For a term used so commonly in advertising parlance, 'creative boutique' seems to be a most misunderstood phrase. Correction. It's a phrase that appears to mean different things to different people. Sample this.
"A creative boutique is an outfit that does not have a media planning or consumer focus module, and is purely design-led," says Josy Paul, chief creative officer, rmg david.
"If an agency is working towards the evolution of the creative product in terms of understanding the consumer, understanding the nature in which the consumer consumes advertising and ensuring that the final product has the consumer saying 'wow', it's a creative boutique," feels Anand Halve of chlorophyll. (He also prefers the term 'creative force' to 'boutique'.)
"People who do cutting-edge work, think out-of-the-box… and care only about creative ideas," offers Rensil D'Silva, creative director, Mudra Communications.
"A creative boutique is one that is focused on providing consistent, high-quality creative across the board, to all its clients," is how Alok Nanda, managing director, Alok Nanda Communications (ANC), puts it. "What distinguishes boutiques from larger agencies is that the latter have 'showcase clients' for whom you can do creative work, while for the rest you do standard work. Vis-à-vis creativity, larger agencies have 'business class' and 'economy class' clients, while boutiques apply the same standard of creativity for all clients."
The one thing that comes across clearly is that tear-away creativity lies at the core of the issue. That, and the size of the agency - never has a JWT or a McCann-Erickson ever been called a creative boutique. It's always Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), Chiat Day, Fallon, Mother…
And what about India - do we have our share of boutiques? Trikaya, Rediffusion and Ambience come to mind. But that image is primarily a carryover from the eighties. Today, Trikaya is Grey Worldwide, Rediffusion has the DY&R suffix, while Ambience has added D'Arcy to its name. And with growth, no one thinks of these agencies as boutiques any longer. And not many people think of Grey and Rediff as very creative either.
So has the boutique species become extinct in India? Not really. "I don't think boutiques have disappeared," says Paul. "We don't see them so much because we are looking for them through the prism of mainstream advertising. But I think they are very much there. ANC is one that is fairly focused on design. It's design work for retail chain Barista is quite impressive."
ANC apart, ChadhaDharHoon (CDH), Vyas Gianetti Creatives, chlorophyll and now, Lemon, are names that are linked to boutique imagery. Of course, some of these agencies take exception to the 'boutique' tag being attached to their names. And that is mainly because the term 'creative boutique' has acquired negative connotations over time. One, it suggests smallness in size, which translates into absence of resources and infrastructure Two, it gives the impression that the agency does not have a planning culture. And in some ways, it tends to imply a non-serious, award-centric image. All of which could put off bigger clients.
Interestingly, the negativity associated with boutiques could have its genesis in big agencies perceiving a threat from small agencies. "Large agencies with large clients tend to play safe," explains Halve. "It's in their interest to maintain the status quo. But then, along comes this small agency with breakthrough ideas and rocks the boat. The large agency is shaken, but instantly dismisses the small agency as a boutique. It's a way of telling clients the newcomer is neither big nor stable nor serious." Paul agrees that it's a way for "scared big agencies to make the small agency seem irrelevant".
Talking of big agencies, one very critical factor leading to the eclipse of 'boutiques' is the rise in the creative standards within big agencies. Rediff and Trikaya were noticed because they presented a startling contrast to the heavyweights of their time. Today, the acknowledged creative agency in India is O&M. But many of the other large agencies too produce far more exciting output than they did earlier. So, in that sense, the notion of a small, challenger 'creative boutique' is a trifle antiquated.
Incidentally, the very fact that large agencies once saw a challenge from 'boutiques' points to strong benefits that boutiques can offer, even today. "A boutique, by virtue of its size, is more nimble, has less hang-ups and can come up with fresh ideas," feels Paul. Explaining this further, D'Silva says, "Boutiques have a flatter structure, which enables the creative idea to breathe. In a monolithic agency, there are so many levels that an idea has to go through before it reaches the client. And when it does, it's a shadow of the original idea."
If smallness has its advantages, there are demerits too. For one, the smallness is a source of immense insecurity. Lose two clients, and it could be curtains. But ironically, the solution - adding clients to spread the risk - is self-defeating. "The trouble with growing clients is that you also grow the size of your agency by getting more people on board," explains Nanda. "So you lose flexibility. Next, you start worrying about so many people's futures linked to your agency that you start playing safe. That's when you sacrifice the idea."
Another 'problem' with boutiques is that unlike large agencies, they tend to be too dependent on one or two creative minds. Nanda agrees that boutiques are "individual dependent", but adds, "Creativity is not scalable, even in a 1,000-man organization. And that's why savvy clients do not go by agency but by the team."
One big reason for boutiques finding the going tough is because costing on creativity has not been rationalized. "For a boutique to survive, it has to get paid well," D'Silva shrugs. "But in India, clients do not pay for the creative product, which is intangible." Paul agrees when he says, "The traditional agency has never charged the client for creative. Although there is so much effort on ideation, there is no 15 per cent here."
The big question: will creative boutiques flourish in India in the days to come? There's guarded optimism. "Creative boutiques have a big role to play, especially in the visual merchandising and entertainment sectors, both of which are set to boom," insists Paul. "Also, quite a few big clients have started looking at boutiques and small agencies for experimental projects. I think a lot of advertisers have started realizing that ultimately, the creative thinking comes from a small group of people, not the agency as a whole."
D'Silva thinks that boutiques can flourish. "But we first need one success story like a Mother. And it's good that clients are slowly turning towards creativity." Nanda doesn't think it's as much about waking up to creativity as waking up to media costs. "The cost of media is killing, and this is forcing clients to either look for creative approaches to non-traditional media, or making the creative scintillating." He concludes by saying, "This thing is cyclic. Agencies have grown, matured and have been bought out by global networks. The need for boutiques/small agencies is big, and the vacuum has to be filled. And it will be."
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