You Say You Want a Revolution?

How about an innovation instead?

You Say You Want a Revolution?

David Ogilvy, the most quotable man in advertising, once said: “Make sure you have a Vice President in charge of Revolution, to engender ferment among your more conventional colleagues.”


And while I most certainly agree with the sentiment, as a guy at an agency (with Ogilvy’s name on the door no less) whose job it is to help colleagues and clients innovate, it gives me pause.


Because the word revolution carries such weight and expectations.

Revolutions are led by George Washington.
Revolutions happen in Cuba and Iran.
Revolutions are the lyrical hook for iconic Beatles songs.
Revolutions often involve death and suffering.

That’s heavy stuff for an agency guy.

Starting revolutions is tough work. And while us agency folk are fearless in the face of tough work, the perceived effort (fighting for dollars, fighting for attention, fighting against status quo, justifying your effort, spent political capital) versus the anticipated outcome (unknowable, but more often than not a failure) is incredibly daunting.


So when Google’s Eric Schmidt says, “Innovation never comes from the established institutions” is it because there aren’t clever people in the agency establishment? I’d like to think that’s not the case. Is it because there’s a shortage of smart thinking to help guide our efforts, including frameworks, checklists, dos, don’ts, tips and tricks? Hardly.

With all due respect to Schmidt’s words, what I think we actually hear is: Revolution never comes from the established institutions. Change that one word, and I agree with him. In the agency world we see lots of revolting but few revolutions.

Innovation, on the other hand, happens all the time at agencies, all around us. It’s just that we’ve come to expect it to look like a revolution, and as a result, we often miss it. Here’s the thing:

Innovation doesn’t always feel big.
Innovations don’t always knock industries off their axis.
Innovations don’t always make the trade pubs.
Innovations don’t have to be bloody.

And that’s perfectly okay. In fact when you put innovation into the proper perspective, it becomes a lot less daunting and a lot more achievable.

Devastating uppercuts are always set up by the jab.


So how can you be an effective jabber? What are the simple and digestible ways anyone at an agency can affect innovation starting today? Here are five things to get you started:

  1. Creative injection. Nothing strangles innovation like having the same people in the room every time you’re trying to solve a problem. Invite outsiders—those within the agency who don’t work on that business, folks from other disciplines, or even a local startup who might have a fresh, unencumbered perspective on things.
  2. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Oscar Wilde took it a step further: “Talent borrows, genius steals.” The lineage of some of the most innovative ideas out there can be traced to something that already existed. Heard of the Rio PMP300? Probably not. But I know you’ve heard of the iPod. The point is that starting with aspirational examples can sometimes be a catalyst for the next new thing.
  3. Art of the pitch. Agency floors are littered with incredible ideas that never come to life because they aren’t sold with the same gusto and ingenuity as it took to create them in the first place. For a client to buy innovation they likely have to be shown, not told. Which leads to #4 …
  4. Make > tell. One of my big takeaways from this year’s South by Southwest Interactive conference was the growing prevalence of the maker culture. Next time you’re faced with a client or new business challenge, ask your teams to produce a physical artifact as part of the pitch or presentation. It can be anything from a 3D cardboard model to a tweet powered gumball machine. It doesn’t matter, really, what it is. The act of making anything can be a strong catalyst for innovation.
  5. Get out! Just a few weeks ago I tagged along with colleagues on a tour of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. The purpose was to get out of our comfort zones and experience things that could inspire different thinking in our approach to client and new business work. Without going into detail, a Flamenco dancer named Wendy Clinard has me reconsidering how to run important client meetings.

David Ogilvy also once said: “Encourage innovation. Change is our lifeblood, stagnation our death knell.”

Hardly a revolutionary thought from a man whose innovation in our industry is unparalleled. I’m all-in on this. Every last word.

Ian Sohn is EVP Emerging Digital Platforms and Partnerships for Ogilvy & Mather.

[Red Flag: Diego Cervo via Shutterstock]