The Impostor Delusion

In the second of our series of guest blogs, Phil Lewis, mentor and advisor to select creative industry businesses explains The Impostor Delusion…


For about the 255th time in the last 2 years, last week I witnessed another squeaky protest from the creative community about unpaid work.

In fairness, this one was at least backed up by action. The agency in question stopped pitching creative – and went on to win its next tender. But one lone voice won’t change the status quo. The issue of unpaid work will continue to be pervasive throughout the creative industries, corroding both margins and service quality.

It’s interesting to contemplate why many creative businesses continue to pursue clients by throwing away a huge part of their value.

Creative thinking is an essential behaviour in 21st century business. Being creative is a skill that is innate from birth, and we can continue to develop it as we mature. Equally, like any skill, it will suffer when neglected. And it’s not hard to see how the lack of value placed on creative thinking in the mainstream curriculum might subtly diminish perceptions of its worth. ‘Being a creative’ is simply not a status-rich career aspiration in the way that, say, being a lawyer or financier continues to be. This is a crying shame: even in tough times, business success favours lateral thinkers.

Combine this implicit, lifelong devaluation of creativity with the historic reputation of the creative industries as a place of high jinks and low accountability, and perhaps it’s no wonder that many businesses suffer from a huge dose of impostor syndrome. But this is a delusion, and it’s one that’s holding an entire marketplace to ransom.

In his excellent book What It Takes, Charles D. Ellis explains how McKinsey explicitly set out to establish management consulting as a profession, with all the status that word implies. It designed its value system, culture and business model to reflect this mission. And it policed it ruthlessly within its culture over decades, to obvious success.

Yet the notion of ‘professionalism’ seems to trouble many creative businesses. They believe that embracing good commercial practice will undermine their creative spirit. This a false opposition – all creative businesses are by definition commercial. Indeed, the good ones exhibit high levels of professionalism. They do innovative work, built on unique skill and knowledge, and command sufficient respect that they can do it over and over again. The bad ones often have roughly the same level of skill and knowledge, but are undermined by fragile self-esteem and an even more fragile grasp of sound business practice – the impostor delusion. Even if they don’t fold, they are squeezed slowly downstream, pitching more, doing less and less of value. This is the category norm. It is sad that so many talented people don’t allow themselves to be treated as such.

Professionalism is built on the simple principle that what you do for others has genuine value, and that said value should command a premium. This matters not just to agencies, but to all creative and knowledge-based businesses, including my own. What I do is an innovative reinterpretation of two professional disciplines (management consulting and mentoring). Like all creative work, it is hard yards, and it only works when there is an equal footing between advisor and client. As in all other industries, the only productive creative relationships are ones with clear boundaries, respect, and a sense of self-worth on both sides.

There’s an old saying in adland: ‘you get the clients you deserve’. Imagine that as the opening chart of your next unpaid pitch, and you might end up getting somewhere.

Phil Lewis has spent more than 20 years building radically creative businesses, and is the founder and MD of organisational performance practice Corporate Punk. He also works as a mentor and advisor to select creative industry businesses. For details about his agency mentoring and advisory services, head to To download his manifesto, head to


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