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Inspiration as a Future Agency Model

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Interview with Piers Fawkes, founder of PSFK.

When I first stumbled upon PSFK.com, I was fascinated by its seemingly all-encompassing, anything goes content. So, when I recently talked to the website’s founder Piers Fawkes, my hopes were high that he would wax poetic about the complexity of the PSFK system. However, these expectation were quickly smashed to bits: “It’s simple.”, said Fawkes, “our mission is to inspire people.”

Quite some tradition to become a part of: In more archaic times, inspiration used to be the job of the muses. Actually, they invented the job. As daughters of Mnemosyne, goddess of memory, they knew what being noteworthy and memorable was all about. And if they so wished, they would kiss an artist and help. Or not.

The muses wouldn’t stay fickle forever. There was a time in advertising when two publications offered help, reliably: Subscribe to Luerzer’s Archive and Shots, and you were guaranteed to see the most inspirational work in the industry.

Well. It’s been a while since I looked at Luerzer’s. As clients and agencies are trying to create relevant conversations, making a great ad becomes only one of many skills. The sheer number of things we advertisers now do has made inspiration more difficult again. While that creates headaches here and there, it opens up opportunities for places like PSFK.

Piers Fawkes explains this by introducing the pair of literal and lateral inspiration. Literal inspiration takes place when Creatives see the best work in their field. “And you need literal inspiration, for sure.” However, in his view, this only gives birth to work that stays within current boundaries. “It doesn’t create any new ideas.”

To stimulate the kind of radical thinking that creates conversational capital, creatives need “lateral inspiration,” says Piers: “See what else is going on, what else is exciting.” Therefore, PSFK picks up stuff that lumbers around in our peripheral vision and throws it onto the main stage. “We pick ideas that would challenge you, [that] aren’t very easy to translate into advertising.” This kind of inspiration obviously doesn’t work for everyone. But 750.000 readers every month think it’s worth their attention.

And while his strategy of lateral inspiration isn’t new, his business model may be. Other than Luerzer’s and Shots, PSFK is a free resource. Which brings back the internet-age-old question: Who’s paying?

Shouldn’t there be a significant cost difference between kicking out a link to my Facebook page every day (me, free) and a bunch of people each filtering a couple of hundred feeds a day (PSFK, also free). Not really, says Fawkes. Because his team has to read the whole internet anyway. The additional effort to post the good stuff isn’t zero, but it’s not worth messing with tons of Google ads or Freemium schemes.

“Anyone who’s got a creative job can come to us and get new ideas. We provide those ideas through Publishing, through Events, and through Consultancy. And the money comes in the other way.”

Turns out, PSFK is a prime example of Chris Anderson’s “Free” economy: offering freely available “datapoints” for free and charging only for the more cognitive efforts of recognizing meaningful patterns. Listening to Fawkes, this seems to equally reflect his personal beliefs, as it is a great strategy to enter the market: “[Traditional] research is all about controlling data, and then charging for that data. But, it’s all there. How can you charge for that data?”

Obviously, you could try. Instead, he wants PSFK to focus on creating value by making sense. On an average project, his team will look at about 800 data points from the web, and then establish links, trends, meaning… and of course a preferable course of action.

Compare that to one the old school research ways of locking a group of 20 people into a KGB-style interrogation room with one-way mirrors: If that ever produced a muse’s kiss at all, that muse increasingly looks like a chain-smoking 83-year old italian grandmother.

So the clients are coming, and they are expanding the reach of things that they want PSFK to have a go at. It usually starts with creating a report, Fawkes says “but sometimes we then move further and go into concepting: and this could be everything from communications to product, to retail, to service.”

Step by step, PSFK is moving into a hotly contested space: a seat close to the top of the table, preferably to the left of the client’s marketing director. It is here where the interesting talk is talked. Where the “high level creative thinkers” as Fawkes calls them, are being placed. All the while, the production expertise is moving further and further down the table – looking at their neighbor and whispering: “Whatdhesay”.

Of course, PSFK is small. Very very small. So there is no reason for Martin Sorrell to loose any of his 37 Billion £ sleep, yet. But Fawkes has indeed “thought about whether PSFK is a future agency model.”

He thinks his company has a shot. To a certain extent because it understands trends. But Fawkes is modest about the fact, that – while their method is pretty unique right now – other strategists could do this too, if they put the time into it. He thinks the quality that really sets them apart is being a medium, with “750.000 very interesting people reading our site every month.”

Big numbers are always cool, but what impresses more: those are mostly creatives. The social web may have enabled everyone to create, but the truth is, less than 1% do. Thus, whatever shows up on PSFK.com, during PSFK events, or on his twitter feed, influences the influencers. Fawkes is narrowcasting to the content makers and information brokers on the web. “We’re not mainstream media. But we’re a different kind of media.”

For the last two years I’ve read many articles on how one of the future functions of an agency is to have a community, and to give clients access to that community. I’ve always wondered what that would look like. It seems PSFK is off to a start worth watching.

7 Responses to “Inspiration as a Future Agency Model”
  1. mario.gamper says:

    Hi Chris. Spot on about the role of community. I have a feeling though about the “advertising = bad name” thing. It think that it’s overrated. I think what people dislike is watching 30+ minutes of ads in a prime time hour. But that’s not advertising per se. That’s excessive-greedy-can’t-never-get-enough advertising. If that amount of adspend would pour into social media tomorrow, they’d be hated, too. :-)

  2. Chris Arnold says:

    I agree with his view that less than 1% “do”. Creative Orchestra, like PSFK, are part of the new generation of thought leader creative ad agencies. And WPP would never look at either of us – we are creative agencies – not account agencies. (WPP is just interested in the money.)
    Community is key to modern thinking. But we have to remember that ‘advertising” is a bad name to consumers. So, THINK DIFFERENT.

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