Looking Cool…

I was told this morning by one of the professors at my University that she’d used me as an example in a seminar…as ‘an organisational ethnographer who dressed appropriately to study advertising agencies and creative businesses’…and told me ‘not to be offended’. I don’t think I was; it’s a compliment in a way I suppose (although I was ripped by @pace and @HayleyS simultaneously upon notifying them of this fact: (HayleyS @joeadamfry you and your ‘media glasses’); (pace @joeadamfry I always thought your dress sense was painfully, painfully cool. You weren’t even out of place sitting next to me!)).

Moreover, it illustrates an important point about impression management in the creative industries. I didn’t have to worry too much about adapting what I wore or how I spoke etc as it pretty much corresponds to the industry I research. But the point goes beyond the perspective of the organizational ethnographer. Remember those videos you watched in PSE or whatever at school telling you ‘how to dress for an interview’, ‘what to say and what not to say’, how to conduct yourself and so on…these are in many ways obsolete in the media/advertising industry – and in a wider post-modern, post-industrial context, for several reasons.

Firstly, I am not advocating the extremely self-conscious and almost pretentiously ‘creative’/’laissez-faire’ ‘dress-down’ places that seem to proliferate (where essentially, the uniform just moves from shirt and tie to designer brand polo-shirt, jeans and loafers, and management styles barely change at all: only in how they represent themselves), but am rather making the point that in my experience, creative people, or people who perceive themselves to be creative, in an organisational setting, tend to dress in a way that expresses this: that tangibilizes it and externalizes it.

Mothers offices

Mother's offices

Above: The offices at Mother

What is interesting for me is how creative agencies use this device. It is necessary in a lot of ways: creativity is a relatively slippy, abstract and intangible concept, and is essentially the core offering of many of the creative, digital and advertising shops around – particularly the majority of smaller agencies that have been springing up. They are on the periphery of the ‘core-peripheral’ networked industry (imagine this as a diagram if you can) and hence position themselves as flexible, innovative and creative etc….but how can they communicate this. Obviously in their work, in their tone of voice and so on – but mostly through their most valuable asset: their people. Their culture. Their location; their premises. How their employees and subsequently the organisation looks, acts and talks, all aid the communication of what the agency ‘is’ and ‘does’.

Secondly, when the agency goes to the client, they have a responsibility to their perceived cultural capital, and are seen to present themselves, act and talk as such. This in turn allows them to talk and act in certain ways (a ‘facilitative’ boundary between the local worlds of ‘the client’ and ‘the creative agency’) but simultaneously restricts them from behaving in others. It preserves the mystique of the creative genius (eg the black-boxing of processes – which if you remember we are trying to avoid) but more importantly facilitates a mutual understanding of what each organisation ‘is’.

Thirdly, when the client comes to the agency, they see a ‘funky, creative’ etc environment, more relaxed than the culture at their place of work perhaps, maybe with beanbags or whatever and music playing, people with their shoes off – and this serves to reinforce and confirm their choice of ‘creative’ people – or should do at least. They have an opportunity to relax and dress down themselves, and potentially become immersed in and part of this part of the creative process.

This is perhaps the most important point, as paradoxically whilst ‘creative people’ may express themselves in certain ways in an attempt to tangibilze their cultural capital in the form of creativity, they simultaneously must represent themselves as both credible and also manageable, in an organisational sense; again my argument reverts to the integration of management AND creativity – a combination of divergent AND convergent thinking, and the representation of such an integration through appearance, manner and discourse.

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6 Responses

  1. How do they stand out in an environment… like an award fuction.. which is as important as a client pitch… for the reputation of the organisation… but has very little interaction with clients… How do they then differenciate themselves from others… when everyone is just like them…

    • Yes Kushak…how CAN they differentiate themselves when everyone seems to be differentiating on the same point…’we are creative’, ‘we have a flat hierarchy here’ ‘here we are all about the people’ and so on…all these ideologies can only be substantiated in their representation and communication, not in a powerpoint or a pitch or mission statement, but in a conversation. So maybe it’s not about differentiation in the traditional sense of marketing theory, maybe its about differentiation in communication of their individual culture, position enough in itself?

  2. Interesting thoughts. However what about good old fashioned charm or charisma? That than speak louder in a professional creative environment than image ever can.

    The badge can get the attention, but its substance that seals the deal.

    • John – I suppose it’s no coincidence you speak of charm and charisma? Aren’t they on your CV?

      Although, seriously, these are indeed the tools of most successful interaction: and certainly are counted within the ‘cultural’ capital of employees at an organisation, or individuals anywhere for that matter. Charm and charisma are, in my opinion, mostly learned from interacting with others (avoiding a nature/nuture debate FTW) and thus form someone’s personality. This can be conducted, perceived/interpreted face to face, through written language and through less tangible means such as ‘style’ etc, or indeed creative outputs.

      Again, they can be considered at an organisational level (eg does the agency possess style/charm/charisma) although this would mostly be conducted through account handler-types like yourself! So yes, nice hook: The badge can get the attention, but substance seals the deal. You probably still need both though, right?

  3. I like to think they are 😉

    I’d say you’re right – both are definitiely required, and charm can be a learned attribute. What I like about it, is that’s its almost like method acting. You learn where style/image/charisma is best put to use, and with whom.

    And what’s interesting is that charm & charisma is difficult to quantify. It doesn’t always constitute the smooth talking account man a la ‘Mad Men’ – it can include passionate eccentrics or quiet but deadly introverts with the depth charge comments.

    Moving away from the individual or organisation – what about tools agencies use to communicate, and how they can signify cool? Here’s a thought – breaking out of the powerpoint process – Scaring or inspiring clients?

  4. So, know your role?! Know which rules can be bent, and which rules can be broken, depending on the context (a particular client, a particular account).

    And definitely knowing where you can ‘outstep your boundaries’; go beyond the client brief to suggest something more, or something different – to inspire, scare, or come back to them with a solution they didn’t necessarily ask for.

    Further, as you say, it can take all sorts to do this, and this has implications at several levels: at a recruitment level (ie you want a good mix of people appropriate to a range of circumstances/clients); at a projectization level (ie picking the ‘right man for the job (sic)); and at an interpersonal level eg chemistry and the use of different devices to ‘win people over’. As Steve Barnes at Collective says: “It’s like dating”. It is.

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