Musings on creativity, and the future of the market for independent watchmakers

I was reading about an Englishman, one David Ogilvy, and his “Rules for Creative Success” – it made me think about today’s Independent Watch Brands and what the future might hold for them… following a few recent Clubhouse chats about the recent rise of the independents, and how the ‘availability of time’ that has come with the pandemic and global lockdown… along with the frustrating hype and lack of availability with mainstream brands, has led people to find alternative watches to spend their money on.

So let’s start at the beginning…

The Ogilvy agency is one of the largest advertising and public relations companies in the world. It was founded by a man who didn’t have an MBA, or even a degree for that matter. David Ogilvy was an Oxford dropout who worked as a chef in Paris, a door-to-door salesman, a researcher for George Gallup, an agent of the British Intelligence Service during WWII, and a farmer in Pennsylvania.

In bringing originality and innovation to a stagnant industry, Ogilvy would become known as the “Father of Advertising.” Though he was annoyed by the term “creativity”, he recognised the quality as the very lifeblood of a successful ad agency. In his bestselling book Confessions of an Advertising Man, published in 1963, he cites the work of personality researcher Dr. Frank Barron, whose conclusions on the nature of creative individuals aligned with his own:

“Creative people are especially observant, and they value accurate observation (telling themselves the truth) more than other people do. They often express part-truths, but this they do vividly; the part they express is the generally unrecognised; by displacement of accent and apparent disproportion in statement they seek to point to the usually unobserved.”

Ogilvy hired employees who possessed the qualities of creativity — which he said were most apt to be found amongst the “nonconformists, dissenters, and rebels” of the world — and to create an environment at his agency in which creativity could flourish. To this end, he enacted certain rules that structured the culture of Ogilvy & Mather.

So, a couple of relevant ‘rules’ follow below…

Wed the Novel to the Familiar, the Artistic to the Practical

In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create. Management cannot be expected to recognise a good idea unless it is presented to them by a good salesman.”

When it comes to creativity in the context of business, creativity is not a product — it is simply a means to an outcome. In the ad business, creating new campaigns requires creativity, but that creativity also has a job to do: move product. In the watch business, it isn’t different at all. 

Don’t (Overly) Delegate; Stay (Relatively) Small

  “It’s easy to be beguiled by acres of desks, departments, and other big agency appurtenances. What counts is the real motive power of the agency, the creative potency.”

In business, the implicit goal is often to get as big as possible. Yet, though Ogilvy’s own ambitions couldn’t have been loftier, he also intentionally kept his agency much smaller than it could have been, and did not at all see growth as implicitly good. Ogilvy “fired” 3X more of his current clients, than his current clients fired him. Clients were often let go for being insufficiently profitable; “Concentrate your time, your brains, and your . . . money on your successes . . . Back your winners, and abandon your losers.”

Ogilvy also rejected around 60 potential new clients each year. A common reason for this rejection was the chairman’s lack of confidence in the product that a company wanted his agency to pitch. Ogilvy also turned down new clients if their accounts would constitute such a large proportion of his agency’s revenue that the incentive to keep the account would inhibit the agency’s creative freedom:

“I have never wanted to get an account so big that I could not afford to lose it. The day you do that, you commit yourself to living with fear. Frightened agencies lose the courage to give candid advice; once you lose that you become a lackey. 
This was what led me to refuse an invitation to compete for the Edsel account. I wrote to Ford: ‘Your account would represent one-half of our total billing. This would make it difficult to sustain our independence of counsel.” 
(Try and remember this point, as we will revisit it later)

Don’t Make Decisions By Committee

“Nowadays it is the fashion to pretend that no single individual is ever responsible for a successful advertising campaign. This emphasis on ‘team-work’ is bunkum — a conspiracy of the mediocre majority”. 

Even though the supposed power of collective brainstorming retains a hold on popular culture, a meta-analysis of hundreds of scientific studies found that individuals actually generate more, and more creative and original, ideas when working independently than when interacting with others.

Ogilvy already understood this a half-century ago: “Some agencies pander to the craze for doing everything in committee. They boast about ‘team-work’ and decry the role of the individual. But no team can write an advertisement, and I doubt whether there is a single agency of any consequence which is not the lengthened shadow of one man.”

I think you can see this in other areas too – Steve Jobs who I have discussed before, didn’t care what people said – he saw things nobody else could foresee, and he had conviction in his creativity and beliefs. In the Independent watchmaking world, Journe did the same thing… you might know from the Chronometre Souverain story that FP Journe started the design with the dial… and due to the placement of the subseconds, and the idea that a power reserve is most associated with the crown and winding, the only logical place to have the PR indicator would be right next to the crown at 3 o’clock. However, due to the slim construct of the movement, having a power reserve indicator near the crown would be contradictory as the basic construct of the power reserve would not fit above the crown, and if it did, it would make the watch thick. Instead of compromising the design, he redesigned the mechanism making it more compact by using ceramic ball bearings. Had he listened to traditional advice, or asked a colleague, he would likely have been advised to make some compromises.

Stay Hungry

When Ogilvy first founded his ad agency, he set his sights high and succeeded by leveraging the one thing the big, established agencies lacked: “fire in the belly.” Whereas other agencies were complacent, entrenched, slow, and bloated, Ogilvy & Mather was fresh, driven, lean, and nimble. They were hungry.

As Ogilvy explains, the established agencies were easy to pick off, as within the standard life cycle for companies — “the inevitable pattern of rise and decline, from dynamite to dry rot” — his company was at its peak, while his competitors were in its trough. Of course, once a new “hungry”  business has used up its initial jet fuel… the question then becomes… how to stay hungry. How does a now-successful, now-grown business avoid complacency? There are, unfortunately, no easy answers here. 

Staying lean, avoiding bloat and over-delegation helps.So does simply seeking new horizons and keeping one’s sights set high; as Ogilvy advised: “Don’t bunt. Aim out of the park. Aim for the company of immortals.”

Concluding Thoughts

The parallels between the creativity wisdom from Ogilvy, and the independent brands may not immediately be apparent… to me however, it seems rather obvious – to summarise… 1) sell products 2) stay small 3) do your own thing, don’t be too worried about what others think and 4) don’t become complacent!

This is sound advice in general… but for the independent watchmakers whose supply simply cannot meet demand today, this is more true now than ever before.

We have seen this creativity in action of course… MB&F with the recent sapphire HM9, or Moser with the Streamliner and Journe with the 20th anniversary new Resonance combining resonance with a double remontoire; these are innovative, fresh, and delightful to see. However, there’s the question of growth, and the ever-increasing number of new independents coming onto the scene. 

Could it be, that the indies of old, will grow to become the new ‘big brands’? I don’t think so. I can’t see these brands being able to increase production to match demand – the artisans who create these pieces aren’t just hanging around waiting for jobs. I would argue that these indies need to be more discerning with who they sell to. Rather than dumping their limited production into the market for all the opportunists looking to capitalise, make the circle even tighter. Vet buyers, keep a tight grip on the resale market using a certified pre-owned (CPO) program, and strict blacklisting for those looking to capitalise on the ’scarcity’. Keep the pieces ‘attainable’ for newcomers, and continue to offer the ‘family’ feeling for old as well as new clients.

It would be a shame if these indie brands instead chose to pursue expansion at the expense of quality, or worse, losing the close-knit family feeling that most indie-collectors speak so fondly of. I don’t think any of the current CEOs want to do this, but as we see the supply outstripping demand – there is the impossible task for them to ‘reward’ the old, loyal patrons who supported them in the early days… but also not alienate the newer collectors who are perhaps laggards in the ‘adoption curve’.

Some argue that the very nature of the problem implies that the indie-game is a matter of getting in early… and picking winners… It sometimes does feel this way, and I think that is because watches are basically an asset-class now. Many people dispute this, and argue otherwise… but I beg to differ… but that is a whole new topic on its own,

Your thoughts on the matter?

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