Wait A Minute Makers: Before Agencies Can “Make Things” They Need To Create “Makeable Ideas”

You’ve heard it here before: Ad agencies should be concerned with “making stuff.” But, Y&R’s Rick Liebling argues, agencies first need to master a new way of thinking about big ideas.

Wait A Minute Makers: Before Agencies Can “Make Things” They Need To Create “Makeable Ideas”

It’s an ever-increasing refrain–agencies need to make things. In order to compete and be relevant in today’s fragmented, disrupted, disintermediated marketing/media world, agencies need to rethink their models and produce something more than just Big Ideas. Allison Kent-Smith, founder of Smith & Beta, put it thusly in a recent Co.Create article: “It’s no longer just about great ideas. It’s about great ideas that get made.”


Now, one can argue that this is just another business management fad that will pass and that ad agencies should stick to doing what they do best–coming up with compelling communication ideas. But let’s for a moment go with this line of thinking and agree that agencies need to fundamentally change. If you take the time to think about it rather than just accept the idea you’ll hit a brick wall of reality: Forget actually making something; most agencies probably aren’t fully equipped to think of things that can get made.

By that I mean, one doesn’t simply start thinking like a designer or engineer after spending years thinking like an artist or author. All of those professions have built formal modes of thinking that best suit the output they create. Thinking in the same way to create a different solution is unlikely to produce the desired results. Rather, you must first mentally step back, then shift laterally, then dive into the new style of thinking. In other words, before agencies can create “makeable things” they need to create “makeable ideas.”

This is a significant shift for an agency, not just something that can be communicated in an email or PowerPoint presentation. It’s a fundamental change and requires a new way of thinking not just for creative but for senior management, HR, accounts, and planning.

Creating things in our digital world requires experts in UI/UX and design, creative technologists and others who may not be part of the existing agency structure. It requires a commitment to the concept of “platforms, not campaigns.” It probably necessitates a new fee structure as well. These are all long-term changes for an agency.

Once all that is in place an agency is still not ready to start making things. First they must train themselves to conceive of “makeable ideas.” What do I mean by that? If in an internal creative meeting the idea ends with someone saying, “And then the monkey grabs the dad’s cell phone!” you’re not concepting “makeable ideas.” This is where planners really need to play an essential role. Not to stifle creativity, but to unleash it in a focused direction. Planners should guide the creative towards ideas that can be downloaded, worn, played, customized, broken into constituent parts, crowdfunded, gamified, or otherwise hacked. When you start thinking that way you are starting to create a “makeable idea.”

“Makeable ideas” don’t spring solely from a creative team. They come from a multi-disciplinary collaborative effort. Much of what is in Kent-Smith’s article rings true because she understands this fundamental truth. She states, “An agency must have user experience, interaction design, and information architecture front and center. UX experts are not easy to find, but heavy hitters in this area will transform ideas that are impossible to ideas that are reality.”


Here are five steps agencies need to take to start creating “makeable ideas” that will lead to “makeable things”:

1. Make the creative process open-source

From traditional creatives to coders, UX designers to fashion designers, bring in people with different skills sets. You’re ideating for a different solution, you need different inputs.

2. Think platforms, not campaigns

It’s not about a 30-second spot or banner ad. It’s about ideas that can evolve and support a multitude of additional ideas.

3. Understand APIs

Can your idea connect to the Internet? If not, it’s probably not a viable platform for the 21st century.

4. Adopt an iterative process

“Makeable Ideas” are tweaked, nuanced, and massaged and gather strength as they face testing. Conceive, test, improve.

5. Create a physical/digital tension

Many of the best platforms understand how to balance consumer behaviors that transcend between physical and digital. Think about how your idea engages people in a physical space, or physically, as well as in a digital or mobile space.


Rick Liebling is Creative Culturalist at Y&R New York. He advises clients on how to engage in culture in order to better understand consumer behavior.

[Images: Flickr user Yersinia Pestis, Ross, Madelinetosh, and Swamibu]