Can agencies innovate?: Google Firestarters talk


The brief for Google Firestarters Event I spoke at last night was to provoke debate around the theme of agencies and innovation.

The talk I gave was called “Resign Thinking”. The provocations went like something this…

“If you want to be radically innovative, to apply yourself to disruptive innovation challenges in marketing agencies, one smart thing you could do is resign from your job and start something new.”


Resigning and starting something outside of the agency you currently work for will free you from its business model. All agencies become – fairly quickly – prisoners of their business models. Phil Adams said this better in his talk: “the means become the answer”. What you sell – or mostly sell – magically becomes the answer to any challenge the client sets you.


A start-up means starting afresh. You don’t have a business model yet to become a prisoner of – you have a blank sheet of paper, or a a blank business model canvas (which Pats McDonald referenced in her talk – it’s an excellent tool, if you’ve not tried it yet: do). Before you decide on your business model, you get to develop your strategy – frame it with a question, a provocation, an imperative for action.

Naturally, resigning and starting up isn’t the only way. (Remember the brief was to provoke, so give me some dramatic licence.) You can start-up inside organisations, you can do a skunk works, you can disrupt from within – but, frankly, that’s rare: it takes strong will, clarity and nerve to fund and keep funding projects that may not turn a profit for a while and could undermine your core business. (For more read Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma.)

The question we started with at Brilliant Noise, the idea that powers our strategy, is: what does marketing look like when you put the customer first? What if marketing’s starting point isn’t how you deliver messages, buy media or push people through the funnel?


“Customer first” has started to feel like a movement in business and marketing strategy. In the agency world witness what I cheekily called “the Gospel of @willsh” – John Willshire’s “Make Stuff People Want > Make People Want Stuff” mantra – and the brilliant manifesto-like Digital Isn’t Working (Yet) paper from Almighty. The latter is compelling and insightful throughout, but resonates especially when it declares “the user experience of marketing is broken”.

There are two supporting questions that follow from this. First, what does marketing look like when earned media is the first tool we turn to (rather than starting planning with the ad at the centre)? This point is informed by Forrester’s work on marketing ecosystems and McKinsey’s on customer decision journeys.

The third strategic question we ask – of ourselves, of our clients’ businesses – is this: if you put the customer first, if you prioritise earned media over paid, how does that transform your organisation? Budgets, organisation, strategy, so much can be affected by following the logic of the answers to these questions.

Reflecting on brilliant strategies that are part-question, all imperative, I invoked my favourite statement of recent times from Netflix’s Chief Creative Officer, Ted Sarandos, who said:

“The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.”

The disruptive innovation (and the incremental innovation) at Netflix is amazing and inspiring. The company did not remain a prisoner of the business model of DVD rentals through the post, it launched an online, on-demand service. It is now investing massively – with uncertain returns, questioned by the market – in original content.

Netflix sees a future where not just its business, but the business of cable TV, of production houses, of how we are entertained at home is completely different. Massive disruption across a clutch of industries.

With its start-up mentality it decides to invent the future. It decides to become the disruption. It decides it has no choice other than to do this, because if it doesn’t disrupt its business model someone will come along and do it for them.

Bear all of this in mind as an analogy for the agency world, for the marketing industry. You aren’t in the advertising business if you run an agency. Nor are you in the SEO, content, PR, design studio, media buying business.

You are in the business of helping clients keep up with consumers. Consumers are moving faster than companies. Not just in how they “consume media”, or interact with advertising.

Clients are not waiting for agencies to deliver this news. They know it. They are changing. They are frustrated that agencies are not helping them to change faster.

I spoke to one client who said that agency business models often get in the way of them doing what he needs from them. His analysis of the marketing services industry: by 2015, they are going to “get shredded”.

This is what I was thinking when I proposed the the following for all agencies:


To borrow from Netflix: “The goal is to become McKinsey faster than McKinsey can become us.”

This is pithy way of saying embrace disruptive innovation. Embrace it because the times are a-changing, because if you don’t do it, someone is going to come and do it for you. Disrupt your own business models, find new ones, think about how marketing services are going to change – and then become the change. Invent your future.

Read 2010’s HBR article by McKinsey’s David C Edelman – “Digital Branding: You’re spending your money in all the wrong places” –  closely and you will get a sense of this. McKinsey isn’t saying “we are a digital agency”, it is saying digital marketing is broken and we can help you fix it.

When I say become McKinsey faster than McKinsey becomes you, I’m not saying: become a management consultancy. I’m saying re-invent, re-engineer how marketing works, or someone will come along and do it for you.