Agencies and intellectual capital: enough of the Flava Flav routine

Flava_flav I have three questions:

1. when do clients require agencies to be genuinely full service?

2. when do agencies begin to leverage, and, gasp, brand their intellectual capital?

3.  when does the advertising world take a leaf from the world of management consulting?

I had lunch with Mark X last week.  We were talking about how noisy is the intellectual air space of the agency world. 

You would think that the big ideas of the ad world would be clearer.  At the very least, it should be possible to reverse engineer the great ads of the last 100 years and reach some simple, lasting, potent conclusions. 

But no.  The ad world is filled with a million quirks and inclinations.  It churns with notice of exciting trends.  It buzzes with the titles of the latest books from the business press (good to great!, made to stick!).  What is missing is a calm sense of the verities of the biz, the things we know for certain. 

Now, of course, advertising creative is often an unpredictable, largely inscrutable thing.  Inspiration descends from the heavens.  Agencies compete for the people most likely to be struck  by this lightning.  Creative directors are conduits of great value, and we should probably worship them.  But this doesn’t mean we will ever get a clear rendering of how they do what they do.  This will forever remain a matter of a "I don’t know, it just came to me" mystery.

But research and strategy, that should be another matter altogether.    Surely, these people should have a very good idea of what advertising is, and how it creates value for a client and their brands.  Surely, they should be able to roll out simple propositions of great power.  And surely we should judge them by what these propositions are.

Too often what we get is snake oil enthusiasm and not much else.  In fact, listening to certain people with strategic pretensions is like listening to someone afflicted with a spontaneous, naturally occurring affliction of buzzword bingo.  They just string all the current lingo together often with scant regard for the syntax. 

It’s kinda like they are wearing a great big Flava Flav button that reads "talk."  Clients have a question?  Push the Talk button!  And bang, out it comes: creative synergy, brand DNA, authentic this and networked that.  It’s like someone sold them a BFI R Us franchise and this is what they think they are supposed to do.  Hurl lingo bingo at the problem until no one can quite remember what the question was.

I am not speaking out against lingo.  I treasure these compact terms for their ability to telegraph complicated ideas in tiny bursts of speech.  But when all we are doing is broadcasting the buzz words, then the client is not served.  The world of discourse that is strategy ends up being an intellectual ghetto, a place where stupid people have a place to hide and talent cannot rise. And there is lots of talent out there. 

You would think that the marketplace would impose its famous discipline.  You would think that clients would say, "I’m sorry, that was almost completely incoherent," and keep saying this until agency raises their ability to offer clear, clean statements of how the agency creates value for the brand, and, more specifically, how it is earns the princely sums it demands from the client.

This brings us to the first question:

1. when do clients require agencies to be genuinely full service?

Clients are paying for good, clear ideas.  When do they start demanding them?   When do they begin to scorn the "pressure of speech" lingo bingo approach to explanation, and demand something very simple and very clear. Less Flava.  More nutrition. 

2.  when do agencies begin to leverage, and, gasp, brand their intellectual capital? 

Whether or not clients make new demands, we might expect that some agencies would step up and make intellectual power and clarity their strategic difference.  There are lots of smart people in the agency and consulting world.  But I am not sure the agency ever leads with them.  The agency might trumpet the fact that it possesses God’s new gift to creativity.  But the strategic people not so much.  I guess this will start to happen in a big way the moment a P&G says, "well, we decided to go with Agency x because, frankly, they have got the intellectual firepower.  Our existing agency, we began to feel they couldn’t think their way out of a wet paper bag.   I mean have you heard those guys talk?"

3.  when does the advertising world take a leaf from the world of management consulting?

This approach has been going on in the world of management consulting for a very long time.  McKinsey, Bain, Boston Consulting, Accenture, these firms justify their existence and their fees on the grounds that they hire smart people and they treasure and reward these people for the intellectual capital they create for the firm and its clients.  I am thinking here of people like Thomas Davenport, Philip Evans, Thomas Wurster, John Beck, Stanley Davis, Richard Forster, and Sarah Kaplan.

It’s time for things to change.

9 thoughts on “Agencies and intellectual capital: enough of the Flava Flav routine”

  1. why still use strategy? why not have some guy just browsing throught the books searching for past strategies and giving full range of freedom to creatives..

    Cadbury comes to mind as a case of creative driving sales. why not just put out as many creative ideas and just see what sticks? why try to predict when you could just do stuff independent of the market and on the other hand have a sort of creative war room that reacts to external developments and comes up with a repsons.

    as an agency: do what is interesting, create energy and tell clients to make products that are actually worth talking about..

  2. Great post! Public Enemy is hot again!?

    I’m more surprised that the consultancies you mention haven’t pushed the agency kids to the basement for playtime. My take – there is no repeatable/known pot of money in the advertising and comm departments that the consultants can laser target and own. CMO has so little juice with a waffling budget – all bark and no bite.

    Now, in an organization that focused on the web; bringing IT and marketing $$ together under a shared vision, and funded it adequately with bodies and attention, then the McKinsey fellows will come a calling. Though I smell that there are a few guys out there headed this way – taxi, naked, barbarian group, etc.

    Why agencies won’t head toward this consultancy model? Or act more like kpcb? They’ve been burned with that approach before, so they stay the course and look for the same clients they’ve been getting and just sell them a few new things. It’s a decaying model.

    At the core, the agencies aren’t looking for the connections. They aren’t looking to simplify things for the consumer. They are looking for something to do or make under any crooked strategy. Obviously, part of this issue is owned at the organization, too. Many of them aren’t really looking to make the connection at the consumer either.

  3. In the words of Flavor Flav: Don’t Believe the Hype!

    Grant, I think many Ad Agency people will take exception to your generalization here. I work at an independent PR agency, but we don’t talk about becoming more like Burson-Marsteller or Edelman or Weber-Shandwick, we talk about becoming more like Bain and McInsey. Not in what we do, but in the way we approach business – more strategic, more business building driven. When we pitch new business, our focus is on the consumer insight, the creative natural results from that insight. I’m not sure that we’re revolutionary, but I think we offer something more than just creative for creative sake.

  4. Some academic marketing colleagues once told me that a dirty little secret is that there is no rigorous empirical evidence that advertising actually works to create additional purchases. Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, of course, but there might be a good reason why enduring principles of advertising are hard to come by.

  5. One of the things I’ve learned doing an MBA is that strategy (as taught in business schools) is, by and large, nonsense. It’s a language one has to be able to speak, an attempt to bring the rigour of, say, economics (hah), into business decision making and analysis. But an ounce of creativity or disruptive innovation makes the strategies of others so much sawdust. If it smells like bullshit it usually is.

  6. A consultant comes into a business relationship as an equal, not a subordinate. In India at least, advertising agencies are willing vassals. Large clients call for specs from any of the top 10 agencies and they gift strategy and creative concepts. The ‘privilege’ of working on a large account is motivation enough.

    Agencies will leverage their intellectual capital when they believe in it themselves. Or when they decide that accountability is their trump card and not their creative product. I believe in the power of ideas – but only after they have been executed to perfection and delivered the desired results.

  7. A consultant comes into a business relationship as an equal, not a subordinate. In India at least, advertising agencies are willing vassals. Large clients call for specs from any of the top 10 agencies and they gift strategy and creative concepts. The ‘privilege’ of working on a large account is motivation enough.

    Agencies will leverage their intellectual capital when they believe in it themselves. Or when they decide that accountability is their trump card and not their creative product. I believe in the power of ideas – but only after they have been executed to perfection and delivered the desired results.

  8. Doesn’t buzzword bingo mean the game you’re playing with your friends when listening to some insane hype-speech? Writing the buzzwords in a grid & start listening.. I’m not a native English speaker so I might have just misunderstood the exact meaning of your sentence.

    Anyway, a good & thought provoking post. Thanks.

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