Why we are all consultants
A view from Alex Hesz

Why we are all consultants

Make no mistake, agencies aren't part of the creative industries. As consultancies close in we need to stop this charade, warns Adam & Eve/DDB's chief strategy officer.

There was a pie chart doing the rounds on Twitter recently.

It was lauding the success of the UK’s "creative industries", casting that slice of the pie as a beacon of economic success of which our nation can be proud. It was shared widely among adlanders, including some high-profile agency leaders, as proof that our industry, the one in which they come to work every day, is flourishing. 

Except, it seems, none of those agency leaders read the small print. Not one of them works in the "creative industries". Not the chief executives, not the executive creative directors and not the creatives. We work in, to use the inspirational nomenclature of the pie chart itself, "enterprise services". 

Breathe it in: enterprise services.

Agencies sell, by the hour, our people and the fruit of their labour to companies that don’t have sufficient expertise or resource to do the work we do themselves. We are, in that respect, not so very dissimilar to lawyers. Or for that matter (and here’s the rub) management consultants. 

Now, there are vast differences between the role of an agency and that of a management consultancy, just as there are vast (vaster, surely) differences in the experience of working with, and for, those two types of business: the nature of the briefs, the nature of the output, the longevity and variety of engagements. The differences are substantive, not superficial. But let’s be clear – an agency’s output is ideas, and so is a consultancy’s. An agency’s value to a client is derived from objectivity, connectedness to a changing world, specificity of capabilities and gaining an unfair share of talent. And so is a consultancy’s. The means by which an agency wins against competitors is down to the creativity of ideas, an ability to actually make those ideas happen in the world, and then to prove the effectiveness of doing so. And so is… well, you get the idea.  

No magic I.P. No secret sauce. Just teams of smart people having good ideas and making them happen to great effect.

So let’s all stop with the charade. For us on the agency side, we get to be the most creative, exciting, ambitious "enterprise service" industry going. But it’s when we forget that, and mistakenly believe we’re part of the "creative industries", sat beside JK Rowling and the Royal Shakespeare Company, that we make the mistakes that clients most often (and most correctly) accuse us of making: forgetting that it needs to be famous in the real world, not just notorious among agency peers and juries. Forgetting that only a piece of communications that does its job can be considered any good, and only after clearing that fence can we begin to layer on subjective value. Forgetting that effective, right now, is better than perfect, but too late. Forgetting that impacting culture is always the goal, but impacting it to bring about a specific, substantial outcome.

The irony is that the "coming of the consultants" is something we at agencies have invited upon ourselves by our refusal to admit that that’s precisely who we are, and who we have been all along. What the recent news of, for instance, Accenture’s $1bn M&A war chest should tell us is that someone has spotted value in our industry that we are not exploiting properly. It’s like someone arriving at your house and immediately offering you twice what you had always assumed it was worth. Sure, that sounds pretty tempting, but what do they know that you don’t?

I believe we are at a crossroads. Agencies can demonstrably and rapidly influence the successes and failures of our clients in ways that few, if any, other "enterprise service" businesses can. The means at our disposal to effect that change, and the breadth of outcomes that we can bring about, have ballooned at such a rate in the iPhone decade that we have failed to catch up in one critical way; we still too often think the sum of what we can do for a client is make a good ad. 

Yet time and time again that’s been proven to be only a part of the value we bring when we’re at our best. We understand people better. We understand how to move, motivate, excite, alarm. We know how to build loyalty and how to break it. We know how to make the big feel small, and the small feel big. And yes, our work changes culture, just like that of the "creative industries". Except we do it in such a way as to ensure that a PLC can get all the credit. Which is a lot, lot harder. 

There is an apocryphal story from McKinsey & Co. that every pitch they make relies upon two things being understood by the client: 1) You’re fucked. 2) Thank God we’re here. So, of course the consultancies are coming. They see a cousin who doesn’t understand what they’re selling. Agencies are, to use our own industry’s most over-used aphorism, the drill company that still thinks we sell 6 mil drills, not 6 mil holes. We don’t sell ads, we sell impact. The consultancies have realised that, and appreciated the great value of it, apparently before we have.

It’s not too late. If we admit what we are, what we’ve always been, then we don’t need that dose of sober, outcome-driven "service" thinking currently arriving in the form of consultancy M&A term sheets. We’ll do what our clients have been wanting us to do all along. We’ll encourage and embrace outcome-led thinking ourselves, ditching the noble artist pretensions, and set out our stall as what we can truly be: the most powerful, energetic, creative force for business and behaviour change anywhere in the economy. It’s a bit long for a pie chart, but I’m happy to go to work for that every morning. 

Alex Hesz is the chief strategy officer of Adam & Eve/DDB.
@alexhesz