Our OS is Killing Us

Planners wax lyrical on the agency model- A report from Google Firestarters

At the Firestarters event hosted by Google on the evening of December 3rd and curated by Neil Perkin, a crowd of close to 200 got to hear thoughts on agency OS from Noah Brier of Percolate, Ian Fitzpatrick of Almighty, Sarah Watson of BBH, Spencer Baim of Vice and Johnny Vulkan of Anomaly.

There was widespread recognition of a changed and more complex marketing world where agencies had to adopt in order to be relevant and a world where it’s no longer possible to do the same things in the same way because of the explosion of choices driven by transformative technologies.

Sarah Watson unpacked the issues that face ad agencies with legacy OS; the fact OS is neither your values or your process, but instead is a hidden and unwritten code of conduct that lies between the two. It’s the thing that gets to dictate what gets done and why. It’s both the reason for great work, but also a barrier for progress. In Sarah’s mind the OS is something of monster that’s challenging to confront and even harder to transform. She suggested that only by being brave enough to take on the OS directly, could you make change happen and rewrite the OS.

Ian Fitzpatrick of Almighty was at least honest when he declared that his main reason for starting his agency was to have “great parties”, but ONLY in the past 4–5 years faced up to the issue of OS. Ian’s solutions revolved around the human side of his OS. A new OS was only be possible if you could hire people unencumbered by legacy agency OS; people who didn’t even know and perhaps care who Lee Clow is and was. They also likely need to have a different set of motivations vs. typical ad folk and are capable of being excited by solving unsexy business problems. It’s was clear Almighty is doing something pretty different from your typical ad shop.

Anomaly still had something in common with ad agencies in that it pursues creative solutions, but has a broader definition of what they can be. Anomaly’s OS as shared by Johnny Vulkan, had killed the pyramid and hierarchy in favor of a flatter, nimbler and more iterative organization that always works in “pitch mode”. Their solution, like Fitzpatrick’s, revolved around people and bringing atypical creatives into the mix- like designers and architects with strong skills and a point of view, but most critically giving them equal voice. Vulkan distilled the process to its essence- finding the client’s business problem and then arguing as a group for and against potential solutions, with winners emerging out of the mosh pit.

At Vice, the OS is fueled and powered by the kids who get culture. As Baim explained, Vice is all about getting the Millennial generation and the cultures that matter to them. Virtue, Vice’s internal shop that Baim runs is all about helping brands authentically connect to the culture and this all about having a media company staffed with people that get it.

Finally, Noah Brier, a former Planner and now entrepreneur with an ever-expanding company called Percolate was obviously interested in disrupting marketing’s sleepy status quo which he described as running on 70 year-old systems that just can’t cope with today’s complexity. He presented Percolate as the OS of marketing communication? and as a way to manage the complexity; the audiences, the content and the channels. For Noah, strategy could be reduced to an algorithm in the OS- simple, insightful, but importantly scalable.

So, what does all this mean?

If you’re a typical ad agency you’re probably running an outdated OS and are trying to change by messing with process and functions while using the same OS, this will not solve the problem. It’s just like adding a new font to the same old operating system. Without the ability for senior leadership to confront the key issues and agreement to strip away code, there will be a constant battle will be waged that will be exhausting and counter-productive. A consequence is that those fighting the battles leave the agency to go create their own new OS, an obvious talent drain.

Importantly, the craziest thing for anyone starting an agency today would be to build one using the old OS.

For Planners, they obviously have a number of choices as to how and where to pursue their careers. As a bunch of progressive, smart individuals, who in the main are very cognizant of where the future is headed, their opportunities were cleverly represented by the speakers and can summed up as follows.

  1. Work for a typical ad agency where you will have to confront and challenge legacy OS. Where you will try and strip away code to make it better and more relevant, while at the same time trying to be great at your day job.
  2. Work with communicators who provide diverse and highly creative solutions, they have a new OS and a new way. Planners working here need to be capable and comfortable with adopting and evolving new ways of working within a more fluid and agile organization. It seems people skills and facilitation are critical in these kinds of places.
  3. Be comfortable working in the un-sexy world of business problem solving by helping make software, products and experiences better for end users. This is Planning, but it needs the ability to really understand interaction design and demands skills that are probably beyond the remit of the typical agency planner
  4. Work with disruptors who need core Planning skills in order to transform the marketing experience in some way. This means work in a newer, more agile, flatter organization that has entirely new OS and where old school experience isn’t relevant. Here it’s all about making something better, so Planners in this environment need to be able to work fast, inspire teams and hack their way to inventive solutions.