News & Views

Opinion / Are we heading for a new, grey-tinged golden age of creativity?

by Dan Southern

A new set of challengers – many with familiar names – are architecting a new golden era of creativity, that is backed by data rather than media sales.  As Contagious Insider's Dan Southern explains, adland can't afford to stand still.


It’s often lamented  mainly by people who were there at the time  that the ‘golden age of creativity’ that served adland so well, ended at some point in the late seventies. A new, grey-tinged version, now appears to be around the corner, and this time round its architects aren’t agencies but management and software consultancies, systems integrators and data specialists.

Firms such as PWC, Accenture and Deloitte have been making interesting inroads for some time and staking a determined claim on prime marketing real estate. For example, since buying design and innovation consultancy Fjord in 2013, Accenture has doubled the size of its design team and number of studios. IBM is emerging as a key player too, as it continues its own transformation into consultancy. Its digital agency, Interactive Experience (iX), has revenues of $1.9bn. It is hoovering up both digital and creative shops as it scales and now counts 10,000 employees worldwide. In the US, data behemoth Epsilon is positioning itself as ‘a new breed of all-encompassing marketing company’ that ‘breathes creativity’ according to its website, and Deloitte tends make the pages of Campaign these days for its digital practice rather than its research and analysis. In fact, it has just acquired Heat, San Francisco, to create what it's calling 'the world's first digital creative consultancy'. 

According to McKinsey, flows of data and information today generate more economic value than the global goods trade. Whereas adland’s golden age  during which agencies also bought media for clients  saw creativity subsidised by juicy commissions on the limited supply of media around at the time, the new version being shaped will piggy-back businesses built on data and information. As the chief creative officer of one firm in the thick of all this pointed out to me recently, ‘What you’ve got to understand is that we and others like us already have extremely successful businesses to build this offering on the back of’. It’s a sentiment backed up by the experience of Amanda Rendle, HSBC’s former head of global marketing, who told Marketing Magazine last year that ‘KPMG had offered its services on advertising to HSBC “for nothing” up front on several occasions and warned that agencies must ensure that they bring “true value” consistently to brands’.

Agencies will ignore these shenanigans at their peril. While their creative chops aren’t really being challenged yet (what chance one of these firms picking up a Grand Prix at Cannes in 2016?), the new battlefront is only being drawn up in response to the fact that the remit of marketing, and the CMO, is changing. According to The Economist and Marketo, 75% of marketing leaders are preparing to have full responsibility of the entire customer journey by 2020, though only 33% claim to have it today. This means that marketers' jobs are quickly going to grow even more complex.

For agencies to stand still as these changes take place  which demand both strategic guidance and creative solutions as the product-marketing divide blurs  would be nonsensical. And yet, as Rendle also remarked to
Marketing Magazine, her experiences indicated a lack of responsiveness: ‘I’d prefer creativity came from an agency over a managing consultant but we simply aren’t getting useful data delivered consistently enough and that’s what has to happen to get marketing more engrained within the business. It’s KPMG who are doing workshops with my board not ad agencies.’

However, some agencies are indeed now responding, and a number have joined those to have already formalised consultancy offerings designed to, in some instances, compete against likes of McKinsey, Deloitte, IBM and others of their ilk. Maxus and AMV BBDO are the most recent to stick their heads above the parapet. Maxus Technology Consulting will be helping CMOs with their marketing technology investment, while AMV’s consulting arm will focus on organisation, customer experience and technology integration into communications.

Perhaps ‘consultancy’ will turn out be another dirty industry buzzword in 12 months’ time. Yet to greet these moves with rolled eyes and sighs of adland apathy would be a mistake. There are those agencies that will clutch their copies of Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow and settle for life viewing consumers as homo byronomicus, no doubt. But in many cases agencies can, and should, be bringing their experience and capabilities to bear on the new challenges confronting CMOs.

As businesses face up to a complex, low-growth world, The World Economic Forum has shown that creativity is set to be a top three demanded skill of employees by 2020 (today it ranks 10). The market is moving towards the types of inventive, problem solving capabilities that agencies have already built a home for. It’s an opportunity they should make sure they are ready to embrace. The new golden age of creativity needn’t be tinged with grey.