Why Ad Agencies Should Act More Like Tech Startups

Agencies need to look beyond storytelling and take their cues from software developers, says the chief creative officer of AKQA.

woman holding motorcycle part

Recently, I tweeted: @reiinamoto: "In order for agencies to stay relevant, they must embrace the Culture of Code."

This topic came out of a conversation I was having with a friend at another agency (a traditional one, that is). The tweet got more passionate responses than any other thoughts I’ve tweeted of late.

One said that I should replace "code" with "technical know-how." Another one rather defensively tweeted back "code without ideas is just ones and zeros." To which, someone else responded "Ideas without executions are just dreams."

We live in a time when the future is more unpredictable than ever. Every year, there is that Next Big Thing. And for the past 10 or more years, we’ve been seeing almost one each year.

It started with Yahoo’s and Netscape’s more than a decade ago. Then Google. Then YouTube. Just when Friendster was losing steam, Facebook came along. Twitter struck with 140 characters a couple of years later. Groupon took 2010 by storm. Instagram reached over 5 millions users in less than 8 months and they only have four employees making that happen.

Not only are these technological advances making a massive and fundamental impact on how we as human beings live, but also how those of us in this small industry of advertising work.

To the point where the world’s biggest advertising festival dropped the word "advertising" from its name this year.

This week, thousands of "advertising" professionals converge on the French Riviera to recognize and celebrate the world’s best work and ideas. As the new name now directly claims, it is celebrating the Culture of Creativity. There will be hundreds of awards given throughout the week. However, what I’m really looking for this week isn’t what wins. I’m looking for the ideas that rewrite the formula.

The work that validates a festival without the word "advertising" in its name.

Coincidentally, the work that is likely to win big is called "Write the Future." It’s an amazing piece of work that made everyone jealous. But it followed a very familiar formula. It ironically validated the old way of advertising: come up with the Big Idea, create a great commercial, and a bunch of executions around it. And I say this with the greatest level of respect because the work made me jealous and it’s absolutely brilliant.

At Cannes as well as other award shows, judges debate about "ideas." What’s the Big Idea? What’s the story (i.e. "Write the Future")? How does it come to life? Are the executions great? Etc, etc.

Ideas in the context of advertising have been about a communication platform to tell stories about a brand. Stories are a useful way of evoking emotions. When consumers have an emotional reaction, they buy into those stories and are more likely to, well, buy your stuff.

The problem is that everyone is telling stories nowadays. Even if you have a good story to tell about your brand, chances are that it’ll get lost.

That’s where I believe that the very definition of the "idea" needs to evolve.

Telling stories is an important aspect of what we do but that alone is not going to get you much. We have to figure out how to enable stories. Put another way: In the 20th century, copywriters had film scripts hidden in their drawers. In this century, creatives should have product ideas ready to go.

Which brings me back to my tweet. Creativity no longer belongs to those who have the word "creative" in their title. In fact, many of the creative ideas of the past few years have been coming out of non-creative people. Well, they were always creative — it’s just that "creatives" thought they weren’t.

A recent example of the "idea" that is both emotional and functional is Heineken Star Player: (full disclosure - it’s AKQA’s work).

It’s branded software that allows football/soccer fans to "Be In The Game." The insight was that over 70% of spectators watch the game at home. And over 65% of those watch the game with another screen in front of them. The Star Player allows viewers to guess what’s going to happen in the game real-time via a mobile app or Facebook app, thus making the experience even more emotional and social than just passively watching the game.

Whether this piece of work gets recognized at Cannes this week or not is not relevant or even important. What’s important is that it wasn’t the regular copywriter + art director duo who came up with the Idea. It was a combination of a Storyteller and a Software Developer who conceived it.

The big part of this industry is still relegating technology just as an execution, a production task, and not as a strategic point of view. If we take any cues from thee startups of the last decade, leveraging technology in a simple and creative way will get us closer to capturing the hearts and minds of consumers of the 21st century.

Thus, the next phase in the Evolution of the Idea in this century is: Idea = Emotion x Function.

Rei Inamoto is chief creative officer at AKQA

[Image: Flickr user mcwont]

Add New Comment


  • Chris Lynn

    There is a term missing from your equation: metrics. The Idea is not complete unless the Function includes an ability to track the result of the communication. Creativity without Accountability spells failure.

    25 years ago, I received a 3 part direct mail piece from an agency: the first had a colorful fishing lure on a card that said: "Attractive but ineffective". The second had a fish-hook on a card that read: "Effective but unattractive". You can guess the third, which added the sales pitch. The call to action back then was a phone call. These days the reach and the metrics obtainable are infinitely greater.

  • Emil Walcek

    Really? One agency solved a marketing challenge by teaming a writer with a software developer - and this is a new order for the ad world? Like we agencies don't play in the sandbox with lots of technical folks every day in our execution of ideas!

    This seems to me to be a millennial's version of an old argument. As Rei acknowledges, more folks than creatives can have ideas.  Yes, creative professionals need to know more about the execution of ideas.  Communications, interactive marketing, merchandising, promotions, advertising, PR, or whatever we choose to call the work we "advertising" agencies do, we are called upon to add value via story-telling, customer involvement, or both.

    We can do this by virtue of our creative smarts in crafting a compelling message, its form, and the media which will ultimately deliver the desired customer experience.

    In other words, customers will always come to us for expertise beyond their purview to strategize, originate the "aha moment", advance the idea, create the customer "interface" while engineering whatever functionality is required to support & deliver IT - even if it involves a software developer or 2! Our clients rely on us for advice, and will fund campaigns that make the most ROI sense - regardless of media.

  • Dave Haughey

    The Heineken example is great, but for me it illuminates a couple missing dimensions in the idea equation: "talent/ skill" and "reward". Who owns that application? I'm guessing not the poor sap who decided to present it to his creative director. The best "advertising ideas" today...are "business ideas." Not just ideas that drive the sponsor's business, but ideas that can exist as stand alone businesses in technology, entertainment, gaming, or media distribution. There is no agency title for a person who comes up with great business ideas, because he/ she is called an "entrepreneur." 

    Let's face it, the reason many big agencies continue to sell their clients an elaborate schematic of shapes and arrows (usually with a few superscript TMs sprinkled about), that spits out a "big idea" on the other end, is not because the agency leadership doesn't already know what you're saying in this article - it is because there is still way too much $$$ to be made from spending months and months, rounds and rounds, qual and quant, to deliver a sentence over a piece of stock photography and call it a brand idea. AND there are far too many on the brand side who still believe it is their job to manage this "process."        

  • Tom Hagerty

    Steve Jobs once said, "Ideas are just the booby prize." His emphasis was about execution. In this changing ad landscape, the spoils will go to the innovators who can also execute. Too often, the traditional agency is a follower wondering what just happened while they were at lunch. I concur that ideas can come from anywhere... and they increasingly will as technology empowers clients to reach beyond "the safe and the known" much more seamlessly. Beware of complacency if you're an agency poo-bah... the country club membership could vanish faster than your backswing. 

  • Kristin Slice

    Great article, I think that your concepts affect businesses well beyond "advertising firms". We are seeing the need for innovation and mastering technology across the board in business. In particular this has impacted the small business community. The businesses we are seeing thrive are traditional mom and pop shops or service based industry that have really embraced these concepts. Building relationship and using new technology can turn these types of businesses into long term success stories. 

  • Rick Kennett

    Excellent article and I would like to add one thing.. The 'creative process' has certainly been altered by technology. That the role of technology in the process is still perceived as  "... just as an execution, a production task, and not as a strategic.." while important, it is not critical. I think what is more important is the role that technology has played in removing the tedious, mundane and repetitive tasks from 'our work' i.e. technology driven process improvement removes removes work leaving the opportunity to be creative. Given that we all have an inherent desire to be creative, process improvement has provided the time, and opportunity to a larger community spawning more improvements, a virtual, virtuous vortex (Senge?) of innovation. Perhaps an appropriate topic for The Butterfly Effect :-) 

  • Lynne d Johnson

    Interesting, I think that Media Companies need to start thinking a lot more like tech startups.

  • Andrea Guevara

    Tis true and I like the "Idea = Emotion + Function" concept.  So much is changing, but I think deep down keeping in touch our basic human traits will be what keeps us coming up with GOOD ideas, stories, etc.

  • Jackie Lampugnano

    I'd agree that we need to evolve from the Mad Men ad agency style of copywriter + art director coming up with an idea because nowadays it's possible for anyone to virally share their idea without being an "official" creative person. But ideas need to evolve to fit with society. Meaning they'll be ever-changing. Although I agree that we're at a point where a good idea just one year ago might not be considered one today.

    This whole thing reminds me of an Einstein quote, though: "The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources."

    I wonder about that...?

  • Spivs

    Despite the seachange the industry is being battered by, it's not as complicated as we're making it out to be. 

    We don't need to reinvent ourselves in order to embrace the new opportunities. We don't need to stop being what we've always been to start being somthing new.

    What we are is not coders, or creatives, or technologists, or even advertising agents.  What we are is communicators, plain and simple.  We've always been communicators and always will be. 

    Communication is, and always has been, a two-way art form. Going back long before anyone had uttered the phrase "social media" we have been judged by our ability to pull consumers into the conversations we want to take place. Whether it's the Big Idea, the Concept, the Creative Execution -- whatever you call it, success depends on engaging people with the Thing they care about.

    Talking *at* consumers who never engage in the conversation has always meant failure for communicators.  That is still all that matters.  Only the forums where we are able to have these conversations has changed.

  • Evan Scott

    The funny thing is, this is old information...even here in FastCompany. Check this out from FC in 2000: http://www.fastcompany.com/mag.... In particular, he says, 

    "The creativity that I'm talking about is different from problem solving," he continues. "It's different from just coming up with ideas. People have enough ideas. The real question is 'Which ideas are you going to use?' You have to look for a different resource. I always go back to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who said that you can't step in the same stream twice. People say that the only constant in the world today is change. What I'm saying is, that's not really true. There's another constant in the world: your own internal creativity. That's always there for you."Engineers of all kinds have been among the most creative people on the planet throughout history. I think people in the advertising/marketing/graphic design industry created a culture of narcissism which has led us to believe we're the keepers of creativity. It's like academics who think they're the keepers of knowledge and learning.A recent case in point of this attitude is the story of Alex "I take being called a narcissist as a complement" Bogusky (http://www.fastcompany.com/ale... -- turns out he's an ass.My opinion is that we, as an industry, have behaved like that -- we think we're the sh*t but, in fact, we're responders...our clients - the ones with the innovations in products and services - are the originators.I think one point that you may be onto is that we need to do a better job of A) turning our attention to becoming originators - why didn't someone in our industry invent Twitter or Facebook? and, B) becoming humble enough to ask that we be included in some of the processes our clients undertake to develop the ideas that they do.Just my opinion...Evan ScottTerrainSIM (www.terrainsim)

  • Ken Lonyai

    Great points. We've had meetings with CEO's and
    upper execs of the biggest ad agencies in existence and yeah, they don't
    get it. I have a lot of respect for them and their skills, but please
    don't call them and their underlings "innovators". They may have
    creativity, but they use it in the same old typical ways.It's really about the cream rising to the top. If you have a capable team that understands the clients needs and where they need to go, the great ideas will surface, either from individuals or from a collaboration, and the who, department, and/or title is completely irrelevant.

  • Michael Moon | CEO | GISTICS

    I must disagree with premise of this article: “Advertising is relevant to the consumer and a good investment for the brand.”

    Additionally, the article fails to address a seemingly immutable law business: “There is no greater purpose than to attract, serve, and keep profitable customers for life.” When we apply technology and Web services to this law, we have the truly transformational driver of agencies today: orchestrating the processes and technologies of the customer engagement lifecycle.

    So let's just think this.

    Just TV disrupted the cozy agency business of the 1950s and 60s, mobile-social-local (MoSoLo) services will disrupt/destroy the economic business model of advertising as we know it. What's my case?

    1. Most big brands who advertise in TV sell their products to customers through a network of retailers.

    2. Most large retailers demand and get “air cover” from brands in the form of advertising, in-store marketing, and discounts.

    3. Most retailers understand that advertising makes a marginal if infinitesimal contribution to actual store sales; however lacking a suitable alternative, they demand the brand spend their “stupid money” on marginal advertising.

    4. As the Internet and mobile connected devices ride the accelerating innovation curve (price-performance becomes 10 times greater in five years, 100 times greater in 10 years, 1000 times greater in 15 years...), so does the consumer.

    5. Consumers will use their mobile devices and related apps to find the best overall bargains, which may not include a product lowest price. This will give rise to all kinds of innovative socially immersed loyalty programs, enabling consumers to redirect their digital spare change to local community service organizations, charities etc.

    6. Direct interactive engagement with MoSoLo consumers will produce analytics of such granularity and power, the retailer will know with a 0.99 probability of what worked in getting  the consumer through the front door and to the cash register.

    7. The retailer can and will use this customer engagement data to renegotiate ad spend of brands, leading to the violent reallocation of ad budgets (in the form of “stupid money”) to local in-market programs, social coupons, transmediated packaging (smart, consumer-aware packaging), wireless shopper marketing programs, and other location-based services tightly linked to customer profiles and a engagement lifecycle-management infrastructure.

    8. Bearing in mind that the retailer IS the customer of consumer brands, whatever retailers demand, consumer brands must provide. It is just that simple.

    9. The retailer-brand partnership demands a robust, rapidly evolving, new technology-adopting customer engagement infrastructure: MoSoLo apps linked to multichannel customer analytics and social media monitoring that, when integrated, should drive multimodal content and Web service development, feeding content optimization and semantic tagging operation that in turn becomes personalized customer engagement packages spanning traditional, digital, MoSoLo, and participatory media channels.

    10. The retailer-brand partnership will demand the rapid, agile development and provisioning of Web services and apps that meet mobile consumers where they want to buy: "whenever I want to!"

    If you accept these propositions of my argument, it follows that creative agencies will devolve into creative-only boutiques or customer engagement agencies that provision content and services into the partnership of retailers and brands.

    In a horseless carriage metaphor, we could call the new agency a “technology agency for brands". I like the more forward-looking term, Customer Engagement Agencies. BTW, try Googling that and see what you find :-)

    Michael Moon
    CEO, GISTICS Incorporated, innovation
    think-tank for marketing http://www.gistics.com
    92 Templar
    Place, Oakland, CA 94618 USA

    Tel +1 510.450.9999 | Mobile +1 415.509.5023  | Skype: michael_moon | Fax +1 510.601.0563

    18+ Free White Papers

    Grand Poobah, LinkedIn Groups
    -- Masters of Customer Engagement: http://www.linkedin.com/e/gis/...
    -- Masters of Digital Assets: http://www.linkedin.com/e/gis/...
    -- Masters of Marketing Operations: http://www.linkedin.com/e/gis/...

    Author, Firebrands:
    Building Brand Loyalty in the Internet Age http://www.amazon.com/exec/obi...

    Blogger in Chief at several

    -- Engagement
    Marketspace http://engagementmarketspace.c... for technology providers

    -- DAM
    for Marketing http://damformarketing.com for insights about digital
    asset management in marketing operations

    -- Customer
    Engagement Agencies http://customerengagementagenc... for insights about next generation marketing firms

  • lkfmarketing

    Well said. Technology is driving the world. Solutions to client marketing challenges come from creative thinking applied to well developed and well executed technology. 

  • Frank Compton

    If there are so many stories out there today, as this article suggests, they’ll never be noticed, then I suppose writing novels should cease as well.  After all, with the number released today, a new one will go unnoticed.  So, JK Rowling and friends, you’re about to be out of work.

  • Spencer Saunders

    Couldn't agree more. We're in the midst of a transformation from a digital production studio that has serviced agencies for years but have become increasingly frustrated with the role that the "digital" guys have played. We get briefed after ideation process, just in service of the execution, often for ideas and concepts that just completely miss the mark. More often than not, "big agencies" are still looking at the digital tech as a passive medium, or don't understand the capabilities at all to properly craft a true experience and provide value to the consumer. 

    In chatting with several senior industry colleagues about our transition we've been told by a couple that "You can't call yourself an agency. You haven't done a TV Spot." I'm sorry - what year is it? 

  • Charral Izhiman

    This article is phenominal! I come from a mixed background of the IT industry and years in the advertsing industry. The kind of creativity that is needed by companies and provided by their agencies is creative thinking. Creative thinking produces ideas that are solutions to the clients problem/issue - the reason the agency was hired to start with. If this thinking is produced by technical programmers sitting at the brainstorming table with our traditional creative heads, then that's the kind of change we need. Technical people naturally measure results. Visually creative people add the needed touch of art. With both remembering that the result needs to engage people, they can do wonders.     

  • hornergraphic

    These ideas that have been under discussion in the industry for some time now (this article from last May on the "Five Stages of Post-Digital Grief" is fantastic: http://bit.ly/cLiXmM) but I've never seen the emerging creative practice described so succinctly as "Idea = Emotion x Function".

    Great article Rei, hope you're enjoying Cannes.

  • Christian Hughes

    With the proliferation of Social Networks, and Social Media as a whole, there has been a shift in the platforms, and therefore functionality, that brands are using to engage their customers. The thing that often gets lost, however, is that creating a 'Big Idea' without regard for the channel capabilities that it can be executed through will prevent that idea from ever being as big as it possibly could be. Technology allows realtime interaction between brands and their customers and a lack of understanding of what and where technology is, is a starting point lacking full potential.

    While in the past a 'Big Idea' could rely on telling a really great story, this approach simple won't do anymore. 'Big Ideas' need to be about conversing and interacting. Brings fans (customers) onto the stage out of the audience. Make them part of the story so that when they pass it on and tell it to their friends, they do so with gusto and passion. They turn their friends into fans (customers).

    Modern creativity is about understanding how technology can enable the fantastic, and being able to imagine and create ideas without boundaries. Literally anything is possible these days. Think shops with videos, ads that come alive through mobile handsets, or 3D interactive engagements in highstreet windows.

    Rei's hit the nail on the head here; emotion x function, or idea x technology, is essential to all the next 'Big Ideas'!