A Fictional History

By James Lees


Origins of Creative Strategy Agencies in the 21st Century


By the mid 2020s ‘Advertising Agencies’ or ‘Creative Agencies’, as they were then called, began to see their greatest economic successes developing from two distinct changes in their business.

The first being the increasing number of occasions when clients would allow their agency’s strategy to move ‘upstream’. That is to say, they allowed agencies to develop creative strategies that would change their business models, internal processes and source new revenue streams (instead of just applying strategic thought to their communications). This would eventually lead to the evolution of Creative Strategy Agencies (CSAs) – the focus of this volume.

And the second, was the creation of advertising as quality entertainment. It may seem strange now to think that for many years advertising existed as a distraction from entertainment! This particular change would eventually cause many advertising agencies with strong creative departments to form true agency/production company hybrids (instead of CSAs) e.g. Universal Advertising, Westland Focus, Droga Film.

For a view on the development of advertising into content valued by the public see A 21st Century History of Advertainment.


The Origins of Strategy in Advertising

In order to understand the origins of CSAs, it is important to first understand the origins of strategy in advertising.

In the mid to late 20th century the idea of strategy in marketing communications became formalised. Most historical sources often point to the London advertising agency Boase Massimi Pollitt (BMP) in 1965 as the birthplace of ‘account planning’. It was not long before all advertising agencies had Account Planners (the predecessors of Creative Strategists).

The role of these employees was to look at a client’s problem and use research and insight to develop a creative brief that would produce advertising ideas capable of solving that problem.

This of course was only marginally effective because, as marketers would come to understand, some problems were not so easily solved by marketing. To quote an anonymous 21st Century Strategist ‘Back then they were giving agencies a target and insisting they use a bow and arrow to hit the bullseye while ignoring the bazookas on the table’.

Note: A bazooka was a crude 21st century ballistic projectile weapon that would have been considered very powerful at the time. A bow and arrow was a hunting tool of primitive man still used in Olympic sport until 2083.


The Birth of Creative Strategy Agencies

Agencies continued in this way for decades until the 10s and 20s when several successes in business transformation changed the expected capabilities of these agencies.

One of the most infamous turning points is of course the Sutherland Eurostar development in the late 20s where the train company was convinced to spend the vast majority of its engineering budget not on improving journey times, but on hiring super models to serve Chateau Pétrus to passengers. Today the most expensive single journey in the world, the Eurostar with its use of steam powered engines and a journey time of 9hrs is a luxury holiday in itself. And for models there is no catwalk more prestigious than the train’s red carpeted aisle.

Note: Here is a video of Sir Rory Sutherland (1965-2043) from the TED archive https://www.ted.com/talks/rory_sutherland_life_lessons_from_an_ad_man?language=en first proposing his idea almost as if it was a joke…

It was success cases like these that caused a mass perceptual shift in the one audience that agencies had been notoriously bad at influencing up until this point – their clients.

What clients had once thought of as allowing their agency ‘off the leash’ to develop creative strategies for generating revenue, quickly became the main reason for their employment. This is why today we know them as ‘CSAs’ and not merely as Advertising Agencies.


The Fall of Business Consultancies

You might ask, ‘Was there not already an industry dedicated to affecting business models, internal processes and finding new revenue streams?’

And the answer would be yes.

But CSAs quickly dwarfed institutions that had already occupied this space. Management Consultancies such as McKinsey and BCG failed to adapt themselves quickly enough. Their working philosophy prized process and incremental change above new ideas. Their stature was rapidly reduced to selling basic risk analysis, accountancy and accreditations.

To emphasise how quickly this extinction occurred, a common ‘watercooler joke’ in 2018 was that creative strategists were too poor to afford suits. A decade later management consultancies had ditched ‘dress down Fridays’ in favour of a weeklong mandatory ‘casual-smart’ dress code.

Needless to say, global businesses were not looking to CSAs to solve their problems because some of them wore t-shirts.


The First CSA?

It is no surprise that the first CSAs originated in London when you consider that their founders had been pupils of the first advertising strategists who had also emerged from that city.

(Note: Some historians hypothesise a deeper cultural reason – that the critical ‘Planner/Strategist’ mind-set (if there is such a thing!) stemmed from the inherent cynicism of the British. However, this seems too large a step beyond historical fact…)

Despite the abundance of historical records, it is hard to comment on which agency was the ‘first’ CSA, as this title was accepted over time by various agencies already performing in the function. (Wikipedia, the primary historical record which we rely on today, was actually contributed to by the public at this point and so cannot be taken as the factually accurate AI we are accustomed to).

What also clouds this fact for historians is the existence of Strategic Agencies/Consultancies that were led by ex-ad agency planners during the early 21st Century in delivering Creative Strategy services. Agencies such as Sword & Stone for example worked across business areas to deliver economic growth to their clients. Because these were never advertising agencies to begin with, one could argue they were the first thoroughbred CSAs.

Here is a recovered image of Sword & Stone circa 2016. Note that data transfer used to result in quality reduction.


End of Vol.1

Sword & Stone Social Impact Unit

Destiny calls…

The rise of #brandkillers and the agency opportunity

More Thinking