This business of communications—call it advertising, marketing, promotions, or selling —is built on arriving at epiphanies that we call Insights. There are many structured approaches devised to develop Insights—analyzing socio-emotional drivers, customer demographics and market dynamics, scenario planning, and so on—each usually staffed in separate departments of highly educated and thoughtful people.
But all this put together doesn’t ensure that in the end we will arrive at a True Insight, in the same way that attribute matching on eHarmony cannot ensure that we’ll arrive at True Love. What does increase the odds of unearthing Insights is desire—the desire to dig deeper, to see the world in ways not accustomed, to find true motivation—to hold on at a higher threshold of pain to arrive at something differentiating and, if acted upon, transformative.
Clash of cultures: the desire to innovate vs. risk aversion
The culture of desire that is driven by looking at things anew has risk intrinsically associated with it. Whereas the culture of minimizing risk (and thereby the opportunity to innovate) is an increasingly common state found in many industries—but especially highly regulated ones like healthcare. This friction between the desire to innovate and the fear of loss plays out routinely with the usual players across the table: clients and agencies, marketers and regulators, industry insiders and entrepreneurs.
Ultimately, this profound dissonance between risk and innovation is an internal struggle between two parts of the brain -- the territories of Desire and Risk Aversion. And Desire is the wild card—it’s a primal state that can trigger higher order functions such as love, excellence, and for that matter, transformative insights!
When it comes to delivering a transformative idea, the whole point of the “insight to innovation” process is to break boundaries and do something not already proven. And this is precisely why most people come to work at agencies. The hours are long, job security fractious, and the pay relatively lower to what similar roles pay on the client side. So there is but one reason that drives some of the brightest and most energetic people in our business to choose to work at an agency -- because it’s a more interesting professional life.
The culture of desire is what fuels experimentation, innovation, and excellence. It is at agencies that popular culture is defined, whether by amplifying what happens around us or by authoring what could. Agencies are the Petri dish of our sociological future. And often—and this is perhaps better left unsaid—in the end, it isn’t about selling more stuff but about living a more interesting life. That's why most of us come to work at agencies.
So what could ever bridge this chasm?
The solution to this impasse between clients continuing to do what is least risky and agencies continuing to try to develop what is most interesting ultimately lies in the ownership of ideas and their related outcomes. Steve Jobs did to organized corporate technocracy what Moses or Buddha did to ritualized religiosity—delivered edicts. Thou shalt meet customer needs. Thou shalt make experiences usable. Thou shalt pay attention to detail. And as a result, thou shalt prosper and transform an industry that was previously the stranglehold of self-righteous telecom executives.
What can we hired guns learn from a vertical ownership model (hardware, software, and services) that Apple so successfully built on? After all, our clients own the manufactured product, our time and ideas, and the resulting upside, or the lack thereof. The solution lies in shared ownership of ideas and their associated outcomes -- risk-sharing models that optimize agency profitability with an upside associated with success metrics. While many agencies and holding companies have set up task forces to develop and pilot this model, and there is stout belief that this is a viable if not the inescapable future, more needs to be done to evangelize shared risk/success models on the client side.
Saving “tried and true” brand development from becoming irrelevant
In the digital age of earned media being a far greater share of voice than branded channels, it's a collective struggle to retain brand relevance. The path forward for brands is a foundational shift from past methodologies of building brands. Customers move faster than agencies, and agencies move faster than clients.
The new new brand must emerge from energetic and thoughtful innovation around what a brand means to a digital customer. All things remaining the same, this current clash of cultures will ultimately commoditize what agencies deliver, and marginalize the relevance of brands. The only thing standing in the way is this thing we call “agency culture” -- and it has many manifestations -- executives who sit on yoga balls and play the guitar in office, Zumba lessons that transform the work floor into a dance studio, dogs that leave half-chewed bones in my office … banter, jams, doodles.
These are the cultural debris of the people who make your brands matter to people. It’s worth embracing this psychosocial anarchy. It fuels an interesting lifestyle for the mavens, and it fuels the ideas that power your business.