agency-innovationClients see a sea of sameness. Procurement places the lowest bidder on a perch. And clients don't just want "great" ideas; they want "innovative" ideas.

Complicating this is the fact that no one really understands what the word innovation means.

One of my favorite definitions comes from David Brier's article in Fast Company, where he writes that an innovator is "one [who] saw the dots and connected them."

And isn't this one of the core value propositions of hiring an agency? Clients want a team that can question and uncover insights and then use this to create messaging and products that provide value.

To discover how agencies are investing in future dot-connecting, we asked: How does your agency invest in innovation? Why is this important for your agency's future growth?

Jason Burby | President of the Americas, POSSIBLE

POSSIBLE is investing in innovation with a purpose. We believe that, if you are going to demonstrate innovation to your clients, you need to give them something that is tested, proven, and serves a purpose. Too often agencies are using “innovation” as a way to do something cool rather than thinking about how it fits with a client’s brand and challenges. How do we do that? We invest in R&D and develop partnerships with emerging technologies. We do the investing to make it smart for clients.

LinkedIn and Amazon are two emerging technologies/platforms that are still in the early stages and not yet being utilized to their full potential. Both have sophisticated targeting and unique data that we can leverage that most brands don’t have insight into. In our mind, innovation doesn’t need to be about a new product or new partners — but rather a unique way of leveraging current and new channels and technologies to more effectively support our clients.

Not every idea is a home run or even ever leveraged by a client. But even the ideas that don’t make it into a live environment often inspire other ideas that do. Without the process and people to explore the initial ideas/opportunities, we would not be able to go to that next level and change the thinking or consideration around what can be done in an impactful way for our clients.

Innovation cannot be done to just do something cool, it must have a purpose. Innovation must be planned for. If it isn’t, it will often fall short.


Sarah DaVanzo | Chief Cultural Strategy Officer, sparks & honey

As a young agency in startup mode, to drive ideation, iteration, and innovation we invest heavily in intangibles – time, effort, and culture. For example, our values are framed as “Super Powers”, and two key sparks & honey Super Powers are “be a sucker for new” and “plan to pivot." We promote a culture of curiosity and experimentation — like putting out a bowl of dried crickets in the kitchen on a Friday afternoon as a challenge for everyone to “do something for the first time this weekend.” We don’t have a toolbox, rather we have a “tool pool” because we regularly swap out tools, subscriptions, services, etc., to test things out. It’s a different frame of mind. We also have an “Open Agency” philosophy, which means: Open to visitors. Open to competitors. Open to ideas. Open for business 24-7. We partner with a lot of different agencies, so we must be open and adaptable. Finally, we apply design thinking and UX principles to our processes, mapping out “how to’s” for training since we’re growing so rapidly. This affords us the opportunity to reflect, ask “why” and “what if". It’s clear our growth will come from the “what ifs." After all, our business model was born from the question – what if brands were totally synchronized with culture?


Steve Schildwachter | EVP, Chief Marketing Officer, rVue

I'm answering as someone who in the past year went from Ad Land to Startup Land. First, Ad Land:

Agencies are supposed to be innovative, creating new ideas for clients every day. It's not "innovative," however, to just use existing technology and build a mobile app or an augmented reality experience. Some agencies check the box of "innovation" when they buy a 3D printer, while others have actual labs or experimental areas where they build prototypes and invite collaboration. A few — mostly the so-called "media agencies" — have innovated in the areas of measurement and accountability. And of course the big holding companies make investments such as IPG getting in on the ground floor with Facebook. There's a wide range of "investment in innovation" in Ad Land, but as agency services get more commoditized and AOR relationships fade, these investments are harder to justify. Bravo to those agencies who do.

Startups, on the other hand, can only be described as investments in innovation. VC money is put to work on building a new service or product based on a new idea. There's no vast reservoir of billable hours cushioning the make-or-break risk taken by inventors and investors alike.

There's a common strand of DNA shared by startups and agencies. Startups are propelled by someone's belief in, or love for, an idea that the company is bringing to life. In the same way, innovation at agencies is driven at least as much by passion as it is a checkbook.

My point is that it all comes back to talent. While it's nice for an agency to be able to make the monetary investment, the money's useless if there's no passion for the idea it helps develop. That's why I see so many bold leaps of faith at small- and mid-sized agencies.


Allison Kent-Smith | Founder and Managing Partner, smith & beta

As a digital education company for a number of large agencies, we have developed a birds-eye view of investment patterns across the advertising and marketing industry. Innovation is immensely critical to growing ROI today and becoming a bigger priority in the C-suite as everyone evolves to more of a “maker” culture. But how do you invest intelligently in an innovative culture, one that supports and encourages making, experimenting, and working in new ways?

What we’re seeing is that investment in innovation via long-term and immersive education programs are becoming one of the game-changing ways for agencies to grow their revenue and client opportunities. One reason for this is the digital talent gap. The majority of agency leadership has not learned how to integrate digital skillsets throughout all levels of their organization – from business-savvy upper management to tech-minded juniors. Getting an organization on board to embrace ongoing digital learning as a whole sets the agency up for long-term potential.

We are only as good as our current talent. We’ve noticed that it’s very difficult to acquire enough innovative talent to maintain competitive advantage. Education helps agencies stay on top of the latest tech trends, get ahead of their competitors, and integrate innovative practices into their business model. As a result, a maker culture can naturally emerge to help agencies expand their revenue options and break out of the billable-hour mold that has kept so many of them stagnant for way too long.

Mark O'Brien | President of North America, DDB

We do two agency-wide initiatives to invest in innovation (and many others on a local basis). One is called Fit For Excellence: We select a number of our clients throughout the year to create an internal brief not associated with the day-to-day requirements of the client. We send the brief to all of our offices around the world and ask them to come up with creative ideas against the brief. We then short list the responses and bring them to the client to seek approval to produce the ideas. This allows our creatives around the world in even the most remote location to work on world class clients and come up with innovative solutions. Clients love it as well and many Fit For Excellence ideas have turned into Cannes winners for us.

The second investment in innovation initiative that spans all of DDB is The Launchpad, where we hire young creatives on fixed, short-term contracts to work together as a group on client briefs and new business initiatives. This puts these young, inexperienced creatives at the table with the most senior and recognized creatives in the industry. We get fresh innovative creative ideas, and they get an opportunity at the end of the contract period to be hired into a permanent creative role and continue their career with DDB.

Being proactive and sourcing creative ideas from new and unexpected places keeps us all fresh, delights our clients, and sets us apart from our competitors. That is the premise for winning new business and growing organically.

Matt Powell | Chief Information Officer, Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners

kbs+ invests in innovation (which we define as incremental improvement) and invention (which we define as fundamentally new approaches and true firsts) in a variety of ways:

kbs+ Ventures, our VC arm, invests in a portfolio of early-stage adtech companies, providing kbs+ unique insight into market trends and first-mover advantage to our clients.

kbs+ Spies & Assassins, our creative tech division, devotes significant time and financial resource to R&D. This includes both open-ended exploratory-style research into technologies of interest and directed research targeting specific problem and opportunity areas.

Every year, we run an invention competition at kbs+ designed to identify opportunities to improve our approach and tools, to identify product opportunities and, most importantly, to inspire the staff to think creatively about what we do and how we do it. We then work with winning teams (who are rewarded) to bring their ideas to life.

All of this is critically important to kbs+'s future. We're the brand agency for an inventive world — so we absolutely must have invention at our core. It's also an important recruitment and retention tool for us. We find the best talent is very entrepreneurial and places significant value on continuous improvement.

Paul Munkholm | Director of Strategy, Kettle

Broadly speaking, innovation can mean a lot of things, from reinventing a category to evolving how we work with clients to design and technology that ushers in new behaviors and experiences. Today, the pace of innovation is accelerating, with entire products and categories being reinvented or made irrelevant nearly overnight. And it’s only going to get faster. So at Kettle we work to not just react to emerging trends but to anticipate and create them. One way we stay ahead of the rapid pace of change is by fast tracking creative explorations via the Kettle Royale. Our version of a hackathon, this fun, competitive event gets us from ideas to prototypes in a matter of days.

Today we’re also exploring whole new ways to partner with clients. New processes like lean UX and agile development have forced some clients out of their comfort zones, as they see the proof points of more efficient ways of working. And at Kettle we’ve focused on helping clients adopt these processes and introduce a new way of working to the larger organization. For large scale product builds we fully embed ourselves with clients, creating new teams that act like start ups, and giving everyone ownership so they make sure the product succeeds.

Then there’s pure design and technology innovation, which is constantly changing with every OS update or new programming language. At Kettle it’s critical to employ best in class uses of design and technology that not only entertain but add value to whatever product we’re working on. This type of innovation can mean the difference between a product you have to use to a product you LOVE to use. For us, innovation is less of an investment and more of a philosophy that we integrate into everything we do.


Greg Andersen | LA Managing Director, RAPP

A smart innovation strategy starts with a deep understanding of how we can create scalable, measurable business impact for our clients in innovative ways. This means going both deeper into the things we do well and broader into the areas that align with our core. The balancing act is in keeping the agency’s creative agenda front and center, even as our data offering becomes more sophisticated. Together, they are a powerful combination for us.

Data is a space where there is a lot of industry innovation these days. Fortunately for RAPP, data has been at the heart of our business for 50 years. The agency’s early days as a direct shop sharpened our capabilities and culture around data for years to the point where data and associated technologies are now the foundation for all we do. Given that, we don’t need to spend our innovation budgets to build that foundation. We have the luxury of putting money into innovations that take data and technology to next-level solutions one might not expect from an agency. For example, RAPP Labs in Dallas is launching marketing technology platforms into the market that compete with the likes of Adobe or Red Point. These platforms have applications for any marketer, not just RAPP clients, and have the possibility to open up massive new revenue streams for the agency and change the entire margin equation in our business.

Ultimately, we want to invest in innovation that secures our future by driving meaningful change in what we do and how we do it. Sometimes that’s a new unit like sparks & honey. Sometimes that is a technical capability the industry never sees. The role we play for our clients is to create enduring, high-value relationships between brands and their customers. We’ll continue to invest in that mission.


Luke Eid | Global Director of Innovation, TBWA\Worldwide

As an agency built on the belief of disruption, innovation has long been part of our DNA and culture. We foster an environment where staff from all levels and fields can collectively contribute to the future of our network and our clients’ business.

To continue fueling innovation we invest in three key areas:

1. Evolving our operating model and service offering through iterative innovation. We constantly re-engineer our internal processes and operating principles, and as a result, our service offering to reflect the needs of our clients and consumers today. An example is our social business offering that has been rolled out for key clients globally. This offering is highly data-centric and geared to be always on and highly responsive to real-time trends and consumer needs, which is quite radically different than the traditional agency model.

2. Dedicated teams driving innovation — usually more with breakthrough innovation. At our global level we have, our product development lab that is specifically designed to create new products for the network with the chief objective to create better efficiency across our 300-plus agencies and ultimately for our clients. The lab is also designed to cultivate and nurture ideas that spring from any person or team within the network. These ideas can be for the betterment of our agency, our clients business, or even something that can benefit the general public such as

3. Innovation within the solutions we develop for clients, which is the most visible area of innovation and something practiced in all our agencies — be it through Disruption Days to develop innovative strategies for our clients through to the use of creative technology in the solutions we create such as the ADIDAS interactive window from Helsinki or virtually testing the safety of a car using virtual reality for NRMA in Australia.

Dominic Sandifer | President, GreenLight Media & Marketing

At GreenLight Media & Marketing, investing in innovation is always about investing in people and partners that can provide expertise and insights. In particular, as a leading branded content agency, we are currently investing in personnel to further establish our best practices in “earned, owned, and paid” media strategies and execution. We believe we are creating the next generation of media planning for content marketing. That means that we are not only hiring the right media planners and buyers, but also training them on our well-established best practices in content marketing, led by our strategic planning and digital video teams.

We’ve also invested in and experienced huge benefit over the past year from running our own YouTube Channel, “Country Now.” To enhance our knowledge base in online video and media, we’ve also invested both resources in working closely with other leaders in the YouTube Original Channel ecosystem and micro-targeted social media worlds such as Fullscreen and DigMark. This has led directly to planning, buying, measuring, and optimizing insights and innovations in content marketing that inform our internal media teams and help them innovate around best practices every day. In today’s content marketing world, there’s no bigger investment than in this area, other than in creative. We know that, at the end of the day, it all comes down to having great ideas and telling great brand stories.


Judith Carr-Rodriguez | President and Founding Partner, Figliulo&Partners

Innovation is core to our DNA, especially being such a young agency. We believe it means taking the best of brand thinking and digital methodologies.

Our philosophy addresses some of the most significant changes impacting our industry. Our industry is becoming increasingly tactical. This is compounded by the fragmented and complex nature of the media landscape and the fact that consumers are in charge. Today’s brands and the promises of those brands are debated and discussed, blogged, and shared by people. This means that brands are no longer fixed by the marketer but are living, breathing organisms that live in the real world. Therefore, it’s more important than ever to properly invest in creating a core brand idea that is well articulated and reinforced at every touch point.

The challenge to creating a strong brand idea in a digital world is that data tends to drive ideas — and data is essentially history, while ideas are the future. We strongly believe in data but have found a better way to use it.

We offer a new approach to building brands called “Ideas First.” It works differently in that we start with — and invest in — multiple ideas. We then filter, grow, and iterate the ideas using data to find the most interesting, viable, creatively rich, and most resonant territory to execute against.

Our investment in this process is essential to grow our agency and accomplish what exceptional agencies have always done—– but for today's world. We create ideas that define a company’s brand belief and alter its course, as well as create brand behaviors that have the potential to transform the industry.


Jason Sullivan | Managing Director, Publicis Seattle

It's easy to get caught up in the technology aspect of innovation: the gadgets, machinery, and robotics. As an agency in the heart of one of the world's most innovative cities, Seattle, with a technology client at the top of our roster, T-Mobile, it's even easier for us to get caught up in those speeds and feeds. But, as an agency, we focus on innovation as it relates to our thinking because that's what today's culture demands. Our world is faster and more fragmented than ever before, with overwhelming amounts of stimulus bombarding us from all angles.

To stave off this complacency and ambivalence, brands need to drive continuous reappraisal, which comes as a result of a new type of thinking. We call it Adventurous Thinking & Ideas. Not because adventurous ideas are "cool" or "different," but because they change the way people perceive and interact with brands. Adventurous ideas create a bias for action because doing is more powerful than talking.

Adventurous Thinking & Ideas is more than just jargon. It’s an ethos, a culture. We host a quarterly discussion series featuring the most influential personalities in the fields that influence us. From Women Who Rock to Tastemakers to The Power of Design, we love learning about what inspires the industry's most creative and innovative thinkers and leaders. We just launched Publicis Adventure Grants, a scholarship to help fund people's travels, explorations, and inventions that embody the spirit of Adventurous Thinking & Ideas. We're creating a culture that demands the type of adventurous thinking and ideas that truly drive constant brand reappraisal. A culture that attracts the uber-talented creators, builders, and makers to pick up their lives, come to Publicis Seattle and do something special.

Steve Minichini | Managing Partner, Assembly

Assembly Media views innovation as a core competency. We know that to stay ahead of our competition we need to make more than incremental adjustments to our innovative process to establish a better way of doing business. We view our agency as a leading organization focused on developing new, unconventional, and successful innovations that will shape our client business and agency.

Rather than thinking of innovation as an incremental product or process improvement, we are encouraged to think of innovation in terms of holistic strategies.

We invest in our innovative approach in two ways: sustained innovation and disruptive innovation. Sustained innovation represents a steady type of concentrated innovation. Typically, sustained innovation is focused on internal agency process, infusing technology to gain operational efficiencies in how we run client business on an ongoing basis. This can pertain to technological advancements within our data management platform, media optimization technologies, or as a way of securing high volume, high quality efficient media inventory.

Second, we allocate time to focus on disruptive innovation, which is intended to establish new marketplace dynamics by introducing products and services that revolutionize our business. This can pertain to a new way of gaining consumer audience insights instantly through social channels or matching dynamic creative messaging to our go-to-market approach allowing our brands to connect to a large scale customer base by specific consumer intent.

Assembly Media also invests in innovation by investing in talent. We seek talent that embrace habits of innovative thinkers — those who love to ask questions and continually learn, are comfortable with ambiguity, enjoy solving the unsolvable, have a highly analytical mindset, and maintain the ability to succeed when iterating an idea without guardrails.

This approach toward innovation best prepares Assembly Media for sustained growth and continued successful client and staff retention.


Kevin Meany | CEO & Founder, BFG Communications

Innovation is a big part of our plan for clients at BFG Communications, but it doesn’t stop there. We make sure employees are encouraged to foster innovation themselves and like to give them the opportunities to stay creative while at the office or interacting with co-workers.

For one, I manage a “secret calendar” where I highlight internal events. What’s this month you might wonder? A dog show featuring a beauty contest. In the past, we’ve hosted a frisbee challenge and a trick competition with a barbecue lunch. We host fun and quirky awards ceremonies. Specifically, we celebrated the roll out of a recent client web initiative, which resulted at a neighboring bar for an amusing recognition ceremony for BFG team members.

That’s the fun stuff, but we also value employee innovation and contributions to the agency itself. Currently, we’re expanding BFG’s HQ campus in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and it’s a project that actively involves employees from a design standpoint, not only from a work environment perspective, but also from employee style preferences, office space concepts, etc.

Of course, all of this is great, but why do we do it? We invest in innovation within the agency because culture cultivates innovation. It’s clear that active and involved workers makes for happy clients. Working with a team that you enjoy will yield more opportunities for discussion and collaboration for our clients. From where BFG has started to where it is today, it’s no question that our investment in keeping activities abundant for our team has contributed to our agency’s growth nationwide.


Originally published Jun 20, 2014 3:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017


Agency Marketing