Agencies talk about creativity. Consultants talk about insights.

If you have any interest in advertising and marketing, you will find yourself on the subscription list of a multitude of industry sources, from trade media to the newsletters of the agencies, consultancies, tech companies and more. In the past three months, with the time I have saved not commuting to the office, I have invested it in reading more of these regular emails.

But today I had two emails arrive in my inbox about the same topic. One from an agency. The other from a major consulting firm. Both referring to the same event – the Cannes LIONS Live 2020. But from this point on any similarity disappeared.

The email from the agency (a global agency brand) was upbeat and colourful highlighting the awards they had won and showcasing some of the award-winning work. The consultancy (one of the Big 3) provided not just a synopsis of the content, but more importantly provided framed insights around the impact on business and marketing and identifying opportunities.

It made me wonder if this was simply coincidence or whether there was a pattern here. Sitting and reflecting on the thousands of emails I get, it started to dawn on me. The majority of communications I get from agencies is them sharing their news. New appointments. New campaigns. New work. Awards won. Clients won. Etc. Etc. Etc. It is almost always about them. Their success. Which is great – after all who doesn’t like a winner?

But then I went looking back on the thousands of emails from the consulting firms. This includes the Big 3 and the consulting arms of the Big 4 accounting firms. These are very rarely about their staff appointments and client wins. No, these are almost always observations, trends, insights and case studies. They are almost always insightful, interesting, informative and most importantly useful. In summary, they are almost always about me. The prospect.

It even applies to the content they share. The consultants offer white papers, industry summaries, best practice reviews and research papers. The agencies offer video award entries and advertising folios including the still ubiquitous Television Reel.

It is easy to say that the agencies are simply showing off their entertaining wares. The product of their work. But it is largely the work done for others and they assume, often incorrectly, that the work speaks for itself. Yes, it may be a great ad, but it is an ad for another brand and another business, usually not even in the category of the viewer. Showing award winning cat food advertising to an automotive marketer requires a long stretch to think they will see it as anything other than a nice cat food ad.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a handful of agencies that do provide consumer insights. During this pandemic we have had almost weekly updates from an excellent tracking study on consumer sentiment from MDC, and strategic insights on the impact from Havas and others.

But the agencies that do this particularly well are the ones that operate more like a consultancy than an agency. Omnicom’s Sparks & Honey is an example of an agency providing a regular stream of insights into consumer and societal trends, along with a handful of others.

But sitting through this year’s AdForum Virtual Consultant Summit, remotely held with the major holding companies and their agencies, what was reinforced time and again was the level of self-obsession – not in the actual content, but in the self-centered way it was often presented.

With a huge dollop of FIG JAM. There was a lot of talk about helping clients through the challenges of the global pandemic and the economic recession. They laid out their plans to embrace diversity in response to the BLM protests, without discussing the benefits this will deliver. But most of all they championed their creativity and then showed the ads they had made for their various clients.

And this is the point. If you want to own creativity, you need to do more than just show us the work. Even artists share their inspirations. Authors discuss the creative process.  Composers, chefs and more certainly do the work, but then own the space by demonstrating their command of the discipline and process. Just showing us the work for the clients without context, insight, knowledge or results is like a beauty parade. You will be judged simply on whether they like it – not on the value you can bring to the relationship.

Here is the danger for the advertising agencies. They think they are owning the ‘creative’ space by demonstrating how creative they are in making advertising solutions. But the reality is the consultants are also being creative too. Their analysis, research, insights and knowledge are the foundation for identifying and creating new business opportunities, new ways of working, new market pivots and new business models.

Commercial creativity has always been much broader than simply creating advertising messages. But the way agencies communicate their creative capability is often unconsciously self-serving, self-obsessed and self-indulgent.

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