Dissecting The Innovation Gap In Agencies

Before we go any further, let me be clear:  I love ad agencies.  I grew up in them, had some amazing successes in them, and many of my friends are now running them. So this is not an open critique as much as it is an observation I feel should be voiced.

The agency landscape is filled with innovative minds and motivated people. However, a distinct gap exists that hinders innovation.  Allow me to explain.

Agencies exist to bring fresh thinking and foster growth for their clients.  They pitch business based on new ideas and they maintain their business through performance and a disregard for the status quo.

However, when the rubber hits the road, the vast majority of what agencies execute on is the status quo.  Agencies are very commonly allergic to new ideas that don’t fit into existing processes, buckets and categorizations. If it’s a new idea, it helps them appear innovative, but if it’s a new process and requires a new method of execution, it will often die in committee.



The innovation gap exists between leadership and the teams doing most of the execution work on behalf of clients.

Agency executives are paid to bring fresh ideas to their clients.  They are rewarded based on business won and lost, a perception of innovation and value, and awards.

The rank-and-file teams tasked with developing, executing and measuring plans are the second line, and they are specifically the line that puts up the most resistance to new ideas.  These are typically younger professionals with less experience who are paid on performance, perception of value, and the amount of work they can complete.  They are the gatekeepers of the final budget, and they tend to shy away from ideas that are not “standard” because they know it will take more work to implement them.  They want innovation gift-wrapped in a tiny box with a bow on it because they know that new ideas require 2-3x the time to implement, and they are already overworked.

It’s a risk/reward conversation and while the leadership are typically rewarded for risk, the execution teams prefer a sure thing to generate their rewards.

Far too often, leadership is disconnected from execution in the agency world.  They are impossibly tasked with bringing in new business and managing the client relationship of the business more than the day-to-day performance.

They may manage the teams doing the execution, but -- and I really hate to say this -- they have a short memory.  In their weekly, biweekly or monthly campaign reviews, they will look at what is presented and give feedback, but rarely will they ask questions about what they don’t see.  That could be the innovation left on the cutting room floor for fear that it would not fit into the predetermined box and process that the agency knows “will work.”

I have been on both sides. I was also lucky enough to be in a position to be bringing in the new ideas AND implementing them. But as the industry has matured, we have left behind that era of managing both sides.  It’s not feasible, and I get it.  It can still exist when you decide to work with a smaller agency, or a specifically smaller team in a holding company agency, but it is too often lost when you work with a big shop that pitches based on “efficiency” and “negotiation leverage.”   I used to beat those guys all the time because “leverage” means low risk, low reward in exchange for consistency.  I loved taking the big swings.

I love when an agency can be nimble, take risks and generate high rewards.  I hope agencies look inward and see if they are fostering that innovation gap, and if they feel they are, then they can take steps to do something about it.  If they are willing to be self-aware in that way, they will win the big business, get awards and recognition, and really be something greater than they are today.

1 comment about "Dissecting The Innovation Gap In Agencies".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, July 11, 2024 at 8:15 a.m.

    Cory, the real reason why agncies are resistant to change and tend to stick with established precedures is, as you say, that exploring all sorts of new ideas---  and, I'll add, as well as fully integrating the agency media, marketing and creative functions -----will take more time---and cost more. Since few advertisers will pay extra for such initiatives they will come at the expoense of agency profits.And, like their clients, agencies are businesses, with stock holders who rightly, expect them to be profitable enterprises. I think that here, as in many other cases, advertisers are getting what they are willing to pay for.

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