Spot the difference
As I’ve said in this column before, there’s a huge amount of value in being different. There’s lots of evidence, not least from the Brand Asset Valuator, that the degree of ‘energised differentiation’ is one of the best predictors of preference, usage, pricing power and long-term shareholder value. Yet, when we look at the way we work, we tend to value the things that mitigate risk and as a result tend to reduce difference. We look for ‘green lights’ from norms in pretesting; we sell process as a panacea; we continue to work in the same ways. It’s a remarkable thought for a creative industry that we’ve changed so little over the years. In his new book Thank You for Being Late, Thomas Friedman argues that we are living in ‘the age of accelerations’ where the twenty-first century will see the equivalent of twenty thousand years of progress at today’s accelerated rate of progress. Yet when you look at how we’ve changed since the 1960s, things remain remarkably similar: marketing departments tend to be structured the same, agencies have changed little since Bill Bernbach brought together the writer and art director, and Stephen King and Stanley Pollitt introduced the planning discipline. It’s perhaps unsurprising that Stephen King was heard to comment at a party to celebrate thirty years of planning, “I’m just surprised no one has had a better idea yet.”
I’m a big believer in the fact that the single most effective way to get to different ideas is to bring together different types of people working in different ways. It’s about creating the conditions where unexpected collisions are more likely to happen. Yet it seems that many of the organisations set up to provide advice do everything possible to reduce the possibilities of this happening. We mirror client organisation charts and ‘mark off’ the clients one by one. We echo their ways of working rather than bringing our own (or better still, shape an approach to the specific problem). So, what might it look like to bring together different types of people working in different ways?
Let’s start with the people piece. Agencies, whether they choose to ignore it or not, have always been in the talent business, competing on whom they can give the client access to.
But it’s getting harder for agencies to deliver the best talent possible. Advertising and marketing isn’t the pull it once was — we’re not attracting as many of the most interesting people as we used to. And on top of this, what people are looking for in work has changed. Many of the best people are now looking for different types of relationships which are more flexible in nature — you see this in the rise of freelance and the decreasing average tenure with a company. As a result, perhaps it’s time for creative companies to look for a more creative way to bring the best talent to bear on a problem. One approach is to actively build a model that is networked in nature: a small core team who bolt on the best talent they know at the right time for the right problem. Not only does this give the company access to a greater pool of talent but it lets it offer its clients a much more objective approach to the ideas it creates. An even bolder step would be to look at the inherent organisational structure of the company. John Hegarty has made the point that if he were to start an agency today, it would look much more like a members’ club than a traditional company. It would be a more stimulating environment designed to attract the most interesting people. It’s time for us to accept that the only way we can win the war for talent vs. tech companies or the upsides of working freelance is to create an environment for like-minded people to collaborate.
So, there’s perhaps a way to create an environment designed to attract different and more interesting people. How might we get them working together in different ways? I’d start with breaking down the silos between disciplines that get in the way of different points of view coming around a problem (it saddens me that this still needs to be said) and then explore new ways to bring real, radical collaboration to occur with the companies we advise. Not just the marketing clients but across their organisation to bring new perspectives and help develop acceptance for the ideas that will be developed. I’d do things like find ways to work faster and smarter — we can learn a lot from the agile methodology that’s applied to product development. And finally, I’d prototype more and PowerPoint less. We are in the business of developing experiences and as Bill Moggridge, the cofounder of IDEO, once said, “The only way to experience an experience is to experience it.”