In a troubled time, powerful ideas still pierce the darkness.
Take Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which radically suggested that space wasn’t inert and gravity could bend light. Physicists proved his theory during a solar eclipse in 1919—and in the middle of one of the worst pandemics in history, with the devastation of the Great War still gripping the world.
The irony of that breakthrough amid such chaos has stuck with me during COVID-19, the biggest worldwide disaster in most of our memories and one that has wreaked havoc on the creative industry.
What comforts me is Einstein’s last unproven theory. In it, I see an opportunity that could reignite our industry and bring us through this pandemic stronger than we went in (which was already fraught).
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Creative people take this Einstein hypothesis as an article of faith, but in these times it’s not a given. As marketing and advertising have ground to a halt, virtually every agency holding company has announced layoffs. The consulting firms that have been encroaching on agencies have their share of struggles too, as “big thinking” seems less relevant when survival itself is at stake. But consultants always find a way to be the problem solvers by playing their diverse knowledge card.
And problems are plentiful.
Imagination versus knowledge. It’s the meta-battle going on right now between the creative industry and consultants.
Backed with their pedigrees, consultants win much of the high-margin work that dictates strategy for C-suites. To paraphrase an old business axiom, “No one ever got fired for hiring McKinsey.” C-suites bring in the venerable firm for COVID-19 consults. Andrew Cuomo hires them to design New York testing programs.
They seem to have answers for everything.
I’m not picking on McKinsey, per se, but if you’re competing against the consultants for business, how do you identify a weakness to exploit?
To understand the consultant allure, I tapped the experience of someone who has worked with both sides. Chris Carlisle is currently VP of marketing at BraunAbility, the brand that invented the wheelchair-accessible vehicle. He also spent years at top CPG firms overseeing product innovation and marketing.
“Consultants enter C-suites through the ‘main door,'” Carlisle says. “They know business first, then they know your business, then your brand. They show you how to run your brand as a business.”
In their hierarchy, business supersedes brand. This thinking is a noxious weed to creative agency types, but in boardrooms, it’s common sense.
“Consultants are trusted third parties,” Carlisle adds. He told me that agencies could do much of what consultants do when it comes to analyzing return on investment and performance scorecards, “but agencies are looked at as partners, not advisors, and that immediately adds a layer of bias.”
Carlisle draws a contrast with agencies, which he says often enter companies through the “side door.” They talk about campaigns, ideas, things they will do.
They seldom discuss making money.
Consultant credibility is based on financial and operational expertise. They offer advice that turns into dollars, or so it seems. They don’t talk about creativity—and certainly not imagination.
That’s their weakness.
Because if ever a business environment called for imagination, it’s now.
This pandemic is not just about here-and-now dollars. It’s about connecting to people when standard communications forms are gone. It’s about preserving brand value when you may not be able to sell your product.
It’s about brand endurance.
Detroit agency Doner pulled off a compelling PSA for its hometown. Conceived of by a young strategist, it shows what’s possible in the empty streets of Detroit. The footage was shot solo by the content director, with the voice-over recorded by a copywriter in her closet.
No offense to consultants, but they’ll never approach that order of thinking.
More agencies need to be similarly inspired. There is never an excuse to accept second-rate work, and there are way too many COVID-19 executions that default to “we’re all in this together” and other lazy lobs.
Still, agencies need to find their way into the main door. There is no reason ever to cede ground to consultants whose roots are in finance.
Agency roots are in growth. Stop being shy about it.
Start with a new pragmatism. In the pre-COVID-19 world, companies spent millions on inefficient media, seldom with tough questions coming from the C-suite. Those days are over. Smart agencies—especially the independents—can show how to save millions while driving new revenue. Companies will welcome common-sense business talk from agencies with vast media intelligence.
But they also want to see the future. Consultants sell defense. That was great for a world where 3% growth got you a seven-figure bonus.
Those days appear to be over.
Agencies sell offense. We are about to enter a period like after WWII. What did agencies do then? They gave us the Creative Revolution, building the most powerful middle class in history by fueling iconic, enduring brands and driving astonishing economic growth.
Saving millions and producing revenue are two powerful outcomes for a new era. But agencies need to stop two bad behaviors.
Stop giving away the best ideas. Bonkers, right? Keep them close and precious. Identify problems first, then seed ideas when they are at their highest market value.
Next, stop being the easy-going partner. Become the trusted advisor who will walk away if reasoned advice is rejected.
This means a new business model for agencies. We’ll need one in a post-pandemic world that demands visible problem solving and clear paths to measurable growth. This is a time to try something bold.
Think about Einstein. Why did he even say something like “imagination is more important than knowledge?” Because he looked at his existing business model—classical physics—and knew its paradigm would never explain how to bend light.
Only imagination could discover something so profound.
David Gutting is a senior vice president and director of strategic projects at Barkley, an independent creative and innovation company headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri.