Q&A with Phil Lewis, MD at Corporate Punk

Can you tell us about how you got to where you are?

I’ve had 20 years of an accidental career. I worked in pretty much every type of agency and lots of different consultancies over that time. The first 10 years, I was in advertising and marketing, starting with DM and sales promotion. I liked it as a starting point as you get to understand the sharp end, and learn a lot about what it really means to sell. But the problem I perceived with that corner of the market is that people didn’t know much about brands, so I then went to the other end of the industry: branding and advertising. But after ten years I was fed up. While agencies were good at creative stuff, they were bad at the commercial end of things. If you trained as an account person in the 60’s you learned about market share and a basic understanding of the client business, which has all but dropped out of our industry now. It’s a shame.

So I decided to go into consultancy for a while. They were great at the commercial aspect, but couldn’t understand or recognize an idea if it bit them in the arse. So I decided to try something new.. I co-founded London Strategy Unit, which aimed to take agency planning out of an agency and re-route it somewhere new. And for a time it worked: we had projects with Coca-cola,  Bacardi, Nike... in fact we were the only agency in the world to have both Nike and Adidas as clients at the same time.

But there was a problem: we were basically two businesses: problem solving and capability building. The first was like being the CMO’s dirty little secret. When they couldn’t think of a solution to a problem they would slide money our way under the table to figure it out. The other part of the business was to me more interesting. It came when a client said, ‘look if you can help me with this problem I’ll be appreciative, but if you can help me get 20% more out of my team, I’d be eternally grateful’. And that was like a light bulb going on for me. Why is it that there are really bad clients out there? Why when you go with good idea with strong rationale, do they reject it out of hand? In effect, our clients wanted us to help them become better clients. And what we found was that despite building the best strategic solution to help with planning and idea analysis, it’s often only 10% of the answer. The organisational culture is the 90% that will make an idea live or die.

These two parts of the business were difficult to reconcile so I left LSU and went to Albion to lead the strategy team. I focussed on building a high performing team, rather than a group of individual planners. Around that time I realised my career pursuit could be boiled down to one question and that was ‘why is it some companies bring the best out of their people and others the worst?’. Most businesses don't lack talent or ideas, but do lack an ability to mobilise around those things. So Corporate Punk was born to answer that question. We are now about 20 strong, working on a range of different clients. Fundamentally we go into organisations and change how they work so they can be more creative, imaginative and innovative. We work across people, process and platforms to get more out of their people, by dealing with the knotty stuff that gets in the way.


So how do you bring out the best in people?

We are a different kind of culture change business. Vision and values can be important for organisations, but for us it is all about how culture and business process are interlinked. For example, you are all aware of the Hippo (Highest paid person's opinion)? When you’re presenting some creative work, everyone defaults to whatever that person says, or worse, people say what they think that person wants to hear. An easy example of process and politics coming together to hurt the creative process. Remember, organisations are built to say ‘no’ to avoid risk. This is a massive point of tension for any creative process because creativity is all about saying yes, to new things, to imaginative things, to ambiguous things. So we look how to affect this through leadership, structural and operational change. We get leaders to see how process and politics affects what an organisation does and the stories that it tells itself - which influences the culture (and vice versa). We can often change things for the better.

The way we start this is by a diagnostic process. We go in and look at what’s wrong. We don't take briefs at Corporate Punk. It's a bit like a visit to the doctor's. You come in and say how it hurts, and we tell you why it hurts. You need to get behind the real blockers because people tend to lie, partly out of fear that a consultant is in the building so people might get fired.


How do you overcome fear and cynicism?

The first thing is, we probably don’t want your business! We only want to help people who want our help or companies where we really can add value. Which is why we knock back about 75% of potential clients because we either can’t help or don’t want to get involved with them.

The other thing is that our process is famously direct. We've had some genuinely odd reactions from CEOs, but they also know that  we genuinely have their best interests at heart. It’s all about helping them go through the necessary change - and somethings change is painful.

Finally, we also don’t look first at cost cutting, i.e. firing a client’s staff. We’re much more interested in looking at how you make the most out of what you already have. And we’ve found situations where the worst performing members of a team have completely changed because their roles have been restructured, and they aligned with a common set of goals.

We go in with something like a hippocratic oath: first, don’t do harm. For us that generally means: Make people better, not redundant.


Is this a good time to be a consultant?

Well, I got really annoyed last week. During a creative industry event a guy got up at the beginning, and opened his speech by saying “ this industry is fucked”. It really got my back up, because this has been this discourse since 1983. And it isn’t [fucked]. If you look at some of the really interesting, innovative companies that are around, and the levels of spend still going through the industry, it’s just not. It’s also a fundamental delusion that agencies aren’t succeeding because they aren’t doing bold enough work. They don’t lack the appetite to do bold work, they lack the ability to get the client to sponsor it. But as soon as you frame the problem as ‘take more risks’, you scare the client - who has a mortgage to pay, children to feed, and wants to avoid getting fired… .

So to answer the question, the industry isn’t fucked, and in truth there hasn’t been a better time to be a consultant or planner. In this volatile world, clients need people who can think creatively whilst thinking practically about how to solve problems, because business people have been groomed to work in a task-oriented, repetitive fashion - which doesn’t reflect the reality of today’s working world.. So the core skills of thinking laterally and practically have more important than ever.

What is also interesting is taking those skills, and looking at the broader application in the industry.


What opportunities do you see for this application of skills?

I’m skeptical of management consultancies moving into the creative world, simply because their DNA as companies so different [from creative businesses], but what I do think we'll see is an increase in reorientation of people’s skills to a more creative mode of work, as AI and machine learning start to gather speed. There are 1000’s of interesting creative companies out there, and looking at the opportunity at the edges of our industry. The industry is not fucked, it never has been. It’s just constantly changing.


What kind of businesses are doing the right blend of creative and commercial work?

Another way of looking at this question would be how do you go about looking for a company with a culture that properly supports you? I.e. a place where its values are aligned with you and do the work you want to be doing. My advice would be go for niche recruiters - for example, a guy called Drew Welton at Bamboo Crowd, who is just the best guy at finding really interesting, innovating opportunity.

Incidentally, we are doing a piece of work at the moment where we map out and define the seven characteristics of creative cultures. They are things like autonomy, risk taking, irreverence, conflict, openness, etc.. We have built a tool which allows us to benchmark how creative a culture is. We are going to start with agencies and consultancies. Our working hypothesis is that they don’t know how to build cultures that bring out the creative opportunity in their people. In my experience, they are sometimes the worse at lateral thinking or things like diversity and ways of working. We can’t embrace flexible working. Most creative businesses  don’t even understand what to do when people go off to have a child. What you need to be careful is that having a ‘creative culture” doesn’t end up as more of a marketing job, rather than an expression of what it’s like to actually work there.


Which characteristics are the most impossible to foster in companies?

There is a couple that really stand out.

The first one is irreverence, because creative requires dissent. To be creative we have to be prepared to disagree with each other. The process of collaboration is about disagreement and how you manage that. Particularly when you’re managing with your boss. For example, the Korean air force has the worse safety record because no one is allowed to challenge their senior officer. The logical extension of this is there might be an engine falling off and people would literally get in the plane and fly to their deaths. So we look at what authority actually means in companies. How does someone disagree with the person who decides if you get promoted or not?

The second would be autonomy. Autonomy means you can get on and make decision, and also there is check and balances and safety nets if something goes wrong. Setting those ground rules can be very very difficult. It challenges the rule of law, and challenges leaders.


I recently read an article attacking what the writer called “Group Wanks” (brainstorming sessions). In your experience, what is the most useless way we planners try to solve problems?

The thing about brainstorming sessions is, it’s only useless if you misunderstand their purpose. There are only two reasons to do it [brainstorm]. One is to foster communication between a group; the other is to get creative stimulus. The problem is usually that people are looking for finished answers from the sessions.

The single biggest thing planners do wrong is very simple. Working on their own. It’s madness. When I led planning teams, I simply stopped that and paired people up. And that gave everyone so much more flexibility. It descalated the thing about ‘you have to be the smartest person in the room the whole time and everything's on your shoulders’, it also plays straight to the fact that “two brains are better than one”, and furthermore planners can actually go on holidays.


Would you ever go back to agencies?

I miss working with people who are at an earlier stage in their careers. Working with someone who is just out of university who could tackle a problem in a completely new way. The danger of working for 20 years in the industry is your thought patterns can become set, so it’s really good to work with people who will challenge that based on a lack of experience. I think it’s a fantastic industry full of brilliant, intelligent people, and in no way is it ‘fucked’, and perhaps at some point I’d be happy to go back.


Thanks Phil for answering all our questions. It was brilliant. 

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