For the third event in the Google #Firestarters series its curator extraordinaire, Neil Perkin, chose to tackle the issues of “legacy structures, processes and thinking” head-on with the question: “what might the operating system for the agency of the future look like?“.

It’s a hairy, humbling monster of a question, not least because talk of new agency structures and ways of working so often teeters precariously on the edge of empty buzzword bingo (check out Tim Malbon’s post last year on Agile as a cargo cult).

On Tuesday night, Martin Bailie, James Caig and I were given 20 minutes to share a response. I attempted to avoid painting a picture of an agency built of silicon, and instead set out to describe something rather more prosaic. These days, perhaps more than ever, agencies are almost ALL about culture; their operating system a set of programs designed to encourage creativity and responsive behaviour, not codify inflexible structures and processes. Get the culture right and the rest follows. So the question becomes: what sort of agency culture do you want to create or be a part of? And what about all the contextual stuff we perhaps need to consider first?

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A simple take on the impact of technology

We’ve known for years that the opportunities to buy mass attention are shrinking by the day, just as the opportunities to earn and measure attention become ever more enticingly available. If today Google’s Panda algorithm places ever more pressure on businesses to boost the signal not increase the noise and Facebook’s EdgeRank reduces the visibility of brands that send users to sleep, imagine what this will be like in future. At its simplest, it adds up to the same thing: ALL marketing – not just the rare handful of brands that regularly win awards – needs to be *genuinely* useful or entertaining. If  not, marketing will become that thing that marketers and agencies fear the most: unseen and unheard.

If we can just wake up to this fact, this is a show-stoppingly great moment in time for our industry. There simply isn’t room for me-too, clutter-up-your-life, half-baked ideas, or one way messages dumped on the web dressed up to look “interactive”. However, there is lots of room for marketing done with skill and purpose, that people want to share, remix and make their own.

I’m calling this Marketing Singularity – an absurd title, which I’ll explain it in a second. For now, I just want to restate how it feels that we’re at a tipping point in our industry’s life cycle. If we can just set ourselves straight, it’s going to be epic. Let me explain why and how…

Is the pace of change exponential or logarithmic?

Let’s start with a question that’s at the root of why we’re having this conversation in the first place: the oft-discussed pace of change. Jeremy pointed me to a speech made earlier this month by Ben Hammersley, who spoke with provocative eloquence about an incumbent generation of leaders losing ground on a ‘Internet era’ revolution racing away from them. Around the same time, Matt Edgar wrote a spirited rebuttal to the common assumption that the pace of change is accelerating.. It feels important to decide where you sit on this debate, because if the pace of change is exponential, then it follows we need to have systems in place that encourage us to plan a lot further ahead – or react more nimbly – than we have currently. Or perhaps that isn’t the point. The pace of change may or may not be accelerating, but the pace of life is de facto faster than it was, say, five years ago. And whilst Matt questions whether technology’s exponential rate of change actually impacts on our lives to the same degree, I find that a peculiar assumption. Technology doesn’t sit on the sidelines of our lives these days: it’s embedded, root and branch. What’s more, the technology companies themselves regard speed as a competitive advantage (“Better products, faster” – Larry Page, Google shareholders’ meeting, 2011). Last week’s avalanche of tech news (again) is a case in point.

Marketing Singularity?

In fact you could argue we’re approaching Marketing Singularity: the point at which marketing is forced to become exponentially better, until it is so useful or entertaining it ceases to be a separate, stand-alone, one-way message and instead becomes indistinguishable from the product or service it promotes.

It might be content, it might be a framework or a game that invites participation; or even participation that gets displayed as a game. Platforms are brand operating systems, campaigns are applications. As Ben pointed out earlier this year, these are not binary.

Marketing as a profit centre, not a cost

Taking this to its logical conclusion, shouldn’t we aim to create marketing products and services that are so good, people are prepared to pay for them? Even if this approach isn’t what’s required (perhaps a Freemium model is the way to begin), I like the responsibility it places upon our shoulders: make marketing valuable to people. Looking further out, we may look back on the days we spent millions of dollars just paying for the privilege to reach people as a little odd. Brands like Audi and Red Bull are early experimenters in the guise of brands as committed media owners / publishers.

The kind of agency OS this demands

A few programs for starters:

Reductive thinking everywhere

At Labs, we admire the ruthless economy, flex and energy of a great start up as much as the next person. Kickstarter and Instagram are two of the better known examples of Minimum Viable Product thinking. For any agency worth their salt, the fundamental principles of MVP should not feel new. Great brand strategy and creative have *always* been about the art of sacrifice. The task now is to apply that mindset throughout agency departments: reduce to MVP, then listen (data) and pivot as required. This becomes all the more important when we look at shifts in business stability: from long periods of stability and short periods of disruption, to the reverse. This is a model for marketing too – let’s get comfortable with an environment that needs to flex and morph.

Silicon vs carbon

As Rishad Tobaccowala said a few days ago, ‘the world may be digital, but people are analog.” Any agency OS needs to be built around people, not technology.

‘Big is a collection of smalls’

People habitually join agencies like BBH from colleges and smaller agencies because they want to do something at SCALE. Accordingly, the very last thing we need to do is shy away from growth. Instead, the best agencies are increasingly breaking into nimbler, cross-functional teams, often with hybrid skills and collaborative in mindset. As Nigel Bogle puts it, ‘big is a collection of smalls’. Teams with autonomy, but access to shared services.

Whilst we should cast for the client or task in question (don’t take the team structure I sketched too literally), it’s worth drawing attention to the ‘broker’ role. If you’re interested in non-traditional media partnerships and thinking, you need a deal maker in your team.

Networked, versus in a network

We cannot do everything ourselves. With every layer of complexity, comes a deeper requirement to nurture and build strong external partnerships. Labs is a product of its network, plain and simple.

Foster Renaissance (wo)men

We’ve said this before, but we’re living through a Renaissance period. To be successful, we need fearless people who want to collaborate and learn from other industries. Deal makers, entrepreneurs, makers.. The people who never hold back from making the thing they dream of, just because the tools don’t exist today. Because they know they’ll exist tomorrow.

Make real things

You don’t need a 3D printer to make stuff or experience the benefits of making a proto-type of your idea. Making an early version of something – even if it’s rubbish (many years ago, I remember taking a mockup of a Boddingtons Tetra pak to a client meeting, to sell the idea of ‘Fresh Cream’. They hated it) – teaches you stuff you don’t find out if you stay in theory mode. So go buy a soldering iron and make something… There’s also a non-too-subtle shift going on between experiences that live entirely online (potentially interesting) and those that straddle the real world too (potentially fascinating). Check out Russell Davies’ piece for Campaign and the brilliant Marc Owens’ Avatar Machine if you want to read more.

Stay curious

Adopting and encouraging a culture of constant learning sounds exhausting, but it may well be the only way to stay sane. Learn to code, get comfortable in the wild, stay open, stay curious – I’m enjoying playing with my Weavr thanks to @zeroinfluencer – create your own here. A phrase used often at BBH and which turned up on our login screens this summer is perhaps an apt way to close: “Do interesting things and interesting things will happen to you.”


We’d love to hear what you think – what are the other programs you’d want to include in an agency OS?

Check out Martin’s presentation here and James’s here.

Thank you to Neil, James, Martin and everyone who came and contributed… as always, the discussion got most interesting when the formal presentations stopped and everyone piled in. Aside from following the conversation here #Firestarters or nicely storified here, there have also been several thought provoking response posts (check out this one here from Simon Kendrick or this one here from Shea Warnes for starters). As always, Neil’s follow-up post will be one to look out for too.