The word “innovation” has been in the English language since the 16th century: Humans are hard-wired to hone and create. So what does that mean for agencies in 2020? The rate at which we innovate—and expect innovation as consumers—has sped up in recent years, whether it's big brands like P&G embracing "lean innovation" or packaged goods giants like Mars Wrigley creating a veritable Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. We checked in with some of the Amp community’s leaders to see how they’re staying ahead of the game by optimizing their work, their processes and their output to better serve their clients.
Amp spotlight: What innovation means to agencies now
Josh Rosenberg, Co-Founder and CEO, Day One Agency
A recent study from Gartner of CMOs found just $1 out of every $6 in marketing and communications budget is spent on innovation. We know Gen Z is keen to avoid any form of advertising at all costs. From ad blockers to ad-free platforms like Netflix, this group won’t tolerate it. We need to keep up to find ways to break through. Relying on just one tactic or channel won’t work anymore—we’re in a constant need to adapt. Carol Dweck’s theory of “growth mindset” is a continual inspiration for us and how we engage with our clients. We’re also big fans of Courier magazine and its weekly newsletter. It’s full of great inspiration from emerging brands engaging the public in new ways.
David Burfeind, Chief Strategy Officer, The Via Agency
At Via, innovation is anything that pushes creativity over conformity. Creativity that spans many dimensions, from how we think to the way we work to what we make. More often than not, the spark comes from beyond the bounds of advertising, from places like Brain Pickings, NextDraft and Hidden Brain that offer eye-opening takes from the worlds of psychology, art, science, news headlines, children's books and more. We look at operating models from other business models as we reshape our own, leading to our flatter POD structure with shared accountability, and Vialocity, a program that breaks the traditional freelance model and opens our door to a more diverse talent pool. We also have a tech scout that gives us a first look at emerging technologies from an array of start-ups vetted specifically for our clients.
Carolyn Walker, CEO and Managing Partner, Response
Many equate innovation with technology. For us, innovation may or may not include the use or application of technology. We think innovation is about coming up with new ideas that positively effect change as it relates to people, processes and products. It's important to remember that innovative ideas must have a purpose and be grounded in strategy to be effective. For some clients, AR and VR are innovative technologies that we've been working into concepts that we are pitching. For other clients, innovation takes the form of how we help them go to market, using media and creative that hasn't been considered before, like branded podcasts or OTT.
Colin Nagy, Head of Strategy, FF New York
“Innovation” is probably the most overused word in the industry. The most important thing is to not fall into a habit or pre-set doctrine. Try new things, blow things up and don't retain any sentimental feelings for past glories. From this, new ideas and approaches can blossom. In terms of inspiration, I love the email newsletter renaissance going on now. Platforms like Substack are getting people writing again on the topics that matter to them and building up their own one-to-one true fan bases. Conversely, I also love the Financial Times for putting out an incredibly rigorous, quality product that doesn't kowtow to the desire to editorialize.
In terms of books, Cal Newport’s “Digital Minimalism” is making its way around the office. Also, Noma founder René Redzepi’s book with Jeff Gordinier, which is part memoir, part culinary adventure and a must-read for anyone concerned with execution. In terms of people, we are inspired by Luke Bailes, the founder of Singita, a hospitality company with a 100-year mission of conservation and a deep-rooted purpose. Great conferences are few and far between and often seem like blog posts read out loud, but I think The Conference in Malmo and Monocle's Quality of Life conferences stand out.
Chris Neff, Executive Director of Creative Technology and Innovation, The Community
We stress the importance of landing innovation in an applied way. We have used innovation to build products within our community and applied research to prototype foundational tech that can be applied to our brands. We’re also developing new areas of business born out of this division to evolve beyond service. Six years ago, post production shifted to accommodate a VR workflow and four years ago, data moved from systems thinking to science and learning. It is out of necessity that our industry evolves to meet the spectacle of technology even if it is short-lived. We’re working to ingrain a hunger to innovate in our people and demanding it in our practices, just as it is for our clients.
We send Communitarians to a mixture of brand events and experience-driven conferences, headlined by SXSW, F8, MWC, CES, and Google I/O. From a tech perspective, we’re always tinkering with everything from bio monitoring technology to WebAR to generative AI. We find R&D to be an essential part of our ideation process as our connected world moves faster. Two other topics stick out right now: bridging the diversity gap in AI, and climate practices—specifically, how we can help combat the expected rise in sea levels, because we’re a coastal agency. We’re inspired by the unknowns, fueled by tech and committed to create work that is for good but also happens to be quite good.
Kenny Nguyen, CEO and Co-Founder, ThreeSixtyEight
To be indispensable, today's agencies can't just be focused on working in a client's business, but also on their business. This means vendors need to constantly observe and gut-check their clients' effectiveness in solving their customers’ problems—the various external and internal consumer experiences being executed, the issues within it, and the formula on how decisions are made around priorities, resource allocations and processes. Agencies need to constantly challenge their clients to figure out the questions they should be asking but aren't. It's imperative to build trust by coming in with a solution-agnostic mindset and moving the ego aside with the understanding that your agency can't do everything, getting in the habit of connecting the client with vetted partners that can better help answer those questions. This is exactly why we developed our Free Folk network, where we can call in outside talent to consult on issues our in-house talent rarely faces. We recommend reading Clayton Christensen's “The Innovator's Dilemma” about his theory of jobs or taking his course on Disruptive Strategy at Harvard Business School Online.
Steve Parker Jr., CEO and Co-Founder, Levelwing
I feel strongly that innovation only comes from having invested in creating a strong foundation for a client above all else. Many brands and agencies tend to skip the hard work of building these fundamentals, like standardization of data, analytics tracking and tagging architecture, research and customer analysis. When that’s in a controllable place, then and only then can you truly innovate and shoot for big changes and ideas. I’d define innovation as doing those little things better than others, because it's so rare. That said, in 2020 I see a need for brands to evolve in three core areas: controlled and structured data process; thoughtful, mission-driven storytelling; and changing privacy and data ownership laws. The one book I recommend to everyone is “Turning Pro” by Steven Pressfield.
Mike Woods, Director of Immersive Content and ECD, m ss ng p eces
We are all actively predisposed to look for either concepts or new ways of improving existing methodology, be it in production, technology, ideation or creating entirely new concepts. For us, the perfect innovative mix is taking a really difficult or new piece of software, hardware or methodology and marrying it to something relevant. Whether we're helping launch a product for Facebook or using outdoor AR for brands, it's the magic of bringing exciting new methods to huge audiences that really drives us.
We isolate all technical and cultural shifts as we see them happening. When we present to clients, we don't tend to show them much existing work. We tend to show them the work we will be doing in the future, and we challenge them to join us.
John Limotte, CEO and Executive Creative Director, Mustache (part of Cognizant Interactive)
The most fundamental innovation I've seen of late, particularly in the direct-to-consumer landscape, is about balancing creativity with efficiency. CMOs today have to deliver more with less, tasked with near-term ad performance while still needing to build brand recognition and loyalty through engaging storytelling. This calls for content that both entertains and prompts a desired action or business result. All the while, viewing habits are becoming more fragmented, with an almost infinite number of places for consumers to spend their time. To deliver on all of this, we need to stay nimble, constantly adapting our production styles and creative approaches while at the same time strengthening those critical platform partnerships that give us a data-driven performance edge.
Gary Stein, Chief Integration Officer, Duncan Channon
We try to have a really rigorous definition of innovation to filter out the noise. We define it as tech that solves real problems in a new and better way. We force the technology and ourselves to do a bigger job, which is usually creating something killer for the consumer. We look at the standard tech conferences and blogs, but I think it’s important not to get swept up in tech for tech’s sake. The sources I like the best are the ones who are thinking strategically about consumer experiences—people like Mark Pollard of Mighty Jungle, who doesn’t necessarily talk about innovation, but focuses on the consumer and strategy. Thinking about consumers’ lives first keeps you grounded.
Bruce Gray, Co-CCO, Admirable Devil
Our business is about freeing creativity to make change that creates growth. But the classic agency-relationship business model is essentially set up as a power struggle. They tell us the assignment, we come back with ideas, then try to sell them on falling in love with our favorite one at first sight. It's no wonder most relationships only last a year or two. Distrust and fear erode creativity. We’re flipping the model to make it about empowering our partners—rather than consolidating power. Great ideas are born out of collaboration, and as a bonus, everyone is a lot happier, which of course helps the work, too. For inspiration, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about creativity through a lens of spirituality. “Soul Purpose” from Kirk Souder of Enso is slightly further afield, but relevant to bringing more humanity to business.
Petra Tomekova, Art Director, ArtVersion
Inspiring change-makers and corporate thinkers is our forte. We often work with innovative departments to enact change. An aesthetically effective design that creates value for the client is key. This idea doesn’t have to be a brand new discovery that the world has never seen. It can simply be how the design is executed for a particular company or organization that makes it unique.
The biggest potential adaptation for organizations and companies concerns data-driven design. Gathering any information (stats and data) from the platform about what works and what doesn’t is very important at the beginning of the design process. At our agency, we rely on that fusion of data and design daily. Motivation to create a meaningful design starts with a good understanding and knowledge of the subject matter. Knowing current trends and having an artistic vision leads to exceptional design.
Tim Leake, SVP/Chief Marketing & Innovation Director, RPA
We talk about innovation as evolving to become everything our clients need us to be, before they know that’s what they need. It’s a never-ending process. We want to stay just far enough ahead of the curve to be able to confidently capitalize on new opportunities, but not so far ahead that we’re operating in a reality that doesn’t exist yet. It’s not about shiny objects or flashy toys. It’s about understanding how tech is changing human behavior—and how human behavior is changing tech. It’s about finding ways to be more efficient and effective, to connect with people and proactively create solutions. To constantly stay a few steps ahead requires a team. Inspiration comes from many places, people and disciplines. We might find inspiration at CES, talking with our clients’ customers, reading MIT Technology Review, going to the ANA Masters of Marketing conference, meeting with ad-tech companies or observing how our 8-year-old kids watch videos.
Peter V. Cook, Director of Interactive Production, Cornett
To innovate you have to have makers on your team—people who are using tools or technology in new ways for their own personal curiosity. Once you learn the inner workings of a technology, you start to learn what it can do, even if it is not necessarily designed to do it. And I’m using the term “technology” loosely here; it could be anything from AI to printmaking. Make it part of everyone’s job to innovate. Look for great briefs, but even if you’re not getting them, keep pitching new ideas to existing clients. You have to have clients who are comfortable lettings you do things you’ve never done before.
Jeff Danley, Director, Innovation and Partnerships, VMLY&R
Brands are often looking for ways to engage their audiences in new and powerful ways. As a team, we seek to inspire and enable breakthrough work that unlocks new value for our clients and their audiences. We are constantly evolving our innovation process and ecosystem to meet their dynamic needs. We leverage our relationships with technology partners—Amazon, Microsoft, Adobe and others—to keep our internal teams and our clients ahead of the curve. We are even changing our office space to embrace a more open and fluid environment. We seek inspiration at a variety of conferences, including Mobile World Congress and CES, where many new devices and experiences make their debut. We also attend Google I/O, Apple’s WWDC and other technology events where we learn about new capabilities that shape the future of innovative experiences. Relationships with both large technology partners and startup founders are key. We’re always on the lookout for any opportunity to gain early access to a new technology or way of thinking that can give our client partners an advantage.
Eric Fowles, CEO, Voltage
We’ve been defining innovation through workshops—creative, brand and product. Our collaborative process helps to identify opportunities for clients. As part of these workshops, we also leverage our network of private equity and venture partners to provide business insights and, at times, capital. It’s still early in the process, but we have two projects we’ll be launching: The revenue model is completely different than fee-for-service. Part of this is steering clients to think like DTC brands and develop direct relationships with their customers.
Sean Bell, Group Strategy Director, Content & Innovation, Zulu Alpha Kilo
For us, innovation is about finding new ways to create value for our clients. It takes the form of new creative formats and also new business models and ways of thinking about marketing. Grappling with the pace of change today requires us to combine more disciplines than ever before, from analytics to customer experience to design and more. With analytics specifically, knowing when data can be a catalyst for ideas and when it should play a supporting role is of particular importance. We’ve invested in data science over the past few years and will continue to do so as long as it helps our clients grow.
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