Buyer Experience Design

The Quiet Coup: How Consultants Quietly Overtook Agencies

In the bustling corridors of a Fortune 500 company, a CEO once remarked after a failed advertising campaign, “The creatives looked good, but it didn’t feel right strategically.” This sentiment encapsulates the tension between the worlds of consulting and agency. But what drives this tension?

The answer lies in two foundational documents: the business case and the business brief.

I penned this article in response to an increasingly evident trend in the business landscape: the divergent approaches of consulting firms and agencies, a topic Yousuf and I delved into on the Dots podcast. Drawing from my observations and insights from industry stalwarts, I aimed to shed light on the inherent differences using their foundational documents and methodologies.

Disclaimer: This is not an attempt to champion one over the other; I only seek to illuminate a potential gap. By understanding these nuances, businesses can make more informed decisions, ensuring their strategies are deeply rooted and creatively resonant. The ultimate goal is to foster a dialogue that might lead to relevant outcomes for the client.

Yousuf and I cover this topic in detail in this episode.

The Business Case: Curiosity Before Conclusion
Consultants train to stay curious longer. They delve deep, ask probing questions, and resist the urge to jump to conclusions. This approach ensures that they fully understand the intricacies of a business problem before suggesting solutions.

Alan Weiss, a consulting luminary, once aptly said, “Real consulting is diagnosing before prescribing.” This philosophy is evident in the modus operandi of consulting firms. They prioritize understanding over immediate action, ensuring their recommendations are insightful and actionable.

The Business Brief: Quick Solutions, Immediate Impact
On the other hand, agencies, driven by the fast-paced nature of the marketing world, often prioritize speed. They’re adept at quickly crafting solutions, producing campaigns that resonate emotionally and visually in record time.

While this agility is commendable, they sometimes jump to solutions without fully exploring the underlying business challenges. Rory Sutherland emphasizes the emotional drivers of human behaviour, suggesting that agencies often tap into these drivers to create an immediate impact.

However, this rapid response can sometimes be a double-edged sword. The business brief, emphasizing immediacy, can inadvertently position agencies as order-takers rather than strategic partners.

The Psychology of “Funding” vs. “Pricing”

When clients hear “cost” or “fees,” it often evokes a sense of expenditure, an outflow of resources, or a financial burden. It’s a term that, in its essence, signifies a subtraction from one’s assets. In the world of agencies, discussions often revolve around these terms. How much will this campaign cost? What are the fees involved in this project? These questions, while essential, can sometimes create a transactional tone to the conversation. The focus becomes the immediate financial implications rather than the potential value or return on investment.

On the other hand, the term “funding” carries a different connotation. It suggests investment, growth, and future potential. When consultants talk about “funding projects,” they’re framing the conversation in terms of opportunities and future gains. It’s not just about the money being spent, but where that money is going and what it will achieve. This perspective aligns more with long-term strategic planning and the potential for sustainable growth.

Moreover, the term “outcomes” further reinforces this forward-looking perspective. It shifts the focus from the immediate transaction to the results that the investment will yield. It’s a promise of value, of tangible benefits that the client can expect from their investment.

The emphasis on “long-term strategic worth” by consultants further cements this perspective. It’s not just about the here and now, but about the future. It’s about building something lasting that will continue to provide value long after the initial investment has been made.

The Client’s Perception

From a client’s perspective, these distinctions in language and focus can significantly influence their perception of value and willingness to invest.

When faced with discussions centred on “costs” and “fees,” clients might become more cost-conscious, seeking ways to minimize expenditure and maximize every dollar spent. They might prioritize short-term gains over long-term benefits, seeking immediate returns on their investment.

Conversely, when the conversation revolves around “funding,” “outcomes,” and “long-term strategic worth,” clients are more likely to adopt a growth mindset. They’ll be more open to making significant investments if they can see the potential for long-term benefits and sustainable growth. They’ll think in terms of opportunities rather than expenditures.

The language we use in business discussions isn’t just semantics. It carries weight, influencing perceptions, mindsets, and, ultimately, decisions. While agencies and consulting firms offer immense value, how they frame their services can significantly impact how clients perceive that value.

By understanding these psychological nuances, agencies and consultants can better align their discussions with client needs and expectations, fostering more productive and mutually beneficial relationships.

The Implications: Depth vs. Dazzle
This dichotomy has profound business implications. With their in-depth analysis and prolonged curiosity, consulting firms position themselves as strategic partners. They’re the architects meticulously designing a skyscraper, ensuring structural integrity and longevity.

On the other hand, advertising agencies, with their rapid creative responses, risk being seen as mere decorators. While they add aesthetic value, the foundational strength — the strategy — might sometimes be missing.

How you show up determines where you show up in the conversation. Ask questions, stay curious longer and be invited early. Jump to solutions and ideas and be the last to enter the party.

The Path Forward: A Blended Reality
In recent years, consulting giants like Accenture and Deloitte made significant acquisitions in the design and advertising space, with purchases of agencies like Droga5, Heat and TWG, respectively. These acquisitions signify a shift towards a blended reality where consulting firms aim to offer end-to-end solutions, from strategic inception to creative execution.

  1. Accenture Interactive: A prime example of the convergence between consulting and marketing, Accenture Interactive positions itself as an “experience agency.” It combines Accenture’s deep business and technological expertise with creative prowess. Their acquisition of Droga5, a renowned creative agency, further solidified their commitment to offering end-to-end solutions, from business strategy to creative execution.
  2. Deloitte Digital: Another testament to this trend. A part of the Deloitte Consulting group, it offers a mix of consulting and creative services. They’ve made several acquisitions in the digital and creative space, such as purchasing the agency Heat. This allows them to provide comprehensive solutions encompassing strategy, user experience, and creative design.
  3. PwC Digital Services: PwC, traditionally known for its consulting and audit services, has expanded into the digital and creative realm with PwC Digital Services. They offer a blend of business consulting and technology with creative and digital design services. They integrate strategy, experience, and tech to solve complex business challenges.

This integrated approach is already reshaping the business landscape, allowing companies to benefit from both depth and dazzle. They achieve long-term strategic alignment while simultaneously resonating in the market. In today’s dynamic environment, consulting firms are both advisors and implementers, bridging the gap between strategy and execution seamlessly.

Challenges on the Horizon
However, this convergence has its challenges. Integrating distinct corporate cultures, methodologies, and client expectations can be daunting. There’s also the risk of diluting specialized expertise in pursuing end-to-end solutions. Moreover, while consulting firms excel in strategic depth, they might need help replicating the agility and creative spontaneity agencies are renowned for.

Change Management: The Key to Integration
The success of this blended reality hinges on effective change management. Both consulting firms and agencies need to be agile, adapting to new roles and expectations. Training programs, workshops, and collaborative projects can help merge the best of both worlds. It’s about fostering an environment where consultants think creatively, and marketers strategize deeply.

Transforming Ways of Working and Skillsets
The fusion of consulting and marketing will inevitably change the ways of working. Traditional hierarchies might give way to more collaborative and cross-functional teams. The rules of engagement will evolve, emphasizing continuous learning, adaptability, and interdisciplinary knowledge.

Employees will need to be more versatile. A consultant might need to understand creative processes, while a marketer might need to delve deeper into business strategy. This demands a workforce that’s not only skilled in their core competencies but also has a broader understanding of the entire business landscape.

Finally, understanding the nuances between these approaches becomes imperative as businesses navigate the complexities of today’s landscape and anticipate tomorrow’s challenges. The choice isn’t merely between depth and dazzle, long-term strategic alignment, and immediate market resonance.

As the business world evolves, one thing remains clear: the need for robust strategy and impactful creativity has never been more pronounced, and the lines between consulting and marketing have never been more blurred. The future beckons a new breed of professionals, adept at strategy and creativity, ready to navigate the challenges of a rapidly changing business environment.

Title credits: Yousuf Afridi 🏆


Managers Thrive in Meetings; Creatives Flourish Outside Them

In the bustling landscape of the modern workplace, two distinct species coexist: managers, who thrive in the structured confines of meetings, and creatives, who flourish in the expansive wilderness outside them.

This dichotomy, however, presents a paradox. As a leader, you might believe you’re fostering innovation, but the conventional manager’s schedule could be suffocating your team’s creative spirit.

This article explores this tension and offers solutions for leaders seeking to foster a more creative and innovative environment.

In my years as a creative leader, I’ve navigated the challenging terrain between two worlds. On the one hand, I’m a maker, a creator, thriving in the solitude of my thoughts, where ideas blossom into innovative solutions. On the other hand, I’m a manager juggling meetings, deadlines, and the constant demands of leadership.

I recall a week when I was working on a crucial project. My calendar, filled with back-to-back meetings, left me with fragmented pockets of time insufficient for deep, creative thinking. The mounting pressure was extinguishing my creative spark. Then, I realized the stark contrast between the Maker’s Schedule and the Manager’s Schedule, as Paul Graham describes in his insightful essay.

My solution was introducing a new role within my team – a generalist creative leader who could bridge the gap between the makers and the managers. This person, understanding the sanctity of the Maker’s Schedule, protected the creative team’s space, enabling them to enter a flow state. This transformative change allowed our creative team to work in large, uninterrupted blocks of time, fostering an environment where innovation thrived.

Renowned author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss echoes this sentiment: “Large, uninterrupted blocks of time—3-5 hours minimum—create the space needed to find and connect the dots.” This perspective underscores the importance of respecting the sanctity of the Maker’s Schedule in fostering creativity.

However, the challenge arises when these two schedules intersect, especially in large organizations. As the Harvard Business Review article “Creativity and the Role of the Leader” suggests, “Leaders can’t directly manage creativity, but they can create conditions that encourage it.” This involves a delicate balance of fostering a culture of creativity while maintaining the necessary managerial structures.

Leaders should not be the sole source of ideas but should encourage and champion ideas from all ranks within the organization. Ferriss notes, “As Brad Feld and many others have observed, great creative work isn’t possible if you’re trying to piece together 30 minutes here and 45 minutes there.” This highlights the importance of creating an environment where ideas can bubble up from the ranks and leaders can champion these ideas.

Moreover, leaders should facilitate creative collaboration and encourage diverse perspectives. As the HBR article states, “Leaders must tap the imagination of employees at all ranks and ask inspiring questions. They must also help their organizations incorporate diverse perspectives, which spur creative insights.”

Let’s consider Amazon’s ‘Institutional Yes’ policy. This guiding principle defaults to ‘YES,’ placing the onus on the naysayers to demonstrate why an idea won’t work, not on the innovators to prove why it will. One of the outcomes of this policy: The birth of Amazon Web Services (AWS), Amazon’s highly successful cloud computing platform, is now a standard in the tech industry.

The secret sauce for fostering relentless innovation is giving creativity space allowing flow state to happen, and inviting new ideas by saying ‘yes’ more often.

While essential in certain stages of work, process management should be applied thoughtfully. It’s not appropriate in all phases of creative work. As the HBR article suggests, “The leader’s job is to map out the stages of innovation and recognize the different processes, skill sets, and technology support that each requires.”

In conclusion, the symphony of creativity requires careful orchestration of the Maker’s and Manager’s schedules and saying ‘yes’ more often. Leaders must foster an environment that encourages ideas from all ranks, facilitates creative collaboration, and thoughtfully applies process management.

Doing so can create a harmonious rhythm that nurtures innovation and creativity. As Paul Graham wisely notes, “Each type of schedule works fine. Problems arise when they meet.” Recognizing and respecting these different rhythms is the key to unlocking the full creative potential of an organization.


From Janitors to Jargon: Navigating the Big Four with an Unlikely Tool

👀 I’m about to tell you how I used my ‘humanity compass’ to navigate the wild jungles of consulting, where power suits meet PowerPoint slides, and where it’s easier to get lost in the jargon than to find a free meeting room!

Ever tried striking up a conversation with a security guard on a bustling Tuesday morning? As counterintuitive as it sounds, that’s where my day used to begin at one of the Big Four consulting firms (pre-pandemic stuff, folks).

Yes, you heard it right—I converse, not merely exchange a rushed, mumbled greeting. And not with the high-flying senior partners or the client relationship gurus, but with Mike, the security guard, the ladies at reception, the people working in the print shop, and so on.

The corporate world often fosters a peculiar kind of tunnel vision. Picture this: employees, each a cog in this grand machinery, bustling about like purposeful ants, eyes glued to screens or focused straight ahead, ears tuned into a symphony of productivity—keyboards clicking and the constant hum of ambitious conversations.

In this orchestrated chaos, they tend to cocoon themselves in their professional bubbles, letting their gazes glaze over the world outside their immediate tasks. It’s an ironic ballet of hundreds of people in one shared space, each seemingly oblivious to the other’s presence.

The security guard’s greeting, the janitor’s nod, the friendly smile of a colleague from a different department—each one often overlooked in the rush of deadlines and targets. There’s a palpable disconnect, a silent wall erected by unacknowledged presences and unreturned greetings. This veil of indifference, though invisible, can be as tangible as the glass walls of their meeting rooms.

“Paul knows everyone!” 👋🏼

In this whirlwind of a consulting world, where roles are as distinct as chalk and cheese, and hierarchy is as visible as the neon ‘Exit’ signs, my interactions are fueled by something less obvious but more potent—humanity.

Did I mention awkwardness as a byproduct?

The roots of this ethos trace back to my hometown, Chandigarh—a city that has perfected the art of living life in the slow lane. Here, my journalist father and schoolteacher mother introduced me to a timeless principle: every human deserves respect.

It’s an approach I’ve taken from the serene bylanes of Chandigarh to the high-powered boardrooms in Toronto, treating everyone as a human first and a job title second. At times, the irony of fancy titles is that they create walls. Not on my watch!

Channelling my inner Atticus Finch (thanks, Harper Lee!), I’ve discovered you never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view. So, whether it’s the night shift janitor or the senior partners, I approach each interaction with curiosity and an equal dose of respect.

Does it make a difference?

You bet it does! It’s like sprinkling a bit of Dale Carnegie charm into each interaction, resulting in relationships as robust as a well-brewed cup of chai. Think Chris Gardner from “The Pursuit of Happyness”—from homelessness to owning a brokerage firm while preserving his humanity. Now that’s a journey worth emulating!

So, if you’re ready to dodge those status-quos and disrupt the usual, here’s your how-to guide for putting ‘human’ at the forefront of your life:

Humanity Before Hierarchy: The CEO or the janitor? Both are humans first. Remember, folks, roles don’t define people; their humanity does.

Listen and Empathize: Channel your inner Dale Carnegie and view the world from others’ shoes. You’ll be amazed at the wisdom you unearth and the connections you cultivate.

Promote Open Communication: Create an environment where everyone feels valued and heard regardless of status. That’s where respect flourishes, my friends!

Lead by Example: As clichéd as it may sound, actions DO speak louder than words. So, demonstrate respect and kindness, and inspire others to follow suit.

In summary, I didn’t just survive the corporate world; I seasoned it with my unique flavour. My philosophy is simple: see the human first, the role second. And that, my friends, is how I discovered that respect isn’t just the secret ingredient for building strong relationships—it’s the spice that enriches life.

So, ready to tear down those invisible hierarchies and embrace our shared humanity? As you’ll soon discover, respect has the power to spin the most compelling tales—even in the most unlikely corners of the corporate world.

Also, the gossip is next level!