There was once a famous celebrity hairdresser who got a frantic call from a woman needing her hair styled immediately for an important gala that evening. The hairdresser rushed to the woman's home, asked for a ribbon and proceeded to create his masterpiece using only a brush and the ribbon.
When the woman's hair was finished 30 minutes later, she was dazzled. "How much do I owe you?" she asked.
He replied, "$2,000."
She was stunned: "That's outrageous. I'm not going to pay $2,000 for a ribbon."
He looked at her coolly, gave the ribbon a tug and watched his masterpiece instantly unravel into a shaggy mop of unruly curls and locks. "That's fine," he said. "The ribbon is free."
Today, marketing is primarily based on the value of ribbons and not the hairdresser's talent. Corporations tend to value tangibles such as billboards and 30-second TV spots. But that value is rapidly changing. The insanely competitive, invent-it-today, reinvent-it-tomorrow world of business can no longer rely solely on capital, raw materials and technology. That stuff is everywhere. Effective ideas are more elusive.
Age of the big thinker
Great thinking is today's most valuable commodity. That's why Fortune 500 companies are seeking thinkers whose thoughts motivate, inspire and ignite minds. The Ideation Nation, as Albert Einstein prophesied, will be a place where "imagination is more important than knowledge." The ability to create better ideas than the competition is the only sustainable competitive advantage a company can have. The age of the big thinker has finally come -- and that's why it's time for advertising agencies to stop selling ribbons.
Though the advertising business is considered a creative profession where you're supposed to think for a living, the industry has lost its way as it continues to look for more ways to create money instead of ideas.
Advertising agencies have become an antiquated broker business, selling space to clients with creativity thrown in for free. The result is a marketing world that is ad rich and idea poor. Consumers don't want to be bombarded with ads -- they want to be inspired by ideas that will change their lives. Ads create transactions, ideas create transformations. Ads reflect our culture, ideas imagine our future.
To survive in this new age, advertising agencies must start nurturing ideas, not just managing clients. They need to be thinking partners, not execution vendors.
Agencies have always found their work by pitching ideas -- in effect, giving their thinking away for free. To become a thinking partner for your clients, you must first start pitching the value of thinking. Conventional corporate structures discourage employees from thinking properly because they are penalized for incubation, a slow process in which ideas percolate.
Incubation is where ideas surface. The old Italian saying applies: "Impara l'arte, e mettila da parte" -- learn the craft and then set it aside.
Agencies must abandon old model
It is time to abandon the old model of advertising and evolve. It is time to stop going to outposts like Scottsdale, Ariz., where advertising junkies convene in what looks more like support groups to discuss the future of advertising. Instead, they need to jettison the cargo of the past and build the ideas of the future.
But can an idea really be worth a million dollars? Of course, any number of multimillion-dollar companies and products have been built on a single idea -- new, vital, raw, hot, bracing, challenging, paradigm-shattering ideas. So how can you start thinking for a living?
First you need passion. Passion for your work is the single most important factor in creating. Your drive can take you places unimagined, unthinkable and unprecedented.
Ideas priced at over $1 million
You also need perseverance and courage. If you don't ask for the price, you won't get it. I sold my first idea for $30,000, the next for $75,000, the next for $450,000 and now each costs over a million.
And you need patience. In the advertising age, speed was rewarded. In the idea age, patience wins.
Change is never easy. It requires all of us to unlearn so much and learn so much more. Change also energizes the cynics and skeptics. That old guard will try to make you into Stepford Managers -- people who keep the status quo and never achieve status. In the words of Albert Einstein, "The greatest ideas are often met with violent opposition from mediocre minds."
Thinking is not a core competency in American business. That is why more consultancies that think for a living will grow and prosper. The thinker will be tomorrow's most sought after profession. So, the next time someone asks you for an idea, ask him or her how much?
If they are taken aback by the price, remember the hairdresser.
After all, your agency's most valuable service is not about the ribbon.