News & Views

Firestarters / Event Debrief

by Contagious Team

Eight strategy leaders share their thoughts on the conundrum of agency innovation

Eight speakers took to the stage to provide their solution to 'The Agency Innovation Conundrum' at the eighth Google Firestarters event curated by planner Neil Perkin, where the big brains of the planning world provided rapid fire provocations


Isobar's chief strategy officer, Pats McDonald kicked off by focusing on the business model, saying that it's only by understanding our industry's current business model that we can begin to disrupt it. Through connecting more people and more devices, it's disruption that the web excels at best, with frequent examples of its capability in overturning age-old industries, with the hotel market and AirBnb being just one.

'What if you played with your agency's annual spend?' asked Dentsu London (now mcgarrybowen) co-founder Beeker Northam. The average agency spend on innovation is tiny, compared to that for entertaining clients. 

Taking a more dramatic approach, author and founder of digital strategy firm Brilliant NoiseAnthony Mayfield urged people to resign. He argued that innovators in companies are prisoners of the business model, with a need to answer to financially driven boards and thus pushing for incremental innovations, rather than disruptive ones. It was also important that agencies considered the role they play in the lives of their clients. Management consultancies increasingly occupy the space that was previously reserved for agencies, leading Mayfield to present the agency version of the Netflix quote: 'Agencies should become McKinsey's faster than they can become agencies.'


'It's a bet, not an experiment,' asserted Phil Adams, planning director of Blonde Digital-- bets are always strategic with the risks and costs taken into careful consideration. Nowadays, briefs all too often focusing on the 'what' and ignoring the 'why', implying that the industry is 'obsessed with means rather than ends'. Innovation should always be done on purpose, and thus creating 'new means to existing ends'.

Referencing Clay Shirky's theory that behaviour is motivation filtered through opportunity, Graeme Wood, strategist at LBi London, also believes that we often focus on innovation for its own sake, rather than the need or problem that should be driving it. It is also imperative, so Wood argued, that the agency world keeps up with technology and research outside our own industry. 

The best approach to innovation was to 'know the user, know the magic, and connect the dots', argued Nadya Powell, chief innovation officer at Dare, London. Innovation needs to be useful and applicable. 'Sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.'

Anjali Ramachandran, head of inovation at media agency PHD urges us to avoid innovation snobbery. She asked that we follow Michael Schrage's advice: 'The next time you -- or a colleague -- smirk at an innovation offering, please ask yourself: Does that sense of superiority come from what you think significant or what customers might think important?' 


Albion's Glyn Britton began by saying 'Advertising agencies are like the KLF,' referring to the seminal late-eighties British acid house band. KLF, famous for its vibrant history -- which includes ripping off the UK music industry for a lot of money and getting away with it, is like advertising. Although the KLF looked like they knew what they doing, in KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money, its author, JMR Hicks surmises they actually didn't. The band, who burnt £1m in 1997, refused to talk about their actions until enough time had passed to provide a historical context. Britton proposed that the advertising industry should follow suit. In this fervent and pivotal time, we instead should just get on with it and plan to meet in 30 years' time.

The next Firestarters event will take place in the summer. Future events are announced on Neil Perkin's blog Only Dead Fish