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June 2015

The Guardian

Henry Mason, managing director of TrendWatching, thinks this is critical: “Too many companies forget to answer the real question: why are they doing something? Before you give people the space and freedom to ‘do something’, ask yourself, do you – and they – really know what they are trying to achieve in the medium to long term? ”

Why agencies shouldn't lead on innovation

by Paul Armstrong

Working with a fair few agencies and brands around the world, it has become clear there is a lot wrong when it comes to agencies and innovation – the primary one being that while a lot is said about innovation, often little is actually achieved.

A symptom of this is “the F-lab” (or the fake lab setup), the much PR-d but little-thought-through collective of people who are interested in the latest technology and who read blogs and who have “a vision”. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with this practice except it’s not really helping anyone – the agencies, clients or the wider world. Increasingly I’m being asked to fix relationships where F-labs have damaged either the agency or a client relationship because of expectations not being met, poor (or no) objectives being set or, more fundamentally, the technology is prioritised ahead of the client’s need.

Agencies get it wrong more than right

Recently there has been a spate of gushing pieces around labs, incubators, enterprise innovation units and other whizzy names for what usually turns out to be a dull promise. The issue? Agencies don’t get mentioned. Not once. So why are so many crowing about their innovation skills? Now, I’ll be the first to say I have seen good labs come from agencies (Mint Digital, Ogilvy Labs, BBDO to name a few) but overall, it’s a wasteland of misadventure. The articles in question usually paint a rosy picture stateside, but when the lens is refocused on this side of the Atlantic the picture suddenly distorts. Granted we have a bevy of startup hubs and companies that are forging new and exciting products and services, but true labs often lack the basics. Sure the big guys can afford to have focused and rich lab setups, but why on our scrappy little island aren’t we kicking a little more ass?

The Why 

Before you can help someone, you’ve usually got to understand why something has been allowed to happen. In the case of F-labs it’s usually a a facelift exercise or an attempt to do something new but in an old way. Labs are often seen as potential cash cows (via workshops, presentations, prototypes, ideation, which all use up tons of billable hours), the client pays because they can tick the “innovation, new and whizzy” box and everyone’s happy. That is, until nothing happens because of the usual suspects – greed, mismanagement, lack of commitment, poor leadership or a lack of early demonstrable outcomes.

So what should agencies do if they want to fight the F-lab?

1. Commit to the process and the product

Understanding innovation is quite different from knowing what you can and should offer to clients. The key to successful labs is determining what is required now, what will be required in the future and establishing whether you have the right skills to offer these things. You don’t have to do everything yourself or indeed at once. Partnering with the likes of Hyper Island or Google Squared could be a better way to cement long-term success. In some cases innovative use of existing technologies will be enough, but if you are going for organisational change this focus is unlikely to cut the mustard. In either case a clear process is key to success, internally and externally. Don’t create a renegade corner; involve everyone. Innovation can come from anywhere, so create a culture that embodies that and not a department or lab.

2. Know why you and everyone else is there

Make sure everyone – involved or not –understands what is being created, why and how. Henry Mason, managing director of TrendWatching, thinks this is critical: “Too many companies forget to answer the real question: why are they doing something? Before you give people the space and freedom to ‘do something’, ask yourself, do you – and they – really know what they are trying to achieve in the medium to long term? ”

3. Location, location, location

Having a physical space where innovation is said to occur can be a good and bad thing – ultimately everyone can contribute but it seems the most successful ventures have dedicated (gulp) resources to them from the outset. Greg Wixted, chief innovator at We Are Xpert, believes this is the primary issue most get wrong: “The physicality is paramount. Innovation needs a physical place where teams can work and collaborate with partners and clients – a place where people can truly ideate and be inspired. It can’t be a cupboard space, it needs a budget and it needs to be a profit centre so you can measure the output.”

4. Partnerships should be just that, don’t mug people off

Sure we all love a free lunch and free consulting but if you want to create something that isn’t just PowerPoint fluff you need people who will bring it to life. Gemma Milne, creative lab technologist at Ogilvy Labs has seen firsthand how this impacts the outcome: “Building a black book doesn’t work. You need mutually beneficial partnerships with external experts – that way you can measure success by what you create, not what you talk about.”