News & Views

Opinion / The Three Strands of Innovation

by Contagious Contributor
Guy Hatton, digital director at Clinic, considers the various styles of innovation in creative agencies

Innovation for a creative agency is doing new things. It goes hand in hand with creativity and is an important component of the creative agency. There is an inherent attraction in innovation to creative agencies. It’s risky – and with this comes a level of excitement. There is the thrill of the unexplored and unknown, the delightfully alluring promise of achievement and reward.

But innovation is not just ‘newness’. On its own, new things are simply vanity. Every day clients go to creative agencies with the hope of finding new, exciting and innovative ideas. These are very often delivered, but sometimes new ideas are not actually required. It’s not always right for creative ideas to be ‘new’, or even ‘innovative’, and the key for agencies is to become adept in detecting the different nuances of innovation and how these fit in to the creative process.

Looking at what innovation means from an agency perspective, we can split it up into three strands.

1.) The new things that we find out about and then try out.

We hear about these by keeping our eyes and ears open and making sure we’re researching ahead of our own expertise. An agency needs to have an early adopter outlook to find new things with which to experiment. We find these new things and outliers. We see if they fit and then we use them, both for ourselves and for clients.

The appearance of Pinterest and Instagram as promotional platforms for brands are examples of newness in online technologies being used in a marketing context. Twitter was a similar plaything that was seized upon and experimented with. And even within this social media platform there are newer opportunities emerging. The introduction of promoted tweets or short-form video service Vine were things that needed to be picked up and used, and there will doubtless be any number of revenue generating and promotional additions that will spawn within the Twitter ecosystem.

2.) The new things that we think up and invent ourselves.

This type of innovation arises out of identifying new technologies or trends and applying them in unexpected ways. Quite often this might be tying together a few very simple things or applying ideas from complementary industries.

On a technical level, IFTTT is a web service which does just this with the internet. It ties together any number of web services together to do things they weren’t designed for.

At Clinic we applied this type of innovation in experiential marketing for Barclays Pingit. A massive game of Pong was set up at the O2 which allowed passersby to use their smartphones as game controllers. A range of technologies (node.js,, angular to name a few for the techies) meant that touchscreen phones could easily become swipe controllers. It seems so simple but it left people with their phones in their hand and on a web page ready to download the Pingit banking app. An innovative use of new technologies for a very unexpected outcome.

Quite often this is the sweet spot of innovation that an external agency can bring to their clients. The agency exposure to new technologies and ideas enables them to apply and adapt to client circumstances in interesting ways. The more complex and involved this is, the more there is a need for the agency to be integrally linked to the understanding of the client business.

3.) The new revelations that impose themselves in disruptive ways, good and bad.

These are the magnitude of the arrival of the internet changing how we access and think about information, or the mobile phone enabling an always connected lifestyle, or the rise of Google and paid search as an entirely new category of marketing. Kodak felt the disruptive nature of innovation acutely when digital photography took the legs from under its business which was based upon film processing.

This is a level of market and product innovation that is mostly outside the sphere of agency influence. It is however, the most glamorous and alluring, as witnessed by the mass of startups chasing the next disruptive innovation.

Innovation, whether it’s any of the three strands – found, made or imposed  is something that clients are expecting their agencies to understand. When it comes to applying innovation within the context of a client brief, an agency needs to identify the degree of innovation needed. A client brief that calls for ‘innovation’ might just need the application of the latest bit of marketing tech. An agency that then gets their strategists and creative team to create something entirely new will find they miss the mark on the brief. And missing the mark is always dangerous for budgets.

However you look at it, innovation is nothing new. It’s a way of thinking and in a creative agency it’s more than picking the latest fad. It’s an attitude to finding, making or adapting.