Reverse Broken Windows Theory: It starts with ​pencils.

It started with the pencils.

When the consultants bought the creative agency they said they wouldn’t interfere. The whole point of buying an agency was to make the end-to-end process more seamless, but it would obviously be vital to retain the distinctive values and skills of each team. It was even stipulated in the agency founder’s terms of engagement. ‘We will maintain our distinctive agency culture’ ‘We will always be willing to bite the hand that feeds’. And the consultants wanted everyone to know this was part of the master plan. This was evidence of just how non-traditional modern consulting firms have become.

It was easy at first. There was a healthy friction between the parties. Indeed, it was encouraged. The soft-ball evenings in Regents Park were pretty frisky. The agencies played up to their maverick stereotypes, while the consultants took off their ties and wore them on their heads. Banter ensued. In the pub, too many pints were drunk and where those shots really necessary?

No matter. All good for the culture.

In the client meetings, the consultants would bring the agency in to talk through their thinking and puff out their chests a little as they introduced the ‘creative team’. Like inviting wealthy friends for supper and showing off your art collection, the subtext being ‘I’m not half as dull as you thought I was.’

And when the agency CD said ‘fuck’ it changed the mood. This was different. This was new. The clients lapped it up.

But, after all the sexy videos and data analytics, it was down to business and ‘shit got serious’ as the consultants now ventured to say.

It wasn’t a one-way street either because the agency heads also got a little tingle when the conversation turned to the bigger plan. They stayed in the room to listen to the consultants talking about the big money, impressed by the casual way they bandied about vast sums, the fact the meeting was costing a fortune but no-one was looking at their watch.

Back at the agency the AD pulled the team in to describe how it went. Described how easy it all was. Like pushing at an open door. What a coup it was to climb into bed with the consultants. And when the consultants came round to discuss next steps, the AD took a quick look around the office and thought, it looks a bit untidy. A bit of a mess. Like the agency wasn’t quite on top of the job. So she tidied her desk. She still said ‘fuck’ three times in the meeting, but, without making a conscious decision, she also straightened her pencils.

This went on for six months. The office became imperceptibly tidier. Obviously not in the art department, but everywhere else. And that was only right because, thanks to the steady stream of work coming down the consulting pipe, life was less chaotic and there was more time to put stuff away and tidy up. Appearances are important.

After two years, the agency environment was completely transformed, not just in terms of the mess, but in terms of the people. They were all dressing that little bit smarter, were all making a little more time to read The Economist in reception, all swore a little less. Even the art department looked smarter, especially after the most crazy, untidy copywriters moved on. They said it wasn’t as much fun anymore.

Then, finally, after three years of rollercoaster unprecedented success, two of the agency’s three Principals decided to cash in their chip, and move upstairs and onto the board of the consulting firm.

It was big news. They were hailed as management geniuses and feted by the marketing industry. Everyone agreed they’d earned to the right to sit at the top table alongside the consultants. Advertising had finally arrived.

New people were brought in to head up the agency. A slightly more maverick team that had made eye-catching wins at a rival agency group. Their first act was to agree to move the whole agency into Consultancy HQ in Docklands.

The consultants laid on a lavish ‘meet and greet’ to welcome the new team. Theatrically dressed catering staff offered the guests champaign and canapés but, as they looked from agency to consultancy, and from consultancy to agency, and from agency to consultancy again; it was impossible to say which was which.

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