Embracing modernity - change & creative agencies

Any business that deals with consumer attention, and communication media (which let’s face it is most businesses) is facing huge change.  And as we all know, in facing huge changes you either adapt or you die. Or as Charles Darwin may or may not have said “it is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change”.

“it is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change”. Charles Darwin (maybe)

However, it is very hard to change organisations that already exist quickly enough to compete with new entrants who are starting with a blank sheet of paper. Especially in markets like creative services where there are very low costs to entering the market.  Clayton Christensen’s distinction between sustaining vs  disruptive innovation applies to all! 

To stand any chance I think you have to be very, very clear about the nature of the change needed.  So I’ve written myself a kind of rough checklist of things to think about and questions to ask to help keep an eye on changing the right things and changing fast enough…..I’m definitely not doing all of this, but if the bar isn’t set any higher, you can’t invent the Fosbury flop.  

1. Iterative

The first step in dealing with rapid change is to make sure that you are properly keyed into the change that is happening.  There is no point developing something for several months or even years without getting real-world feedback because by the time you have finished, the world has moved on.  Iterative development practices can help with that.  The principle of build/measure/learn and MVPs as popularised in the “lean start up” way of thinking can ensure that development is based on something real and tangible and not mistaken assumptions about attitudes , needs and behaviours.

So are you testing your ideas in the real world and iterating?  Do you use data signals to tell you what is working and what isn’t?  Do you publish your work now and adjust and invest more as you go based on what is working, rather than working behind closed doors and betting the farm on a hunch informed by a tiny sample size like a focus group? 

2. Dis-intermediated

Digital technology empowers end users to interact with the services and products they need in a frictionless, immediate and direct way.  Most of us prefer to use the self-service check out (57%) and to book our holidays online (80%).  This fundamental preference extends into the business space, with services like Quickbooks replacing an accountant, and things are changing in the creative and marketing space too.  Savvy, capable marketing clients sometimes prefer to work directly with creative producers like directors and photographers.  Why would they want to have a middleman when they can have the control and cost efficiency of going direct?

So are you focusing on value-creation rather than mediating processes out of habit? Are incentives and remuneration tied in to taking a cut, charging a “rent” on services and being a go between or do they allow for direct working relationships.  Are you getting out of the way when it helps the overall mission?

3. Networked

“No man is an island entire of itself”  said John Donne.  Well, the same is true of a creative agency.    Value comes from networks and network effects.  Monolithic, impermeable organisations that try to capture and retain value struggle. Nimble, porous organisations that create and share value thrive.  The best creative agencies have always been plugged into a network of creative producers, from photographers to developers, but as the industry has diversified, capabilities have been hoovered up into singular agency brands or operating holding companies.  The problem, is that incentivises stasis….the “factory” needs filling up with work, because the “machinery” has been bought and paid for.  But in a network of smaller players, capabilities can come together and disband more fluidly and more rapidly to cope with the changing context.

So are you adapting your offering and way of working to allow more flexible and bespoke relationships?  Are you trying to get paid for the impact of your ideas and thinking as part of an ecosystem rather than jealously guarding every part of the process and the associated man hours? Are you forging new relationships and partnerships?

4. Disruptive

Like it or not, it is novelty, innovation and difference that creates attention, and generates word of mouth.  Doing a slight variant of what worked last time is a sure fire route to irrelevance in the long term.  It is obviously a very hard thing to do, creating something genuinely new or different,  after all good is the enemy of great.  It is easy to settle.  This isn’t particularly new, but in a rapidly changing, complex, attention economy it is more important than ever to strive for difference.  I know this is hard from bitter experience, some days you have to dig really deep to find the fight inside yourself, and the knowledge that it is not optional helps.

So are you trying to disrupt with everything that you do?  Are you trying to entertain, arrest attention, engage?  Are you pushing for a better idea, crafting it even better than before? Is anyone going to give a fuck about what you are making?

5. Vested

There are no prizes for being non-committal.  Having a stake in the outcome is the best route to deciding what to do.  It focuses the mind on the essential, on the effective, on something that is bold enough to make a difference.   In a world where things are more likely to stay the same than to change, then the safe bet, not upsetting the apple cart and business as usual all work out just fine.  In a world nothing is certain, the only thing that is, are tangible and incontrovertible results.

So have you got a view on how the work needs to work?  How is this creative solution going to answer this business problem? And crucially what is the measurement methodology?   How will we know if this has worked?  Are the KPIs set? (It really is incredible how often this is skipped over….). And most importantly, do you have skin in the game? Are there consequences if things don’t work out?

6. Optimistic 

Optimism is everything.  Cynicism is one of the great enemies of creativity, because its start point is that and idea can’t work or it’s intentions aren’t honourable.  Its cold water puts out any chance of a fire.  And whilst technology doesn’t have all the answers, if you aren’t curious and keen to experiment, you’ll never find out what answers it does offer.  Scepticism on the other hand can help make ideas and the arguments for them stronger because it encourages open-minded questioning.  The best ideas are forged when they survive the fire of well-meaning doubt.

So are you educating yourself on what is new, what is possible with the latest technology and innovation?  Are you experimenting to see what new possibilities emerge and what works and what doesn’t work? Are you embracing what’s new whilst challenging, questioning and improving on it?

There we go, that’s my list.  It’s not complete, or particularly well crafted, but it is a start and a rough guide that I think  can be used to push things in the right general direction.