Note To Agencies: It’s Time To Find Your Unselfish Gene

AKQA executive creative development director Andy Hood discusses how, for agencies on the path to product development, metrics need to make room for the long-term play.

Note To Agencies: It’s Time To Find Your Unselfish Gene
Trey Ratcliff

Emulating the startup world, with its iterative processes, quick failures and product development ethos, is the latest fascination for ad land. For the innovative marketer or agency, it’s no longer about campaigns; instead the goal is to create products and services. It’s not about hard selling; it’s about ongoing consumer engagement. Taking risks in the hopes of creating something of lasting significance is on the agenda of nearly every creatively minded executive. Yet the structure of the agencies in which they work is a significant barrier when it comes to bringing big ideas to life.

Andy Hood

Andy Hood, executive creative development director at agency AKQA–a company that has pushed to make product development part of its creative etho–says that’s because the existing marketing structure is too selfish. Or rather, not unselfish enough.

Product development requires different processes and new metrics for defining success, he says, such as valuing accrued knowledge over immediate downloads, which he calls a bad metric because sheer numbers can be conflated to conceal low engagement. But retooling to accept new forms of accomplishment requires an unselfish willingness to forgo immediate gains for the sake of positive disruption.

The topic is one that Hood knows well, after having spent 15 years at AKQA leading clients through the process. And it’s a topic he’ll be speaking about at the upcoming PICNIC festival in Amsterdam on Sept. 17-18 in a talk titled The Unselfish Gene. Wanting to delve deeper into this idea of trading short-term gain for the long-term play, we asked Hood why this shift is important for advertising as a whole, whether clients are actually seeking this input from their agency partners, and how to overcome the challenges inherent in delivering on this idea.

CO.CREATE: Can you start by outlining what the Unselfish Gene idea is about?

ANDY HOOD: This new era of rapid development, lean development, learning, pivoting, moving on and embracing failure is very difficult. The reason why it’s difficult is that it’s not a natural thing to do in terms of self-interest, either for an agency or a client. I remember back in IBM’s heyday there was that phrase “no one ever got fired for buying IBM.” Which is basically saying: Don’t take any risks, play it safe, go safely through your career, get promoted, and you won’t screw up. The unselfish thing to do obviously is to take risks, try to disrupt, and then gain insight from that, which feeds into long-term success for a company. But a lot of companies are tied into long processes so it’s quite difficult for people to pivot and react. So, we’re saying that in fact our cycles need to be quite long and in order to have the successful long cycles you need to redefine what short-term success is. Taking a risk and learning from it, even if it doesn’t work, is really valuable. So the learning itself needs to be seen as success as opposed to downloads, eyeballs, and silverware in the trophy cabinet. If you think about success differently and think about the contribution to the whole as opposed to just “short-term wins,” then that’s what enables business to thrive and survive.

Are clients in general looking for that from their agency partners or is that something that’s coming from agencies wanting to find different outlets for their ideas?


I think it’s coming from both sides. We’re definitely finding that we’re being asked to take our clients’ businesses forward as opposed to merely messaging the current state of that business, and that often means creating actual products and services–either iterations of the product itself or built off the back of products and services that the company actually has–rather than advertising campaigns, or banners or TV spots. So projects we’ve built in the past, such as EcoDrive for Fiat or Star Player for Heineken, these things persist beyond any campaign drive. They don’t carry a campaign message and they could, if they haven’t already, quite conceivably be business units in themselves. There’s the recognition that this is real value as opposed to just eyeballs. The engagement is where value comes from.

Many agencies appear to be making investments in product development arms and other IP ventures. How does an agency move from a campaign-oriented frame of mind to a more iterative product-development frame of mind?

“Product” is a word that has so many meanings to it and the context is always important. It can be something in which you own the IP that you license or you re-sell, but it could also be something that you do for a client that is an extension of the services that they already provide. Or it could be a piece of work that serves the purpose of creating consumer engagement, which you would think is a marketing thing, but does it with a piece of work that persists over a number of months or years that you iterate upon. Star Player or EcoDrive are reasonable examples of that in as much as they were created with marketing departments to fulfill a brief, but in fact there’s no reason why they shouldn’t really exist in 2015 in different forms, having been iterated upon they become part of the business as opposed to a banner or a TV spot.

You talked about being more unselfish and changing the metrics for success, yet in difficult times, there is arguably more focus on immediate metrics than ever. So, how does a company make that transition or build this type of invention or innovation into their culture, when the process of developing products and services can take years as opposed to months?

I think [product development] is actually a smarter use of budget, and it’s actually better in an age that isn’t completely thriving because less of the essentially meaningless and valueless, pure advertising gets done. If you’re looking to provide some value with the work that you do from a marketing perspective, then you’re making a much smarter use of client budget. Also, if you’re doing work from which you set out to learn from, then you are contributing to the long-term success of the business and allowing it to take on board real experience of things out in the wild, and I think that’s a much better way to spend client money as well.

If you have a client who’s interested and willing…


Absolutely. And let’s face it, the way to [get a client interested] is to prove it. You have to show that you’re able to do it by demonstrating the processes and techniques you use and how you can rapidly get these things out into the market and how you can learn from them and how you can iterate.

So how does an agency that doesn’t have that experience but might have those aspirations build that credibility?

Well, the one thing that a lot of agencies have is a great deal of creative talent. It’s about focusing that talent in the right direction. I would imagine that any agency that doesn’t have that capability and wants to have that capability is going to have to look out and bring new skill sets into the agency to help them do it, to transform themselves. Effectively, if you’re talking about business transformation, for a lot of agencies the first business that needs to be transformed is their own in order to set themselves up to give the benefit of their experience to their clients in this new way. I don’t think it’s credible to merely announce to the world that you used to do A and now you do B and have everybody accept it and then for you actually to be able to deliver it. You do have to undergo some transformation internally in terms of direction and skill set and process in order to channel the talent you have in the right way.

Do you think we’ll see a day where a conversation about agencies being unselfish will be considered mainstream as opposed to novel?

I hope so. It’d be nice, wouldn’t it? Though it’s a slightly trick title in as much as it’s not genuinely being unselfish because the whole thing has a certain vested self-interest. It’s changing the perception of what selfish is by redefining what short-term success is. A lot of times something is put out with the view towards getting a huge amount of click-throughs or eyeballs and a Cannes Lion or something, on which someone gets promoted and someone else gets a bonus. In fact that doesn’t really move the business forward, it doesn’t really create value for anybody that engages with it, everybody just thinks it’s beautiful and it wins. I think what we’re saying is that you may have to sacrifice your shiny piece of silverware because what you do doesn’t actually get a billion click-throughs. What it does do is teach you something really valuable about the business itself that allows the business to create new relationships with clients and get a bigger return on investment and maybe even pivot and do things in new ways. And that’s why it’s redefining short-term success in order to achieve long-term success.

You can hear Andy Hood speak on The Unselfish Gene at the upcoming PICNIC conference, Sept. 17-18 in Amsterdam. Readers interested in attending the event can receive 30% off registration by entering the promo code PICN!cc30.

About the author

Rae Ann Fera is a writer with Co.Create whose specialty is covering the media, marketing, creative advertising, digital technology and design fields. She was formerly the editor of ad industry publication Boards and has written for Huffington Post and Marketing Magazine