Ideas aren't the hard part -- they are the commodity

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Razorfish's global CCO says the dynamic of supply and demand has shifted, and agencies must adapt

"The Big Idea." It’s all the forefathers of advertising, from George Lois to David Ogilvy, ever talked about. 

So what I’m about to say next might sound downright bananas to the creative community, but here goes: Ideas – they are the easy bit.

I know it sounds like blasphemy coming from a chief creative officer (especially one at a large digital innovation agency), but hear me out. We agencies — and by extension, our clients — have so many ideas, we don’t know what to do with them.

Just think of all those PowerPoint decks, notepads, keynote presentations, hard drives, whiteboards and sketchbooks bursting with the award-winning, game-changing, fame-inducing ideas that the client never bought. The career-defining opportunities missed. The pulped mountain of Post-It note potential lost. If there’s one thing we’re not, it’s short on good ideas, or even the odd great one. 

This wasn’t always the case. 

There was a time, say, 15 years ago, when arriving at breakthrough, business-changing ideas was really difficult for clients. So they happily paid for the thing they couldn’t get elsewhere. A lack of supply in great ideas created a wealth in demand. This was particularly true with ideas requiring technology to make them work. For a talented few, the dark art of "digital" marketing could arguably command a premium.

That’s all changed dramatically. The Big Idea’s market value has never been under more scrutiny. A healthy startup community means the supply of ideas is outpacing the demand. Getting good ideas is a process that’s been democratized due to technology and social channels. Ideas have a chance to be funded and introduced to the market faster than ever.  In short order, the ideas business has become a crowded marketplace.

We, the innovation agencies and creative businesses, now find ourselves competing on the ideas battlefield with start ups, incubators, production companies, the in-house client-side creative team, the CEO (along with his friends the CTO and the CIO), the technology platform players, subject-matter experts and the socially connected opinion leaders, or "influencers," who are publishing directly to millions of wide-eyed fans in their community every day. 

And don’t forget that prodigious teenage bedroom dweller. The one who’s capable of single-handedly dreaming, making, coding and beta-launching the next big thing that could change an industry. 

Not only are breakthrough creative ideas no longer a rarity, the process for conceiving them can now be taught. People who have studied the ideating process in depth, like Steven Johnson, author of "Where Good Ideas Come From," argues that we have gathered enough evidence from past innovation that anyone can build an innovative organization. Light bulb moments aren’t rare, he says. They can happen all the time if you create the right environment.

So, if marketers have such a paralyzingly huge amount of ideas to choose from, how can the agencies play a role not only in having the ideas but removing the barriers to getting them executed? 

First, agencies could put their money where their mouths are. Remember, to a client organization, transformation sounds expensive. By definition, it requires doing something no one has done before. It looks like a huge, scary thing that’s hard to scope and budget for. Well, it needn’t be. If there are too many unknowns, step up and put some skin in the game. Pay-for-performance models need to be better leveraged. We tried it recently with a large coffee bean-crunching client’s procurement department, and it worked. When they sold more, we got paid more.

Second, there is a tendency for agencies (and clients) to wait for the "right brief." But innovators don’t need briefs. There was no brief for Uber. There was no baton-twirling band marching the problem through the streets before Airbnb was born. The automotive "dealership" wasn’t on its knees before Audi pioneered an entirely digital version with Audi City. The opportunity to disrupt or transform isn’t always startlingly obvious. Disruption and transformation happens through ambition, insights and the belief that there is a better way. If an agency understands their clients’ business and customers’ needs better than the client does, then they agency becomes indispensible, impervious to the swathe of randomly generated ideas from the competition noted above. That’s when you can write your own brief and pursue the most meaningful opportunities.

And finally there is the trust thing, which I believe is the most powerful trigger for the success of a product, service or brand in a socially-connected economy. We live in a world where people not only rely on friends’ recommendations for brands and services, but are way more likely to value a complete strangers’ opinion in social media than the sales pitch from an official source. It is an empowered environment. Likewise, trust means something different when it comes to the client —  long gone are the schmoozy, boozy, back-slapping four-hour lunches. More critically, clients demand to see proven experience and ROI.

Trust, as we know, has to be earned — now so more than ever before. A smart client of ours summed it up well recently. While pioneering a brand new platform for a global telecom that was diversifying its business dramatically, he advised the following to ensure the idea’s success: "Make it real. Create value. Solve people’s problems."

The idea really is the easy part. But it is worthless if you can’t bring it to life, model its success and use it to play a meaningful role in the lives of the audience. 

Daniel Bonner is chief creative officer of Razorfish Global.


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