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Why Ad Agencies Shouldn’t Fear Facebook’s Creative Shop

Forget competition. Chief creative officer Mark D’Arcy just wants to be friends.

Why Ad Agencies Shouldn’t Fear Facebook’s Creative Shop

Back in January, Chevrolet launched its “New Year, New Roads” campaign, which swerved away from traditional car ad territory to instead endeavor to help people make and keep their New Year’s resolutions. First there was the Co-Driver chatbot on Facebook Messenger, to share tips and encouragement, as well as provide expert advice to keep people motivated to stick to their resolutions. Then, the brand shared the stories of five different people as they tried to achieve their own goals that ranged from climbing Everest, to conquering a fear of heights, and more, all through Facebook 360 video.

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Chevy chief creative officer Tim Mahoney says the campaign has been a major global success, attracting just shy of a billion impressions, and more than 2 million subscribers to Chevy’s Facebook page. But while Chevy’s agencies the Story Lab and Commonwealth/McCann did help create it, a big part of “New Year, New Roads” came from Facebook Creative Shop.

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In the third quarter of 2016, digital advertising grew by $2.9 billion, and just two companies accounted for 99% of that growth. Take a wild guess which two. Google took about 54% of the total, and Facebook about 45%. Facebook has more than 1.5 billion users, which is why it also has more than 5 million active advertisers on the platform. Over the last seven years, Facebook has been building an internal team to help those advertisers use its platform and tools in efficient, innovative, and increasingly more creative ways.

The Facebook Creative Shop is a collection of 150 creative strategists across 40 offices around the world, and over the next few months that number will be closer to 250. The Creative Shop collaborates with marketers and agencies to create brand campaigns that best utilize Facebook and Instagram’s social environments, using its comprehensive consumer insight data (hello, 1.5 billion users!), to inform creative solutions. The division has also increased its focus on mobile through its new Canvas format, as well as building tools for small businesses to better take advantage of the platform.

Inside One of Facebook’s Most Creative Departments

But as it grows, there have been rumblings about the Creative Shop’s role. Is it planning to eat ad agencies’ lunch when it comes to client social investment? Is it collaborator or competitor?

Chief creative officer Mark D’Arcy joined the company in 2011, tasked with figuring out how Facebook could become a better place, and a more interesting place, to the creative advertising community and brand clients, to improve the ways they were using Facebook and everything the social network had to grow their business. He says there has been a misconception about what exactly the Creative Shop is, and what it does.

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“Historically, there has been,” says D’Arcy. “Your natural temptation when you see a group of people creating is they must be doing what I’m doing over here. But the more you work with us, the more you realize our goals to serve the people we’re working with, collectively working to spark ideas, that’s what we’re focused on. It’s not trying to build some version of an ad agency. Once people work with us, they see how we work, and realize that’s not what we’re doing.”

Over the years the Creative Shop has worked with brands like Ford, Budweiser, Toyota, Sprint, and Amnesty International, as well as agencies like Droga5, 360i, and R/GA. Beyond Chevy’s “New Year, New Roads,” recent work also includes Airbnb’s “We Are Here” campaign.

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“The centerpiece of what we say now is essentially the same, that creativity is the most critical way to unlock the value of everything we have,” says D’Arcy. “That was true when we started, and it’s just as true now, for both the brands that partner with us and the people they’re looking to connect to. Our goal is to make how businesses connect with people as relevant as possible to everyone involved.”

It’s one thing for D’Arcy to claim the Creative Shop isn’t out to compete with traditional ad agencies, but one can understand an ad agency’s skepticism, based on the increase in in-house creative investment over the last couple of years by large, primarily tech-related companies. Look no further than Intel’s Agency Inside and Global Production Labs, Google’s ZOO, or Apple hiring former Grey Worldwide global chief creative officer Tor Myhren as its head of marketing. But Airbnb chief marketing officer Jonathan Mildenhall says the only threat ad agencies should feel from Creative Shop is if they’re too stuck in the status quo to embrace this kind of collaboration.

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“If traditional agencies are going to be able to stay at the forefront of creativity, technology, and storytelling narrative, then they have to be open and collaborate not only with places like Facebook Creative Shop, but their clients and other agencies,” says Mildenhall. “The notion that a creative agency would feel threatened or in competition with the Creative Shop, makes me feel that that agency won’t be around in five years time. Collaboration with tech companies and brand owners is the key to an agency’s future success.”

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For Chevy, Mahoney says the brand’s agencies worked well with the Creative Shop team. “Just like every marketing initiative, each player has a role, and each takes a bit more of a lead in a different aspect,” says Mahoney. “We wanted to see, given the global scale of the Facebook brand, if we could leverage that and the creative resources that they’re able to bring to bear. It wasn’t seen as a competitive thing, more of a collaborative approach to get to something that would work for Chevy.”

To help bridge the gap, over the years the Creative Shop has assembled what it calls its Creative Council, a group of ad agency chief creative officers who collaborate with D’Arcy’s team on client opportunities while matching agency creatives with Creative Shop members. The Creative Shop also conducts regular hackathons with agencies, often focused on a particular product like Canvas or Instagram.

Global creative director Andrew Keller, former CP+B CEO and executive creative director who joined Facebook last year, says when working with agencies and brands, a lot of what they do is work to just demystify the formats. “Sometimes people can just overthink it,” says Keller. “Sometimes really what it’s about is figuring out how an idea can flow through the various formats. People can be caught up in the formats, think overly executional, and not realizing Facebook or Instagram is just a great place to express great ideas. So it can be about using these to express an idea, as opposed to getting caught up in the intricacies of the format.”


Related: Facebook’s Creative Shop: What Can It Do For Small Businesses (And Itself)?

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D’Arcy says it’s not about force-feeding brands and agencies on the idea of working with just Facebook, but rather finding ways in which their work on Facebook can complement their marketing elsewhere. “Everyone we work with has a different reason for doing so, and we build everything around that,” says D’Arcy. “The central truth is, why are people spending time or money with us? And what’s the idea that can make that come to life? We rarely start with a format, unless explicitly asked about it, and instead focus on the business challenge.”

Mahoney says one of the real strengths of Chevy’s partnership with Facebook is the social network’s analytics capability. The Creative Shop looked at the type of social activity happening around New Year’s, and one of the insights that came out of that was the challenge of keeping your resolutions. “They came back with a variety of ideas through the Creative Shop, and for us it was a first, leveraging a big idea tied to the brand and using the strength of Facebook,” says Mahoney. “They dug into their database and were able to draw some of the key insights out if it, to categorize the types of resolutions people make, whether it was health, relationships, and more. So that was really powerful. But I should say, in our conversations with Facebook, our creative agency was there, as well as our media agency. So all the stakeholders were sitting around the table, which made for an interesting result. [Facebook] knows its audience better than anyone, and they move fast.”

The Shifting Tides

R/GA is working with the Creative Shop on projects for clients like Samsung and Walmart, and global chief creative officer Nick Law echoes Mildenhall, saying that the only agencies who should see the social network’s internal team as a threat are those who are in denial about the shifting tides of the ad industry.

“There are times where Facebook works directly with clients. It’s not like when we’re doing Samsung work, that there won’t be conversations between Facebook and Samsung, us and Samsung, but if any side gains momentum, we tend to partner to figure out how those ideas can happen,” says Law, adding one of the big advantages is getting to work on Facebook products and tools before they’re public to work out any kinks, and try new ideas.

Law also says that Facebook is smart to have an in-house creative team, and it can only help brands and agencies. “Brand is basically what people think of a company, and what people think of a company is hugely affected by the creative marketing of that company, and how artful they are in getting their message across. That’s not an engineering problem, it’s a creative problem,” says Law. “Like all the big digital platforms now, they’re building in-house creative teams, and I think they need to. Obviously a lot of agencies are threatened by that, and many will find their talent being lured away. We’re not threatened at all because we haven’t seen it affect our value to a client. But we have seen these platforms become more sympathetic to what we’re trying to do, so that’s a plus for us.”

As the size of both the Creative Shop, and the number of advertisers Facebook serves, continues to grow, D’Arcy says the biggest challenge right now is scale. Taking what they learn from their biggest brand and agency relationships, and continuing to build best practices, so more advertisers can creatively utilize the platform. “The mathematics of just how you have impact on 5 million advertisers is, you’ve got to look at how you can scale the learning, and scale the impact of what you’re trying to do around creativity,” says D’Arcy. “We want to build that trust not by talking about doing creative stuff, but by doing it.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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