Thanks to Neil Perkin for curating another highly topical, highly relevant, highly provocative Firestarters event on behalf of Google.
And thanks to Mel Exon, Martin Bailie and James Caig for providing said provocation by way of three alternative views on The New Operating System For Agencies.
This is not a summary of the evening.
This is a personal reflection on some themes that resonated with me whilst they’re are still fresh in the mind.
1) Outcomes, being asked the right questions, and “agency”.
Martin highlighted several differences in outlook between clients and agencies. One of these was that agencies focus on outputs, whereas clients are more concerned with outcomes.
More specifically, clients in marketing departments brief agencies to deliver outputs. They ask questions of agencies that demand outputs as an answer. And agency brief templates and agency systems are predicated on the expectation of delivering a specific kind of output.
However, if the client CEO or CFO rather than the marketing manager were to brief an agency on the issues keeping them awake at night they might pose different questions, questions that focus on commercial outcomes.
For instance there was a conversation about the (apocryphal?) story of JWT inventing the Mr Kipling brand in response to a brief that was actually about selling more flour.
Shifting said flour mountain was an outcome-based brief that generated an unexpected creative output from the agency.
Outcomes like this have commercial value. Commercial value to which the client will be able to attribute an accurate financial figure.
So if clients were to ask agencies more outcome-based questions there would be potential for agencies to earn outcome-based revenue for applied creativity.
This makes me think of “agency” as a state of mind rather than an office containing people. Most other agents – literary, theatrical, sporting, musical – are paid to make things happen for their clients. They take a cut from the proceeds of delivering specific outcomes. Why can’t we do something similar?
2) Indefatigable optimism
Mel talked about the dogged refusal of the BBH team to accept that the ASOS Urban Tour project was not technologically possible.
I think all agencies have that “nothing is impossible” attitude and there is nothing more exhilarating than being part of an agency team that is pulling in the same direction and pulling out all the stops to achieve the apparently impossible.
A long time ago when I was an account director at BBH we were in a very tight corner with one particular client. We were in a perfect storm of problems (“challenges” as we now have to call them). TV airtime booked, no client approved script, production budget issues, broadcast clearance issues, groundrush in terms of timings, you name it. In the midst of this storm John Bartle took me aside and said, “We’ll get through this. Agencies always do. The alternative is unthinkable.” And get through it we did with what turned out to be not one, but two award winning commercials that made a virtue of the situation we had been in.
We’ll get through this. Agencies always do. The alternative is unthinkable.
Mel went further, suggesting that this attitude could/should be crystalised into a specific role within the small, nimble, outcome-oriented, multi-skilled teams that work best in agencies large and small.
She described this role as that of “broker”. An entrepreneurial deal-maker and partnership-former who can broker the team’s access to extraordinary inputs to, and extraordinary outlets for, its thinking.
3) Apollo 13
In summary, last night’s talks, the subsequent structured “unconference” sessions and the subsequent-to-that unstructured pub conversations left me thinking about NASA and how, in many ways, it is an interesting role model for agencies.
NASA is tasked with delivering specific outcomes. It has “missions”.
NASA applies creativity to deliver these outcomes.
NASA invests in R&D to enable its creativity. (James talked about our industry’s pitifully low levels of R&D investment).
Quite often NASA R&D that is initiated to achieve one outcome delivers new thinking/technology that can achieve other unexpected outcomes. These unexpected outcomes can often be monetised independently of the original mission brief.
As the crew of Apollo 13 found out NASA has that indefatigable optimism in spades.
“Agency” should be an outcome based state of mind.
Clients should ask us better, more interesting, outcome based questions.
Achievement of specific outcomes can be assigned a specific value which is not related to the time cost of delivering the solution.
We should organise ourselves to deliver unexpected outputs in response to outcome based briefs. There was a lot of talk last night about ideas coming from anywhere. Agency structures need to reflect that if we’re serious about this outcome stuff. The mere existence of copywriter/art director teams suddenly smacks of “the answer’s an ad, now what’s the question”.
Intellectual Property developed as part of the solution delivering process, but which is not part of the final solution, should be independently developed, prototyped and monetised by the agency.
Lots to think about. I just hope that when we get back to the day jobs we’ll have time to hone and apply that thinking.
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