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]

About the author

Rei Inamoto is chief creative officer at AKQA