Pirates vs the Merchant Navy ii

July 28 2017

Each quarter, Contagious partners with strategic headhunters The Blueprint to host a Working Dinner: an invite-only gathering of industry leaders, who debate key business issues over supper in a Soho dining room. The most recent conclave centred on senior creatives, hailing from a range of companies: digital agencies to a major management consultancy.  

The consensus was that the role of creative directors is rapidly evolving. After more than a decade of complaining that they were being relegated to commodity service providers, creative directors are now more likely to have the ear of the C-suite and are being entrusted with solving broader challenges, such as business transformation, co-creation and being asked to advise on their agency’s M&A activity.

This shift towards commerciality is bringing creative agencies into conflict (and cahoots) with management consultants, many of which are making their own moves into the space occupied by creative agencies. With more than a dash of cynicism, one guest suggested the creative shops’ motive was the 40%+ margins that consultancy work yields. It dwarfs the 10-15% agencies usually subsist on. Meanwhile, the consultancies have their own challenge, to understand creativity as a business and foster a culture that makes space for creative thinking.

This sparked a comment from a guest who leads a creative lab at a major global management consultancy. He described the collision between his kind of firm and ad agencies as being like pirates going against the Merchant Navy.

Contagious felt that this provocation deserved deeper attention, so we invited the Working Dinners guest – who is writing under the condition of anonymity – to expand upon his thoughts in the following article.

Pirates vs the Merchant Navy /

Sometime in 2006, I was asked the question: ‘Are you a Pirate? Or a Ninja?’. The idea being that you saw yourself as one or the other, that one would win in a fight, etc. Pirates were loud, infectious, challengers of the status quo and hell, loved a good party. Ninjas were stealthy, deadly assassins, dressed exclusively in black and were just cool. As a trained designer the ninja tag appealed, but as an entrepreneur and creative director it had to be the Pirate. After all, I'd managed to sail through the high seas of the dotcom 90's and just about survived.

Skip forward 11 years and I was at a dinner with some colleagues. I'd just taken a role as group creative director working for one of the world’s biggest consultancies. They were intrigued. They were all at various agencies, from design to advertising to service and product design. ‘How is it?’ was the general question. ‘What's it like?’ 

I'd been inside most of the big networks and agencies over the years. Having sold numerous agency start-ups, I felt I knew them and had a particular perspective. ‘Well it's interesting’, I attempted to explain… 

‘Imagine two groups...’, referring back to the pirates vs ninja meme, ‘there is the Pirate Army, and there is the Merchant Navy. Now which one is which? Agency or consultancy? Pirate or Navy?’ Universally, everyone shouted ‘pirates are agencies’. They’d all played the game, and the pirate was way cooler than the sailor. 

‘Wrong’, I explained and went on...

‘Consultancies are fascinating and utterly different to agencies. In their structure, they are federated, staffed by super-smart consultants who are largely generalists and are incredibly adaptable, being able to swap roles and take on different clients almost at will. They can be super aggressive in their approach to business and opportunities and are constantly challenging the status quo using their scale and muscle to break into new markets and define new ways of working. 

‘Agencies, on the other hand, are incredibly well organised around particular disciplines, they are specialists and respond fantastically to briefs and specific instruction. Agencies have resources geared to understand craft and communication and a deep understanding of their expertise. 

‘Agencies are the Merchant Navy. Consultancies are the Pirate Army’, I exclaimed.

‘Noooooooo!’ came the response. Followed by much joking about ‘booty’.

The reality is far more nuanced. The mindset of the ‘Pirate’ is a very healthy one, very entrepreneurial, incredibly adaptable and scalable, but lacking some of the deeper knowledge and appreciation of craft. It needs to be tempered with the deep organising skills of the specialist ‘navy’, the world of craft and fundamentally, culture. 

There is deep culture in the navy model, teams that work together daily that build on their craft and generate trust and empathy with each other. Account wo/men very rarely become creatives, and technologists don't suddenly become the head of copy, etc... they are specialists, trained and honed to do the very best they can within their discipline.  

And here sits the opportunity and the risk.

To become ‘the new’, these two worlds need to embrace each other, need to learn from each other while retaining what makes both special. For agencies, simply bolting a consultancy practice to its offering will be ineffective as the entire business needs to think in a specific way. For consultancies bringing in agencies, they have to be very careful not to destroy the specialism that makes them, well, special.

It's something in my consultancy role I'm incredibly aware of. In my mind's eye, I see myself as a ‘Pirate Navy Seal’ (probably more Captain Pugwash). But the brave new world that this ‘Pirate Navy’ offers is incredibly exciting and offers incredible value to clients and the businesses themselves. 

After all, how do pirates know that they are pirates?

They think, therefore they arrrrrrrrr.