I’m a pretty big fan of Made by Many. As the London based company of renegades likes to say, they “make new things out of the Internet.” That alone is reason to like them.
Note that MxM is not an ad agency. Nor are they a digital shop in the vein of an R/GA or Big Spaceship. They’re somewhere in between a software company, an IDEO-like design shop and a marketing firm.
If you believe as I do that a big part of our (the advertising industry) future will also be about making new things, there’s much you can learn from this small, but growing company: everything from their space (totally open with people sitting at benches to foster collaboration); to the kinds of people they hire (developers); to their willingness to share so much of what they know (read their blog); to their commitment to learning (they once took 30-plus employees – 95 percent of the company — to SxSW for a week).
They also embrace a very different approach to making what they make than a typical agency would practice. Instead of employing a linear process that sees a project migrate from research to strategy to creative to approval to production to media buy, they apply lean start-up techniques — testing, learning and iterating their way to a solution that they know will work by the time it’s ready for prime time.
Consider their relatively recent Skype in the Classroom project, which just won a mention at the Core 77 design awards. (Open IDEO won.) We all know what a typical ad agency would do if challenged by Skype to get more teachers to use its video conferencing service. They’d create an ad campaign espousing the virtues of the service and run it in trades targeted at educators.
But if you’re a software company (or a design thinker) it never dawns on you to create an ad campaign. Instead you focus on building something worthy of being advertised. Which is exactly what Made by Many did. Sure they started with the premise that more teachers need to learn about Skype and how or why to use it. But they quickly discovered, through lots of interviews with teachers, that familiarity wasn’t the problem at all. Teachers already knew and loved the service. They simply needed more people to Skype with. So what did Made by Many make? A directory that invited teachers to post the subjects, topics or projects around which they wanted to connect with other teachers or experts.
Skype in the classroom brings together a community of people and information to save teachers time and help them make the most of Skype and the international teaching community.
Teachers could post what they were working on or looking for. Then from anywhere and everywhere around the world other teachers with similar projects or useful expertise could identify opportunities for sharing and collaborating. Taking advantage of the network effect – the more users use it the more people are attracted and excited to join – the project quickly grew to over 14,000 teachers and nearly 700 projects.
It’s innovation, crowdsourcing and the power of social media all rolled into one very cool idea that spread quickly with little more than word of mouth and some well deserved press coverage.
To me, projects like this are what we should all want to create. When you think about the potential of Skype in the Classroom – connecting teachers and students in the U.S. with their counterparts in the Middle East for example, or teaching kids about each other’s respective cultures – it has huge implications for learning and even international relations.
We might also want to learn how to make conceive and execute ideas like this. Many of us get our inspiration from the same places over and over again – other ad agencies, recent campaigns, award shows. But expand the list of places you go for inspiration and take the time to learn some of the new ways of creating, and who knows, maybe you’ll be competing against IDEO for design awards. And impressing the hell out of your clients in the process.