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K-Y Jelly and Nine Other Secrets to Starting an Agency Lab

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Every agency can have a lab, and should. It will drive free-play, innovative thinking and it will bring your employees from just concepting into the mindset of making. That's where the real fun is, anyway. Technology costs are down, client demands for innovation are up, and your employees want new ways to express themselves creatively.

Dan Vogeleer in the Martin Agency Lab
Dan Vogeleer in the Martin Agency Lab

BBH, Ogilvy and a couple of other agencies started the trend a few years ago, experimenting with new technologies both internally and on behalf of their clients. But don't let a head start deter you -- it's never too late to start your own lab, and it has never been easier than right now.

We started the Martin Lab a little over a year ago using the theme of "Make & Break." We wanted to create a place where people felt comfortable bringing their ideas to life, in an environment that was set up to promote three types of experimenting: try, play and learn. Over the course of the year, we learned a lot about setting up an internal lab, running it and even getting work out of it. Here are the 10 things you need (starting with the most unexpected).

1. K-Y Jelly. This may not make sense at first until you understand its properties, many of which have been enjoyed outside the lab for years. It's longlasting, lubricating, conductive, scentless (don't get the scented, trust me) and readily available. We have honestly used it on multiple projects to solve a number of problems -- including making cookies touch-sensitive and making a product- launcher launch consistently. Cost: $10.

2. A place. This may seem obvious, but we've talked to several agencies with labs that don't really have a dedicated space. It's important to the people working the most in the lab to feel like they have a place to really experiment that isn't completely disruptive to everyday work. Ours is in the middle of the creative department, surrounded by glass, which is even nicer, because everyone can see what we are up to in there, ask questions and get involved. Cost: Someone giving up the space.

3. A separate network. A lot of the "toys" you will be working with in the lab are connected devices (Twine, Little Printer, etc.), and they don't always play well on networks set up securely for large numbers of employees. We got a simple router that plugged into our network to give us a sub-network. Cost: $50.

4. A 3-D printer. When doing iterative experimental work, you need to be able to make things quickly and test them out. A 3D printer is the best device for that purpose, for the money. We are on our second printer, the Replicator 2 (highly recommend it) with the first-generation Replicator having been moved to our IT department in exchange for all the help they provided us by setting things up, supporting us and collaborating on projects. Cost: $2,400 plus $40 per spool (and they last a while.)

5. Tools, and a lot of them. Dremel, soldering gun, screwdrivers, pliers, multimeter, etc. You will need a decent variety of tools to take things apart and, more importantly, put them back together. We've taken apart the MakerBot almost 10 times. Cost: $200 will you get a decent starter set.

6. Safety gear/first aid kit. This might seem like it goes without saying, but we learned the hard way with a couple cuts to our hands: have safety equipment. Glasses, gloves, whatever you need to protect yourself while experimenting with new equipment. (I skinned my hand twice removing things from the 3D printing platform. Never again.) Cost: $40 for some pretty basic stuff you can grab from your local hardware store.

7. Recording equipment. When building things that haven't been built before, keep a record for yourself and/or to share with others. We've been using a combination of screen recorders, webcams, GoPros and high-end camera equipment for when we want to really show something off. Cost: $200 will get you a GoPro to start with.

8. Dedicated computer. You can use your own computer, but with the different software packages you will be testing, it's best to have a computer you can simply rebuild without worrying about losing any of your client work. In addition, we use ours to run several server softwares (i.e., Node.js) so we can access it from anywhere in the building if we need to reach something, or to check if some of our toys are running correctly through its webcam. Cost: Free (if your IT department has an old Mac mini lying around collecting dust.)

9. Whiteboard. Never underestimate the power of writing stuff down before you make it. Our whiteboard has been one of the most-used objects for people in the lab. We use it for writing out electronic layouts, database architectures and 3D model concepts. We also use it for keeping track of people who borrow lab equipment, and as a queue for people who want something 3D-printed. It's never empty. Cost: $40.

10. Toys!! I've mentioned them earlier, but this is kind of a catch-all for things like Arduino, Kinect, Raspberry Pi, servos, motors, quadcopters, LEDs, Leap Motion, etc. Basically, there is a ton of fun stuff from Kickstarter filling the drawers of our lab for us to use, play with and learn from. Not only have they taught us a lot about electronics, gesture-based systems and mechanical motion, but they've helped us become better conceptors. As we understand more about what's possible -- or, more importantly what's almost possible -- we will continue to come up with crazy ideas that have our operations and human resources departments slightly worried.

Of course, it's not just the "things" you put inside a lab that make it successful; it's also your willingness to work outside of your comfort zone, to realize you should never stop learning, and -- as a standing order from the heads of the agency -- the challenge to do something that's never been done before.

Happy experimenting, and don't forget the K-Y!

Dan Vogeleer is associate creative director of technology at Interpublic Group of Cos.' The Martin Agency.

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