In creativity we trust: how agencies can win against consultancies

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries receives cult-like devotion in Silicon Valley and it’s easy to see why. The book offers a simple three-step process to creating billion-dollar businesses. The steps are vision, strategy and ideas.

Vision is the big idea and should change rarely, if ever. Strategy is a question of stick or pivot depending on the outcome of the A/B testing of ideas. As long as there are creative people in the room there should be a constant supply of new ideas to test and the model will work. However, when there is no creativity around, things can come a bit unstuck.

The Lean Startup is a good example of the conditions in which consultants can add value. They excel at bringing structure to the unstructured, making messy operations more efficient and at reducing costs. However, consultancies can struggle when it comes to generating ideas themselves. They need to get creative people into the building to do that and so we have seen the emergence of the worst portmanteau since ideation, the 'cagency'.

Along with the cagency has come a bit of an exodus of senior talent to consultancies. Like Havas London’s Lisa De Bonis to Accenture and the same agency’s Andy Sandoz to Deloitte. This shifting of the ground has thrown up some big existential questions for creative shops.

Industry figures worry publicly about how creativity can survive in the corporate culture of the big consultancy. Some fear all this is another step towards the automation of marketing communications and the end of the advertising industry as we know it. Others see agencies being reduced to a handful of boutiques delivering emotional brand advertising to the few believers left.

When you consider these worries, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that creativity, the very thing the consultancies want, will be the first thing to be lost.

However, the big assumption being made is that creative being swallowed by consultancy is the only direction of travel. At VMLY&R we think it is the wrong way around and that it is better to bring consultancy into the creative process where it can add depth and rigour to ideas.

Creativity is our most valuable asset. Our clients tell us they want more creative people on their business because those people come up with the ideas that add real value. We need to preserve the creative brilliance of our industry and call out the fact that creativity is not simply a box on a flow chart. Creativity can come from anywhere and from anyone at any time. You cannot legislate for it, no more than you can add “make creative leap” to a one-hour window in a workflow and expect it to happen.

For those of us who run agencies, the most important thing we can do is be ready for creativity when it happens. That means building a culture where all voices can be heard, and no one is afraid to share their thoughts. It means a culture where it is perfectly acceptable to change everything just before a deadline because someone’s had an even better idea. But it also means a culture that is collaborative in every sense and can see the value that consultants can bring.

There is a simple logic about doing things this way. Creative people come up with ideas and ideas matter. Ideas can make a company’s most valuable intangible asset. It takes creativity to come up with market disrupting ideas. It is not efficiency that drives growth; it is ideas. Ideas create markets.

In saying that, there are three things that money cannot buy: love, happiness and a market for a bad product or service where one does not exist. It does not matter how creative the thinking, how blinding the insight, creative the underlying idea or how disruptive the campaign is, if there is not a market for the product in the first place or the product is not fit for purpose, then it will inevitably fail, and all that energy will have been wasted. This is where consultancy can make a difference; by making sure the creative people are all pointed in the most efficient direction and that their work has a chance of making a difference.

In a world of radical transparency, where the only competitive advantage left in our business is creativity, why would you let an ideas culture be crushed under the weight of a PowerPoint culture? Better to let creativity drive.

Jon Sharpe is European chief executive of VMLY&R

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