Let’s do this….a manifesto for agency life


Putting the right value on creativity

You need to have money to make money. So goes the old saying. And with all the conversation about the disadvantages of capitalism right now (debate about Piketty’s mathematics notwithstanding!) this has never felt more true – the fruits of economic activity benefit the owners of capital disproportionately. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer.

At the same time you can’t open a paper without someone lauding the importance of creativity.  It is dead hard though to make money from creativity. And it’s getting harder as digital networking lays waste to the old formats that middle class creative people have used to monetise their skills – things like books and records. As a society we need new ways to recognise the value of creativity and new business models and economic mechanisms to profit from the value creativity creates. And not allow 100% of that value to flow upwards to the owners of capital, platforms or siren servers.

“Technologists repeatedly apply the extreme efficiencies of digital networks in some area of endeavor in such a way that the sources of value, whatever they may be, are left more off-the-books than they used to be, but we end up in control of the server that runs the scheme. It happened to music and other media early on, but the pattern is being repeated everywhere.”

Jaron Lanier. Who Owns the Future.

The advertising industry also needs to find better ways of profiting from creativity too as was recognised by both clients (Martin Riley, Pernod Ricard CMO) and agency leaders alike (Debbie Klein, The Engine Group) at this week’s IPA event on agency remuneration. Let’s face it, our industry’s way of monetising IP and brand value added is hopeless.  Despite the huge value that creativity can generate we get paid by the hour regardless of any value created. It is high time we developed new business models and disrupted our own industry paradigms, before it is too late.

Creative agencies are filled with creative people who think they make a product –  a brand strategy, a design, an idea or an manifestation of that idea in a piece of communications, .product or digital service.  And those ideas often have the potential to generate huge value for our clients brands.

However we don’t get paid for making a product, or whether that product generates value (I am sure there are plenty of great performance related schemes out there but mostly the upside is minimal and not anything to do with the true incremental sale/revenue increases). We monetize our work with a service business model.  Agencies have been coming up with great ideas for years, contributing to reliable sustainable growth for clients and their brands, but since the death of the commission model we have been paid like lawyers or accountants.   The clue is in the name – we are our client’s agents. But with less perceived skill and thus worse hourly rates, and fewer recovered billable hours.

This is of course a decades old set up.  It made sense for agencies to cast themselves as agents back in the day when clients only had one agent, and could use that agent to help them make decisions about what strategies to pursue and where to spend their money.  But now that has changed. Media fragmentation has led to agencies specialising and so their role as agents is much further downstream.  Creative agencies like to think that their most important contribution is the big idea.  But clients are increasingly taking ownership of the big idea and all they want from their agencies is to have that idea executed or specific deliverables produced.

“One CMO, who requested anonymity so as to avoid disparaging the shops currently working on his account, said he thinks that in five years agency networks like BBDO , McCann , Y&R and Saatchi & Saatchi will matter less. “The agency model is really dead. I don’t need all these different agencies working for me. I don’t want it to be about [agency brands]. I just need less overhead and more efficiency.” ”   Ad Age.

The implication is we are less and less valued agents, and becoming a commodity, interchangeable makers of deliverables.  If the industry shrivels and dies it won’t be because the 30″ commercial is no longer relevant.   It will be because the service business model failed to support an industry that continued to fragment, specialise and slip down the value chain despite the continued value of its core product – creativity.

“For years agencies weren’t accountable. Now they are and the model is crumbling. Advertising that doesn’t drive business will lead to a quick end to the ad budget and perhaps the agency as well.” Anonymous CMO

Part of the reason we find ourselves here is that the service business model pays pretty well and CMOs can still justify agency fees when a slightly better/newer marketing campaign generates a positive ROI or percentage point sales increase.   The other part of the reason is that the industry has  been distracted by a macro argument about how the media and marketing landscape is changing and what it means for clients and agencies, and has assumed that the same business model would apply to a new world order.  Even digital creative agency business models are largely the same as their traditional forebears, despite the measurable nature of the media in which they operate.

So there are two questions we need to answer to put better value on creativity:

Firstly, the age old question of how do we better demonstrate the value we create?  How might we make the impact of creativity more measurable? How might we put more skin in the game and not expect to get paid when things don’t work out, but feel confident in sharing in the upside when things do? How do we change the conversation with procurement teams away from simply about getting to a lower number for a specific line item and get to a place where a true partnership can emerge.

And secondly, the new question of how do we change the business model that underpins the value that we create?  How might we apply our creative skills to new ventures and spheres where the outcome is completely unknown but the potential is enormous? (see Taleb on optionality/convex payoffs)

What is exciting is that it used to be that you needed vast capital and resources to scale. In a mere few years Instagram built a $1billion dollar company with 13 people and a great idea and largely the same skills as is present in many creative agencies.

So time for us to get on and find new ways to monetize what we create.  Sure it isn’t easy, and I speak as someone who’s current day job is 99% tied into the old way of doing business in the creative industry.  But we’ve got to find the time in the day to try new things out, have tough conversations with existing clients, and find new and often smaller ones who want to do things differently.

How brands are built in the digital age

This was going to be my Admap prize entry to answer the question “How brands are built in the digital age”. But of course life got in the way so instead it is this blog post. So rather than well reasoned and evidenced argument, you’ll be reading conjecture, opinions and hypothesis. But hopefully interesting none-the-less….

In a world of change one thing remains constant in the marketing industry, and that is the power of creativity to generate ideas that build brands. Brands are built in the digital age through great creativity expressed in new ways and in new channels by creative agencies and clients who have an understanding of what great creativity requires.

With all the debate around the changing media landscape and what it means for the industry it is easy to feel that everything about what we do as marketers and creative people is changing. And of course things are changing. But the core of what makes for valuable brands and famous marketing campaigns hasn’t changed, and it is easy to get distracted from that main task – the relentless pursuit of better understanding of what great creativity takes, and the value that it can create.

Creativity and brands

Creativity allows brands to be distinctive, taking greater than their fair share of people’s attention, and the ideas and meme’s spawned by creativity are one of the main things that are shared over digital networks. Just think about the amount of Buzzfeed content shared in your newsfeed right now. That is a brand that is build on the power of ideas. Perversely, mainstream marketing spends a lot of time worrying about the packaging of these ideas; is it a Facebook post? or video content? how long should it be? how much should we spend? which of our agencies should make it? – and comparatively hardly any time on the ideas themselves.

Brands need ideas more than ever. The digital age has brought something that has always been true into sharp relief – that brands exist in the minds of consumers. Brands aren’t the result of one great advert, they are like a bird’s nest, built from the scraps of twigs that a person encounters and bothers to pick up. And a lot of those twigs are digital. So it takes time to define or reinvent a brand and changes happen relatively slowly as a result of consistent quality creativity – as was often said during my time at Dare – every idea counts.

Creativity and agencies

Creativity also help clients answer their main problem when it comes to growth. Most clients face the same problem with their brand. To grow they need to convince a greater number of disinterested, disloyal consumers to purchase, ideally also more frequently. To do so they need to be distinctive.

Creative agencies can help clients do be distinctive by taking products with functional parity and add intangible values and meaning to them to make them more valuable to the people that use them. Which isn’t simply about trying to “make people want things” it is about helping them choose, as well as adding meaning and fun to their lives through the brands they experience.

But this isn’t by and large about “making things that people want” either – that is what client organisations do – they have the resources required to create customer experiences at scale. Rather, there is an opportunity to re-conceive the role for creativity and the agency in the era of digital disruption, to move away from the industrial era’s myopic focus on communications, messages and positioning as the sole means to make brands distinctive and add meaning to them.

A vision for what that could be was created 10 years ago by Mark Earls in his book Welcome to the creative age. Earls talked about the role of the “Purpose idea” in elevating the brand above empty positioning and image, and envisioned “interventions” – brands doing things to live their purpose rather than talking at people in their marketing activities.

The thing that has changed since Earls wrote his book is that the physical barrier to entry to having a direct relationship with the customers that existed in the industrial era has fallen away. Agencies can now manifest brand behaviour in digital products and services and don’t just have to rely on comms “channels” and advertising. We can encourage people to pick up a brand’s twigs by making them entertaining, useful, rewarding, shareable.

If creative agencies can combine their creative skills, with technical skills and an ambition to elevate marketing beyond comms to brand behaviour, and seek to develop truly disruptive innovation, they can continue to be a vital source of value creation.

Creativity as a skill

The digital age requires specialism , and having the right idea in the right place, not just sticking a press ad in a banner with ruthless cost efficiency. So it is easy to think that the future of agencies is big data, and heavy technical skills. But creativity is a skill and is not the same as the skill of executing in a specific medium. In a digital age creativity is a skill to be nurtured and prized regardless of the medium. Because it allows us to “do the right thing” as well as “do things right”.

Creativity is great at:

Making insights resonate
Making ideas into memes
Making the tangible or rational engage emotionally
Making the human condition a shared experience

Creativity is about understanding that all ideas are not born equal, and whilst there is of course some subjectivity, creating and judging ideas is born out of experience and talent. Absolutely not about luck or gut-feel, great ideas are hard to identify, they are hard to develop, identify and bring to existence.

Creativity needs the right conditions to flourish, talent, culture and environment are all key and creative agencies have remained relevant because they offer something unique. They are able to create cultures and attract types of talent that the client can’t. At its best this talent is informed and in tune with the commercial reality of the client’s business, and passionate about the brand and it’s role in adding value to the lives of customers. And at its best the agency is a team of people with the skills to think laterally about creative solutions to problems and has the perspective to think objectively about those problems. This objectivity is the main benefit of sitting outside the client organisation and are not being solely dependent on it, and its politics, received wisdoms, and inertia.

Of course creativity needs to change as well. Technical skills and knowledge are essential to great digital creativity, and they need to be upstream in the creative development process. One can’t separate the artist from the brush. This means a more collaborative creative development process is required to truly unlock the power of creativity in a digital age.

So, successful brands are built in the digital age with creativity. Creativity that inspires ideas for brand behaviour that can build the brand twig by twig. Creativity applied to business problems allowing brands to embrace the digital age and find new ways to live their purpose. Creativity that is nurtured as a skill by agencies, and clients who value its contribution. And ultimately, creativity is what allows brands to add value and meaning to customers lives.

Disrupt! – realising a new vision for the creative agency

This is a précis of an article that was published in the January 2013 issue of Admap magazine ©Warc. To read the article visit http://www.warc.com/admap. For a limited time a full version is available at the bottom of this post.

Creative agencies have always been good at innovation. However, the need for predictable growth has meant that creative agencies have been sucked into focusing on one type of innovation- small, incremental improvements to what we did yesterday. A slightly more original TV ad, a responsive website design and so on. We have become experts at Clayton Christensen’s “sustaining” innovation.

So this focus has meant that we have neglected becoming expert at “disruptive” innovation. We haven’t applied a disruptive innovation approach to our client’s business, or to our own industry or business model. And that is dangerous in an era of rapid change, there couldn’t be a more crucial time for a new vision for the role of the creative agency in an era of digital disruption.

But simply re-conceiving the agency role as about moving from comms towards digitally enabled brand behaviour on its own isn’t enough. If creative agencies take the same working approach as the one that is appropriate for creating “sustaining” innovation, they will fail at creating true disruptive change.

We need to combine a new vision for the creative agency with genuinely new ways of doing things that will realize that vision – that is a disruptive innovation approach. Through our work within Dare Labs we have identified some general principles and practices for any creative agency looking to disrupt, whether by tackling client briefs or by producing products themselves.

1. Starting with problems – To create disruptive ideas you have to start with the core problem not just a list of requirements and then imagine how to disrupt the status quo to create a new solution.

2. Following your nose – Encourage serendipity and let people follow their gut feel and what interests them, a tiny idea about a piece of code can lead to disruptive innovation if you let it develop.

3. Open and bottom up innovation – Open innovation creates combinations of talent, insight, data, and points of view that aren’t possible if an organization innovates behind closed doors. Bottom up innovation increases the chance of convex payoffs as the number of ideas trialed is greater.

4. Break the rules – The skills to create ideas and produce digital products that many agencies have need to be combined with the right mindset. How can we disrupt value chains and business models and how can we exploit emerging technology and consumer trends?

5. Creating magic – Asking the question “what is going on in the mind of the user?” can create magical user experiences from quite simple technology

6. The cult of done – A lean start up approach helps to create experiments, helps to get out of “thoughtland” where mistaken assumptions rule, and helps you to figure out what works and what doesn’t for real users.

7. Keeping it core – Sharing the things you learn and the technology you create to improve the overall quality of innovative thinking and keep it core to the business and the search for new revenue streams.

These 7 principles are a modest start in the attempt to find new ways of working that lead to disruptive innovation and unlock the true value of our creative skills.

This is a précis of an article that was published in the January 2013 issue of Admap magazine ©Warc. To read the article visit http://www.warc.com/admap

Retrospective- top reads from 2012 on technology, innovation, economics and the pace of change

Time for a cliched New Year top ten list! Here are the articles and posts from the year gone by that have stuck with me most. The ones that have shed light and new perspective on the topics I have been interested in this year which include technology and the pace of change, innovation, economics and living life with meaning.

1. Beyond Terrordome – The New Inquiry

What we unwittingly give away in terms of our personal identity when we use Social Media.

2. John Gray and Jaron Lanier in conversation – Tank Magazine

A meeting of minds on entropy, technology & social connectivity.

3. The Coming Civil War over General Purpose Computing – By Cory Doctorow

The challenges we face in holding on to the benefits of general purpose computers as computing power increases and devices miniaturise and proliferate.

4. The true fathers of computing – The Guardian

George Dyson’s new book challenges computing’s creation myth by highlighting the key role played by John von Neumann in attempting to create Turing’s “mansions for the soul” and the first true general purpose computer.

5. True innovation – Lessons from Bell Labs – The New York Times

What we can learn from Bell Labs, the 20th Century’s most significant innovation and research centre responsible for technology such as the transistor, solar panels and lasers.

6. Joi Ito, director at MIT Media Lab on innovation at the edges – edge.org

Fascinating interview with the director of MIT Media Lab, part a biography of a life well lived and part looking at the role of the lab in the context of the changing world, technology and innovation.

And as an added bonus Joi Ito on the next 100 years of technology and innovation from Technology Review

7. Antifragility and convexity – Nicolas Nassim Taleb (PDF)

Now an excellent book, this article summarises the concept of the antifragile – systems which benefit from uncertainty, and the resulting convex playoffs where the potential upside far outweighs the downside. Crucial new concepts for anyone interested in thinking differently about the right conditions for creativity and innovation.

8. Overthrow Yourself by Umair Haque – Harvard Business Review

The most pissed off economist on Twitter on redefining the role of business and your individual contribution and moving away from a myopic exclusive focus on maximising shareholder value.

9. The dangerous effects of reading – David Tate

Thought provoking blog post on how we are getting better and better at intellectually consuming information and opinion, and how instead how to focus on creating in order to avoid groupthink and the echo chamber.

10. Burial Unedited Transcript – The Wire

Finally, just for fun, a long interview with a favourite music artist and producer of mine, Burial. Rare insight into the creative process of an enigmatic and secretive musical genius.

Enjoy and have a great NYE and a wonderful 2013!

The Princes of Serendip – How to combine the power of science and art by leaving nothing to chance

This is a presentation I gave recently at Google’s Weird Science event on creativity and science coming together in marketing….

Here are the speaker notes to make sense of the pictures:

Slide 2. In the context of this afternoons session by science I mean technology and data

and by art I mean creativity and the expression of ideas and human insight

It is interesting that historically Science and Art have been very close bedfellows. Da Vinci was of course a master artist and expert scientist. It is really only since the enlightenment that they started to become separate and distinct disciplines

Slide 3. So the main challenge we now face in the world of modern marketing is to find ways of bringing art and science together as a natural part of how we solve problems creatively, rather than just rely on luck and happenstance. How can we blend skills, talent, mindsets and ideas from both art and science?

Slide 4. We can learn a lot about how to do this from the three princes of serendip whose exploits inspired Horace Walpole to coin the term Serendipity

These three princes according to the ancient myth were sent out to explore the Kingdom by their father in preparation for Kingship. Their exploits taught them so much and prepared them so well, that when stood accused of stealing by a neighbouring king they were able to explain their innocence and escape. They became famed for “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

Slide 5. So serendipity isn’t about good fortune or fate or luck. It is about doing everything you can to be prepared to capitalize on good fortune when it comes your way.

In the creative marketing context serendipity is a crucial part of harnessing the power of bringing art and science together. Creative breakthroughs often come from chance discoveries, conversations and experiments. And they are more likely to happen if we create the right conditions and put in the spadework in advance.

As Louis Pasteur observed, “chance favors only the prepared mind “

Slide 6. So I am going to share 6 ways that at Dare we try to bring help art and science together to give us the best chance of serendipitous results

Slide 7. Firstly you have got to put the scientist and artist together

This is the Dare creative department it is a PR shot, so it really only looks this tidy and calm once a year. We physically put artists and scientists next to each other. Not a unique or massive breakthrough but a crucial first step to combining art and science.

We also run what we call craft teams who work in an agile iterative way. These are multi disciplinary teams of specialists working together on problems. Truly collaborating not just passing the baton.

Slide 8. A pure example of this way of working is something we call Dare 24. Every month we take a team of people from lots of disciplines and give them 24 hours to work with a local business or charity completely free of charge to try to solve a business problem they are facing. It is a small team, focusing on one thing, with lots of differing points of view and skills where the idea can come from anywhere.

Slide 9. In a similar way this app for Penguins launch of Stephen Fry’s new book was developed by a craft team

In this case the craft team included a partner from outside of Dare, an artist called Stephanie Posavie who designed the visual flower device.

Slide 10. To truly combine the power of art and science you need to be prepared to collaborate with people outside the building. And you also need to be prepared to do what you can to get better at collaboration. I think there are some key changes we need to make to how we collaborate which I have blogged about in the past…..

1.Change up the goal of collaborations from just being about building consensus to instead about achieving greatness

2. Change up the role of the client to become the cross agency team’s quarterback

3. Change Up remuneration so participants are rewarded for the group’s performance

4. Change up working practices and environment to foster and enable collaboration

Slide 11. The second way to combine art and science is to create a culture in which every idea counts. Where ideas can come from anywhere, from scientist or artists.

Of course we care about the “big idea” – it is often an essential part of creating coherence and value for the customer across multiple channels.

But brands are built slowly piece by piece in the mind of consumers and so it is important to care about small ideas like this one.

This piece of creative search for B+Q ran around stories about England cricketer Matt Prior’s breaking of a window with a cricket bat.

A culture in which every idea counts is more likely to encourage ideas that blend art and science to bubble up from any where in the team

Slide 12. The other thing we always try and do is use art to keep people at the heart of what we do and use science to empower them

In this campaign for EA , users were able to customise an avatar.. This was a highly relevant way to bring the core proposition of the game to life as it was all about customisability.

But in this case the avatar was human! We let the community vote and the human avatar got a mohican, steam punk outfit and angel wing tattoo. Using tech to give gamers control was of course a highly relevant way to engage the gaming community!

Slide 13. Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most effective

For this launch of Baileys new flavour we used a simple Network effect to create reach. For the launch of Baileys Biscotti we invited Facebook fans to nominate a friend and they would both receive a free sample.

This created a network effect that added 200k fans to the Baileys page in just 2 weeks and contributed to their most successful new variant launch

Slide 14. Literally bringing art and science together by informing every step of the creative development process with Data

Data has always been used by agencies to create insights and generate the brief

But why not use data to inform execution and implementation as well. Having a true test and learn approach to marketing development.

Slide 15. The lean start up movement embodies this principle and is about taking the simplest version of a product to market as possible in order to learn from customer behaviour and then relaunch moving through this cycle as quickly as possible

Slide 16. This sort of site work for our client Sainsburys is only really possible with a craft team approach

Conceived and designed and developed in 3 months it brings to life the brands new proposition live well for less

Required the collaboration between brand planners, user experience planers, designers and developers. And of course the client

Slide 17. Another way we can blend art and science is to think about the role of magic. Magic is the ability to create something unbelievable that seems like it doesn’t have any real world explanation. And as arthur c clarke put it , “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”

This is a product that our Dare labs team created called Remote Pallette. It is an app for iphone and ipad that lets you use your iphone as a pallette and your ipad as a canvas

So it is quite a simple technical product, but quite a magical experience. Somehow you feel that the paint is actually being transferred from one device to the other by your finger.

Often there is an opportunity to create a magic in the minds of consumers with quite simple technology

Slide 18. But the ultimate way of creating the chance for serendipity and bringing together art and science is to start with firm foundations and ask why are we doing this in the first place?

Its all too easy to start with assumptions about the answer to a brief, and then relegate artists skills to just colouring in and scientific skills to simply engineer.

And it is easy to rely on intermediate, soft measures as a sign of success – how many people were engaged? Did we get enough likes?

Instead we like to start with a game of truth and Dare. What is the truth that is at the heart of how the brand plays in the real world. What do we dare to do about it?

It helps us think about growth – how to make brands distinctive so they are top of mind, how to use engagement to increase our constituency of adopters and drive reach.

And it helps us get to something that is of a higher order What is the vision, belief or values of our brand?

Slide 19. It is also important to create a brief for art and science that is a problem that needs solving

“Constraints shape and focus problems and provide clear challenges to overcome” Marrissa Mayer of Google (now Yahoo)

Art and science have more of an imperative to come together to solve problems when there are constraints to over come

It is like Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall in LA, constraints to do with acoustics, audiences and locations meant he and his team needed more daring creative solutions.

But it can be easy to make the mistake of using parameters or a list of deliverables to create constraints. And then all you get is an expected answer.

The best type of constraint is a problem. Problems are constraints that challenge us to be creative to solve them.

Slide 20. My final thought is that combining art and science is not destined to turn out well. It is largely up to us.

Andrew Keen in his recent book Digital Vertigo describes the feeling of being overwhelmed by digital and social technology that one feels compelled to be involved with.

And the implicit bargain that is at its heart – that access to free digital services in exchange for personal data.

But the thing that really stuck with me is Keen’s description of technology as a “macguffin”. A macguffin is the filmic device that hitchcock uses in all his films. It is a plot device that seemingly is important but just turns out to be a tool for dramatic effect.

If technology is a macguffin, then what matters most isn’t the tech itself, it is what we use it for and how it represents us a human beings.

Brands and their agencies are responsible for a lot of the digital world that people interact with and can play a large role in shaping a positive future for digital technology’s role in our lives.

So I think we could do with talking more about how the work we produce can improve our relationship with technology.

How can we do more to champion interoperatbility, openness and generative, diverse and expressive digital products.

Adland’s pursuit of the wrong type of innovation

The great failure of the advertising industry to transform itself in the last 30 years is a result of it being fantastic at innovation. The problem is that it is the wrong type of innovation. We have become expert at Clayton Christensen’s “sustaining innovation”. That is, we’ve pursued new and original ways of doing what we have always done best and used creativity to make small, incremental improvements to our answers to client business problems.

But we have failed to complement this with the “disruptive innovation” needed to create a paradigm shift in how our industry’s business model functions. All too often the agency Chief Innovation Officer’s role is to relentlessly pursue the latest new and original way of doing what we have done before (see this recent piece “Do agencies need innovation chiefs?” from Campaign magazine). And it is rarely about imaginatively and daringly finding new types of things to do with our creativity and new ways to get paid for them. That’s why despite the wealth of creative and technical talent available, so far a creative agency hasn’t created an Instagram or Angry Birds. Of course that is a very difficult thing to achieve. We are making tiny steps here at Dare, but as the hour we sell becomes commoditised, it isn’t an optional activity and so we are giving it a go. Are you?