Does the cultural sector really need another consultancy agency?

The great irony in my decision to set up Creative Help, a new agency providing practical strategic support to the creative and heritage sector is not lost on me.

Creative Help was born out of my own frustration as a senior arts executive. Wave after wave of consultancy advice came my way as Director Shetland Arts Development Agency but any practical value was always outweighed by the cost and time resource needed to inform the consultancy work. I reached the point where I never wanted to meet another consultant – sad because most were really nice people.

What I realised is that much of the advice received was simply confirmation of things I already knew. My colleagues and I understood more than anything else that what we really needed was some practical help. Help to allow us space to redesign aspects of our business to make the changes needed to effect positive improvement. Instead, huge amounts of time was taken up trying to bring well-meaning visiting consultants up to speed on the nuances of our sector, the complex and changing stakeholder landscape and above all the values that drove the significant talent resource at the heart of our organisation.

I had done some consultancy work myself in the past supporting arts organisations through periods of change so I could see ways of approaching the consultancy role differently. I realised that the talent and knowledge in and close to our sector is considerable and that what was really needed to help organisations like mine, was just good clever people to bounce ideas off and take on specific tasks to allow room for CEOs like me to get our heads above the waterline and look to the horizon.

What strikes me more than anything is that our sector is packed full of innovation and talent. Talent that has an unrivalled ability to reflect on its own weaknesses. Creative practice is central to our lives and we fail all the time as we explore new creative practice, we innovate, dump ideas and try news ways of working as a natural part of our work and personal lives. This is who we are. The average visiting management consultant is tied to an industry culture that seeks to avoid any form of risk and  whose modules of work are by definition dated by the requirement to use tried and tested safe accepted methodologies.

We do have something in common though. As the saying goes, “You are only as good as your last gig”. No consultant wants to leave a client in a worse state than they were when they arrived. A good tactic is to make an early assessment that over emphasises the organisations deficiencies, so that any weak advice or non-intervention results in a positive outcome. Best of all there is no risk of making things worse. Ironically Mr Management Consultant’s (most of them seem to be men) risk averse approach can only lead to the client in fact be a lot worse of, financially at least. Frequently, the length of time taken to understand an organisation, the dreaded desk based research, is overblown. Huge appendices of cut and paste get charged for on the pretence of making key assumptions and understanding background. We know the assumptions and we wrote the background. We want help. How often is this the case when the consultants arrive at the bidding of funders or stakeholders – ostensibly to support us?

So what to do? If you can’t beat them join them – or at least set up an alternative that seeks to provide practical help using talent from within sector and in time utilise a social enterprise model to feed low cost or free practical support back into those organisations who don’t have the resource to pay fees.

That was my motivation to set up Creative Help. It is an agency of associates (organisations and individuals) who provide specialist practical and strategic support to cultural and heritage organisations. It’s not complicated. There will be fees to pay of course, individuals need to make a living and organisations supplying expertise need to be valued and paid. But by being competitive and top slicing fees, Creative Help will establish and feed a Creative Help Fund. I hope that in time Creative Help will be able to support all of us when we need an injection of support to get us through a rough period regardless of the ability to pay – when we need practical support and decisive intervention instead of a checklist of the worries we already have.

I want to nurture and value the talent in our sector. Undertaking consultancy projects is a great way of learning and spreading good practice. Best of all the funds our sector spends in the tens of millions each year (often supported by public agencies who should know better and stop using the same comfortable teams who always say the right thing) will stop travelling outwith our sector and stay with our own people and organisations. Creative Help will broker advice, securing the best knowledge and support from the talented qualified people within our own broad church. The arts, cultural and heritage sector is packed full of highly qualified and experienced people, people who are part of our sector but come from a broad range of public, commercial, charity and social enterprise backgrounds. A business consultant with very little knowledge of how we really work and think, isn’t the only answer.

Creative Help will produce and conceive one off projects from time to time: utilising the pool of talent within the sector, because at heart we are practitioners and sometimes bringing together the very best people possible regardless of organisational boundaries leads to very special results.

But it doesn’t end there: Creative Help also plans to harness the consultancy power of our creative and heritage sector and sell consultancy services to non-arts and heritage organisations and companies bringing money back into the sector. We will also negotiate pro-bono agreements with major law and accountancy firms to bring in specialist external advice that cannot be found within the sector –  brokering a route to enhance the knowledge and experience of our sector within those external agencies. A win win.

So to respond to my own question, does the world need another consultancy? The answer is yes – as long as it provides sector relevant expertise and adds value in all sense rather than bleeding us dry of time and money.

Gwilym Gibbons – CEO Creative Help Ltd


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