Management consultants and creatives are fundamentally incompatible

The fundamental differences between management consultants and creatives mean the two are intrinsically incompatible. If you’re not careful, you’ll be left with a hole in your pocket and a 200-page ‘best practice’ deck lying dormant on your hard drive, warns Chris Howatson.

I believe we are entering a period of marketing renaissance. Data and technology are enabling a more intimate understanding and connectivity with individuals. The CMO has returned to the C-suite, experience is accepted as the most influential contributor to customer satisfaction and organisational awareness of brand and customer value is growing with each passing quarter.

Like all periods of transformation, incumbents are displaced and new offerings emerge. Of great interest through these major transition periods is how businesses adapt to the new needs of the world and, with it, the new competitors they suddenly face.

Like agencies, management consultants are redressing for the needs of tomorrow’s addressable world and now both find themselves in a contest to win ownership of the customer experience.

Chris Howatson doesn’t believe the hype around consultancies

Despite the recent hype, my observation is that management consultants have a very long way to go until they can legitimately make any rightful claim to the customer.

Every organisation I talk to has, at some point, engaged a management consultant for customer experience insight. And all they have to show for it is a hole in their pocket and a 200-page ‘best practice’ deck left dormant since the day it was presented.

The management constancy model of ‘love and leave’ is valuable when offering discrete advice in support of commercial sizing, restructures and process optimisations, but consultants haven’t realised that which agencies have always known.

When it comes to the field of marketing, strategy is only as valuable as the execution. This truth is best described by British advertising great Sir John Hegarty: “Advertising is 80% idea and 80% execution”.

Consultants are assessed on the advice they give. They provide legitimacy to major investment decisions and protection to those who make them.

Agencies, on the other hand, have always been assessed on the performance they deliver: our ability to translate business strategy into ideas and experiences that fill the shopping cart.

Critically, agencies make stuff. It’s hard coded into our DNA. And celebrated in our culture. So much so, no agency person ever feels truly purposeful until there is market evidence of his or her efforts.

The most valuable service an agency provides is translating commercial insight into human insight from which behaviour-changing work is inspired and then created. This requires a deep understanding of the creative process and – in their nativity and oversight of this process – this is where management consultants will always fall short.

Management consultancy firms are, of course, aware of their limitation; hence their acquisition fervour for design, development and creative agencies in recent years.

The Monkeys (pictured) has recently been acquired by consultancy firm Accenture

But the acquisition of a few agencies doesn’t create a scalable capability, and the mixing of different people doesn’t create a customer-centric creative culture.

Agencies also understand that share is won by communicating, learning and pivoting at pace – in a state of always-on, constant optimisation – operating with agility, demonstrating grit and hustle in the daily battle to service the customer, while also transforming the organisation in the process.

There is no time to stop, invest, transform, reprocess and start afresh. That’s the fastest way to be displaced.

And so, while management consultants provide enormous value to big business when it comes to investment advice and endorsement, when it comes to communications, be very wary.

Management consultants work with a theoretical “should”, whereas agencies launch actual work into the market one day and learn a very non-theoretical “does” or “doesn’t” the next day. And we pivot immediately – with gusto, enthusiasm, accuracy and creativity.

Challenge the management consultant’s genuine understanding of the customer. Challenge their ability to think creatively. Challenge their ability to execute. And challenge their genuine interest to own and manage in real time the outcome, positive or disastrous, once their strategy is alive in market.

Chris Howatson is CEO of CHE Proximity


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