Innovation — Lies, Promises, and PowerPoints

Innovation! It’s the big promise agencies makes during their pitches and presentations, and while some engagements and campaigns have been truly innovative, more often than not, agencies fall short on delivering it.

The advertising landscape is changing at speeds never seen before. Between the rise in outsourced capabilities, the massive growth of the advertising technology stack, and the increasingly growing number of “cool” start-ups, it’s not enough anymore to complement your pitch promise with delivery efficiencies and operational discipline. Agencies must be able to add innovation to their mix and lots of it – the big idea, the new thing, that’s what more and more brands are expecting from their agency. More often than not I hear brands saying that they did not hire an agency to get the work done, that anyone one can get the work done; what they are looking for is the Big Idea and the next Big Innovation…an agency that can lead them forward and create innovative ideas that make the brand a true market leader.

But innovation is a fickle and a highly subjective topic. Depending on who you ask, everybody has a different expectation or definition of innovation. Some people believe it is something that is forward-looking and will enable brands to better compete in the future; others believe it’s about technology and data; and some people think innovation should be a solid, fire-tested and bulletproof offering complete with case studies and learnings.

In the face of all these competing ideas around what innovation is and what it can deliver, I believe we as an industry should take a step back and clarify what it really means to us and more importantly, how we can be innovative for our clients in meaningful ways that move their brands ahead of the competition.

Merriam-Webster defines “innovation” as:

  1. The introduction of something new
  2. A new idea, method, or device

If we then look at the definition of “new,” we get:

  1. Not old: recently born, built, or created
  2. Not used by anyone else previously
  3. Recently bought, rented, etc.

During my career I’ve had the honor of working with a lot of people that I would characterize as “highly innovative,” and the one thing they all had in common was an insatiable curiosity and desire to explore the new and unknown. Based on their success and my own experience, I think the one thing we all can agree on is that innovation is not about reusing, reapplying, or reframing; it’s clearly about introducing something new, something nobody else has ever done. And this is really what a lot of today’s agencies lack. You can’t just say, “Let’s be innovative.” Being innovative has to be part of who you are as an agency and how you operate. It has to become part of your agency’s DNA, from the way you think about engagements and solutions to the way and who you hire. If you want to be an innovator, you need to hire fresh thinkers, explorers, experimenters, and thought leaders.

I believe that if you are trying to achieve true innovation in an agency-brand relationship, you should keep in mind some of the following principles that I have found to be helpful guideposts.

First to Market

Innovation turns brands into market leaders. The agency that brings its client an innovative idea enables that brand to be the first one in its field to leverage it in a meaningful way. Innovation makes consumers and competitors stand up and take notice, and acknowledge the brand for being the first ever.

Be Admired

Innovative products, services, or campaigns are often copied – which is the greatest and the most sincere form of flattery. So if you are doing something that is first to market, do it loud and proud – so people will remember (and maybe copy) you.

Don’t Get Stuck on Efficiencies

Although I am German (big fan of efficiencies), I do not believe that innovation in an agency-brand relationship should be about productivity boosters and automation. Don’t get me wrong, there is no CFO that will not love some cost savings or efficiencies, but I don’t want the most innovative thing I have ever done be the reduction of staff due to the creation of shiny new widgets.

Innovate With Purpose

Innovation has to be purposeful in order to be successful. You need to have a very clear vision of what you expect from this new idea. You must define the possible outcomes and how you will measure its success. You also need to think about the client’s budgets; it’s only an innovative idea if it’s realistic.

Flexible Expectations

One of the biggest differences between brands and agencies is around expected outcomes. For a lot of the agencies, an innovative idea needs to have a positive outcome, but this is actually contrary to the opinion of a lot of brands; they see innovation as being very close to experimentation. That means that even a negative outcome/failure is a learning, it has value – now they know what not to do. I know this is a hard concept for some (especially digital) marketers, but if innovations are experiments, then they are allowed to fail.

Share the Fame

Often we come across some interesting insights, a cool tool, or an idea that would have a great impact on the client’s business, but unfortunately, we are not the AOR for that – and who wants a competing agency to take all the credit? But this should not hinder us from bringing it to the client. Let me tell you, we have often shared social insights or brought a cool idea for another channel (outside of our contracted scope) to the client, and the outcome was always in our favor; either we got to excecute that specific project, or we were invited to pitch for that piece of business. Either way, the client knows that we found it, that we thought of them and how it could build their brand, and they acknowledge us for it.

That brings me to my number one goal of innovation. In my opinion, the most successful outcome we could have as an agency is to come up with an innovative idea that will change the way our clients do business. By bringing them innovative ideas that translate into meaningful business impact, we can become a trusted partner that helps our brands navigate the rough waters of advertising. One of the greatest moments in advertising is when the client “buys in” to your idea, and you see how it is changing the way they do business. This kind of impact makes your agency the type that everybody wants to be and work with.

Image via Shutterstock.

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