Talking innovation with David Armano at the MIMA Summit

This may be a lousy rule, but we'll discuss it at MIMA Summit 2011

I’m on my way to Minneapolis at the invitation of my friend Tim Brunelle, CEO of the Minnesota Interactive Marketing Association, for MIMA Summit 2011. From everything I can gather he has an awesome session planned. Google’s analytics guru Avinash Kaushik and Wired’s Chris Anderson both keynote; the list of speakers is impressive; and the sessions are all designed to inspire action.

I’m doing a session with the prolific and omnipresent David Armano. It’s called Group Therapy for Would Be Innovators. We both decided to eschew Powerpoint, panels and pontification. Instead we hope to conduct a large group discussion that covers the following

  • What does inno­va­tion even mean inside an agency?
  • Can agen­cies actu­ally create value beyond service?
  • Should they think in terms of cre­at­ing their own products?
  • Does the ser­vice model get in the way?
  • How can cul­ture, space, and team struc­tures help
  • Is the role of CIO even necessary?
  • How much should you invest in innovation?

For some reason innovation appears to be the new industry buzzword. As a result it gets overused, applied to everything, and sometimes pursued with no clear purpose.  My thoughts on the subject are simple.

We need to innovate for three reasons.

To keep up with changing consumer behavior.

In just a few years our consumers have turned into content creators and distribution channels. Our old media connected information to them. New media connected them to information. But social media connects people to each other. That means agencies have to invent new ways to engage. We have to master transmedia story telling. We need to get better at gaming dynamics. It takes new kinds of work, teams, briefs and processes to be effective and that is a form of cultural and organization innovation.

To create new products and IP

Who says an agency can’t invent the next Groupon or Instagram or Kickstarter. Our companies are filled with talented, creative, idea generating people. But most of us can only think like service companies.  It’s why people like Matt Britton, who created Crowdtap, had to take his idea outside of his agency. Granted some of us are trying to do this with internal labs or various kinds of internal spinoffs, but it takes a software mindset rather than an agency mindset. You need to be faster, more agile and comfortable with prototyping.

To assure long term growth

We spend an inordinate amount of time maximizing how we deliver current services to current clients. Pitches drain our time and energy when we try to sell current services to new clients. It’s often a challenge to develop new services, products or IP for clients who came to us for a different reason. So maybe we ought to carve off at least a percentage of time, money and resources to invent new services or products for either our own firms or client companies who are willing to experiment with us. If one thing is certain it’s this: in transformative times incumbents rarely survive.

None of this is easy. We have to get buy-in, plant seeds, change people, discover new partners.  But it beats sitting around watching other people do it first and admiring their accomplishments.

I’m hoping the MIMA sessions yield some great discussion and inspire some new ideas. Wouldn’t it be great if next year we were listening to someone in this year’s audience present their latest innovation.



Other industries seem to be going through similar innovative transformations (such as venture capital and market research firms) and it would be interesting to keep an eye on strategies employed by some of the larger, more established companies in order to keep up with disruptions in the field.

In the VC community, specifically in Boston, newer firms such as NextView Ventures, a firm that focuses on the seed stage round for Internet businesses, has grabbed the attention of young Internet-focused entrepreneurs, putting pressure on larger, legacy investment firms. Atlas Venture has trimmed the number of partners they have significantly in order to become more nimble in search for the right investments, emphasizing the importance of seed stage investments at the same time.

On a national level, we’ve seen more significant “disruptions” in the VC world such as Chamath Palihapitiya leaving one of the country's most established funds, the Mayfield Fund out in Silicon Valley, to start his own fund where he claims: “I’m trying to be as un-VC as possible”. Even founder of TechCrunch, Michael Arrington, jumped ship on his popular tech blog to tackle the investment industry with his own fund, aptly named the CrunchFund.

The question that remains is: how successful will these “disruptors” be at actually disrupting the investment ecosystem? And subsequently, what will the larger funds do in response, if these disruptors begin to pull business away? The three points @edwardboches brought up as to why the industry needs to innovate: to keep up with changing consumer behavior, to create new products and IP, and to assure long-term growth, are all relevant in the VC community. While not a perfect parallel to the advertising industry, the venture capital industry’s transformation might happen more quickly than other industries' transformation, making it one that will be worth keeping an eye on to see if specific strategies might apply to other fields.

I’d love to hear some of the thoughts on innovation from the MIMA Summit


I love posts dealing with this topic, each a little more focused on the issue of agency dynamics, and the conundrum/confusion around businesses innovation while remaining profitable. I hope you start to discover some really good answers to this commercial paralysis.

New independent agencies are in a great position to hardwire this thinking into their businesses' DNA. Existing shops need to change. But the changes are significant. Can we rebuild the genetic structure which dictates the agency's current business model? The way retainers are built doesn't allow different agency disciplines to participate in creative development. Finance is rigid and timesheets rule - which means anyone putting time on a job who isn't being 'paid for' by the client is forced to hide their time elsewhere. Creative teams are still unwilling to share their concepts with other thinkers, many still interested in making 60 sec TV ads that involve going on a shoot somewhere exotic. Project teams become huge and unwieldy when digital planners, digital producers, data planners and digital creatives are brought in to the mix (and put their time on timesheets). Resources are often so lean, finding a team of people to spend time on proactive assignments is impossible without hiring freelancers (enraging finance) to support the staff.

So yes, there are challenges. And I think in the US you are ahead of the Australian market when it comes to this type of thinking. But we don't have a choice. We cannot continue to present standard solutions to business problems. This question will cause much pain to agencies over the next 5 years. I hope you are getting closer to discovering the cure.


Nice post Edward. I can't help thinking of 37 Signals when I read something like this, although they're usually not part of the agency innovation discussion. 10 years ago they were one of the better interactive shops around. But they built tools to help themselves work with clients, and ended up dropping the marketing business and focusing on the services they created instead.

It makes me wonder: surely agencies are already working on things, or even struggling with their internal processes, that they could turn into innovations. It happens in my business all the time. The biggest issue that ends up holding me back is focus and resources. No, actually it's fear - fear of taking that risk.

One of these days...

edwardboches moderator

@rnadworny have to take smaller risks at first. Or maybe you have to take a great idea outside the agency and raise capital. Question is, are you innovating service and process? Or creating something that is scalable?