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!

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?

How to shape our digital revolution

Why are we always having a debate about whether technological change is a good or bad thing? Rather than a debate about how to make sure that technological change is change we want?

That’s what I was left thinking after reading a couple of recent interesting posts on the topic of change. Ed Booty’s excellent BBH labs post took a skeptical look at the data behind consumers true adoption of digital technology. He also referenced this great post by Matt Edgar on our perception of the rate of change.

There was much to enjoy and agree with, and in the face of often evangelical enthusiasm for all things digital it is great to hear well reasoned skeptical and enquiring points of view. In particular I found a lot to agree with in Edgar’s view that we are far from unique as a generation to believe our era is experiencing exceptional change compared to the past.

However I can’t help but think this is the just totally the wrong debate to be having. It seems pretty irrelevant to me to argue about whether digital technology is changing our world or how fast. Digital technology already has changed our world and whether the revolution we are experiencing the start of will be fast or slow in coming, it IS coming and quite likely in our lifetime.

Leonardo Da Vinci's designs for an Archimedes screw

So instead I wish there was more debate about how to shape the revolution. How to make sure that we are designing and using technology so that it amplifies the best of human nature. This isn’t just some intellectual exercise either. On a daily basis we have the ability to shape the future of the internet with the products and platforms we recommend building for our clients. Do we build a closed proprietary mobile app with a flawless user experience that reinforces the dominance of a few corporations ecosystems? Or do we try to create something more open and accessible that attempts to fit technology around human behaviour rather than rely on humans changing their behaviour to suit technology? Douglas Rushkoff in his excellent book Program or be Programmed identifies 10 commands for living in the digital age, ways to think about your personal relationship with the world and with digital technology.

So if those are the guiding principles for your personal life, what are the guiding principles for your professional life? How should we build things on the internet? What principles should we live by as we go about our work for clients?

If you stop and think about it for a minute, the dominant position of mobile apps these days is mental. I can’t help but think that if more web publishers had innovated like the Boston Globe or the FT to produce a fantastic user experience on the web, we would feel less compelled to download an app, which requires me to jump through certain hoops (user account, downloading etc) and ultimately narrows my diet of content by keeping me in a walled garden.

So here are some thoughts about the things we could debate, that have been inspired by some recent articles with a variety of interesting points of view.

1. Open

When you write an iPhone app for a brand you are writing for the few and not for the many. On my train line into London you can download an iPhone app – as fine a piece of social exclusion as any I can think of for the thousands who use this public service but don’t have iPhones. In contrast a simple HTML page with the same content would be accessible to pretty much anyone with an internet connection. Of course often it is right to create an app to deliver a specific type of functionality or experience, but the internet’s revolutionary potential is that it can put power in the hands of ordinary people through the open web . And I think it would be a great shame if that potential wasn’t realised because of an obsession with creating slick user experiences and beautiful design.

I thought this point of view on the role of design in keeping the net open and accessible was an interesting one. Are we really designing for users or to satisfy our own egos as creative people? As a final note obviously the subject of net neutrality has some relevance here, it feels a dangerous slippery slope to me to give a policing role to service providers. Today’s well meaning prohibition can easily become tomorrow’s politically and ideologically motivated censorship.

2. Human centric

A key challenge with digital technologies is that they are new and mean a user has to some extent learn some new skills or adopt new behaviours. However I think we could work much harder to understand underlying human nature and create things that play to the strengths of human nature and amplify the behaviours that society values. Creating products that are ergonomic and delightful for the user to fit into their lives because they are based on real fulfilling needs. So we should stop thinking about what our clients need from consumers and rather think what our customers need from our clients and build accordingly.

3. Diverse

The open, human-centric web should allow people to express themselves freely within the framework of society and without fear of persecution. This was brilliantly argued for in this post by 4chan’s Chris Poole about user identity online. I think it is important for people to be able to express different facets of personality.

We out also be cautious that the way we organise our information sources doesn’t trap us in Eli Pariser’s filter bubble http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/jun/12/google-personalisation-internet-data-filtering?CMP=twt_gu where our preferences and browsing history inform the content served to us dooming us to never see anything surprising challenging or different. Services that simply serve up what we already like exacerbate what F.S. Michael’s calls the monoculture http://theschooloflife.typepad.com/the_school_of_life/2011/09/fs-michaels-on-monoculture-and-the-stories-that-shape-us.html which is further compounded by things like frictionless sharing and limits our ability to think creatively and imaginatively.

So how can we create services that are expansive and diverse and allow people to make new discoveries and develop their own understanding of themesleves?

4. Collaborative

We also need to draw the distinction between participating in a community of like minded people and truly collaborating and cooperating with people different from me with different skills and opinions. The latter is what made possible the explosion in innovation at Bell Labs in the second half of the 20th century. The web makes such collaboration possible across geographies and time zones. But all too often we are drawn into communities of interest; like minded people who reinforce our own world view and give us props and retweets and +1 ‘s but don’t challenge us to develop and defend our opinions or see things differently.

We need an emphasis on good community behaviours like how to engage in debate and rational argument without descending into rhetoric, propaganda and abuse. I found this celebration of the central role of the scientific method (Fourth answer down) to progress a pretty good argument for that.

Could we aim to help our clients take a more active principled based approach to community management? Not just focusing on eradicating the usual top down bad behaviour from brands (deleting posts, boring, broadcast style content etc) but also trying to actively manage the community to encourage authentic debate, sharing and cooperation rather than just empty promotionally-motivated “likes”. This is a specialist skill, rarely found in agencies or client orgs.

5. Value based

It’s really important to create value for all stakeholders rather than just look to create wealth for shareholders. The expectations market dominates our economic system and we have the opportunity to reduce our reliance on it if we create things for our clients that are of value to all those who have a stake. Customers, employees, community and shareholders alike.

To know we are creating true value though we need to make sure we don’t simply rely on vanity metrics to give us the feeling that things are working and are ok. We need to make sure we are measuring the impact of our activities on actual perceptions and behaviour.

6. Expressive

I found this point of view particularly inspiring- In a world where consuming, liking, commenting, retweeting and sharing is getting easier and easier you can quickly fill up your days only doing that and never experience the satisfaction of making or be forced to confront your own point of view if you don’t have to express it through creativity. We are uniquely able to be creative with the tools we have at our finger tips. The only barrier is the age-old one of how we choose to spend our time.

For me brand’s role here is to invite, stimulate and reward true expression and creativity over the usual shallow participation usually thinly veneered over most marketing campaigns. Instead of thinking about what content the brand wants to “co create”, brands could think about what content consumers might find interesting, energising and illuminating to create around a topic relevant to the brands strategy. That way everyone wins, the brand, the creator and the rest of the community.

So there we go there are my five guiding principles for building digital technology to avoid both the Skynet and Mad Max dystopias of BBH Labs SxSWi talk.

Open, human centric, collaborative, diverse, value based and expressive.

What do you think? Are these the right kinds of things to be debating and discussing? Do you feel that we have the chance to shape things? I would love to have that conversation.

Some principles for innovation units at creative agencies

Here are some principles for creative agency innovation units which have been synthesised from existing thinking and new ideas being discussed in the start up world and which we are using here at Dare Labs. Thought it might be interesting to share them. What do you think?

1. Adopt a “growth mindset”

It is pointing out the obvious but the rate of technological change we are experiencing is exponential.

Ray Kurzweil, The Law of Accelerating Returns

This complicated chart shows just that. Futurologist and computing expert Ray Kurzweil predicts that by the 2020’s the computing power available for $1000 will be equivalent to the power of a human brain and that by mid century we will hit the singularity. Whether you disagree with Kurzweils timeframe (check out this argument from Paul Allen ) or buy into Kurzweil’s thinking (see his rebuttal here ) it is easy to agree that it is pretty much impossible for an individual to keep up with the change we are experiencing. So an obvious but important first principle is that it is essential to have what Standford psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset” – a restless hunger to learn and develop skills and adopt new ways of doing things.

2. Be a collective not a clique.

Openness and acting with a generosity of spirit is crucial if an organisation truly hopes to adopt a growth mindset- how else can we hope to expose ourselves to innovative ideas and technologies if we don’t look to share with others and have things shared with us in return? So the second principle is to act as a collective – made up of small teams of collaborators from within and outside the agency who come together to work on projects in an agile, lean way acting with a philosophy of experimentation, a collective where everyone who has something to contribute is welcome to do so.

3. Embrace the Cult of done.

The third principle is to embrace the spirit behind this tongue in cheek manifesto “the Cult of Done”.
. Innovation is part creativity and a large part execution. Ideas are of course important but in many ways not as important as getting things done.
Getting things done helps us create experiments, helps us figure out what works and what doesn’t, helps us understand consumers, helps us learn how to succeed. So you need to get your hands dirty, adopt the lean start up approach of getting MVP’s to market in order to Build/Measure/Learn.
The point though is not to “Fail Fast” to coin that popular phrase from the start up world, the point is to “learn quickly”

4. Search for magical user experiences

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” Arthur C Clarke

It is a little overused quote but it inspires our third principle of always looking for ways to create magical user experiences.
To achieve this we will combine deep and insightful understanding of human behaviour with daring applications of cutting edge technology.
Just think about gestural UI’s. They don’t really add additional functionality. But they combine a human truth about how we want to use our hands to control devices with a cutting edge technology to create a more magical experience.

Experiments to create magical experiences won’t always succeed, there is a lot to be learnt along the way, and ultimately the role of innovation units is to take greater risks than is OK on client work.

5. Create value for stakeholders don’t just extract value for shareholders

Ultimately the goal is to create value for everyone involved. Creating job satisfaction and opportunities to learn and develop for the poeple working on experimental products. Creating brand equity and PR for the agency. Creating valuable magical user experiences for the end users of new products. And hopefully creating new revenue streams and business models.
So that’s the theory for what it is worth. We are rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty. Watch this space for more news of our latest efforts.

What brands can learn about business from TED

Last week Campaign magazine ran a piece about what agencies can learn from TED, focusing of course on the wonderful and diverse ideas from the week.

So I thought I would write a short post about what brands can learn about business as a final comment on TED.

Firstly, I think that TED shows the power of ideas to drive enterprise. If you focus on the idea behind a business rather than money, and make that idea different, beautifully executed and accessible, then the money will take care of itself. The question shouldn’t be how do we make more money, rather how do we increase the value of what we do for consumers.

Second, I think that TED shows us that talk is cheap. It is the easiest thing in the world to talk about something. But the speakers at TED were all doing something about their idea as well. They were taking action, going out into the world and making it happen. And really that is what counts, making something of your idea, differentiating it from the rest and not letting it languish on paper. I would imagine that many banks thought up customer service like First Direct’s in a brainstorm, that there are many dowdy fashion labels who dreamt of reinventing themselves like Burberry and many sneaker brands who have quoted “Just Do It” in a powerpoint chart and then not done it. The people we admire have remembered Edison’s famous quote “genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration”.

Thirdly, TED shows the value of a diverse range of influences and inputs. Creativity, innovation and enterprise are stimulated by applying ideas from field to another. Consider the work of one of the TED Fellows, Frederick Balagadde . He has developed an innovative way of reducing the costs of HIV testing by applying the principles of semiconductors and micro computing to lab testing and so automating the process. It is very hard to learn something new if you are surrounded by the same influences every day.

Finally, TED shows the importance of collaboration and team work – A very obvious point but again worth remembering. On stage at TED, we saw a succession of individuals on stage talking about their work. But in the majority of cases that work had been done or made possible by the efforts and skills of a team of people. Individual genius is very tempting to believe in, but very rare. Teamwork is important, not because it makes people feel better or it is part of being a good manager, teamwork is important because that is the best way of making amazing things happen.

Day 3 at TED – the day of criticism

So Day 3 at TED seemed to be the day of criticism, both the speakers and the listeners seemed to have embraced a slightly more cynical side than the usual exuberant optimism of the other days.

There was one notable exception, the response to a young guy from Sudan, Emmanuel Jal. Emmanuel was a child soldier, rescued by an aid worker Emma McCune. Emmanuel told us his story, and then sang/rapped about Emma and his plan to build her school in her honour. It was powerful stuff, and many people were moved to tears during the course of the standing ovation. Over lunch the National Postcode Lottery, offered a 10 grand prize for the audience to donate to a charity of their choice and Emmanuel’s school was the unanimous choice. This is typical of the TED experience, unbounded optimism and positivity and it is great to be wrapped up in it.

However there were a few strands of negativity and gloom throughout day’s talks.

The most light hearted of those negative strands was Rory Bremner, who, as is his wont took the piss out of everyone from the organiser of TED Chris Anderson to Gordon Brown. It was great to be reminded of Brown’s hypocritical side as Rory pointed out a few of the ways that he has failed to act to solve the world’s problems when he has had the chance which nicely punctured the two standing ovations he had received 2 days earlier. Seeing the other side of the story was a theme in many other of the days’ talks. We saw a range of photos from Taryn Simon that captured people who had suffered false imprisonment as a result of mistaken identity, where very often they had been indentified in a very suspect way cooked up by the police. We heard a story about stories from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, based on her upbringing in Nigeria. Chimamanda pointed out the importance of where you choose to start the story in how history gets remembered. And we heard from both an economist and a journalist about the unseen economics and organisations of crime and terrorism and their direct link to the global economic crisis.

There were also few strands of negativity and gloom from the listeners too.

We also heard from Jim Balog of the Extreme Ice Survey, a photographer who has captured, using time lapse cameras, the retreating of glacial ice around the world. His point was to try to visualise and make tangible the impact of climate change to convince people of how real the problem is. Jim didn’t get a standing ovation, which was nothing to do with his work which is obviously extremely valuable and relevant. My suspicion is that part of the reason is that most people accept that climate change is an issue and people are kind of fed up with having the problem thrust in their face with no attempt to suggest any solutions. It is a deep and complex problem, and simply raising awareness of it is too shallow a response. Or maybe that’s just me?

I spoke to a couple of other fellow audience members who voiced a little negativity as well. The rarefied atmosphere at TED can get a little cultish at times, and the negativity being voiced was a reaction against taking the ideas in the talks at face value rather than as a starting point for enquiry and debate. I think most people loved the exposure to such a wide variety of fascinating topics, but also felt the desire to go a little deeper into those topics.

For me that was the biggest lesson of the day, the pursuit and sharing of knowledge is obviously a good thing, but only when it is the start of something, not the end. You can never really know the whole story, and first impressions can be misleading. And while positivity and optimism must be good things, it mustn’t be mindless optimism, ignoring or sidestepping the challenges, trade offs or side effects of the actions we take. Finally, at the risk of seeming tenuous in the extreme, I think the lessons for marketing are clear too. We must always try to understand the situation as well as we can and work hard to develop deep consumer insight. If we don’t our work will appear shallow, vacuous and un-engaging, you only need to glance at a commercial break to see how easy a trap that is to fall into.