Side Projects: Keeping Your Ad Agency Creative

Freeing Yourself and Your Employees May Lead to Breakthroughs

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Does your agency have a side project? Something that you're finding time for in between the work you're doing that pays the bills?

In a world of bloated in-boxes, presentation decks and meetings, you might wonder how that 's even feasible. But side projects can help you grow business, expand your team's experience and gain notoriety for your team.

Side projects are different than pro bono projects.

A bona fide side project comes without strings attached, without a client to report to, and limited only by the agency's own resources. These are the projects that let agencies push the limits of what's possible, when clients would say "no."

Nick Farnhill, from London's Poke agency, explains that "we've always believed in the importance of the side project, both from a creative and commercial perspective. Some of our most successful pieces of work to date have been 'on the side' -- BakerTweet and GlobalRichList are good examples of this. Both of these allowed the teams involved to explore new opportunities and experiment with creative and technical techniques not readily available through client challenges. The result has been products that we're incredibly proud of , are expressive of Poke's personality and demonstrates a clear sense of optimism that exists within the space we work."

We've always embraced side projects at Humongo, too. Most notably, a social-media road show that 's crisscrossed the nation over the last four years. Part self-promotion, part experimentation, and part carload of fun, the annual summer tour was a place for our agency team to try new things, experiment with new tools, design without client constraints and have something to look forward to each year.

It's easy to say that you don't have time for side projects. Or that the time devoted to such a project would be better spent on billable, client work. It goes without saying that your agency must be profitable, and that the majority of your time should indeed be spent on billable work. But like everything in business, balance is the key to making things work. Chances are that there's a portion of your employee's time that 's currently spent meandering about, waiting for client approvals, waiting for assets and waiting for other departments in the agency.

Project-management tools make it easy for everyone on the team to jump into a project at the very moment they have time to devote to it. Having such a project available gives agency staffers something to feel good about and/or look forward to when they are stuck between meetings, projects or assignments.

For Manifold, that project came in the form of a bike-in outdoor movie theater. Manifold Partner Sean Florio said: "One of the biggest benefits we gained from developing Bike-in Theater was that it reminded us to go out there and make good things happen. A fun idea saw the light of day without ever touching PowerPoint."

Sometimes it is just about making an idea real. "We really believe in bringing good ideas to life, simply because they're good ideas -- with or without client involvement. It helps stoke our creative fire -- and there's great ROI in that ," said Florio.

Why side projects? A side project is an investment in your future intellectual capital. A good side project allows agency creatives to explore without boundaries. A side project could turn into real business, or completely change your business. The entire 37 Signals product suite was born from a side project in what was originally an agency.

Stuck on where to start? Poke holds an annual "hack" day, where the studio shuts down for 24 hours, and everyone's presented with a brief. According to Farnhill, "This year's challenge was 'to do something good for the neighborhood.' The resulting work was outstanding and the winning piece is now an official charity set up to inspire young people to learn to draw."

Maybe this summer is a good time to find something more fun, challenging or rewarding to do. Maybe this is the summer that your agency kicks off its first side project. Just as soon as you finish that presentation deck.

Darryl Ohrt Darryl Ohrt is a former punk rocker and chief contributor to the greatest blog in all of the land, BrandFlakesForBreakfast. While his official title is president, his business card says he's "Prime Minister of Awesome" at Humongo, a Source Marketing company. Darryl knows just enough to be dangerous. He's on the internet right now, playing, investigating and exploring. Watch out.
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