Stop Consulting and Get Creative

Consider your agency’s strategy department before you pay through the nose for white-shoe management consultants.

Five years into my career in account planning, as strategy was then called, I came face-to-face with management consultants for the first time. I haven’t forgotten it.

I had been invited to represent my agency on a special task force formed by one of our clients at a large pharmaceutical company. The business challenge was intoxicating: How can you get people to pay more for brand-name drugs once patents run out and generic versions become available for a fraction of the price?

For big pharma, it’s a billion-dollar question.

The kickoff took place in a large conference room on a high floor in midtown Manhattan with 11 senior-level clients, a team of five management consultants from one of the big firms you’ve heard of, and me, wearing the one suit I owned, mostly for weddings.

It’s telling, the expectations our client had for what a marketing agency could bring to a business challenge of this sophistication and gravity, that I was the sole agency representative. But our client knew that we could dream up unexpected ideas now and again, so what the hell?

The consultants wore beautiful, polished shoes. A few of them were Ph.D.s. One had been a chemical engineer, another a physicist. One guy claimed to have over 30 years of experience in pharmaceutical leadership. The slides they presented were like nothing I had seen before, so many arrows and gridlines and quadrants and data points. They had a model for everything. They seemed to know exactly what to do. Their speech patterns were sophisticated and precise. They proposed a high-six-figure research methodology, which was approved on the spot. It typically took us three months to sell one print ad to this client.

I dared not speak. I wasn’t asked to present, nor to provide any input for the research plan. I was tasked with just one thing: “Try to be the voice of the consumer in all this. Tell us what you think of the research findings.”

What every agency strategist worth their salt knows (even those with only five years’ experience) above anything else is that humans do not act rationally. The human is an odd, emotional, nonsensical, self-defeating being. There’s no way you’re going to get people to pay more for identical pills by making a logical case. But that’s exactly what the consultants suggested.

The Emotion Behind the Data

After two months of interviews, focus groups, surveys, testing, analysis and presentations, the consultants’ grand recommendation was for our client to do everything possible to make the brand-name drugs as cheap as the generics. And that if the price was close enough, a healthy portion of consumers wouldn’t bother making the switch. Well, I could have said that. I mused at the thought of telling my other clients in CPG or apparel to just make their products cheaper. My intimidation diffused.

The consultants had committed the cardinal sin of primary research analysis: listening to what consumers were saying rather than what they meant. They failed to notice the true insight lurking beneath the surface: that taking brand-name drugs is partially an emotional decision based on consistency, security and safety. Switching medications from one that had successfully protected you for a long time constitutes a degree of perceived risk. Humans hate change. And that’s what a generic is.

I drafted my rebuttal to the research findings, took it to the client, and up the chain of command I went. They were thrilled to have an insight they could at least try to act on. The findings led to new strategies, which led to market tests, which led to new programs that are still in place today.

Ever since, I’ve watched in amazement as clients reflexively hired management consultants even for problems that were squarely within the expertise of a marketing agency, such as communications strategy, identifying new audiences, uncovering new product insights and finding ways to break through the clutter.

They would get back a pile of slide decks with obvious insights and predictable solutions that would end up in a shared folder for the agency people to reinterpret.

Clients never even seemed to like their consultants. They’d shrug off these engagements as a regrettable rubber stamp needed to appease shareholders, boards or executives. You can’t get fired for following the advice of $500,000 worth of suits, but you can for listening to $50,000 worth of agency strategists in Converse sneakers.

The Case for Agency Strategists Over Consultants

Agencies are always reluctant to defend the true nature of what we do, which is creative, artistic and insightful—even the strategic parts. The relative squishiness of what we sell makes it harder to defend, but it’s only growing in importance in today’s economy, more and more of which is propped up on marketing and demand creation, and trades in information and perception. Brands’ existential problems now are likely to concern standing out from a glut of identical competitors, creating meaning for indifferent consumers and marshaling technology to reinvent how a business goes to market. According to EY (thanks for the research deck!), the top strategic driver for CEOs in 2022 is to “increase customer interactions through digital platforms and touch points.” That sounds like an agency brief.

The solutions to many of today’s biggest corporate challenges relate more to insight and ingenuity than to science and intellect. We’re information- and data-rich, but idea-poor. Real solutions require people who can look at all the same information your competitors have and see something different. At some point, someone needs to have an actual idea.

The unusual people for whom these perspectives come naturally, who see things in unlikely ways, didn’t end up in the Ivy League or with a doctorate in chemical engineering or working as a management consultant specifically because this is their nature. They populate agencies in droves because our industry is one of the few places where a weirdo who isn’t good at following formulas can have a successful professional career. Agencies are still valuable in the world because they don’t have suits, and are better able to attract people with ideas.

The consultancies know all this. That’s why they’re swallowing up creative agencies at will. But their attempts at creative marketing solutions are as out of place as I was in that boardroom years ago. And the agency world shouldn’t let them off the hook by doing a poor impression of what they do, but rather should defend the creative way. It’s not haphazard. Not the random musings of a hipster with an art degree. Not purely subjective. Instead, it’s the intentional output of highly trained experts with a method and a track record.

Diverse Thinking, Simple Solutions

Agency strategy departments can do more than clients may realize. There are, of course, things you shouldn’t take to your agency. Supply chain optimization and infrastructure planning would be a laugh. But there are certain problems beyond marketing communications that your agency might be quite good at solving. 

Consider recruiting and retaining talent, which is plaguing organizations across many industries. This is no longer strictly the realm of HR consultants who will talk about benefits structures, recruiting practices and hiring process. This is about nurturing a magnetic employer brand, largely through content and social media, and understanding how to market to prospects in the same way you do to consumers.

Or consider the infamous “digital transformation” term. That it’s important to sell your products online now or interact with customers virtually is not the revelation we need from a six-month consulting roadmap. The hard part is actually making those digital experiences worthwhile to a human, and figuring out a way to make enough digital content that any of this actually works. Try your agency.

At Manifest, we have a dizzying array of skills and capabilities housed within our strategy team—a spectrum that would be unrecognizable to planning departments of my early years. We intentionally hire for range because that’s now what the market requires: people who can sift through enormous complexity, across divergent disciplines, and discover the thing that does and always will drive our business—a simple idea.

In the second installment of this two-part series on management consulting, we’ll talk more about the things agencies can do that clients often leave to consultants.

About the Author