The intersection of product innovation and agency culture and practice is a theme that has generated considerable debate in our industry and one that has been put forward by several Google Firestarters regulars as one that we should run an event on. So on Wednesday we did just that, with a packed house and three excellent provocations to help us navigate this fascinating topic.
I've long been an admirier of the work of ustwo, the digital product studio who originated the amazing Monument Valley as well as work for clients like Tesco, Sony and Channel 4 ("we launch valuable products, services and companies that make a measurable difference to the world"). So it was great to have Brett MacFarlane (whose background has been in network agencies) from the studio talk about their philosophy, and what he called the ustwo 'experiment'.
Nobody, says Brett, should own creativity or innovation but everyone does ideas:
Innovation is not one dimensional and may be incremental (refine), evolutionary (refresh), or revolutionary (re-imagine). One of the key questions in thinking about agencies and product innovation however lies in the difference between demand generation (which still has lots of value - advertising works) and value creation, which is more challenging for agencies than the former.
ustwo are focused on maintaining the right balance between client work, games and new ventures, and actively pursue diversity in both their staff and in what they do. Independence gives them the freedom to explore new revenue models and career paths for their people, so staff can really work on what they care about ("the founders didn't set out to run an agency and that's the point").
Brett also talked about the importance of the ustwo environment - an adaptive space, a sometimes chaotic setting, little rigid process ("rather than a process, we have a starting point and approaches"), a focus on employee wellness, time for invention, commercials that focus on the long-term and on value, and equity for employees.
Along their journey they've had significant failures (including a messaging app where they waited too long before bringing to market), but also huge successes like the one below, successful apps for financial institutions that focus their design on how it makes people feel, and new ventures including the just launched DICE ("the ticketing platform for fans, not fees").
Brett finished with some thoughts on three key elements of ustwo culture: Collaboration ("we believe that the best work is accomplished by team members creating together and solving problems together"), Value ("we believe our job is to find the quickest route from idea to digital product because that's where the business value is"), and Learning ("in the complex marketplace, we believe future success belongs to those who learn the fastest"). In the end, he said, mindset eats organisation and evidence beats opinion, but it's all about the team ("only that team, at that time, in that way, makes that thing"). Perhaps the ustwo experiment is about breaking down the one last silo - the individual employee.
I've long wanted to have Andy Whitlock, product strategy lead at MadeByMany, speak at Firestarters and he didn't disappoint. Andy's smart, witty talk started with his own journey from ad agency to product lead and the quite profound differences involved within each, not least in the relationship with clients and where value is placed. With advertising the launch day is everything, with product innovation if the launch day is your biggest response you're in trouble.
Advertising is about earning a reaction. Product innovation is about earning a role ("Life's too short to make things no-one wants" - Ash Maurya). With advertising some degree of success is likely, but with product innovation total failure is a real possibility. In fact, there's a whole series of differences that need to be accounted for between marketing and advertising and product innovation. With the former ideas are the most valuable thing, strategies are sold in, attention can be bought, deliverables are clear, budget is fixed, and it may be separate from the business. With the latter ideas are just hypotheses, strategies are adjustable, users can't be bought, deliverables and costs are unknown, and it must integrate with the business.
MadeByMany keep their development loops very tight so that they never go too far down a particular road before developing a learning, and thereby minimising risk:
Yet perhaps the interesting place is where these things can meet. Marketing can learn from user-centred development and product people still need marketing of-course (they are often not good at it: "no marketing needs to stop becoming a badge of honour for product people"). Andy's final summary captured three points about making useful things, and telling good stories with them:
- Differentaiate the service before the brand
- Spend less time guessing
- Great products lead to good stories but not necessarily good storytelling
Our final talk from BBH Zag featured four speakers: Adam Arnold (Managing Partner), Richard Davies (Creative Director), Aran Potkin (Strategist) and Alex Matthews (Head of Creative Technology), and was interesting in that it was from an agency that was actually creating products. Zag describe themselves as a "brand consultancy that ventures". Adam spoke of how being an active shareholder in a venture changes the relationship you have with a client quite fundamentally. It aligns interest better than anything, and puts you in a position where you really do need to keep on adding value ('the saga continues after the product ships"). The team described the learnings they'd had from developing and working with (amongst others) Autographer (the world's first intelligent wearable camera), Money Dashboard (online money management tool) and Beakle (which enables people to connect to audio streaming for outdoor digital screens).
The talks were fascinating and diverse in equal measure, and we had three very instructive but different perspectives on the subject.
There may be no "new agency model" but their is a cohort of believers who expect better, are making better. Welcome friends. #firestarters— Brett Macfarlane (@macfarbt) September 17, 2014
My thanks to our inspiring speakers, to all those who came, and to Google for hosting of-course. You can see a Storify of the event here. Our next event will be in November. If you'd like to ensure you get notified of when registration opens you can sign up for my newsletter for more news of that.