Who Is Your Christopher Columbus?

And How You Can be the Queen of Spain (On a Budget)

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Tom Martin Tom Martin
Advertising agencies -- and their clients for that matter -- need to be willing to fund explorers. Explorers with big ideas and strong egos to withstand the long, hard challenges that come with launching new ideas.

I've always been intrigued by the story of Christopher Columbus. He was not an independently wealthy person. In fact it took him multiple tries and many years to line up someone (the King and Queen of Spain) to fund his daring exploit. The committees that both the Queen of Spain and, before her, the King of Portugal relied on for advice in such matters advised against funding Columbus.

Luckily, the Queen of Spain hedged her bets, bought some time and eventually elected to fund Columbus' journey. The rest, as they say, is history.

As I sit and read stories like "Think Like a Venture Capitalist and Change the Marketing Model" -- in which Sequoia Capital's Mark Kvamme challenges ad agencies to think more like VC firms -- I can't help but think we in the advertising world need more folks like Columbus and funding sources like the Queen of Spain.

Just ask yourself how many "great ideas" are on your cutting room floor because a client either wouldn't or couldn't fund them. As we continue to poke and prod our way through this Web 2.0 world, we need to experiment in order to learn. It is hard to advise a client on the best way to use blogging as a marketing tool if one has never blogged. The same goes for social marketing. And it seems that no one has yet to really figure out how best to use online video as a marketing tool, though I'd submit that a few folks have embraced their inner Columbus and at least tried. The only way to learn is to try and yes, fail.

For almost 50 years, the world of advertising basically stood still. Our primary tools of print, radio and television stood relatively unchanged. But with the rise of the Internet and the cost of technology quickly approaching zero, that sedate, comfortable 15% media commission world is changing too quickly for you to just sit back and watch. Tomorrow's marketing leaders are out there testing, trying and failing. They are embracing their inner Columbus and boldly exploring how to use the new opportunities and technologies that are coming online each and every day.

Unfortunately for us little guys, these brave explorers are funded by huge agency holding companies that can afford to fund and fail. They have the profits and the scope to spread the risk around. Which sounds a lot like VC's: Fund 10 ideas and make all your money off of two.

So how are we little guys going to fund our own Christopher Columbus? The fact of the matter is we likely cannot. The brilliant usually know it and unless independently wealthy, will want that brilliance financially rewarded. And given the tight margins in today's agency world, it gets really difficult to fund experimentation. I'm not sure I have yet found the answer, but here are a couple of thoughts to start the conversation, which I hope you'll join via the comments feature on this post.

First idea: Agency networks could invite member agencies to co-fund a Columbus position. The person could be "loaned" to the network by a member agency, possibly for a predetermined amount of time.

Second idea: Find a VC or two to underwrite an "idea fund" in exchange for a portion of any proceeds generated from ideas hatched by the fund. (This is my personal preference.)

Third idea, which we're using here at Zehnder: Create an in-house skunk-works team. Let them hatch ideas and bring those ideas to the management team. If you see something that looks profitable, agree to incubate the idea. Then let the team directly share in any profits that the idea generates. This is the most limiting of the three but most doable.

The important point here is that you need a Christopher Columbus. So if you don't have one, either get one or make a plan to get one today.
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