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.

 

25 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.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@AvgJoe This stream is awesome. Just returned to the post and found it. What it has to do with the original article I don't know, but it's pretty interesting convo. Of course UX is a speciality and of course it has little to do with making websites. It covers everything from ergonomics, to eco-systems to the clear understanding of personas and consumers use/interaction with media/content/tech/and community. I include UX at all of the BDWCU workshops I help coordinate and work with the likes of Kim Laama and Chloe Gottleib so I know two things: agencies better learn UX and begin applying that thinking -- we do for numerous clients. And two, UX should be part of every major development team inside an agency. Carry on.

campfiresteve
campfiresteve

@AvgJoe Interesting point of view, but depending on the degree of involvement in the clients' brand and products, I respectfully disagree. What is being suggested here, I believe, is assisting clients with incremental improvement to their offerings. I remember an occasion when we (Campfire) were advising a large agency with a large car rental account. The brand was as vanilla as could be, so one of my partners suggested the client be asked if they might include a printed list of local radio stations in each rental car, as a minor value add . The CD at the agency told us, "No, no, we don't do anything like that with a client or product, we just do smoke and mirrors here."

chamberlain_s
chamberlain_s

@campfiresteve What I've often taken away from those at IDEO is that the insight into development of work is not just the responsibility of a planner, researcher, or strategist. Insight is at the core of every idea therefore it is owned by everyone working on a project. I was once again reminded of that yesterday with Edward and our Mullen team. Your point above is a shared philosophy in how to get to amazing ideas - we don't often get that inside an ad agency and get caught up in roles and responsibilities.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@thebottlerocket Interestingly, there are more and more agencies attempting to develop value -- Mullen, Crispin, Wieden, Big Spaceship, EVB, et al -- by doing more than advertising. However, it's often not what clients come for (legacy can be restrictive). Even that circle jerk festival is working to get away from the word "advertising," this year, though again, it's hard to extricate yourself from tradition. Finally, it strikes me that being more like IDEO is the same thing as being less like an ad agency. However, as marketing and communication become more baked in (think Zappos, Jet Blue, Four Seasons, Panera, at least among our clients) agencies will strive to get a bit more like IDEO and the IDEO's of the world might want to think about how they influence awareness. If they're basic capabilities presentation is any indication, they are pretty good at soundbites and elegant presentation without all the BS agencies typically throw in.

AvgJoe
AvgJoe

@campfiresteve Well in actuality then the CD did the correct thing. To do otherwise would have blurred what value you actually bring to the table for that client. A better approach would have been to recommend a good UX firm to help the client improve their offering and in doing so give you a better brand to work with. Cooperative arrangements like that are what benefits everyone most - especially the client. I understand that the author is suggesting that agencies become involved in improving the offering. My original point stands - doing that devalues you, and the professionals who devote their careers to exactly that sort of work.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@chamberlain_s @campfiresteve Interesting. My take away was that insight does not come from query or sample size. And that action is actually more important than the insight.

JeffShattuck
JeffShattuck

@AvgJoe Sheesh, I'm a moron, I did miss the bit where you wrote that the CD should be slapped around! Agree!

AvgJoe
AvgJoe

@JeffShattuck Of course I'm sticking to my guns. 20 years of experience doing this stuff has shown this problem to me over and over. My comment about campfiresteve's wasn't meant to extrapolate anything. It's a plain statement of the fact that the vast majority of creative agencies really do view UX as usability. If this were not true then the terms usability and UX would not be used interchangeably in almost every website or magazine of this nature. You also must not have read my comment carefully as I made it a point to upbraid any CD who would refer to the profession of branding as "Smoke and Mirrors". My purpose in commenting here was to highlight the problems caused when we intrude into each others areas of expertise. I would stringently oppose any attempt by my company to attempt branding or advertising work. We could never do it as well as someone like campfiresteve and by trying we would harm our client and taint Steve's reputation. Real UX work that addresses the core value proposition of a company is based on serious research and uses structured repeatable processes for analysis, solution visioning, and experience modelling. It's a serious and difficult profession to be in because the fate of a company and its employees rest on your competency. Trying to be a part of that process by suggesting changes based on "ideas" without a basis for them is just gambling with other people's money.

JeffShattuck
JeffShattuck

@AvgJoe I'm surprised you're sticking to your guns. I think you extrapolate an awful lot from campfire campfiresteve's comment on UX, namely that the whole agency world sees it as web usability. I don't think that's true; I also don't think campfiresteve was saying that. Also, you're really going to defend a CD who says, "All we do is smoke and mirrors?" Interesting. So I have to ask: how do you define advertising, how do you define UX and what kind of company (by discipline) is IDEO?

AvgJoe
AvgJoe

@campfiresteve@AvgJoe

campfiresteve. AvgJoe. Again, this simply proves my point. The fact that the agency community sees UX as "website experience designers and specialists" puts our first problem in stark relief. Real UX is a high level strategic initiative tool that can transform a company or a product/service to be in alignment with customer desires. Taking a website and improving it's experience is "usability" and that is merely a tiny fraction of the overall discipline. While agencies (and clients) continue to confuse UX with usability this issue will persist at a cost to all of us. The second problem is also highlighted by these responses. As long as branding/creative agencies continue to see real UX firms as some sort of threat and continue to water down their own expertise by appropriating the UX label our clients will continue to suffer. As far as the "smoke and mirrors" comment I can only repeat that YES, I meant what I said. A truly smart CD would have realized that his clients problems ran much deeper than branding and would have advised the client to get a strategic UX firm involved. (Case in point here - a printed list of radio stations would have created effort for the client with almost zero return for the end customer. Research done by my company showed that rental car customers take almost all printed materials and shove them in the glove compartment only to be read if there is an emergency. Add to that the fact that the customer would be most likely to attempt to read that list while driving! Trying to make value level improvements to a product or service without proper research is a hit-or-miss game. Real UX means research.) I will however amend my comment to say that the CD should have been slapped for calling what Steve does "Smoke and Mirrors" because serious branding work is anything but that. When agencies and strategic UX firms work together without confusing our specialties magic happens for the client.

campfiresteve
campfiresteve

@AvgJoe - I second JeffShattuck's note to my note. There are probably thousands of examples of agencies working with clients to improve their product offerings, much to the benefit of the client as well as their client's sense of the agency's value. If you're deeply involved in marketing a product -- and delve into the consumers experience with it -- suggesting change is a natural part of the process. The classic example of an agency contributing to a client's brand would be R/GA and Nike +, no?

And, am I out of the loop, but around my house we use UX firm to indicate website experience designers and specialists. I think of IDEO as a product design firm, not a "UX" firm.

JeffShattuck
JeffShattuck

@AvgJoe @campfiresteve AvgJoe, are you sure you meant to write what you wrote? You're saying that a CD who claims to only do "smoke and mirrors" for his clients was in the right? Further, you're suggesting that the creation of anything that might improve the experience a customer has with a product or service be left to a "user experience" firm? I have to ask, what do you think of Riney's efforts for Saturn, or WK's for Nike's or all the ideas Chiat/Day has helped Apple create?

Trackbacks