Dog eat dog food: Why the corporate marketing of creative firms is so often so mediocre

Of all firms, creative firms should get it right -- but they often don't. Why is that?

Tim Leberecht
Tim Leberecht is Frog Design's chief marketing officer. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET.
Tim Leberecht
4 min read

"We're doing all the things we tell our clients not to do," admits a strategy director at a renowned design and innovation firm, "it is ironic." He's not alone with his assessment. Other employees of creative firms (let's just use this label as a catch-all for all design, innovation, marketing, brand, and advertising firms) secretly confess that while they go out preaching to their clients about the importance of open innovation, brand consistency, or a distinct, provocative marketing messages, it is the very absence of all of which that often severely hampers their own organizations.

All too often, creative firms struggle with applying their proven principles, methodologies, and tools at home. While they strive to inject "out-of-the-box" thinking into their clients' organizations, they choose to stay within their own box, which is often in a poor condition. While they teach clients ways to foster a high-commitment, high-performance culture, they fail to create it for their own teams. While they promote flat hierarchies to spur innovation, risk-taking, and creativity, they often have bloated structures themselves that resemble the org chart of the Roman Empire. While they evangelize original and irreverent thinking, their own marketing campaigns are safe, mediocre, boring, and devoid of any potentially polarizing, sticky ideas. While they propagate the value of an engaging, user-friendly experience across all brand touch points, the interactions with their own brand are often stale and impersonal.

Of all firms, creative firms should get it right -- but they often don't. Why is that?

First of all, creative firms tend to suffer from a Not-Invented-Here syndrome. Instead of welcoming outside innovation, they succumb to the same short-sighted inward fixation that handicaps many of their clients -- relying on internal, often billable resources that are strapped for time and laden with political baggage and thus often fail to generate truly fresh ideas. Groupthink and other well-researched social dynamics prohibit true, disruptive change. Decisions are made by committees, and the result is, in many cases, the lowest common denominator. Everyone's satisfied -- but no one is really happy, let alone excited.

Another frequent phenomenon is the creative paralysis that begets the creative firm not in spite but because of its amassed creative powers. One key leader empowered to make decisions is of the essence in such environments, and the lack thereof stifles commitment. When there are too many cooks in the kitchen, too many strong creative opinions, too much foil and mutual out-smarting, competitiveness does not fuel, but rather stalls progress. Projects derail, and egos are inconsolably hurt along the way.

The third problem is the time horizon. Many creative firms' perspective is rather short-term as they are strongly exposed to the volatility of the economy and focus on new and opportunistic business rather than long-term strategic planning. The need to meet the numbers and maximize the utilization of resources all the way down to the bottom line doesn't leave much room for brand-building, a critical examination of one's own market positioning, or an overhaul of the marketing platform.

Fourth, marketers who are tasked with marketing a creative firm are under constant scrutiny for a possible lack of proper credentials. Creative teams are often skeptical about the efforts of an "outsider" who has not lived through the inner-workings and experienced the pain of working for demanding clients. Their motto seems to be: "We could do it better if only we could (but we lack the time)." Of course, the billable, creative types will never be pleased, no matter what. If the corporate marketer delivers below-par work, they will tear it apart. If s/he excels, they will feel threatened.

Creative firms can be narcissistic, navel-gazing, and soul-searching monsters, carried away with their own grandeur and prowess (or the assumption thereof) and in stubborn defiance of what their audiences have to say. And often, some nebulous self-cult makes them openly refuse being marketed at all ("The first rule of the Fight Club: You don't talk about the Fight Club.").

Marketing a creative firm is a tough job. You gotta be creative.

Here are three principles that I try to apply in my job:

1. Whenever you can, simplify. Because that's your job and the one turf where no one else can (and wants to) compete with you! Translate the complexity of your business into digestible chunks for your audience. Earn a reputation as "simplifier" and you will earn respect.

2. Stay out of the arena. Leave the intellectual strong-arming to the creative stars. Don't try to out-smart, out-wit, or out-innovate them. Drop your ego at the door.

3. Play with your own toys, find your own buddies, and build something that you and your team can truly own.

(to be continued)