How an ad agency evolves in the digital age

The good folks of Cleveland’s advertising community recently invited me to keynote at an AAF event there. Cleveland is a pretty nice city and to my surprise is a foodie town — it’s the home of Eric Williams – and even the some of the suburban restaurants are pretty darn good.

Anyway, they wanted to hear a little bit of my story, the culture and transformation of Mullen and some thoughts on how we think about the business today and where it might be going.

Here’s the deck I shared. As is typical for me, the slides don’t say much without a voice over, but here’s the story in a nutshell

Slide 1: You don’t survive in this business, from the past to the present, or from the present to the future, without constantly evolving and embracing change. You have to live in beta.

Slide 2: In 1983 we launched the computer shoe for Puma. There are two points to the story of this ill-fated product launch.

The first:  the sneaker maker asked the question, “Can we build it?”  Instead they should have asked, “Should we build it?” They may have learned what was wrong with it before they put it in market. This story becomes more relevant later on when we talk about innovation and thinking like a start-up.

The second point: we made ads. We told people about our clients’ products, bought their attention, and made a product that was finished, polished, varnished and re-printed. A small group of us – pirates, renegades and outsiders even back then – were determined to do good work, win awards, establish a reputation and build an agency.

(Slide 3 — 14) We did well, but over time the world changed — digital, social, consumer engagement, etc.

(Slide 15–16) Once ideas were crafted out of words, pictures and stories. Suddenly they were created using applications, utility and technology. Media changed, too. Can you spell proliferation?

(Slide 14 – 24) Next came numerous predictions of the industry’s demise. From within and without. Also new competitors and models: Gary Vaynerchuk-like do-it-yourselfers. Crowdsourcing platforms. Scalable software services that strive to replace traditional service models.

Meanwhile lots of businesses in related or parallel industries did die, fueling the naysayers.

(Slide 25) So where do you look for ideas and inspiration? Certainly not to other ad agencies. How about Steve Jobs?

(Slide 26 –34) We changed — or at least evolved — a few things.

Our philosophy: Unbound

We reduced it to one word. Unbound was intended to free us from solving problems with advertising only and to become way more diverse in our thinking. It changed everything from what we made, to how we pitched business, the teams we put in the room and the space in which we worked.

Our influences: Steven Johnson

Good ideas come from collisions. That word became the blueprint for our new space and how we organized people. The idea was that the more collisions we could create — crashing people, ideas and disciplines into each other — the more creative (and effective) our solutions might be.

Our behavior and mindset:  Social

One of our smarter moves was getting (or allowing) everyone in the company – and many of our clients — to embrace social media early on. We did everything from create experiences that introduced people to Twitter, started blogs, encouraged writing for the agency blog, designed conversation strategies for clients, even developed full-blown social media training and management guides. We started this in 2007. It may have been late for the early adopter but it was early for the ad industry. As a result, today we have a pretty good social media business.

Our culture: Curiosity

Some agencies and advertisers wait for new ideas and platforms to approach mainstream use before jumping in. We started trying everything new right away and encouraged clients to do the same. We introduced clients to Ning when it first launched so they could learn a little about community management. Today we have them playing around with Instagram, trying out Google+ (as individuals) and, of course, incorporating mobile functionality into more of what they do. Teaching, sharing, learning together has become a big part of our digital and social offering.

Our focus: Experimentation

We started experimenting more for ourselves. We incubated TNGG, a crowdsourced Gen-Y online magazine, which now provides content to To build our Twitter portfolio and generate coverage for the agency we created BrandBowl. And more recently, we launched the beta for a new integrated media platform The Pulse. If nothing else, our lab mindset has spurred a greater interest in experimentation of all kinds, with better work and creations likely to follow.

Talent: Digital

Not much needs to be said here. Every agency is doing this. But we’ve made it a priority and area of investment, recruiting talent in design, UX, front-end and back-end development, creative technology, production, project management, mobile, social media and digital media.

(Slides 35 – 72)  I personally learned some new stuff, as did the agency. Got better at collaboration, both internally and across external alliances and partnerships. Became comfortable living in beta. Embraced the Google-y concept of giving credit to the idea rather than the person who “thinks” he came up with it. Re-thought where ideas comes from. Hint: everywhere. Validated the inter-connected circle of momentum and the four forces that accelerate it: culture, space, briefs, and teams.

The agency won some cool clients, realized that culturally relevant brands that reflect what the agency wants to do are great clients to have since they inspire you forward, and attracted some attention and even better talent.

In some cases we got better at practicing problem solving rather than message crafting.

But, note that change is hard. There’s plenty of resistance and no clear set of directions.

(Slide 73) Agencies and individuals tell me this is what they struggle with. That is comforting.

(Slide 74) Some agencies are being even more innovative. That is motivating.

(Slides 75 – 103)  Five things every agency has to do. Why they have to do it. Some suggestions for how they can do it. Wrote about this a little bit in a previous post.

I think it went over pretty well. A sincere thanks to my new friends at AAF Cleveland and at Marcus Thomas for their warm hospitality.