Should agencies act more like start-ups?
This was the topic of our regular Friday morning ‘vitamin’ last Friday. It’s a discussion that has intensified since AKQA’s Rei Inamoto got the ball rolling at SXSW this year.
We wanted to dig deeper into the discussion (and look at it more specifically though the lens of the Danish tech scene) so we asked Rasmus Viemose from Founders House and Steffen Tiedemann from 23 to come by the agency and present their companies and their perspectives on start-up culture.
Being a 70-person agency – big in Danish terms – the session gave us a lot to reflect on in terms of how we can be inspired by the culture and drive of smaller, more agile companies.
I’ve grouped my reflections into five broad themes/questions that I believe any agency (or company in general) would benefit from considering:
1. Maintain the freedom to think freely: A start-up by its very nature has no baggage weighing it down. If we opened our doors today instead of 1976, no believed-to-be best practices, and no track record of doing things in a certain way, how would we build this agency? What competences would we prioritise? What clients would we try for? Indeed, what business would we be in?
2.Focus on the big questions: As a start-up, you have to be really sharp on your idea. If you’re not able to pitch it precisely and compellingly, no one will buy into it. Rasmus described it as being sharp on the impact you want to make and narrowing all your fuzzy ideas down into one simple, meaningful idea. The lesson here is that I’m pretty sure that we could be even better at sharpening our own idea but also the ideas we pitch to clients – regardless of whether we’re talking about positioning, campaign ideas, product development ideas or something else. I think it’s a common mistake in many client-agency relationships that we seem to lose focus on the big idea and end up discussing all the executional issues way too early in the process.
3. Sharpen your argumentation: It’s obvious that start-ups go through various iterations with financial stakeholders to convince them of the beauty and viability of their big idea. I’m also quite sure that some of the start-ups that end up getting the financials in place are probably not necessarily the ones with the isolated best idea but the ones with the good idea and the argumentation in place. So every time we whine about clients not ‘seeing the greatness in our ideas’, let’s point the finger at ourselves and ask if we really had the most compelling argumentation and pitch for the idea.
4. Having something at stake: In our industry there’s the saying that ‘no one is better than his/her latest campaign’. But is this really true? You usually don’t get fired for a bad campaign, at least not the first time (you could as an agency but probably not as an individual). And I’m not arguing that this should be the case but wondering how we can maintain a secure working environment (where failures are allowed) and still give everybody (including management) a sense of urgency and the passion and determination to do our best work. Everytime.
5. Get the people who can solve your challenge together (and only them): Uhh, this one hurts. How many people – in agencies or other companies – can honestly say they haven’t been in meetings where they’ve thought ‘why am I here?’ Or ‘what’s his/her contribution in this context?’ Our business is becoming more complex, as is our value chain. Communication generalists hook up with discipline experts and executional experts, we develop processes, briefing templates, statement of work documents, handshakes, etc. I’m not saying that it isn’t important to document your process – both internally and with the client – I’m just reflecting on the number of people involved in the process from idea to execution and how we – within every project and process – can get the most out of every individual’s competence and energy. Project scoping (what are we doing, why, how, who and when) is a key competence going forward if we want to maintain agility and flexibility and keep employees doing what they do best instead of just sitting in on endless discussions because they might have input.