In recent years we have not stopped seeing how creative agencies (large and small) are acquired by large consultancy companies. These are business movements that are shaping a new model of advertising agency and that the industry is striving to predict and explain.
Since the most popular purchase – that of Droga5 by Accenture Interactive – a lot of things have been said: that agencies are being sold as a result of having lost negotiation power with clients, or that they are simply mergers to cover the more the better in the value chain.
However, the fact that the consultants are buying creativity is not despair of the agencies or greed on the part of the consultants.
I would define the movement rather as an intelligent act of survival initiated first by the consulting side than by the creative side.
If we take as a reference the previous example, which is the merger with the greatest impact, as soon as we investigate we find that, according to themselves, the reason is none other than joining forces to generate ‘experiences’.
‘To build a new agency model… with the power to engineer transformative
brand experiences and infuse those experiences with the emotional and
inspirational power of brand thinking and creativity.’
‘We are big thinkers, and we are teaming with other big thinkers. While of course we have the need for great art directors and copywriters, and we hire them all the time, where we really sing—and sing well—is when we think big and apply that to broader experiences.’
What needs to be answered is not, therefore, why the consultants are buying agencies. What we should solve is why those who have always had a deep knowledge about social and consumer behaviors and are the first partners in the value chain hierarchy need creativity right now.
Can’t they create experiences with the great technological capacity that these consultants have?
Client experience, consumer experience, or simply experience is a direct appeal to people’s emotions. It is a return to a reality of consumption that has never gone away but that technology has made us forget.
Experiences are neither created, nor generated, nor produced. Experiences are designed. And when we talk about design we talk about creativity. And when we talk about creativity, we talk about emotions. And when we talk about emotions, we still talk about human beings. And this should be the central focus of every creative process where an experience is designed.
So much so that it seems that now all marketing must be experiential (emotional), but this is not something new at all.
Already at the end of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century the worlds of design and art turned to marketing and advertising (and vice versa) in the shape of a poster, linked to the avant-garde. Impressionism, Surrealism, Cubism… absolute manifestations of human emotions that emanated from some of the most creative minds that the modern world has ever known.
‘In the last years of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century, the assumptions of both languages were in tune, in fact in many cases they were artists who advertised and viceversa’ (Pérez Gauli, 1998).
During this time department stores proliferated. Those retailers then became the first spaces where consumer experiences were designed conscientiously. And not only space, but also objects. Everything was designed to get customers excited and therefore sell.
This is what the philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky has called Artistic Capitalism and that has its peak in the 60’s in the US and in the 80’s and 90’s. Times when we were sure that creativity sold:
‘With the Bon Marché creation, the first Paris department stores, retailing becomes a theater […] the product presentation and staging take on a top-rated importance’.
‘Since the 50’s, […] the link between art and economy becomes widespread. It el vínculo entre arte y economía se generaliza. It gets institucionalizad within the capitalism this combination between benefits and aesthetics, profit and imagination, economical calculation and sensorial daydreaming’.
‘What’s the difference between an art gallery and a fashion boutique today?’
Who were responsible for business and art merged and for the Artistic Capitalism that Lipovetsky refers to?
There was a time when large corporations attributed business value to creative minds. In fact, the first consultants were creative. Specifically designers.
Just to make a brief review, at the end of the 19th century, coinciding with the beginning of artistic capitalism, the Arts And Crafts movement emerges in England as a reaction to dehumanization and the lack of sensitivity that mass production systems and an excess of industrialization had provoked (Vogel, M. 2009).
‘The Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction against the process of industrial production, emphasizing the quality of the product and experience created for consumers’.
‘By the end of the nineteenth century, the two clear sides of the argument
about how best to manage change were fully developed. On one side were the
industrialists, represented by Carnegie, Rockefeller,J.P. Morgan, and Ford.
Supported by Fredrick Taylor’s theories of scientiVic production, they promoted the rapid growth of the modern corporation. The opposing position was held by Arts and Crafts advocates, represented at that time by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Viennese Secessionists, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Gustav Stickley, who extolled human-scale production and consumption.’
This ‘ideology’ of the design in defense of the human and the artistic as a reaction to the technological threat took over Europe between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, laying the conceptual foundations on which the Bauhaus would later be founded, a school that for the first time raised a ‘design science’ advocating the balance between art, science and business.
This is what later on would be called Design Thinking.
From the influences of the Bauhaus were born the first designers who made the first strategic consulting work and designed new business models joining design and engineering, science and art, “magic” and mathematics. This became especially relevant when these visions intermingled with the capitalist culture and mass production of the United States (Vogel, M. 2009).
‘Where the influence of the Bauhaus in America originated primarily in education and then moved into practice, the success of these designer influenced the content of the curriculum of American design programs, which began to graduate practitioners who could fill the demand for corporate and consulting designers’.
To recall some of them and their recognized work of ‘strategic consulting’ through the design of experiences (Vogel, M. 2009):
Peter Behrens’s & AEG
‘Behrens’s work is particularly notable in that he designed not only AEG’s buildings and products but also the company’s corporate identity and print advertising’.
Walter Gropius y Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
‘The Bauhaus, founded in 1919 by Gropius, was the first school in the twentieth century to take Behrens’s ideas and translate them into a curriculum for higher education’.
Harley Earl & GM
‘Harley Earl, GM’s head of color and trim from 1927 to 1959, was the first designer in the United States to apply market segmentation in a strategic way to the design of cars’.
Henry Dreyfuss & AT&T
‘The Dreyfuss phone for AT&T was the first attempt to integrate human factors into the integrated speaker/receiver[…]His work formed a unique argument within the emerging field of human factors/ergonomics by always emphasizing the need for logical approaches that produced elegant solutions […]He expressed those ideas in his 1955 book, Designing for People’.
Raymond Loewy & Coldspot
‘Loewy merged aesthetics, materials, and manufacturing to transform the loud and ugly electric refrigerator of the 1920s into a modern kitchen appliance. The consumer response was immediate. In one year, sales of the Sears’ Cold Spot increased from 65,000 to 250,000 units—without any significant change in core technology’.
Paul Rand and Elliot Noyes & IBM
‘One of the first strategic design decisions Rand and Noyes conceived for International Business Machines was to reduce its long and awkward name to IBM. Modern identities, they believed, needed to be easy to read and pronounce in all applications and all languages’.
When art and business come together is when creativity begins to be theorized and turned into a process, which caused the techniques proliferated. Creativity was democratized as a tool that solved problems beyond the purely emotional.
In 1961 is published a book entitled Synectics by William J.J. Gordon and George Prince who propose a creative methodology for problem solving. The book was based on the assumption that creativity could be learned.
As a fact, this book was created within the consulting firm Arthur D. Little Invention Design Unit en los 50’s, where both worked:
‘Synectics is a way to approach creativity and problem-solving in a rational
This trend reaches the world of advertising where Alex Fackney Osborn (BBDO’s O) develops the creative technique of brainstorming in the book How To Think Up, 1963.
In 1971, comes a book entitled The Universal Traveler: A Soft-Systems Guide to Creativity, Problem-Solving, and the Process of Reaching Goals
‘The Universal Traveler is more than a guide to creative problem-solving and clear thinking; it is your passport to success. The process described is universally relevant; based on the premise that any problem, dream, or aspiration, no matter its size or degree of complexity, can benefit from the same logical and orderly ‘systematic’ process employed to solve world-level problems’.
It is worth mentioning the reasonable similarity of this last title with the stages of the one known and broken down by the use of design thinking methodology.
‘A curious metaphorical travel guide to creative problem-solving, originally published in 1971 by researchers Don Koberg and Jim Bagnall, offering
what’s essentially a blueprint to design thinking nearly four decades before
design thinking was a buzzword’. (Popova, M. 2011)
However, it is a book that literally seeks to stimulate creative thinking..
We see how creativity has been deeply integrated within corporations throughout the 20th century with the the design of brand experiences as main object.
Design consultancy, strategic design, human-centered design, user experience, or design thinking are terms under which large consultancy companies have been created. Terms that are now fashionable in the business world and seem new and totally unrelated to its origin and purpose, which is creativity.
What happened? When does this breakdown in the emotionality of experience that only creativity is able to give to a brand occur?
As I said at the beginning, technology has made us forget. Being specific, it has been the data.
With the end of the 20th century the digital disruption and then the financial crisis arrive. Everything stops and everything seems to be reduced to start ups, platform economics, big data and artificial intelligence. Creativity seems to be at the service of technology and consultants become large technological conglomerates trained to make anything possible with technology.
This digital disruption also allows brands to have direct real-time contact with consumers for the first time, forcing them to have to design their own experiences, beyond the design of the object itself, which was previously the responsibility of retailers of all life.
For example, back then it was El Corte Inglés who designed and offered the experience and not the brand itself: they refunded the money if we were not satisfied and we were able to go to the movies or to a restaurant after going shopping. But if the TV didn’t work or the shoes didn’t fit we didn’t demand anything from Samsung or Nike on Twitter. We complained to El Corte Inglés. But this changes, as we say, with the digital disruption.
At this moment, brands have to ‘design’ their digital presence and offer an experience that runs on their own consultants begin to orchestrate large automated data collection ecosystems, then used to segment and customize.
Given the security that the data offers to the entrepreneur, creativity is then something that comes later, something secondary, something that cannot be measured and of which the return it gives cannot be known.
‘CMOs found growth through technology investments to improve customer
experiences and loyalty (while also insourcing and slashing agency fees’.(Patisall, J. 2019)
In this economy of big data is when the explosion of big techs that had been padding for years occurs (Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook). Padding as much that their technological origins weren’t enough anymore. It is then when everything converges in the software, the technological companies are no longer technological but entertainers, retailers, banks or automotive business.
‘Facebook is incessantly churning out new products and seems unfazed when they don’t stick, Google has built an empire on diverse products, and Amazon is positioning itself to exploit developments in areas like the Internet of Things. […] The world’s biggest tech companies are all in on diversification – it is often the difference between success and domination’.(Monds, Ch. 2019)
As it happens, these four great ‘digital natives’ are the first to base their innovations on the user experience, applying ‘human sciences’.
Apple is what it is for offering one of the best consumer experiences, both in digital and retail. Amazon opened its physical store precisely for this. Google is the homepage of virtually all Western Internet users… and Facebook has Instagram, where millions of people spend hours and hours a day. All this with philosophies based on ‘putting the user at the center’.
Apple developed its iMac together with the consultancy FrogDesign, founded by Hartmut Esslinger (from the school of Ulm, originally founded by students of the Bauhauss).
Previously Apple had designed its mouse together with IDEO (consultancy who popularized the term Design Thinking, a technique that we have already seen where it comes from).
We also know that these techs have been managed by top managers defending the potential of creativity to generate business, something uncommon in board members of big ‘traditional’ companies where decisions are made. Steve Jobs is the one that first comes to mind. But we just need to take a look on what kind of profiles are leading the work of these companies. Some of them even with advertising backgrounds. To name a few:
‘As Design Manager at Airbnb, Steve led a multi-disciplinary team of researchers, designers, content strategists, and program managers. He was instrumental in the launch of Airbnb for Work — Airbnb’s first B2B offering and fastest growing new business — as well as Airbnb Experiences, Payments, and more. Prior to Airbnb, Steve was a Creative Director at Frog. There he led research and design for clients including Disney, Verizon, Chase, Westfield, and more’. (https://www.steveselzer.com/about)
‘Prior to joining Wolff Olins, I led design at West alongside Allison Johnson — former Apple CMO, creating categories for the world’s most promising early stage companies. Earlier in my career, I served as Interbrand’s Senior Creative Director, supporting a portfolio of critical technology accounts including AT&T, Google, Microsoft and Vine.’ (https://www.wolffolins.com/)
Knowing the current transversal domain of the technological companies, let’s say that I am the Santaner Bank, Barceló Hotels or Movistar and I need to compete with Apple, Airbnb or Netflix and I go to my consultant to ask how to do it.
The first thing my consultant would think (but wouldn’t tell me) is that at a time when technology converges on everything, we cannot compete with a technology company with more technology. Because technology for these companies is only a tool at the service of what really has the ability to generate business value and differentiation in the market: creativity.
The next thing my consultant would do, after realizing about this and after looking at himself, is to think that if he doesn’t act creativity would eat his piece of the cake. Because Santander, Inditex or Movistar would go in search of what they really need. What IBM, AEG or General Motors already looked for. And creativity could easily be placed on the first place in the value chain and become a core part of long-term business decision making. In fact this is what has actually happened.
Because there is no industry that doesn’t need to rethink itself to continue existing. Because to sell, it is not enough just with technology, or with data, or with TV spots. Because the experience is to design a way of relating to people by offering them real value that has a potential for brand building greater than any advertising piece that is conceived in isolation.
Advertising agencies have reduced creative capital to copies and graphic designers, that is, to the communication execution phase, without being able to see that business consulting is a creative-based environment.
We are at a time in which big companies and the world in general doesn’t need to invent but reinvent. And that is exactly what creative minds are capable of.
‘Creativity is not limited to creating new things but to make us rethink our way of seeing the world, something that a machine will never be able to do.’
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On the author:
Vicente Gallego is Publicist and Head of the department of strategy of a communications agency in Barcelona. He also studies social and cultural anthropology, a discipline that he considers increasingly necessary and that gives meaning to the experience gained during his professional career.