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Creative Agencies vs. Consulting Agencies

5 min read

I'm Jeremy Carson, and this is everything I wish I knew about the advertising and creative industry when I got started. And everything I'm discovering as a Creative Director today.
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Data and creative have never been friends. There was a reason painting by numbers was so boring. Art and science aren't supposed to mix. Right?


Consulting agencies breaking into the marketing world realize that creatives have always stayed away from data. It's our biggest weakness. So, they've taken the opposite approach, and shoved the art into their science.

Which begs the question, "Can creative ad agencies survive that?"

The answer: another nope.

Here's the problem: within ad agencies, we've hung our hats on our ability to be creative. We've celebrated our creativity through awards, patting ourselves on the back for decades. But we ignore anything that challenges it, with the rally cry, "Creativity sells!"

Meanwhile, brands are changing. It's not just shrinking budgets. They're looking for less AORs and more specialists. They want to utilize the mountains of data they have about their customers.

But data is a four-letter word to creatives. And because of that, a new suitor is edging its way into brands' hearts.

The Rise of the Consulting Agency's Creatives

Born from a world of numbers, consulting agencies are the embodiment of data.

Since they hit their stride in the 1980s, they've been the go-to folks for customer insights, corporate restructuring, and brand strategizing. To them, marketing was an amorphous afterthought.

Then, sometime in the past decade, they realized, "Hey, we have the data and we know what to do. So why not do it ourselves?" Fast forward to today, and massive consultancies are buying up or forming their own creative marketing arms.

To name a few of the big ones lately:

  • McKinsey bought Lunar, a design agency
  • Accenture formed Accenture Interactive
  • Deloitte bought Heat to work with Deloitte Interactive and Deloitte Digital

And these aren't rinky dink operations we're dealing with. To put it in perspective, the largest of these, Accenture, has more than double the headcount (425,000) of the largest advertising holding company, WPP (205,000).

Advertising Is a Piece of Cake to Consultancies

Consider this: if consulting agencies are serving an eight-course meal of business transformation, advertising is simply dessert. While they're presenting the entreé, they're convincing brands to stay for a scoop of gelato. It makes sense: they know the kind the people want and they're ready to serve it.

In other words, they've got the data to tell them what to make, and with some help, they're making the gelato (the creative) themselves.

Meanwhile, ad agencies have been baking everyone the same glazed donut and apple pie for decades. And people are getting tired of it.

If creative agencies are going to be the better specialists, we need to embrace data. Time to make the donuts; but now they're specialty donuts, sprinkled with personalization!

Because data gives us insights into the minds of the people. It lets us customize the work to the audience's motivators, saying the right things to the right person. Data tells you what to say. But knowing how to say it is the hard part.

Data Is Only Half The Equation

Creatives shy away from it, but consultancies love data. It's measurable and can fit into their equation. They tweak the numbers (made of people, technology, process, and other resources) to balance that equation.

The problem with creative is that it's a variable. They form the equation with this big empty space, then fill in the blanks. It's good math, but bad creative.

Creatives: Don't Fear Data

Creative agencies have always looked at data as the enemy of creative work. It's the math nerd to the art geek. We sit and think, "Sure, we can use data to measure how great we are, but it can't be part of the work. It'll suck the creativity out of it."

That mindset is why we'll fail.

Data isn't the enemy of creative. It's the sharpened point of the pencil. It lets us focus our creativity, not dull it. The more we fear it and the longer we take to embrace it, the faster consulting agencies will take over.

Not Data Or Creative, But Both Together

Consultancies are going in with data, then topping it off with creative. Ad agencies are going in with creative, then saying the data will come later.

Neither will work.

It's not an either/or game. It's both, together, at every point of the process. Data informs creative strategy. Creative forms around data. Media uses data to target. Analytics uses data to measure. Then back to strategy and the loop goes around and around.

Be Better Specialists

Brian Whipple, head of Accenture Interactive says, “We’re not aiming to be the agency you’d hire to do your Super Bowl ad. Instead, we want to infuse creativity into everything we do.”

But there are only so many Super Bowl ads. Only so many traditional campaigns for agencies to battle for. Those don't keep the lights on and the doors open.

Emotional storytelling and branding are important. We've spent decades convincing CMOs that's all they need to worry about. But consulting agencies see our fear of data and math, then go into pitches showing them numbers. And let me tell you, CMOs love numbers.

So, we need to be better specialists about every facet of creative than consulting agencies. We need to take our intimate knowledge of creativity and put it on equal ground with data.

This Is How We Evolve

Creatives are supposed to be the most forward-thinking people in the world. But when it comes to the struggle between data and creativity, we become nostalgic and romantic. We talk about the death of creativity like old men screaming at children to get off their lawn.

It's time to evolve. Nobody can do creative better than us, but there's more to it now. And when consultancies are speaking the language of the CMOs better than we are, it'll be a struggle to keep the lights on.

Creative agencies won't survive this. Not as we currently know them. But I'm excited to be part of the new era. A child of data and creativity.

Thanks for reading!

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