Google Firestarters 8: The Agency Innovation Conundrum

The latest in the series of Firestarters events hosted by Google and curated by Neil Perkin was all about Agency innovation. With 8 speakers each having a 10 minute slot, a great deal of ground was covered. I’ve synthesised my main thoughts and recollections below, but I’d recommend clicking through the links at the bottom of this post in order to get the full goodness of the speakers – particularly since I haven’t attributed specific points to individuals.

Innovation by scriberia

The speakers all had a slightly different perspectives, but there were several common threads running across the talks – notably muppets, memes and motherfather fruity language.

One major question was why we should be innovating at all. Lots of great stuff already exists, so why try and change things just for the sake of it? Well, on one hand, customers are constantly evolving their behaviours so innovation is required just to keep up with them. But also, and quite self-servingly, agencies are employed to be the smartest people in the room and so there is an implicit requirement to innovate in order to justify their hiring.

This can understandably be a problem, because if you are an agency specialising in x, then the answer to the business question will obviously be x, irrespective of what the question is. There can also be a tension between “innovation snobbery” and appreciation of the target audience: people in Cannes and Campaign magazine might appreciate the shiny new idea, but the general public may not.

For innovation to be effective, it needs to be beyond an idea. It should be about ends and not means. Innovations should affect our audience’s behaviours, and to do this we need to influence their motivations and opportunities.

To reflect that, innovation shouldn’t be limited to processes or environments, but to entire business models. It shouldn’t be about answering the how, but the what. And even beyond the what, the why: Why are we in this business? What are we trying to achieve? This requires investment, to fully appraise and understand the situation, and to experiment. Because innovation requires bets – strategic risks that may or may not pay off. But before that can happen, the role of innovation needs to be properly defined.

And coming up with a specific definition can be problematic. Innovation is such a wide and fuzzy topic that the disparity between theory and practice can be wide. Which is apt, as it facilitates creative experimentation to close the gap.

The talks were:

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Image credit: Neil Perkin

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Will Netflix break into the mainstream?

Certain people are paid a lot of money to prognosticate on the next big thing. I’m not one of those (in either payment, or size of payment). Many factors influence, but one I’m particularly interested in is media buzz. In my opinion, traditional media is important in moving new technology products and services from early adopters towards the mainstream.

Important, but not necessary – and certainly not sufficient. Not all of the media hype cycles have come to pass – Second Life being an oft-cited example.

However, the likes of Myspace, Facebook and Twitter have seen mass media exposure prior to mass adoption. Twitter in particular has seen a big discrepancy between media coverage and actual usage. But while it remains in the minority, it continues to grow and I think it is safe to say it is part of the mainstream.

What differs between Second Life and the successful social networks? In addition to the profile among influencers (and I do think traditional media is an influencer), I’d argue that they are aspirational in that they can connect you to people you admire – whether your near friends or favourite celebrities or bands – with whom you can exchange social currency. It might be clouded by hindsight, but I recall the coverage of Second Life being more aloof, treating it more like a curio than a natural development of the internet.

In terms of social currency, TV remains central (e.g. one third of all tweets are about TV), and therefore developments with TV are always going to be treated with interest. Shazam is getting some good coverage at the moment, but nothing to the extent of Netflix. Netflix is still a relatively new proposition in the UK, but it’s original content strategy has meant that it has already pushed past Lovefilm in the media consciousness (I’m not sure about subscriptions). Could mainstream media coverage push Netflix into widespread adoption?

Now, traditional media will be covering Netflix with a note of caution, given concern of existing business models and the now infamous quote from Reed Hastings that “the goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us”. And there is no guarantee that future releases such as the upcoming Ricky Gervais project will receive the same volume of coverage as House of Cards. In fact that is probably likely, though I was surprised by the sheer scale of the coverage this time given a) their previous release Lilyhammer didn’t b) the model of pre-paying for and filming an entire series is – unlike in the US, where shows such as 30 Rock have reacted to response to the early episodes – well-established in the UK and c) it’s not as if series-stacking is a new phenomenon.

Unlike the social sites that can receive continuous coverage bolstered by specific events, Netflix is relying on several big bang launches scheduled across the year. This might make it more difficult to replicate, but a few early successes can set the template for subsequent releases, in the manner that Apple’s iLaunches do.

Without taking into account the other factors (audience benefit, price point etc), the volume of media coverage does put Netflix in a solid position to challenge the existing TV landscape, and break into the mainstream.

Now I’m not on Netflix yet, but could I be? Well, it would be a more cost-efficient process than building upon my DVD collection and given that I’m a big fan of Arrested Development (Netflix’s next release), then my reaction to any forthcoming trial offers would be “Come on!“.

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