The Lean Agency

Every agency executive knows that consumer insight is key, but the way most go about getting this information is far from efficient. Costly focus groups and time-consuming surveys are not effective tools for keeping up with the rapid pace of innovation. Technology is increasing the speed of product development, making it ever more important to quickly come up with campaigns that pop.

When it comes to learning from customers, and innovating as quickly as possible, lean startup guru Eric Ries is the expert. Ries advocates using customer feedback and rapid prototyping to quickly evolve ideas and products. While agencies are not tasked with evolving products themselves, an understanding of the consumer and the market makes the Ries lean startup methodology directly relevant to the agency executive.

Here’s how your agency can apply principles intended for tech startups to be the most creative and nimble you’ve ever been:

1. Use technology to speed up old processes



Not only does technology reduce costs -- but more importantly, it creates the shortest path from idea to feedback, and therefore, the fastest learning about what consumers want. This concept is particularly relevant with focus groups, which sometimes take months to complete. By the time a focus group is done, the original idea may not even be relevant anymore!

Technology can fix this problem. Take Procter and Gamble’s Connect + Develop strategy, which uses technology to pull in fresh ideas from consumers. Since Procter and Gamble launched Connect + Develop in 2001, the online tool has dramatically increased R&D productivity and decreased the cost of innovation, producing such positive results that the strategy is still in use today.

2. Seek continuous customer input

Learning as quickly as possible is the goal of Ries’ methodology, and agencies need to make this a top priority too. How will consumers react to this package design? What’s the best way to engage customers in-store? As an agency executive, it’s your job to deliver ideas that will bring results. Of course, since it’s the consumer who will ultimately determine the success of an idea, agencies should focus on seeking input from their client’s core audiences.

There are enough branding flops to prove that consumer input isn’t always sought out. Netflix’s failed attempt to relaunch its mail-in service as “Qwikster” is a perfect example. Consumers’ backlash to the Qwikster brand mades it very apparent that current subscribers were not consulted or even given warning before Netflix made the decision.  

But talking to consumers should not only take place before a campaign or product is launched. Customer input should be sought out continuously, throughout the entire initiative.

3. Remain agile

According to Eric Ries, being flexible enough to respond to customer input is an essential part of the feedback loop. Learning doesn’t stop when ideas are turned into a branding initiative. Instead, agencies need to focus on consumers' reactions, translating the response into a new set of ideas. In order to make the feedback loop as lean as possible, agencies should also be nimble enough to adapt quickly customer feedback, and be comfortable with small-scale experiments to continuously test hypotheses.

Many brands have been taking a cue from customer feedback online. For example, the Domino's Pizza commercials and the Times Square billboard initiative that referenced and addressed specific complaints are a good example of how companies can adapt -- and consistently update their message -- in an age of transparency.

While each lesson is important in itself, the benefits increase exponentially when all three lessons are applied at the same time.

Consider any agency project with a time constraint and limited budget. An agency that uses technology to gain customer insight will spend less time and money to get new, valuable ideas than one that doesn’t. With extra resources to devote to the project, the agency will be able to continuously go back to consumers throughout the entire innovation process -- refining ideas, responding to customer feedback, and increasing the chance of the project’s success.

The lean startup movement is spreading beyond entrepreneurs because its principles can easily be applied to a variety of businesses and industries. Agencies are no different! There’s no reason why 20th century practices like the focus group need to hang around just because they always have. Shake it up and go lean!

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