My talk at Google Firestarters yesterday. Thanks again @neilperkin for inviting me to speak!

Yesterday I was one of 8 speakers at the latest event in the Google Firestarters series, curated by Neil Perkin. It was wonderful to be able to share the stage with some very smart people, who all brought interesting approaches to the ‘agency innovation conundrum‘, as it was billed.

My slides and what I said (more or less) are below.

A couple of weeks ago I was at the Museo del Prado in Madrid. It’s an impressive place, but what really enthralled me was the work of the Caravaggisti, the group of painters influenced by the works of the Baroque artist Caravaggio. Caravaggio, as most of you probably know, was the leading proponent of chiaroscuro in the 16th century, a form of art that focussed light and shadows around key characters to make them stand out.

To me this is similar to the role of innovation specialists in agencies. As a race, we now produce over 800 exabytes of information a year. To put that in perspective, and I always find it fascinating when I see this bit of information, we created only 5 exabytes of information between the dawn of civilization and 2003. We are now a data-obese generation, as Google’s chief economist Hal Varian says. To make sense of all this data, we need filters in agencies as much as we do in our daily lives – and that information needs to be distilled and translated into a usable form.

I also like to think of people who have innovation as a key part of their role as in-house creativity defenders.  I came across some research on the impact of client relationships, agency culture and structure on creativity recently. There were a few interesting things in the report but a couple of things stood out for me. One was the impact of the agency’s willingness and ability defend creative ideas on creativity itself. In a typical agency structure, there are multiple specialists – digital, SEO, social, client services, planning, art direction – who are extremely talented at their specific roles. Planners especially need to have the breadth of interest and knowledge that the others often don’t. But it isn’t their day job to have multiple fingers in multiple pies, to know at a given time what is going on with almost all agency clients. It’d be great if they could do that, don’t get me wrong – but it means stretching them too thin. That, again, is where innovation heads come in.

‘Innovation’ has today become a catch-all phrase that almost means nothing. It’s reached the point of semantic satiation for me at least, where a word is repeated so often that it loses meaning.

I think it’s useful and important to step out of the agency bubble to get perspective. Many years ago I was working on a strategy for implementing a system of accountability in government schools in Bangalore in India. It was something that was being done for the first time to shake up a system that was completely inefficient and worse, irresponsible. We used guidelines that were based on the US Government’s Accounting Standards Board to evaluate a set of schools as part of a pilot programme. It was very successful, with learning rates going up from 20 to 50% in the schools surveyed. There were multiple stakeholders in the process: government bodies, the non-profit that I was part of, a policy institute, and a citizen’s collective. Each funded their bit of the project. The majority of the employees in the non-profit I was working at, who were all very talented educationists, had crucial roles in keeping the charity’s other education initiatives going. They simply got on with what they did best. We couldn’t have achieved what we did without them, but we were the only ones who had the bandwidth to work on this wide-ranging project. I see a parallel in what the small group of us did – it wasn’t called innovation but that’s pretty much what it was, process innovation – and what I do now.

When someone mentions the phrase ‘agencies and innovation’, the first thing I’d like to know is what’s the context? Are we talking about a market-facing issue or an internal one? A process or a product? The second thing I’d like to know is what the frame of reference is – what kind of agency are we talking about? Capabilities are very different depending on whether we are talking about a traditional group agency or a small design agency, which means what they can achieve will be different. PHD is part of Omnicom, so we are able to leverage the size of the network to forge relationships with startups and technology companies across the world on behalf of clients – that would fall within our definition of innovation. A small design agency might be much more adept at creating, say, a game-changing mobile service, which is a different kind of innovation altogether. Both are innovative, it’s just that one is process innovation and the other, product.

A couple of researchers at Copenhagen Business School said something about product, process and organizational innovation that I thought made a lot of sense for agencies too: that it is a reductive exercise to talk about innovation at the expense of how it was done in the first place.

The last thing I’d like to mention is this phenomenon of agency innovation snobbery. (I wished I invented the phrase but it already exists with regards to business innovation!). What is important is that agencies keep pace with the thinking that underlies the creating – they should design an agile, sustainable product, campaign, business or strategy that makes a difference to people, and therefore to the client and the agency. Joseph Schumpeter is known to have said that whether it’s product or process innovation, what matters is whether you can bring an innovation to market.

Michael Schrage, a researcher at MIT Sloan’s Centre for Digital Business and the author of a book on business innovation called ‘Serious Play’, builds on this and puts innovation snobs in their place.

At PHD, earlier this year we launched our proprietary planning system called Source. It pulls in research and trend documents from multiple sources, helps planners brainstorm on creative briefs with a global hive mind, and even helps calculate media spend by channel. We’re pretty proud of it as both a product and process innovation.

Thank you.

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