FYI, I’m the Chief Creative Technologist and co-founder of Forward in San Francisco. I occasionally write about tech, culture and innovation.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen a shift in investment toward in-house agencies. Some are doing it right — others, you get the feeling it may end up being cyclic — but what’s driving this trend seems clear: in a world of lightning-speed digital contexts, brands need to move faster, live closer to the consumer and make the things that actually matter.
I’m an advocate for organizations that value how things get made, vs just what gets made. Insofar this in-house trend is driven not by short-term P&L-thinking but by a realization that we must live “closer to the metal” than ever before — inside the spaces where behavior and technology moves faster, and where internal processes allows for the rapid, repeatable unlocking of new potential — that’s a necessary thing.
I’m talking about innovation here, of course.
And I seriously did not just use air-quotes.
Valuing innovation has traditionally been difficult inside marketing orgs; it’s a risk investment, let’s keep it 1%, let’s focus on the case study/Insta post that can merchandise “innovation” — which just further propagates the idea that what got made is more important than how it got made.
Just to back up a sec: a well-known-secret: building innovation muscle is really about deep, organizational change. Not technology. Don’t get me wrong. There’s technology and creativity, lots of it, but why not just hire some hot freelancers if that’s all you need?
Innovation isn’t a bunch of developers tinkering with a raspberry pi and creating an AR app for an in-house Vodka label.
Innovation is a culture built by company/org leaders first, then with talent.
It encourages everyone to get their hands dirty, and not just technologists.
It rewards creative risk-taking. It allows staff the time/room to follow audacious ideas through to audacious prototypes, some that may never see the light of day, but that’s just part of making a lot of bets.
But just as importantly, it also requires everyone caring about the long-term brand-customer relationship; so things like not pissing customers off, respecting their privacy (and their intelligence) are of primary importance to everyone’s bottom line.
Innovation is a meritocracy where you must prove your way forward every day. You are expected to understand, at both a consumer, behavioral, strategic level — as well as at an executional/technical level — how to concept and power ideas with new technologies. And it has meaningful accountability and peer-review metrics at its core (classic example: Valve — PDF link).
Innovation means the best, smartest, most relevant articulations that can deliver results, will win — not simply on the whims of legacy organizational hierarchies and gatekeepers who ultimately have little skin in the game. Not to minimize experience and gut, but everyone’s pig in the innovation game.
Making is shorthand for a process that attempts to codify and replicate the success of bringing new innovations to market, quickly. And kudos to the brands who are attempting to bring this in-house, while still leveraging/balancing the expertise of experienced outside talent (ahem, Foward).
A side note: there’s a lot to be learned about innovation from how startups operate, but there’s also a lot to avoid. So if you’re an agency or brand, I’d take any lessons/anecdotes from startup-land with a grain of salt.
But one thing is clear: innovation is no longer optional — it’s a survival imperative.
And whether you’re on the client side or the agency side, in-house or out-of-house, the right kind of making is more important than ever before.