Billiken, an Argentine sweet manufacturer, was in trouble. Long established, it couldn't keep up with the rapid changes in children's tastes. For a sweet manufacturer, hostage to the fickle children's market, that's not a good place to be.
It thought it needed an advertising solution. Its agency disagreed: it thought Billiken needed to re-orientate its new-product development methodology.
Its suggestion: invite children to participate actively in creating new sweet products, design the packaging and test them and then get them to vote on the best ideas, which then get taken into production.
It's not an advertising solution, and nor is it a piece of brand architecture, although it needed advertising and brand thinking to get to the heart of the problem, recruit the children, formalise the process and promote the outcome. So does it count as creative thinking?
In this business, there's probably no word more used, misused and abused than "creative". Noun or adjective, usage is so commonplace it's easy to believe nobody really gives a thought to how they use it and what they really mean.
It used to be much simpler. As well as being the name of the sort of person who produced it, "creative" was simply an agency's output. Invariably, that output took the form of an ad. But not always. There are still some who look back to a golden era when agencies really were the clients' business partners, and the likes of J. Walter Thompson were equally capable of coming up with brilliantly creative business ideas - such as Mr Kipling and After Eights - as they were brilliant ads.
These days, "creative" is applied more broadly than to just the ads.
It can, for example, apply to media planning or buying, some consumer insight or, going further away still from the executional coalface, a clever bit of strategic thinking. However, it is also applied narrowly, in the sense that agencies rarely talk about creativity outside the confines of the communications process.
But is that enough? Is it possible for agencies to stretch the definition wider, beyond marketing communications (in the widest sense) to creative ideas that affect a client's business as a whole?
But can they do it? One man who believes they should and can is Bob Schmetterer, the chief executive of Euro RSCG. He believes it so strongly he's made it his mission in life to rebuild the network around a proposition that he calls Creative Business Ideas.
He has also written a book on the subject, Leap, published in the UK in March. (In itself, the book, which is essentially an ad for Euro RSCG, is a creative business idea. But then, I guess, that is exactly how Schmetterer intended it.) As he points out in Leap, the "creative world" and the "business world" rarely meet, except at the small junction called marketing communications.
How frustrating if you run an agency, where more than half the staff are, using the definition broadly, "creative", and all their efforts are directed towards branding, ads and media ideas.
Cynics, and I confess to having been one, will wonder if this is just a piece of branding designed to differentiate Euro RSCG from its competitors.
(Not, in a world of me-too networks, that there's anything necessarily wrong with that, although professional cynics will note that Saatchi & Saatchi announced a similar repositioning several years ago.)
Complete with the slogan "the Power of One" and those tedious little "R" registration marks, Euro RSCG's Creative Business Ideas(R) proposition has some of the hallmarks of countless agency presentations I have seen over the years.
"OK then," Euro RSCG said to me. "If I really thought this was all cheap talk, why didn't I become one of the four external judges at the next Euro RSCG Creative Business Ideas jury?" I agreed. A decision helped by the fact that I would be keeping some illustrious company. The other judges were a Harvard professor, the editor of Fast Company and the man behind IDEO, a design company responsible for, among other things, the Palm V and Prada's flagship New York store.
Still in its infancy, Euro RSCG's scheme already has enough case histories to prove that it is beginning to walk the walk. There's Billiken, of course, but also the Madero Este development case, a riverside hotel, cinema, shopping mall and residential scheme in a rundown part of Buenos Aires.
Commissioned by the developers to produce a $4 million ad campaign to attract footfall, Euro RSCG Argentina instead suggested creating a landmark pedestrian footbridge designed by the world-renowned architect Santiago Calatraves. OK, so it cost $6 million to build but the developer bought an idea that not only made the development a talking point, but literally delivered the foot traffic. And rather than something as transient as conventional advertising, the developer got a permanent fixture.
Then there's the Indian moped case, where the client Hero Puch was under pressure from more contemporary scooters. After studying the market, Euro RSCG India discovered that lots of small traders used mopeds as business vehicles, transporting everything from chickens to vegetables. So why not redesign the moped with extra shock absorbers, a removable rear seat and optional carrying space at the front to create a whole new category of moped - the low-cost business utility vehicle positioned as "the two-wheel truck"?
Like many capital city transport systems, the Paris RATP bus and underground had a litany of problems.
BETC Euro RSCG suggested that, instead of advertising, the RATP should no longer think of itself as a transport operator but as a provider of services to people on the move. Thus was born a series of initiatives, including a massive station refurbishment programme, licensed art spaces, internet access terminals, shops, kiosks and a bike rental service. It is a model other cities would do well to copy. Parisians seem to like it too, with usage up by 18 per cent.
The question of course is whether, as a network with hundreds of agencies and 7,000 staff, Euro RSCG can make this work on a global basis and across the full range of disciplines. Can it really institutionalise the concept, or does it just become a nice add-on?
No-one should underestimate the task. At the same time, however, no-one should underestimate Schmetterer's determination to get the agency to buy into it. Those who know him testify to his passion and energy. And this is a drive in which he has invested serious amounts of his own emotional and intellectual capital, not least in his decision to tear down internal agency financial structures to create one, cross-discipline p&l line.
Leap also details some of Schmetterer's early days at Scali McCabe Sloves.
One of his first clients was a small-time chicken farmer, Frank Perdue, for whom the agency created the legendary "It takes a tough man to create a tender chicken" campaign.
As Schmetterer tells it, this was the first step on the road. Although he didn't recognise it at the time, the Perdue campaign was based on a creative business idea: that supermarket chickens, traditionally bought by weight, could be bought by brand, thus getting Perdue out of the commodity trap. From that simple start, Perdue piled one product innovation on another: pop-up thermometers that tell you when the chicken is cooked, fully cooked chickens for microwaves, nutritional labelling and a freephone consumer hotline.
There were other steps too in what has been perhaps a 30-year gestation period for Schmetterer. His long involvement in Volvo America, where he worked as market research director before moving into the agency world, is another. There he saw at first hand how Volvo built its entire ethos around safety, which in turn became the basis of the car's market proposition, and remains so today. And in 1993, for MCI, the long-distance phone service, Schmetterer's then agency, MVBMS, invented the first collect-calling brand 1-800-COLLECT - a radical innovation in the then-deregulating US phone market.
The tipping point came in 1999 when Irv Hockaday, the chief executive of Hallmark Cards, came to see Euro RSCG. "Could they come up with ideas about how he could build the business?" But he didn't want any advertising.
It was the agency's response to this that convinced Schmetterer his network not only had the ability to reinvent itself, but that it had to if it was to capture the high ground with clients. The response, developed by MVBMS/Euro RSCG, lay in its belief that Hallmark wasn't just in the self-expression business but was strongly rooted in values such as family, education and decency.
That observation, MVBMS suggested, gave Hallmark permission to stretch into other areas, from story cards for children to reading programmes for parents and children, a children's TV show and an online branded flower-delivery business to compete with Interflora.
As Schmetterer happily admits, not all of those ideas have been implemented, but they have nevertheless had a catalytic effect on Hallmark by creating a space in which it can redefine itself beyond its traditional paper-and-ink business.
Of course, not every client wants ideas on that scale, and there are times when coming up with creative business ideas is not appropriate.
Even so, from the 40 or so case histories I judged earlier this year, there's a sense in which Schmetterer's manifesto has galvanised the network.
If there are a few simple observations to be drawn, it is that smaller agencies are better at coming up with creative business ideas than bigger ones, and that agencies in developing markets - especially Latin America - are really good at it. I can't say I'm surprised. The more mature an advertising market, the more sclerotic and hidebound the agency scene tends to be.
I wouldn't say either that Schmetterer can sit back and say "mission accomplished". Some of the ideas the judges saw were, when you really stripped them down, clever media ideas or post-rationalised to fit the entry criteria. And, as in all networks, there is still a generation of creatives out there whose definition of "creative" is restricted.
Schmetterer subtitles his book "A revolution in creative business strategy", which is the sort of line that admen and publishers adore. In that his manifesto both looks back to what agencies did for clients but didn't brand it so, and forward to what they ought to do now, Schmetterer's vision is more properly described as "reformist".
That may diminish the hype factor, but it doesn't diminish the significance of what he is trying to achieve. Even if it is only to disagree with Schmetterer, every agency should ask itself how it defines the word "creative".
CAN AGENCIES PULL IT OFF?
JOHN BOTIA - Brands director, Scottish Courage
"The first job of our agencies is to produce compelling advertising, but it is also incumbent on them to provide us with creative business ideas. When it comes to looking for new ideas we always start with our own roster. We like partnerships so we expose our agencies to all our pressures and encourage them to look at our business from all angles.
But that kind of creativity can come from anywhere, which means that they have to accept that if another agency comes up with a creative business idea it might impinge on their territory."
WILLIAM ECCLESHARE - Chairman, Young & Rubicam/ Wunderman, Europe, the Middle East and Africa
"In principle, this is a great idea. It's absolutely what agencies should be doing. But I know from my time at McKinsey that agencies have a big credibility mountain to climb. They have to convince clients that they really understand the economics of the business and avoid just coming up with blue-sky ideas that fail to drive bottom-line growth.
"There's no doubt that the marriage of great and original creative thinking with a real grasp of the business imperatives can have a very significant impact but it's a surprisingly hard trick to pull off."
NIGEL BOGLE - Chief executive, Bartle Bogle Hegarty
"There is now a dawning realisation that agency survival and prosperity will come from a more aggressive marketing of their creative thinking and idea-generating skills.
"There are many opportunities for agencies to exploit an exploding media landscape to the brand's and their own advantage and branded content originated by agencies will become more and more widespread.
"Nor is there is any reason why an agency cannot create brands or business concepts in their own right and sell or licence them or possibly take them to market themselves.
"If all this sounds over-ambitious, we should not forget that agencies were doing all this sort of stuff 30 years ago. I was a member of two cross- functional teams at Leo Burnett that invented two multimillion-pound chocolate brands for Cadbury: Curly Wurly and Old Jamaica. Name, packaging, product , the lot."