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5 Ways Creative Agencies Are Innovating From Within

By Nancy Woo / “the Slasher”

A creative agency is more than an advertising firm. A creative agency must have that extra element, that tipping-point aspect that separates the cream from the crop. And the difference is in the title. Yes, creative agencies must be creative. All-around, no exceptions, to the brim creative – and not just in what they do, but how they do it.

In order to stay sharp in a changing economy characterized by rapidly advancing technology that continues to both lower the barrier of entry to information and force people to be constantly re-learning, creative agencies must be able to adapt from within first if they hope to stay ahead of the curve. How do you come up with entirely new ways of doing something if you’re stuck in the same old patterns? In order to bring something new to the world in terms of marketing, creative agencies must first be willing to bring new strategies to their own offices, their own teams and their own business practices.

Traditional advertising methods – like billboards, magazine spreads or TV commercials – certainly aren’t disappearing, but the frontrunners and the game changers are going to be those creative agencies that embrace entirely new ways of thinking, operating and communicating. The climate is rife for innovation, and they will embrace the challenge of pushing the boundaries set by their predecessors.

Marketing think-tanker John Lloyd predicts that people of this century will experience the equivalent of 20,000 years of historical change in only 100 years. That means that it won’t be beneficial to be attached to familiar, stale ideas so much that we keep them around gathering dust. It also means that it’s an exciting time with surprises around every corner, a time in which some agencies will adapt, and some will perish.

Those who adapt early on in the world of creative marketing are probably going to be the ones whizzing by everyone else as they’re scratching their heads, going, “Huh?” They’re probably going to be the ones actually getting the attention of their A.D.D. customer base (one that’s increasingly distracted by shiny objects) and sustaining it. And they’re probably going to be having a blast while doing it.

Here are some ways that particularly interesting creative agencies are challenging themselves and innovating from within:

  1. “There are no wrong answers”:

Staking new territory in an ever-changing world is going to require the boldest of the bold to step forward and say, “Hey, let’s do this thing that we’ve never done before, have no idea how to do and will probably mess up completely.” It’s this charging forward attitude that is going to result in some of the most surprising innovations.

The Partners, a creative agency touted as London’s finest, may just be experts in the aforementioned field of boldness. They’ve been known to think outside the box with marketing techniques such as installing statues in random places throughout the city to build interest in an art exhibit’s grand opening. In order to get there, The Partners live by the “no wrong answer” philosophy, which means their brainstorm table is full of scatterbrained, half-formed thoughts, most of which get incinerated along the way or transform into something else entirely. And this is how genius is born.

Creativity flourishes in environments where anything goes, so that all ideas have a chance to come to the surface, even those that may at first seem like a load of cow cakes. But even cow cakes serve their purpose. (Somebody on the Western plains must have been the one to say, hey why don’t we burn these?)

  1. Challenging Comfort Zones:

If you’re ever invited to visit The Partners’ offices, be prepared to show some skin (literally or figuratively). Every person who walks through the door is initially challenged by a large sign that reads, “Are we creative or are we fucking wankers?” Further down the hallway, a chalk outline of a body is described as, “A client who didn’t like ideas.” These guys are obviously not afraid to push anyone’s buttons or challenge any and all to step outside their comfort zones.

Most creativity happens when slightly outside the zone of absolute comfort, though not so far out as to induce anxiety and inhibit ideas. This middle area is the golden realm that creative agencies thrive in, and in fact being comfortable with being uncomfortable seems like a necessary part of the job. It is at The Partner’s headquarters, at least. Every Friday evening, the entire office has weekly drinks together in an office-turned-bar, where one member of the team is chosen, at random, to display a talent they’d learned in the past week (in front of everyone), from breakdancing to braiding. Ritual humiliation? Maybe. Challenging old, stale routines in favor of the new? Absolutely. And isn’t that what the new age of marketing is all about?

  1. Creating a Sense of Community:

As social media sweeps the landscape, consumers are more in control of the marketing messages they want to receive than ever before. Gone are the days of passive consumption; the Internet has heralded a time of active community engagement, both between customers and the brand, and between customers and each other. A good creative agency does more than shove a message in someone’s face; they involve them in some way in the process, whether that’s inviting them to play a game online, download a smartphone app or wow them with a real-time art installation.

But how can you expect to engage your users if the people creating this involvement aren’t connected to each other? Of course, having meetings is one thing, but creating a close working environment where people can throw ideas around like Frisbees is another. A few are sure to be caught. One way The Partners facilitated a sense of working together for their client, Deloitte, was to send a message to all the employees rather than just the customers. Each worker’s screensaver displayed a reminder that if they powered down their computers more frequently, they would save energy, cut down on costs and contribute to environmental conservation. Most importantly, it was a collective action that helped unite the disparate branches of the company into a cohesive sense of a whole. It’s this kind of thinking that is facilitated by things like The Partners’ Friday night cocktail hours, where everyone is encouraged not just to work together, but to think together.

  1. Offering Insight into the Company:

Consumers in today’s world are increasingly wary of advertising, having been subjected to every name in the game during the past century. Cutting to the chase and offering transparency to potential clients, including boasting a simple, effective message, is a solid way to build a debris-free avenue to trust. Each creative agency has a unique set of skills, personalities and resources to offer, and being able to communicate them in as succinct and descriptive way as possible will be an example to clients of your marketing prowess.

StruckAxiom, a top creative agency of the U.S. West Coast, boasts their ability to “make things greater than they are.” Their message really is that simple. Imc2, a creative agency focused on building authentic relationships, states as their unique strength, "We're believers and connectors. And we're also performers." Having a direct, clear and succinct message not only exemplifies your ability to create catchy selling points, but, combined with other personalized approaches, can also be a building block to a solid reputation. The Partners invite every customer and client to see them in action by including a live webcam on their website’s homepage. How much more transparent can it get? (Not to mention, these marketing “secrets” were willingly leaked when they invited a member of the press to join them for a day. If they weren’t trying to send a message about how they operate, consider us all befuddled.)

Finally, offering pictures and short biographies of the main players at the company on any creative agency’s “About Us” page is another simple way to bridge the impersonal Internet divide and display some humanity. It’s humanity, after all, that’s creative, not the technology we use. If there happens to be any ingrained distrust of advertising firms in a prospective client or customer, it may be quelled a little if you happily open your agency up for inspection – make it easy to see that you have no dirty tricks, just a fresh, clean outlook and an eager desire for innovation.

  1. Investing in Clients and Creating Relationships:

As the world becomes more and more interconnected, solid relationships are going to be key to success. This is no groundbreaking news, but in a struggling economy, the value of human cooperation cannot be overstressed. Scratching backs now will probably pay off in the long run, and some creative agencies are re-thinking the way they do business with small, start-up companies – that is, the ones without the surplus capital to go big on advertising, but still keen on getting themselves seen.

One innovative way of giving the little guys a push is by exchanging marketing services for stock in the company, without ever charging a dime up front. The Long Beach creative agency IM/TMA is taking this approach, and CEO Ted Cote says, “There’s a mutual benefit: If the company makes money in the next couple of years, I get more of a return than I would have initially. And right now, when they need it, they get free marketing. Even if 9 out of 10 businesses fail, that one that makes it is going to be worth it for me.”

Another way of describing this business model is by calling it parallel currencies. Parallel currencies are a set of options for the consumer to choose from that offers different but similar benefits. For example, in a department store credit rewards program, the customer may have the option of receiving 10% cash back on an in-store purchase then and there, or an 8% discount on any future purchases. Lloyd reports that most consumers choose the latter because it offers flexibility and the potential for greater savings. Yet, whichever option they decide upon will leave them feeling satisfied because they were given the power to choose. Even in such a seemingly insignificant case such as this, people love to feel empowered and at least partly in control of their own destiny. When you can offer them that feeling, everyone wins.

Similarly, in IM/TMA’s model, the creative agency offers parallel currencies for their marketing services: pay an up-front cost or pay a percentage of returns later on down the road. Giving small businesses this option opens a valuable door, both for the creative agency to reap potentially greater rewards, and for the small business to utilize strategic marketing they may not have had access to before. And in the process, a solid relationship takes root, built on mutual striving for success.

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So, every creative agency must ask themselves, where do we toe the line? Are we pushing the envelope forward or chugging along the same well worn, and soon-to-be eroded, path? Be bold, ask questions, work together, create transparency and invest in clients; these are some of the ways that creative communities at the forefront of innovation are developing in order to keep themselves on their toes, exploring, discovering, questioning, and ultimately, open to whatever possibilities may arise. So, how is your creative agency fostering creative business?

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, un-learn and re-learn.” –Alvin Toffler, economist

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