by Eric Frank. If you’ve come across one before, you’ll know that the self-appointed agency gatekeeper is an almighty destructive force in the creative process. For of you not familiar with this creature, you’ll most likely find them in advertising agencies in places in the world where hierarchical structures still dominate society and business.

I first encountered the term “gatekeeper” when I worked on the Guinness business in Africa. It was a term used for an independent group of people, mostly from the marketing and finance departments, who’ve been tasked to screen the viability of new concepts and ideas that are proposed for product innovations, extensions, packaging concepts and suchlike. The process is designed to consider things such as market relevance, ease of implementation, ROI and more. Once approved by the gatekeepers, the project may go ahead to the next phase of development. Of course, this makes perfect sense for an organisation such as Diageo but, when applied to the early stages of ideas development in an ad agency, it is utterly insane.

Getting to knowing the beast

Self-styled, self-appointed gatekeepers languish in senior management positions of the advertising agency. They’ve been in the business for many years, come with a 1001 anecdotes and a wealth of experience. There is a good chance that they’ve been in the agency for a number of years and is credited with pulling in a couple of key accounts that prop up an otherwise lacklustre client portfolio.

If you’re wondering, the most-ardent gatekeepers I’ve come across are managing directors, general managers, new business directors and, unfortunately, a couple of creative directors as well. Agency gatekeepers are super-hands-on. Clutching, clawing and fiercely gripping, they’re on top of everything that’s going down in the agency at any given time. They will frequently muscle in upon a briefing meeting, derail it and turn into a shambolic brainstorming session. Rising to the occasion like a veritable Mussolini, they call the shots while drawing on their vast experience of market segmentation, the nocturnal habits of millennials, USPs or KBBs and why they’re so crucial to arriving at ideas that really work. With almost total disregard for anyone else’s ideas, points of view or opinions, they will steer the meeting towards a direction they are comfortable with and to hell with the rest.

The ones who bear the brunt of the gatekeepers’ bluster and abusive behaviour are the young creative recruits and junior account handlers. The ones in whom we put our trust for the future, and that of the agency and its clients. If anybody needs room to express themselves it’s the young ones who arrive untainted by the gatekeepers’ cynicism, insecurity, ‘up their own crackness’ and paranoiac fear of failure. Suffice to say, it is imperative that agency gatekeepers must go.

Three things to say

So, you — gatekeeper! Don’t turn around to look if I am talking to someone else! There are only two people on this page: I’m one and you’re the other. AND I have only three things to say to you:

  1. For every idea you crush without giving it a nanosecond’s worth of considered thought, you are screwing yourself, the agency and the lives of people filled with potential.
  2. For every person you interrupt as they try to make a contribution to the discussion, a potentially award-winning idea is suffocated. If you consider that ideas are the currency of our future on this earth, you are a freaking imbecile.
  3. Consider this: those talented people — those who’ve already and those who’ll leave the agency because of your actions — will most certainly work for your competitors one day and, while they’re there, they’ll mastermind your downfall with the very same ideas you dismissed as being useless.

Bringing about the downfall

  1. Creative people who truly believe in their ideas should not allow senior hacks to bully them into submission. Stand firm, ground your ideas in rock-solid reason and fight back. Gatekeepers are generally low on both guts and stamina, and always walk away from a fight.
  2. Creative directors who tolerate this kind of insanity are not worthy of the title on their business cards. The entire reason for their existence is being undermined with complete disregard for the one product that they stake their reputations on: creativity. I cannot imagine there is a lower form of cowardice than refusing to protect your ideas and those who look up to you for support and guidance.
  3. Any advertising chief executive worth their salt has a responsibility to equip the agency’s youth with the freedom and confidence to speak their mind — AND respect and praise them for doing so, because good will come from it as sure as night turns to day!

In conclusion, I need to point out that I have seen and endured more than a few gatekeepers in action. And, while I find them immensely frustrating, I’m equally relieved that they are more thinly spread these days.

No excuses

In my experience, there is a greater tolerance of gatekeeper behaviour in developing countries where culture and tradition dictate the manner in which people in authority have the right to behave towards people who are not. But I don’t believe that there is any excuse for putting up with it. While you are expected to respect culture and traditions, you must also try to eliminate the disadvantages that go with it. In my opinion, the quicker the gatekeepers become fleshless bones in deep graves, the better the creative ideas coming out of emerging markets will become.

Republished with permission.


Eric FrankEric Frank a creative director, strategist and ideas coach. He’s previously worked for Asilia Africa, Saatchi & Saatchi Sri Lanka and The Jupiter Drawing Room in both Cape Town and Johannesburg (where he was the creative director for MTN’s Africa and Middle-Eastern markets), plus he headed up the Saatchi & Saatchi Africa Network.

“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.

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