On agencies, consultancies and bumblebees

If you follow global advertising trends, you’ll be aware that the world’s biggest business consultancies have planted a flag in the advertising agency playing field. Their argument is that they give great business advice and that customer-centric marketing is more important than ever and, well, they can make ads as good as the next person.

It’s a solid argument and it’s getting global traction. But the thing that rips their lucrative scope-creeping nightie is that creativity isn’t a numbers game. It’s about magic. So here’s my take on why the world needs stronger agencies and fewer wannabes. It’s a point I intend to prove with bumblebees.

Consultancies like metrics and models

Have you noticed how the world loves numbers and stats? Surveys about this, responses about that. There’s nothing like an infographic to ‘prove’ a tenuous point. Now, I’m not suggesting that consultancies have anything less than the most robust of numbers. It’s just that data is little more than yesterday’s exhaust and tomorrow is often a very different day.

That’s the problem with metrics and models. It’s all theory. Much of it is excellent theory. It’s reasonable to assume that a behaviour of yesterday is a pretty good predictor of tomorrow’s likely action. But it’s not the only one. The thing about people is that we’re people. Even when we’re customers, we’re still people. And every well-argued model or stand-up theory is nothing more than Powerpoint until put into practice.

That’s where consultancies bow out. They live in the land of the possible and the probable. If something doesn’t work, they can blame the execution. And that, as it happens, is one of the places where agencies play best.

Agencies understand feelings and magic

If that sounds fluffy it’s deliberate. But there’s truth in it. Agencies sell strategy and execution. So if something doesn’t work there’s nowhere much to hide. That’s why great agencies have a level of scrappy pragmatism that helps them pivot and re-plan and get the job done. It’s seldom pretty and rarely played out in any specific playbook. But agencies have been working through the realities of reiterated execution since well before agile was invented.

If that sounds like agencies are a hotbed of chaos and confusion, there’s truth in that. But there’s a lot more to it. Good agencies are driven by a mystical deity they call ‘the idea’. Of course, they have the same top-shelf strategic insights as the best of the consultancies. Of course, they’ve all watched the same Ted Talks. But agencies are clusters of brilliant people, who believe in creativity and know how to use their ideas to make people feel.

Magic doesn’t happen by magic

The concept of applied magic is a hard sell. Especially to businesses whose share price depends on a level of certainty and predictability. But creativity isn’t a commodity, it’s a process. It’s a process born of passion for problem-solving and a drive for excellence – a process wrangled by people. Only agencies will ignore the obvious solution and strive for something different, better and more memorable. Because people remember the magic.

And the magic created by agencies is an outcome of the magic fostered in agencies; the seniors teaching the juniors, the hungry sponging of every possible inspiration and the uncompromising dance around compromising hurdles to protect the idea and create the best possible work for the customer and the brand. There’s no McKinsey model that can identify the efficiency metrics of a creative agency. It’s the people, it’s the feelings, it’s the magic – and it works.

Bumblebees can’t fly

Here’s the proof of tangible magic. It’s aerodynamically impossible for a bumblebee to take off. Something about their tiny wings and their big fluffy bodies. If you’re dubious about the science, Google it, it’s fascinating. Yet, somehow bumblebees still fly. Some may call it God’s work, others call it magic – either way, I reckon it’s rock-solid proof that the science and the theory is all just… theory. Nothing gets done until you roll up your sleeves and get it done. And agencies do that better than anyone.

So the world’s biggest consultancies may be getting into advertising. And that’s great. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And unless they can genuinely turn into functionally-dysfunctional, creative-loving, idea-worshipping agencies, they can never hope to build the brands that people love. Just ask the bumblebees.

That’s what I reckon, what do you think?

  • Michael Goldthorpe is managing partner at Hunch.

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Michael Goldthorpe is Managing Partner at Hunch.

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