not getting the agency’s ideas is their own fault (emperor’s new cloths).
  • The fact that successful agencies tend to become better and better presenters and sellers of ideas as they evolve also helps.
  • The amount/rate of bad ideas succeeding in traveling outside of the agency may decrease with experience, but then ego, which grows with reputation, kicks in and “mitigates” criticism.
  • So a top-5 agency, has a better chances of selling a bad idea to it’s client than anybody else. QED

    Wikipedia: “The Peter Principle is a theory originated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter. It states that successful members of a hierarchical organization are eventually promoted to their highest level of competence, after which further promotion raises them to a level at which they are not

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5 thoughts on “The creative agency Peter Principle – reputation gone wrong

  1. i think it’s very likely caused by greediness of these agencies. they paid the big guns in order to become what they are, but when they are at the top they can start being cheap and taking cheaper creators to work for them.


  2. Or they move the senior designers into management/direction roles and let the juniors do the work.
    With many big agencies the junior designers and consultants do all the work while the more experienced members of the team “manage the client relationship”

    but what you and i mention aren’t peter principles…


  3. All this is true, but there is a yin to this yang. The customer is also complicit most of the time in dumb marketing ideas. Most (big) customers want to be in the mediocre middle, and they aren’t looking to take intelligent risks.

    The big agencies get their reputation, and that reputation becomes a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval that lousy marketers use to get their lousy work approved through the channels. It’s the same old argument as “no one ever got fired for recommending IBM”. If a top name agency is doing the work, it must be top quality work. Therefore, even though the client insisted on the approach, or decided to spend all their money on slick, but incomprehensible and poorly targeted superbowl TV ads when an internet campaign or a cheesy infomercial or talking with customers on a blog would have delivered vastly superior results for less money, they can always point at the agency expertise for having made the mistake and justify their bad decisions ex post facto.

    The big name agency wants to win the business, so instead of thinking about the problem and the end customer’s needs, they think about what the client will buy. In order to keep their big name, they must keep snagging big clients, so they whore themselves and become the latest example of the Peter Principle in action.

    I think there are lots of people in the top name agencies who know they are doing bad work, but to do good work, they have to be willing to fire bad clients. Most big agencies are part of big public companies now, and that means they must deliver their 22% net margin each and every quarter, or the management is toast, so firing a bad client or being controversial and telling the client the truth can never happen. He who wins the deals keeps his job.

    If companies want truly great work, work that talks to and resonates with customers, they need to be talking to the small mavericks who will speak their mind. People like you and me, for example.


  4. Thanks for that comment, Paul.
    I think that interesting things have been happening with small agencies here in the UK – some independent, and some Indy spin-offs of big agencies.
    In the long run, I would like to believe that the industry will change and that creative integrity will win…


  5. I would like to believe in the tooth fairy.

    Good work will always be the exception: that’s why it is so noticeable. It will be an extraordinarily rare exception in large agency settings for the reasons we’ve identified. They do so much of the work that of course they will have an occasional day or two of enlightenment (if you put an infinite number of monkeys in front of word processors, one of them will write a Shakespeare play by accident) but as a percentage of their output, it will be close to nil. It will always be that way.


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