‘First catch your pike,’ ran the line. ‘And let it be a large one,’ ran the next. Unhelpfully.
It used to make Dad and I chuckle on our fishing trips. ‘But of course!’, we’d to say to each other, eyes rolling, ‘Why didn’t we think of that?!’
It was the first line in a recipe for pike, and the book was Izaak Walton’s 1653 Compleat Angler.
Old Izaak no doubt had mirthful intentions (humor — or irony at least — is a staggering constant in the crossword of literature, across continents and down the ages), but nonetheless, his point is a good one.
There’s no point eating small pike. It simply isn’t worth it.
But even though Dad and I knew this to be true, we carried on ‘letting’ our pike be small ones. We had many theories as to why, but ultimately we were fishing in the wrong pool. And so it is with talent.
Agency-land is in turmoil. The whole of the marketing services industry has been hit by what is now several years of economic rollercoaster, bank bailouts, corporate budget-slashing and downsizing, and — above all else — commoditisation; a commoditisation driven by the absence in our world of effective barriers to entry and a gross inequality of supply and demand.
Great news for clients (perhaps). Very, very bad news for agencies. Not that we have any sympathy for the agencies. I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of developing very sensitive ‘change antennae’: and to extend the insect analogy, those without such antennae will be hurled against the windshield of history. It really is as simple as that. Darwinian reality at it’s brutal, uncaring — yet magnificently efficient — best.
The good news is that now, in 2015, everyone (well, nearly everyone) recognises what needs to happen: agencies need to move upstream, away from solely the simple execution of websites, ads and collateral, and into the C-suite, strategy and the territory of the big consultancies. That’s where the action is: a genuinely grown-up strategy offer equals great briefs, and good margin.
‘Downstream’ matters, of course. Hugely. There are very few of us who haven’t heard a pal in a corporate complain about the lack of tangible action resulting from an expensive and time-consuming McKinsey intervention. Strategy alone does not get the baby bathed. But there is no doubt that the direction of travel has to be upstream.
So how do you make that happen?
It cannot be an overnight job. Not just because the wheels come off (and they do) but because it goes way beyond a classic repositioning. It is more than a new brand, and it goes even deeper than a new culture.
It’s about hiring a different type of person. It’s about people who can not just outperform the grey, anodyne ‘thought’ that is spouted — at great expense — over and again by the consultant disciples of the big business schools, but people who will also proactively fill a room with the zing and zest of their multifarious knowledge. People who are instinctively, inherently creative, in that word’s truest, broadest sense. Because what we ultimately sell is ideas; ideas that fuel change in businesses. And if ideas have a nursery, if they germinate anywhere, it is in the free exchange, the interplay of differing views; the reflections and sparks that diversity causes leading to the sum being not just greater than the parts but also original.
It is this, it seems to us, that enables us to innovate. Creativity is an essentially human trait, and humans are essentially social. There is therefore a direct relationship between the more ideas, the more things, the more people that each of us is exposed to, and the richness of our individual store of knowledge. And the more knowledge we have, the more we need; and so it goes on.
Picasso is supposed to have said ‘the best artists steal’, but he was being simultaneously dramatic and humble. The best artists — in the broadest possible sense of the word — are in fact intellectually curious, and intrigued by life; in particular by life beyond the one they already know. They are not just happy to draw on, and be inspired by, the works of others; they see it as essential. Such folk are restless, natural adventurers, bobbing around in Jefferson’s ‘boisterous sea of liberty’, unsated by the status quo, thirsty for more; each man or woman a latter day Odysseus for whom the journey is at least as important as the destination.
Enter Renaissance Man, Renaissance Woman: these are the people with whom we need to fill our agencies. It is no accident that the creative greats historically were always impatient towards, frustrated by, perhaps even furious with, artificial barriers or silos that inhibited their learning, their discovery.
Walter Gropius, founder and guru of the Bauhaus movement, whose extraordinary legacy still informs so much of what we see around us today, was seeking ‘A New Unity’ between art and technology back in 1923. And Aldous Huxley, scion of perhaps Britain’s foremost intellectual family, in his final work, Literature and Science, urged a rapprochement between those two disciplines. No man is an island, as English Renaissance poet John Donne elegantly had it.
Quite — or at least no man or woman in a creative agency can these days afford be an island. We require latter day Da Vincis: people with the mental agility to move from chapel to chopper in one fell swoop.
Ambitious, educated, urgent eclecticism.
It’s a tall order, I’ll be the first to admit.
But this is what will take our agencies upstream. And that’s where the really big pike are.
– this piece first kindly published by Campaign Magazine