What ad agencies could learn from IDEO

I had the privilege of spending this afternoon at IDEO’s Cambridge office, just up the street from MIT.  A few of my Mullen colleagues and I got the full  IDEO treatment – an overview of their beliefs, a tour of the offices (team rooms, 3-D printers, proto-type lab) and attendance at afternoon tea, where a new designer shared his silk screen portfolio and a few amusing stories behind his posters while we all indulged in strawberry shortcakes.

We’re living in a time when the diminishing impact of traditional advertising and the consumer/citizen’s ability to control and influence media and content requires all of us to get better at creating utility, experiences and baked-in brand qualities, not to mention social value, if we’re to serve and guide clients in their behavior, actions and branding efforts.

IDEO should be one of our benchmarks. Ironically, they’re as interested in the tools and tactics needed to generate awareness for their creations and inventions as we are for the methods behind their accomplishments.  So we have something in common.

Clark Scheffy, a lead designer, shared some of his and IDEO’s key beliefs.  Worth noting that in IDEO’s capabilities presentation there are few facts, no boring stats, and no “selling,” just a philosophy that is hard to argue with.

Design can have a huge impact on the world around us

The idea that design can create new products, change behavior, solve problems, and build solutions is key to IDEO’s belief system and to their entire approach to problem solving. It’s not about research; it’s about creativity and inventing stuff – products, methods, experiences – that effect real change. From programs like Keep the Change, to vaccines that don’t require needles or medical professionals to administer them.

Magic happens through diversity of experience and perspective

You can sense this just from meeting the people at IDEO.  Designers, UX professionals, former consultants eager to be more creative, former ad agency types, printers, musicians, strategists, chefs. You notice diversity in accents, skin color, age, gender. IDEO’s approach to collaboration and team problem solving (asking for help is more important than having an idea) is part of the culture.

Inspiration can be found in many places and in many ways, but you have to get out there.

In advertising we depend too much on query and focus groups. IDEO gets out there. They check into hospitals and strap cameras to their foreheads to improve health care. They live in a van with three other people on the edge of the beach to better connect with surfers when designing board shorts. Their designers balance checkbooks with ordinary people when working on banking products. It’s less about size of sample and more about proximity to those whom a product or brand strives to serve.

You get to great by experimenting

Their mantra, “Think to build. Build to think,” says it all.  They’re famous for their prototyping, but the idea of finding the answers in the building, embracing an iterative rather than linear process, brings to mind Lean Startup-type thinking rather than the typical ad agency assembly line approach.

Knowledge across categories and industries yields better ideas

How many times have you had a client ask for experience in their category?  Do you have car experience?  Packaged goods?  We may know that it matters more to them than to the ability to generate ideas that work. But IDEO takes the offensive and markets aggressively the value of that range of experience. Perhaps we should package that feature a little bit more effectively.

Success comes from vision and action

Plenty of firms do research, discover insights, hand over some data and move on.  IDEO refuses to take on projects that don’t have an actionable outcome. It makes me think that agencies should take (or consider) the inverse approach, requesting more of a role in the invention and creation of what it is that gets advertised or communicated in the first place.

We’re most successful when we work with not for a client

No doubt many of us are working this way. But within the advertising industry there remains a bit of the “creative magic” that only a few people are able to conceive. When that’s the case we work in silos and in isolation from our clients.  The “creative team” goes away and does their thing off in a corner. Great when you’re making a TV spot, but if you’re creating a digital experience, or developing an eco-system or inventing a new service, it’s definitely better to work jointly with our partners.

My favorite quote from Clark came in side conversation during a tour of the office.  “There’s no such thing as a boring brand or assignment.  Just un-exciting people.  We strive to work with exciting people.”

That may be the best take-away of all.

Image snagged from Ideo’s site.

 

26 comments
bathmate
bathmate

Yes,IDEO should be one of our benchmarks,we should furcs on IDEO.

miketrap
miketrap

Thanks for sharing this, Edward. I must say I'm drinking the IDEO Kool-Aid lately, from OpenIDEO right on down.

For the last 6 months we've insisted on three things with every new client:

1. Sponsorship at the Top - The CEO is our primary client.

2. Product is Marketing - We have a say in shaping product, not just marketing communications.

3. Advocacy is Marketing - We implement both a Listening Station and Net Promoter Score system, and look at the results for what are often the cheapest ways to grow the business.

Not all 3 are true for every client today, but they will be for every one going forward.

AvgJoe
AvgJoe

This article is endemic of the problem right now in the creative industries. In my opinion, one of the biggest issues facing the UX industry is how contaminated it has become over the last decade with companies appropriating the UX label and slapping it onto anything relating to design or development. Everyone from college age designers to Java developers have gone out and read something like Steve Krug’s “Don’t make me think” and then spray-painted the term onto their resume in an attempt to puff up their qualifications. Don’t get me wrong… Steve’s book is a masterpiece and is a must read for anyone into usability on the web. But reading the owner’s manual for your car doesn’t make you qualified to adjust the firing sequence for the fuel injection system. This problem has done more to damage the reputation of real UX practitioners than anything else and it’s also been unbelievably difficult to combat. This has left our potential clients unable to sort the wheat from the chaff and often they employ unqualified people, leading to poor results and more industry reputation problems. If you're an ad agency, then be an ad agency. Trying to incorporate UX thinking and methodologies or trying to get involved in the origination process of the product or service is a bad idea. It devalues your specialty and that of companies like IDEO. Clients struggle enough as it is to understand what each of our creative inputs do to improve their overall process. Blurring ourselves into each other just makes things worse.

tfauls
tfauls

Thanks, Edward, for sharing your insights on IDEO. Feels like a direct line to Bucky Fuller and DaVinci.

JeffShattuck
JeffShattuck

Cool post. Hard to replicate a lot of this thinking in an agency but well worth trying! To me the key point is:

"You get to great by experimenting"

Man, clients and agencies should work hard to create an environment in which failure is not merely tolerated, but embraced, as long as people agree that calculated risks are worth taking if you want to be innovative. I mean, you can't just let everyone run wild, but at the same time you have to leap before you look sometimes, or, at the very least, leap with full knowledge you don't know with 100% certainty where you will lands.

I totally agree with EricWilliamson, too. Agencies should be able to participate in product development. Wow, that would be AWESOME.

charlesfrith
charlesfrith

IDEO are never going to get into the propaganda business and advertising clients are never going to get out of the propaganda business. It is for this reason that IDEO will never be anything than a luvvie voice shouting from their sidelines about their business model disconnected from the real world of multinational fmcg advertising.. Aint going to happen in advertising. Period.

individual11
individual11

I think the last part of this post could get it's own post. It's so important to work as part of a team and not just you plus "the vendor" (whether that vendor is external or internal). We have top-notch in house people on our team for development, but we still partner with outside companies for niche projects in ordert to get the best possible work we can, and the first thing we do is bring in the partners to our space so they feel like we are all one team with one goal, and the work is always better. If you're treated like a vendor, or just another cog in the wheel, then you can't be passionate about the work you're doing, and you will never add your part to the project that you were meant to add for it to be better.

al.pittampalli
al.pittampalli

IDEO has built a model of creativity for the ages. I love how IDEO refuses to take on clients where there is no real actionable outcome. What a statement that makes. They know who they are as a company, and what they stand for, and they're not willing to compromise. Bravo.

charlesfrith
charlesfrith

Between 97-99% of advertising is propaganda. To pretend otherwise with some luvvie words from IDEO shows how far removed they are from the core business.

EricWilliamson
EricWilliamson

Excellent overview of their philosophy -- thanks for sharing your experience there. I think that the "inventing" that they are doing is definitely where advertising needs to move toward.

I would suggest that in addition to "inventing" that agencies should strive to be empowered with clients to "improve" existing products/services as well (or at least have a direct line to the departments beyond marketing that can affect product improvement/ innovation). We all have worked on the campaign where the elephant in the room is that all the consumer feedback points to the product being subpar but fixable ....yet we continue to slap on the lipstick.  I am not saying that getting a client to empower an agency to do this is easy, but from a philosophy standpoint I think that is something more agencies should adopt (for real, not just in new biz).

The "creative magic" part is dead on too.  A friend of mind (David Vogeleer) wrote a really great post about the interesting "creative currency" mentality that I think is one of the things that makes evolving to a group-collaboration state a slow process for agencies.

Here is a link to his post:

http://individual11.com/index.php/thoughts/articles/creative-currency

Thanks again for sharing.

campfiresteve
campfiresteve

Hey, Ed, this is an excellent primer on IDEO. The ad industry should be paying closer attention to the philosophy and practice of this great company. I remember working with them once for a major soft drink company, investigating the launch of a new healthy refreshment drink. As part of their investigation IDEO interviewed heroin addicts to better understand craving for a product. Talk about "Magic happens through diversity of experience and perspective!"

thebottlerocket
thebottlerocket

I think you're missing a key point. IDEO doesn't 'do' advertising. If advertising agencies want to be more like IDEO they should focus less on advertising and more an providing actual value to their clients customers...as shown through your many examples.

Currently, somewhere in the south of France, there is massive ad-fest circle jerk going on. I ask the question, as a counter point to the all the environments and products that IDEO have created, would the world miss a single one of those advertisements at all?

Maybe, if ad agencies want to be more like IDEO, then they should start by being less like Ad agencies.

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