A New Agency Model – Solving Slowth
If we all race to the middle, we‘ll bump into each other when we get there.
We love you but we need to talk.
The way most creative agencies think about their own businesses is distinctively uncreative.
You can change the type of clients you chase, some of the ways you work, the type of work you want to do, the impact of the work you aspire to achieve.
You can charge for hours, claim to invent products, create new job titles, propose “skin in the game”, demand 15% growth next year.
But most agencies are trying to get to a very similar place. It’s a very noisy place. Some people call it “upstream” or “a seat at the adult table”.
The agency of the future will not be one “right” and homogenous model. Many models must exist and continue to evolve.
We wanted to start the new year with an idea about what one of those models could be.
We don’t claim that anything here is novel in itself but we suspect that the combination is.
Share it, critique it, but, most of all, contribute to it.
Here’s where we start:
All the things are coming unstuck.
Business is un-sticking itself from old world values.
A new and successful strand of capitalism is emerging. It values values and things like purpose, ambitious problem solving, collaboration, radical transparency, fast making, and kindness. Read “Drive” by Daniel Pink and “Obliquity” by John Kay for deets.
Marketers are un-sticking themselves from agencies.
Fewer than one-third of marketers want to get stuck in a long-term agency relationship. Many are growing their skills in-house and hand-picking agencies for assignments. (Read “What Do CMOs Really Think About Their Agencies?” Agency Management Institute, November 2014)
People are un-sticking themselves from agencies.
“Freelancing without the bullshit”, joining start-ups, and moving client-side are more do-able than ever. Permalance is becoming normal and several bits of recent research show the majority of Millennials want to start businesses. (Read Deloitte’s Millennial Survey 2015)
And the idea of which agency does what is coming unstuck.
Agencies are racing to the middle where many say they do everything. And few want to feel stuck “downstream”. And clients are happy to follow talent at the same time they want to hire said talent.
But conventional agency models and ways of working are struggling to keep pace with all the un-sticking.
It’s not complicated – marketers want help getting and keeping their businesses unstuck and growing. Whatever shape a marketer’s internal skills take they still yearn for “ideas at the pace of technology” (Sarah Armstrong, Coca Cola) and “groundbreaking ideas” (internal research).
There are, however, three catches to getting these things from agencies:
1. Once an agency has scaled, it’s difficult to not get stuck.
Clayton Christensen’s “The Innovator’s Dilemma” shows how most businesses fail to change because their cultures reflect long-standing client cultures. It happens to most agencies that don’t disrupt themselves aggressively every few years.
2. There is so much new to stay on top of.
A common complaint from businesses in emerging spaces is that agencies often struggle to understand their businesses and the way people use their products. Add to that all the new communications channels and, well, it doesn’t matter on which side of the table you sit, there’s a constant onslaught of things to understand.
3. Retainers can keep creativity stuck in a swirl.
It’s not that retainers are evil but they often lead to unclear briefs, unnecessary meetings, misbehavior, noise, and frustration on all sides.
This all leads to an interesting tension: many businesses are feeling stuck as the business world around them comes unstuck.
The problem X10 will solve is this:
Slowth is the feeling a marketer gets when she is stuck in a system that’s creatively constipated and can’t risk a drastic change in personnel or agencies so the business sputters along, sort of growing, sort of slowing.
Slowth is when growth is too slow.
It’s when growth whispers a romantic song of promise with a full mouth. It’s when growth mutters how determined it is while gazing at its shoes. It’s when growth leaves voicemails timed when you’re OOO.
It tastes like raindrops in strong winds evading your outstretched tongue. It feels like a kid sitting on a cushion sitting on your head. It sounds like a stuttered grunt.
Slowth is when your business feels stuck as the world around you comes unstuck and you know that one idea spread wide or lots of little ideas in the right places can help you win at Twister if only all the minds you were entangled with inside and out could just… work.
The opposite of slowth?
OK. We’re taking it too far but the point is clear. Creativity needs flow, businesses need flow – so why not create a business built for flow?
Our central question:
What would happen if we removed the noise from the system?
We believe that removing the noise from buying, working with, and working at a creative company will attract ambitious clients and talent, get to exceptional work, and help an agency uncover new ways of doing business.
Think about your favorite fancy restaurant. The bulk of the experience is hosted, refined, and crafted. But it’s an experience. There’s one menu, the master chef chooses it based on her knowledge and passions.The products are tried and tested. One doesn’t sit down and have to fumble his way with the waiter to invent the meal.
Some of the adjacencies we’ve contemplated are a stretch but that’s why they are adjacencies –
- Disneyland – the design of their experiences
- IKEA – how they design products with price as the starting point
- Tesla – distribution
- The airline industry – how it now charges for things that were hidden before
- AirBnB and UBER – software creating new operating systems in industries
- Logo designers – no spec work and often a fixed fee
- Management consultants – rarely do conflicts of interest block them
There are many more attributes to play with (marketplaces, owning distribution channels, and so on) but, when interacting with clients, the initial aim is to make redundant the question:
“Well, how long is a piece of string?”
And then to turn working with an agency into an excellent human experience and user experience.
The idea: X10
On-demand insights and ideas for companies that want to become fast companies.
- No retainers – just products with fixed prices
- No pitches – just products available for purchase
- No conflicts of interest
- Just insight and idea products that happen in ten-day sprints
- And a great user experience
X10 Insight Products
With a strong bias towards behavior and a team that resembles journalists more than planners, the insight products include:
1. Verbal Codes
An investigation into the language your audience uses online. Word clouds simply do not cut it.
2. White Spaces
An online survey and data analysis to reveal unmet needs and uncrowded business space.
3. But Deep Down
A free community product that collects and organizes insights.
4. Use Cases
Exactly how are people using your products and your competitors’ products? We’ll go beyond the obvious and find the edge cases.
5. Experience Map
Customer journeys with unorthodox inputs (keyword research, behavioral economics, etc).
6. Pro Personas
We’ll work with influencers (or insiders) to identify the types of people that engage with your category.
7. Visual Codes
An investigation into which types of images work best for your category in social media.
8. Twenty Truths
Brief us with a question then we’ll go hunting to unearth twenty deep and interesting truths.
9. Insider Insights
Video interviews with ten key influencers about your category, your brand, and your audience.
X10 Idea Products
These idea products might be excessively familiar to you. But that’s OK.
Currently, they focus on communications versus more general problem solving and business thinking.
They invite an honest conversation up front to save time and heartbreak.
They don’t have one philosophical focus such as content, entertainment, sharing, art, or utility. They can cater to these as required and as suited.
X10 would simply make buying them easy and un-tricky.
Clients can collaborate as much as they need to but we remove the noise from the system by behaving this way – the guessing games, vague briefs, shifting timelines, scope confusion, work not getting presented up the chain, and so on.
1. Brand Platforms
Five long-term brand platforms from insight to strategy to idea to campaign.
Three fully fleshed out campaigns that will help your brand change trajectories.
3. Branded Content
Five ideas that will bring your brand to life in ways people will want to consume and share.
4. Big Spots
Five great TV-centric ideas for those times when the brand simply needs a big TV moment.
5. Branded Art
Five ideas that will take your brand right up close to your audience.
6. Social Media Campaign
Five heavily social ideas with example content.
7. Creative Collaborations
We’ll identify potential partners then propose creative collaborations or projects to connect brands with the collaborator’s community.
8. Social Content
Fifty bits of visual content with copy for your socials and a mini playbook for improving your presence.
9. Emerging Technology
Ten ideas that will combine your brand and your product with new technology.
Working in ten-day sprints, X10 sells bursts of research and thinking as products with clearly defined outputs.
Day 0 involves an open table brief with the full team and client.
Week 1 involves immersion and ideation with the entire team active at all stages. For instance, stakeholder interviews, factory visits, interviews with experts, watching people shop.
Week 2 focuses on refinement and visualization. Each idea comes to life in a shareable artifact – a poster, a video, an interactive experience.
Projects have custom production timelines and costs once the insights and ideas are delivered.
1. CMOs of large businesses stuck in large agency relationships and who need new perspectives without a new retainer.
How we can help:
i. Avoid pitch pains
Pitching is expensive and many clients can struggle to move their large businesses to a new agency. We can help marketers top up with with insights and ideas.
ii. Test a new brand platform
Getting a business and its agencies to latch onto a new brand platform can be difficult. We can take it for a test drive – quickly.
iii. Test an old brand platform
When a marketer feels their brand platform is weary and wonders whether it has any juice left, we can squeeze it tight and see.
iv. Solve a business problem
Sometimes an agency is just great at advertising. There’s nothing wrong with that. We can apply creativity to business problems while the other agencies do the ads.
v. Re-start a brand
Brand re-starters often have to show quick wins. We love re-start-ups as much as we love start-ups and can move at speed to create momentum.
2. CMOs of fast-growth businesses that need to act big to attract that next big check.
Fast-growth businesses have completely different modi operandi. Often they’ve outgrown their initial users and need help explaining themselves to new audiences without getting distracted from the thing that keeps them growing – their product.
Their main fear: the plateau.
How we can help:
i. Start up a brand
Many fast-growth businesses are engineered by product and business people who need marketing help without the long-term commitment. We can help a start-up business start up a brand.
ii. Leap a brand
Many fast companies have grown with a mishmash of internal skills and small agencies and then want to take a big step without getting lost in a big system with unnecessary costs. We know the big system but we do small.
iii. Flip a brand
Many private equity firms know that re-establishing a strong brand is key to creating more value for their business. We can get in and get out with the same intention these firms apply to their ventures.
iv. Solve a problem
Companies with “start-up” in their DNA fear plateau-ing and often need to un-stagnate quickly. Whether there’s been a shift in culture or behavior, or there’s pressure from investors we can cross chasms between marketing, product, and customers.
3. Large agency leaders who recognize the need for fresh perspectives to keep up with the pace of their clients’ businesses.
It’s difficult to change a well-established agency. Navigating the quirks in culture, systems, and departments takes effort.
How we can help:
i. Kick-start a year
At the start of a calendar year or planning cycle, we can provide an outside mind and help put fire into what comes next.
ii. Save our relationship
Sometimes you just know and sometimes you get told. When an agency feels it is on notice, we can help bolster the insights and ideas it has at hand.
iii. Shake things up
We can help agency leadership that wants to protect its business and keep its agency’s ideas on their toes.
iv. Paid pitch help
Hire us to plug a gap in mindset or capabilities just like a freelancer.
v. Solve a problem
Good agencies try to stay on top of their client’s real business problems but there can be a disconnect between internal skills or talent availability. We can help.
We love the idea of what we do. Often we even love doing it.
And we believe that the most important thing agencies everywhere can do right now is the obvious one… keep smart people from leaving and get smart people joining.
Critical to this is removing the noise – unnecessary meetings, power moves and politicking, unspoken incentives, departments, notifications, email, vague briefs, briefs someone’s boss doesn’t know about, briefing in a pitch then going on vacation for two weeks, automated procurement systems… add your own.
Creativity is chaotic but all the extra noise is wearing down so many great minds.
A creative company that exists to change business trajectories and that can work noiselessly?
X10. On-demand insights and ideas for fast companies.
What do you think?
Grab the PDF and watch the video.
- The Honesty Risk. Take It.
- How To Do Account Planning – A Simple Approach (over 80,000 reads)
- How To Explain An Idea – A Mega Post (over 30,000 reads)
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