Why can't your agency innovate?

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Innovation continues to be the hot topic in businesses the world over. Last year I was fortunate enough to be asked to speak at the Spikes Asia Festival of Creativity in Singapore on the subject.

The festival is a clear signpost of the growing importance of marketing innovation in the APAC region, and the speakers, exhibits and workshops were proof that this market is one to watch, especially when it comes to disruptive innovation. It’s no coincidence that Spikes is referred to as the Cannes of Asia!

Prior to taking the stage on Wednesday, I took part in a round table debate on whether agencies only talked about innovation - rather than actually doing it - organised by Creative Pool.

Around a table of 6, I was one of the three who were arguing that agencies were all talk and no trousers - A position you might think unusual for me to take as someone who heads the innovation department for TMW Unlimited. (You can listen to the podcast here)

Our clients want new thinking and new ways of working, they know that their business models are at risk if they don’t innovate (80% of executives asked support this statement - McKinsey 2015) so they look to their agencies to help them. And with good reason. Agencies are well placed to bridge the gap between the startup ecosystem and the corporate world. We understand our clients business challenges and we can apply learnings from one sector to another.

So why do I think that agencies are all talk?

Agencies, on the whole are interested in developing models and working practices that set them apart from their many competitors. These USPs normally manifest as a particular insight driven model or a ‘revolutionary’ way of approaching client needs.

Right now industry is desperate to innovate, and agencies - ever the chameleons - are keen to show that they can be the ones to help businesses do it. As I said, I truly believe that agencies are extremely well placed to provide this service, however most agencies are really only interested in using the output of other innovators to provide proof that they themselves are innovative.

Take the startup world. Agencies know that their clients want to engage with startups. They are all nervously watching these entrepreneurial companies just in case one of them turns out to be the next disruption that will change their industry. Agencies respond to this by trawling the demo days and using ‘startup brokers’ to parade a steady stream of startups in front of their clients.

Unfortunately this practice rarely results in any meaningful relationships between startups and brands, although it does make the agency look like they know what they’re doing (for a while at least).

The answer is to ask one simple question when dealing with a startup.

Is the start-up going to get as much out of this as we want to get from them?

If the answer is no, think about how you can make the transaction truly mutually beneficial. If agencies want to make lasting, financially rewarding connections between their brands and the startup community, they have to change the way in which the work. This means helping brands understand how to work with startups, advising on the procurement challenges and educating clients about test and learn.

Innovation is about solving problems
To understand how your organisation needs to embrace innovation, you first need to understand what problems you are trying to solve.

Working from a clear understanding of the challenges your business has, or better still the challenges facing your customers is a great way of filtering out the noise, allowing you to focus your energy on the right areas.

For example, if your organisation already has a great R&D pipeline, but struggles with customer care, then spending time looking at startups who can feed into R&D is not going to be as useful as looking at disruptions and trends in the field of customer service.

This may be an over simplification, but it is imperative that an organisation understands what it want’s from innovation, and what success looks like.

Embrace systemic innovation

Finally, it’s pointless making grand statements about your desire to embrace innovation if you haven’t made any effort to change the culture of your organisation such that people at all levels understand, accept and promote innovative thinking.

This means that everyone, from the newest graduate to the most senior board member (and all the people in between) needs to feel empowered to question the status quo, safe in the knowledge that their company will reward innovative thinking rather than penalise it.

It all comes down to one key message that is more than a poster or a pinterest quote. You need to give everyone permission to fail. With the caveat that the organisation and the individual needs to use that failure to learn and develop.

The hot topic

Innovation is the word on everyone’s lips. Organisations know they need it, agencies know they need to supply it. But real innovation starts by unlocking cultural change.

We need to change the culture of agencies so that we become innovators, rather than exploiters of innovators and we need to change the culture of big business so that the institutional fear that prevents experimentation is replaced by the promotion of behaviours that encourage innovative thinking.


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