THE BLOG
03/14/2014 04:00 pm ET Updated May 14, 2014

If I Can't Sell It, I'll Keep Sitting On It

Today's agencies could learn a thing or two from the great blues diva Ruth Brown. The queen of rhythm and blues -- "Miss Rhythm" if you please -- was a woman who knew a thing or two about the tough art of procurement.

In her bawdy, barrelhouse show-stopper "If I Can't Sell It, I'll Keep Sittin' On It," Brown sings the story of a "real cheap guy" who comes into her secondhand furniture store and wants to buy a "chair" (wink) -- but doesn't want to pay for it.

So I looked him straight in the eye
And this was my reply
If I can't sell it, I'm gonna sit down on it
I ain't gonna give it away
Darling if you want it, you're gonna have to buy it
I mean just what I say

Just imagine her response if he had mentioned billable hours.

Historically, creativity in marketing found expression through a defined deliverable or asset -- a print ad, a TV spot, the deliverables of a campaign -- in a business model that compartmentalized creativity as merely a means to an end. It was a model that worked -- but just barely, as it was always built on the assumption that the creativity that informed the work was inseparable from the end placements.

And then along came digital. And mobile. And social.

Communications agencies are outgrowing the billable hours model as fast as digital is reshaping the way brands and consumers connect. But if agencies don't begin to tangibly value the creative energy and ideas that now forge those connections in a 24-hour-a-day, 360-degree, consumer-owned media environment, guess what? Nobody is going to rush to value it for them.

The time to have a boisterous, spirited and even rowdy conversation is now. Unfortunately, too many agencies -- locked in the best frenemies model of erstwhile collaborators -- are afraid to have it. They should be more afraid to not have it -- and the shared ownership made possible by common cause could prove to be an extraordinary source of solidarity, stability and strength as the conversation occurs and new models are debated and tested.

As contentious as that conversation may get, though, it is important that one fundamental understanding holds: It is not a matter of us vs. them, agencies vs. clients. By incentivizing busy work and fuzzy metrics, the billable-hour model is just as corrosive, if not more so, for brands and businesses as it is for the agencies they employ.

If a one-second flash of brilliance that delivers a million dollar idea is only valued at 1/3600th of a billable hour, it will only motivate agencies to keep their greatest and most creative ideas to themselves -- or worse, make end runs around clients to find ways for those ideas to be valued appropriately. Brands and organizations should be even more driven to find a better model -- because that is where they will discover the stronger consumer connections and the more innovative strategic partnerships they truly seek and increasingly need.

Certainly, there are -- and will continue to be -- naysayers. Without doubt, it is easier for agencies to rack up the hours than to deliver the kind of creative that adds incontestable business value. And it is easier to pay an agency on a flat-rate metric than to enter into a conversation that could lead to higher payments.

Those clinging to the false security of the conventional model should take a long hard look at the fragmentation that is confounding the advertising industry. And if that is not warning enough, they should ask themselves if anybody is really eager to be the next music industry.

Because that is the model the industry is poised to mirror, as value is placed on the content delivery systems and methodologies -- primarily digital -- rather than the creativity of the content that creates the very relevance of those delivery systems in the first place.

Wherever we look, we can see examples of the chaos that is created when we devalue creativity by attributing value only to the means that distribute it, and not the sources that provide it. If we are not careful, fear of change or lack of imagination could cause the communications industry--and the brands and businesses that now increasingly depend on them to create meaningful connection with critical stakeholders -- to chase that view right off the cliff.

It could also create a climate of creative constriction, as agencies -- increasingly seeing the innovations they create drive profits greatly disproportionate to their compensation -- heed Ruth Brown's advice. When those great ideas occur, they may just sit on them. Why should they give them away?