Exploring The Edges: On Innovation In Agencies « BBH Labs
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Exploring The Edges: On Innovation In Agencies

28th April 11

Posted by Mel Exon

Posted in business models

Last weekend @malbonnington posed a deceptively simple question: Do We Really Need Chief Innovation Officers in Ad Agencies? He cited four people with related titles, including our own @saneel who holds the title Director of Innovation at BBH NY. I was reminded of Ed Cotton’s posts which asked a similar question about the role of agency labs. In both cases, the comment threads are as enlightening as the posts – don’t take our word for it, go check them out, including Ben’s own excellent response here. Below I’ve pulled out and built upon our contribution to the debate in both cases. Consistently aided and abetted, prodded and provoked by others far smarter than us since we set up Labs in 2008 (you know who you are, the likes of @edwardboches, @benkunz, @timogeo, @malbonster, @patsmc, @willsh, @caseorganic, @irowan, @danlight, @shaunabe, and @tomux are just a flavour), this post has ended up being a distillation of what we’ve learned so far about this topic.

Image by Eistean, via Flickr

I suspect innovation, or more specifically, how we deliver it, is a topic that’ll continue to cause debate in any creative industry worth its salt, for the simple reason that innovation isn’t an ‘add-on to what we all do, it is the decades-old bedrock of our existence: asking audiences to see their world in new ways, seeking new routes to communicate, shining a light on invention. We may embrace co-creation and recombinant culture, but our industry still worships at the altar of originality. Who of us doesn’t want to do ground-breaking stuff? Inevitably, it follows that the very idea of “innovation transcending functional expertise“ can feel like a total anathema.

Certainly, my immediate response to the questions about Chief Innovation Officers and agency labs is pretty simple: in most cases, I wouldn’t appoint someone to the job.

I say this for three reasons:

a. Few agencies aspire to operate close enough to the “bleeding edge” to justify the cost.
b. As others have commented in the past, the hiring of a CIO all too often represents an abdication of a management team’s responsibility to lead change.
c. It’s a tight rope walk of a job. Incredibly easy to slip off.

And yet…for the people with the appetite to try it, here are a couple of thoughts on why, when and how we *might* make it work:

1. Start by picking your company carefully.

Oddly, it’s at the extreme ends of the spectrum of corporate health that this role may be most useful: at the hellish end where a company is wallowing in a stagnant backwater, the short term appointment a CIO could help signal a fresh agenda. At the opposite end, when an agency has grown too big to sit around one table yet retains a forward-looking culture, a CIO can play a powerful, much more strategic role. More on this below.

2. Demonstrate the value of exploring the ‘edges’.

Make sure everyone around you (that’s the whole agency, not just management) are on board with the commercial and creative advantage your role can bring. Summarised, the task is to explore and exploit the opportunities at the “edges” of your business, as described in a related FT.com article from earlier this year:

“Edges could involve new product introductions, expansion into new markets, or the launch of entirely new business propositions…the edges of companies are generally more open to change and the adoption of new technologies, because they face more unmet needs and fewer established routines. The people who are attracted to edges tend to be less risk-averse, as well….Longer term, edge initiatives have the potential to become the new core of the enterprise.”

3. Think while you make, make while you think

We all need time to reflect, but you can’t begin to prove the real value (to yourself, to anyone around you) described above if you’re not getting your hands dirty. To quote Alan Wolk commenting on Ben’s post, “working on real projects and helping introduce new ideas into agency culture” is a given. Be a thinker AND a maker.

4. Don’t buy “innovation is the CEO’s job” for a second

It’s also the CEO’s job to take ultimate responsibility for the financial performance of the business, but very few companies would question the need for a CFO. CIO is still a new role so it’s under particular scrutiny. The challenge for any CEO is running a core business whilst staying abreast of change that’s constant and shows no sign of slowing down. Having a scout – or a team of scouts -ahead of the wagons simply lends foresight.

5. Be a muscle, not a limb.

You will spend a large proportion of your time on the outside of the agency, seeking out the new. In doing this, keep in mind you are at the service of the agency and its clients, not an entirely separate enterprise. You’ll find you automatically look at the world through a “will this be useful to us commercially and creatively in future?” lens, versus disappearing entirely from view.

6. Face income.

This is the ultimate test of value: will a client pay for it, now or later? At Labs we have a foot in both camps. Experimenting with some stuff than frankly we barely understand AND working with fee-paying clients in areas that are still emerging but with strong indications they will make a return.

7. Be generous.

Give everything you learn away. Other people will make it better or think of something you didn’t imagine. You will be repaid tenfold down the road.

8. Stay weird.

If there aren’t a couple of people looking at you askance about the more experimental stuff you’re doing and thinking, you’re probably not doing it right. Part of this is about immersing yourself in a very diverse set of external influences, see point 9.

9. Head out into the wild.

We are herd animals, we like hanging out together, swapping stories. So let’s do that. But also let’s make sure we spend time outside the industry. Some of the most outstanding sources of stimuli, the innovation that is inventing new categories, melting down old industries and rebuilding them, is happening well outside the area code of adland. Work with start ups, look at the spaces between industries, beg, borrow or steal a ticket to an event no-one else you know is heading to, examine the unlikeliest of sources, study markets in growth.

Back to the questions of agency labs or Chief Innovation Officers – do we really need ‘em? My answer now is “Yes, if your agency is wholeheartedly committed to being ahead of the curve”. Agencies must answer that question first.

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