Advertising’s innovators embrace digital shakeup

Technology has opened new doors to creatives and fostered a wave of innovations – but is it about to recast how the industry itself functions?

When it comes to creating the perfect storm for creative output, it’s all about having the right people, in the right place, at the right time. Agencies have long needed to adapt to survive, but the stakes have risen in a digital world in which consumer behaviour is constantly evolving. Agencies are now expected to keep pace with this change – and innovation, once merely desirable, is now a must-have. The hunt for the new is crucial.

Some agencies – and, increasingly, brand owners – have begun running their own “hack” events to brainstorm new ideas. Others are re-energising their in-house development teams to create new products or services, or investing in new tech start-ups to secure a stake in the next big thing.

And yet innovation, though often driven and inspired by technology, means more than simply coming up with a different use for the latest piece of kit.

“There’s no silver bullet,” says Chris Freeland, joint CEO at TMW Unlimited. “Innovation has got to be part of your agency culture.” In recent years, his company has established a lab to develop tech ventures, an annual 48-hour “hack” event during which everyone in the agency brainstorms new ideas, and a Dragons’ Den-style competition called Project Iliad to dream up a new product or service idea to fund. “It’s got to be in your DNA,” adds Freeland.

Although technology has forced changes in the industry, many marketing fundamentals remain the same – like the importance of how consumers interact with brands. According to Mike Cullis, founding partner and managing director of two-year-old direct marketing agency Soul, an agency’s work should always add value by addressing its clients’ problems.

A sense of purpose
“There has been some loss of focus on what we are in business to do,” he explains. “The danger now is equating innovation with new technology and pursuing innovation for innovation’s sake.”

Innovation is dictated by how you think, your attitude and your approach to solving problems, says Dan Saxby, chief executive, London at Iris Worldwide. “Being innovative as an agency is all about diversity. That means having people from different places with different skillsets, then creating the right conditions in which these diverse people can flourish and collaborate around a brief,” he says.

“The key to attracting not just the right spread but also the best talent is creating an environment people want to work in,” he adds. “An entrepreneurial culture like ours is a powerful draw and much of the work we create is naturally contagious – another reason people who work here choose to come.”

With clients now expecting every agency they work with to have digital expertise, the challenge is to combine the best of digital culture with the best of brand marketing and communication. This, says Simon Hathaway, global head of retail experience at Cheil Worldwide, will help create a new kind of agency – one that is agile enough to move fast and drive through innovative ideas.

“The fixation the industry still has with big strategy planning processes, then weeks of creative working, just isn’t relevant any more,” he says. “Ad guys do big plans, while digital guys do agility and speed and iterative development and prototyping – the kind of approaches we now need to adopt.

“Everyone has to be aware of brand strategy, of course – which is a weakness of some digital-only agencies – but once the strategy is right, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel for every campaign. That means you can move faster to create ideas that are truly ground-breaking and innovative.”

Saxby agrees that more traditional agencies have much to learn from digital culture. “Go to a client with an idea that’s different and most will waiver,” he says. “But if you take them a finished product and demonstrate its business impact through a pilot or prototype you have developed at your own risk – more of a digital approach – the barriers are broken down.”

Different methods, innovative results
Innovation can be fostered by a different way of doing business, adds Hathaway, pointing to the rapid growth in collaborative ways of working – between different agencies working on a client’s business, and between agency and client. “We are having more discussions around shared value, and retaining IP on the work we create, with revenues apportioned according to risk and reward,” he says.

But innovation also comes from mixing up talent in different ways. “You’ve got to recognise the importance of creating the right environment for people from inside and outside to come together in unexpected ways – partnering a retail strategist with a user-experience designer, for example,” Hathaway adds. “You need to think less about formal structures and more about driving principles: agility, curiosity and the desire to collaborate.”

When it comes to finding the “right” talent mix, agency structure or indeed, business model, for now at least the industry is still feeling its way. That’s because for every agency like Iris – which has what Saxby calls a “fluid” approach, constantly forming then reforming around its clients’ changing needs – there are others for which more traditional structures still have merit.

“This agency is still built around teams made up of account handler, creative and planner,” says JWT London head of CRM Marius Bartsch. “They sit at the centre and ‘buy in’ time from experts from around the business.” Having tried a variety of other specialists – digital technologists, for example – in the pivotal role, JWT has concluded digital is just another channel, he says.

Bartsch’s point is that digital – though pervasive – does not negate the fundamental importance of having a creative strategy that is constant across every consumer touchpoint. “We have found first hand that if you don’t have the three core disciplines at the heart of everything you do, then strategy, creativity and delivery can slip out of alignment,” he says. “It’s clear that innovation works best when everything you are doing works together.”

Original article published 21 January 2015 in The Guardian