Disrupting Work: The Economics Of A Creativity Earthquake

From company to coalition

During the winter of 2015 I was an innovation director at a huge financial services firm. On paper it was my dream job. In real life I felt stifled and suffocated. So I quit. It was the scariest, hardest, and ultimately most rewarding decision of my adult life. I had a few months of savings, a mortgage, and two small kids. Saying goodbye to that paycheck and those benefits was a big risk and a scary sacrifice. I did it anyway. The next day I enrolled my family in Obamacare and embarked on the rest of my life.

Since then I’ve worked with Google, Nestlé, PwC, Sky and across the Fortune 500 as a solopreneur. My kitchen table is my studio. I partner with people who I love working with. I’ve never made more money in my life. And my clients are all my best friends.

What I didn’t appreciate at the time I quit that job was that I was one of 55 million Americans who have left huge companies to work as solopreneurs. I didn’t appreciate that this number is growing exponentially and is expected to include 58 per cent of the workforce by 2027. And I didn’t appreciate that 63 per cent of corporate executives would switch to becoming an independent contractor given the opportunity.

In the creative and innovation industries where I work the emergence of Obamacare has fuelled a mass exodus of top creative talent who no longer need their employer for their healthcare. This exodus has transformed an agency model which was widely understood to be broken – and totally dismembered it.

But the death of the agency has not resulted in the death of innovation or creativity. Far from it. The solopreneurs who build coalitions build better stuff faster, make more money, and charge their clients less for it. The Fortune 500 is becoming fully aware of how much their past agency expenditure was blown on stupid shit. The coalition model has created a creativity inflection point.

I’m proud to be part of this megatrend. I’m part of three coalitions of astounding talent: Group of Humans, Be Courageous, and my own coalition, Bowery315.

We are accelerating change that’s long overdue – here’s why…

Agencies throw bodies at problems. Coalitions can’t.

When a company hires an agency they get whoever’s available. It doesn’t matter if the designer can’t design, the strategist can’t think, or the developer can’t code. It is a financial imperative for every agency to utilise all staff at all times. So they throw bodies at client problems and pray that it works. This often results in a mismatch between client needs and agency talent.

A coalition is different. Each member of a creative coalition opts into the project. Their participation is a choice – not a condition of their employment. You learn quickly as a solopreneur to only say yes to the work you’re excited about. Because all of a solopreneur’s work comes from referrals. So we have to be very selective and careful about what we say yes to. We also have to maintain a positive karma bank account with the other members of the coalition. We need to work well together if we hope to ever work together again.

Agency talent does a job because their boss made them do it. Coalition talent does a job because they’re excited to do it.

Agencies spend money on stupid shit

  • An on-site pet therapist
  • A meditation library
  • A carp pond
  • Daily 5:30pm cocktail hour
  • An on-site masseuse
  • A 4,000 square foot loft space office for eight people

It took me thirty seconds to compile the above list of stupid shit I’ve seen in agency design studios. The excuse that these accoutrements help attract talent and allure clients is, well, bullshit. The aforementioned talent exodus wouldn’t be happening if that was true. And if Fortune 100 companies didn’t hire those expats after they left they would all be begging for their old desk back, right next to the carp pond.

The price that an agency charges has little to do with how much they pay their team. You’re actually paying for their rent, their masseuse, their bar, their interior designer, and their shamanic dance instructors.

The other thing you’re paying for when you hire an agency is all the talent who are not working during the period of your contract. The agency still has to pay for their salaries, benefits and perks.

That’s not the case with a coalition. You pay for the work that it does for you. That’s it. I work out of my house. I meet with my partners wherever is convenient. None of us rent office space.

Dogma is a poor substitute for success

You don’t need a focus group, a Bases test, or a “straw man” brand strategy to launch anything. All of these are tricks that agencies use to provide a false sense of progress and validation to their clients. They are always rigged to generate the desired result. There is no correlation between the success you see in any of these tests and the actual sales of a new product.

But agencies tend to enshrine their own bullshit as ‘thought leadership.’ They do the same thing every time whether it’s needed or not. Whether it makes money and changes lives or not.

Coalitions are groups of refugees who fled that bullshit. The solopreneurs who constitute these coalitions typically couldn’t take it anymore. They were sick of fake work and analysis paralysis and they are thrilled to finally dig into the hard, creative work of bringing an idea to life. For example, as a solopreneur I worked with a major beverage company, and within 2 weeks of kicking off had three different bottle designs sitting on a shelf in an actual store. No focus groups. No Bases tests. We just launched it and talked to the people who picked the designs up off the shelf. The fast eat the slow. The slow overanalyse (inside of agencies).

Hire people who do what they love

Every creative director at every agency dreams of a time when they could just be a designer again. They lament that their job has become babysitting other designers. Or trying to fend off some other exec who’s trying to steal their job. It can become a miserable existence. And no amount of complimentary massages will make it go away.

Coalitions are formed of solopreneurs who know what they are and what they’re not. They are committed to coming home every day feeling fantastic about what they achieved.

I’m thrilled to be part of this revolution.

Viva la coalition!

For more on disrupting business models and new ways of working, sign up to our free weekly newsletter.