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:


Image credit: Neil Perkin

Google Firestarters #4

The fourth Firestarters event,  hosted by Google and curated by Neil Perkin, was themed around entrepreneurship and maker culture. The invite had the following quote attached:

“Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.” Howard Stevenson, Harvard Business School

This rather optimistic and aspirational definition was perfectly embodied by the three speakers. Each came from a slightly different angle, but their passion was evident. While I went into the event thinking that it was probably the least “relevant to my interests”, I came out it more inspired than I have been at the three previous events (which itself is a high benchmark). You don’t have to run your own company to apply the principles they were espousing.

Some of the most resonant quotes and thoughts I jotted down include:

David Hieatt (Howies, Hiut Jeans and the Do Lectures)

  • “Artists and perfectionists want to sign their work” – such as Steve Jobs asking the Apple engineers to sign the motherboard of the Apple Macinstosh
  • “Why is the wind in your sail” – it is the motivation for doing something
  • “Quality is doing well in the recession” – buy less, buy better
  • “Recognise luck and act upon it” – he wasn’t unlucky that he sold Howies to wrong people, but he was lucky that he lives in a town with a heritage of jeans expertise
  • “You’ve got to love your product, and love your customer”
  • “Hand-me downs have memories” – which is why his jeans have a history tag on jeans, which can store uploaded photos among other things

Toby Barnes (Mudlark and Playful)

  • The internet has changed hobbies – they now have an audience
  • We are not only sharing hobbies, but sharing the process via photos and blogs – this could be dangerous if we start to base things on what we think the general audience wants
  • Instead, we should make something good for an audience of one and then scale that out – if one person likes something, it is likely that someone else will
  • William Morris said that being a craftsman is all about hope – hoping the outcome will be good, or better than last time, or that someone will like it

Adil Abrar (Sidekick Studios)

  • “Do something you love with the people you love”
  • Head for the ditch – making a bad product is a good way to get honest feedback and improve a product (he thinks it is far better than a focus group – though Peter Kim would disagree on the notion of failure)
  • Bring the crazy to the world – don’t stay on the fringes
  • Vision changes, values do not – ideas can change, but your fundamental motivations stay the same (a semantic quibble, but I think execution would be a more apt word than vision)
  • Solve problems that really matter – such as helping people who are dealing with mental health issues, as the excellent Buddy App does

Unfortunately I couldn’t stay for the unconference or the wrap-up, but the above gave many things to ponder about. Particularly around the question of why – which is the most powerful and most fundamental question, and also an extremely (and deceptively) difficult question to answer. These three entrepreneurs have discovered their reason why; we need to find ours.


Data should be used as evidence and not illustration

I read the Guardian article on journalist’s struggles with “data literacy” with interest. The piece concentrates on inaccurate reporting through a lack of understanding of numbers, and the context around them. “Honest mistakes”, of a sort.

Taken more cynically, it is an example of a fallacy that I see regularly in many different  disciplines (I’m loath to call it a trend as, for all I know, this could be a long-standing problem) – fitting data around a pre-constructed narrative, rather than deducing the main story from the available information.

This is dangerous. It reduces data to be nothing more than anecdotal support for our subjective viewpoints. While Steve Jobs may have had a skill for telling people what they really wanted, he is an exception rather than the rule. We as human beings are flawed, biased and incapable of objectivity.

Given the complexity of our surroundings, we will (probably) never fully understand how everything fits together – this article from Jonah Lehrer on the problems with the reductionist scientific method is fascinating. However, many of us can certainly act with more critical acumen that we currently do.

This is as incumbent on the audience as it is the communicator – as MG Siegler recently wrote in relation to his field of technology journalism, “most of what is written… is bullshit”, and readers should utilise more caution when taking news as given.

Whether it is due to time pressures, lack of skills, laziness, pressure to delivery a specific outcome of otherwise, we need to avoid this trap and – to the best of our abilities – let our conclusions or recommendations emerge from the available data, rather than simply use it to illustrate our subjective biases.

While I am a (now no more than an occasional) blogger, I am not a journalist and so I’ll limit my potential criticisms of that field. However, I am a researcher that has at various points worked closely with many other disciplines (some data-orientated, some editorial, some creative), and I see this fundamental problem reoccurring in a variety of contexts.

When collating evidence, the best means to ensure its veracity is to collect it yourself – in my situation, that would be to conduct primary research and to meet the various quality standards that would ensure a reliable methodology, and coherent conclusions

Primary research isn’t realistic in many cases, due to limited levels of time, money and skills. As such, we rely on collating existing data sources. This interpretation of secondary research is where I believe the problem of illustration above evidence is most likely to occur.

There are two stages that can help overcome this – critical evaluation of sources, and counterfactual hypotheses.

To critically evaluate data sources, I’ve created a CRAP sheet mnemonic that can help filter the unusable data from the trustworthy:

  • Communication – does the interpretation support the actual data upon scrutiny? For instance, people have been quick to cite Pinterest’s UK skew to male users as a real difference in culture between the UK and US, rather than entertain the notion that UK use is still constrained to the early adopting tech community, whereas US use is – marginally – more mature and has diffused outwards
  • Recency – when was the data created (and not when was it communicated)? For instance, I’d try to avoid quoting 2010 research into iPads since tablets are a nascent and fast-moving industry. Data into underlying human motivations is likely to have a longer shelf-life. This is why that despite the accolades and endorsements, I’m loath to cite this online word of mouth article because it is from 2004 – before both Twitter and Facebook
  • Audience – who is the data among? Would data among US C-suite executives be analogous to UK business owners? Also, some companies specialising in PR research have been notoriously bad at claiming a representative adult audience, when in reality they are usually a self-selecting sub-sample
  • Provenance – where did the data originally come from? In the same way as students are discouraged from citing Wikipedia, we should go to the original source of the data to discover where the data came from, and for what purpose. For instance, data from a lobby group re-affirming their position is unlikely to be the most reliable. It also helps us escape from the echo chamber, where myth can quickly become fact.

Counterfactual hypotheses are the equivalent of control experiments – could arguments or conclusions still be true with the absence of key variables? We should look for conflicting conclusions within our evidence, to see if they can be justified with the same level of certainty.  This method is fairly limited – since we are ultimately constrained by our own viewpoints. Nevertheless, it offers at least some challenge to our pre-existing notions of what is and what isn’t correct.

Data literacy is an important skill to have – not least because, as Neil Perkin has previously written about, it is only the first step on the DIKW hierarchy towards wisdom. While Sturgeon’s Law might apply to existing data, we need to be more robust in our methods, and critical in our judgements.  (I appreciate the irony of citing an anecdotal phenomenon)

It is a planner trope that presentations should contain selective quotes to inspire or frame an argument, and I’ve written in the past about how easily these can contradict one another. A framing device is one thing; a tenet of an argument is another. As such, it is imperative that we use data as evidence and not as illustration.


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Google Firestarters: The New Operating System For Agencies

Firestarters #3, hosted by Google and curated by Neil Perkin, featured three fascinating and provocative presentations from Mel ExonMartin Bailie  and James Caig on “The New Operating System For Agencies”

Each of the three talks had slightly different emphases:
• Mel posited that brands need to be useful, entertaining and epic, and so should its marketing. To the point that the marketing and product is indistinguishable – the marketing singularity
• Martin argued that agencies should decide whether they are interested in outputs or outcomes, and indeed whether they are serving the right master – should agencies be dealing with consumers rather than clients?
• James talked in favour of open ideas and innovation so that agencies can diversify their revenue streams. Experimentation and sharing in the short-term pays off in the long-term

However, what I found surprising was the level of agreement , both among the speakers and in the audience, with some of the more disruptive suggestions. While there are the odd exceptions – Zag, Victors and Spoils etc – most agencies still seem to represent fairly traditional models.

Why is this? A few suggestions
• Semantically, the agency of the future doesn’t exist yet
• The status quo is difficult to change, and progress tends to be slow, phased and invisible
John V. Willshire makes the excellent point of the Prisoner’s Dilemma here
• Particularly in a recession, it takes a brave company to emphasise long-term strategic development (and investment) over the short-term cash-flow required to keep the business running
• Start-up culture might accelerate innovation, but start-ups motivate its staff members to bear the long hours and high risk due to the potential of a vast reward. Agency contracts tend to stipulate that all ideas generated are agency property
• Marketing agencies are generally unknown at the company level and distrusted at the industry level so becoming consumer-facing is a big challenge
• With brands increasingly present across multiple sectors and disciplines, it might be hard for an agency’s own product to offer credible independence

These are all obstacles, but none are insurmountable. Things can and will change. Hence the excitement in the room.

So, synthesising the views of the speakers (and casually ignoring the slight disagreements) with a couple of my own, the agency of the future will
• Be more strategic and focused on the long-term. This requires investment to slowly change the core but to quickly innovate around the edges.
• Meditate on strategic decisions before acting. Martin’s advocacy of real-time insights is one of the few things I (partially) disagree with – the filter challenges make it very easy for a small tail to wag a very large dog. (SIDENOTE: This isn’t a reaction to his jibe that “research agencies are shit” because they don’t do real-time, though that opinion is as reductive as me saying digital agencies are shit because they don’t create banner ads I want to click on)
• Focus relentlessly on the public as people rather than consumers of a particular product, brand or industry. True cultural understanding means engaging with people as peers, whether through traditional market research, observation or hiring spokespeople
• Prioritise the opinions of the target audience over the opinions of the client, since no client other than Apple can dictate what people want and can have
• Widen teams to encompass a variety of generalists and specialists required for the situation.

Taking these points to an extreme, one example of an agency of the future could be an incorporated joint venture between a brand and various specialists (client marketers, strategists, creatives, PRs, researchers, designers etc), where everyone is a partner with a financial stake in the long-term success of that brand. Even more extreme, agencies could engage in multiple JVs, acting as the pivotal node between brands in different industries, with complete autonomy in how ideas are distributed between brands or kept for themselves. In some ways, they become mini Unilevers – a holding company bringing together disparate, individual brands. This would enable
• Greater integration between the brand’s desires and the actions of the “agency”
• More potential reward for the team members
• Reduced dependence on account managers to mediate between the two (sorry, account managers)
• Greater agency synergies in creativity and ideas, in addition to the bargaining power from media buys
• Reduced duplication between different stakeholders e.g. social media can be concentrated with one person rather than spread across multiple agencies or client departments
• More control over which ideas are invested where – they could be kept for the JV themselves, or even shared across multiple brands

Of course, this proposal has a ton of holes in it (can holes have weight?) and is pretty impractical. Nevertheless, the first two bullet points should be critical for any future agency. There should be no cross-purposes – is the desire to generate profits or to make a great campaign? And there should be more reward for success. Steven Spielberg was paid $250m for Jurassic Park yet Universal Studios didn’t moan (loudly) because it was only a pre-agreed cut from enormous profits. It is better to work together for a big win, than to antagonise and penny pinch for the sake of “fairness” with others.

While failure can be random and out of the hands of the individual; shared reward should be a priority for the agencies of the future.


NB: Slides and notes from the talks are available from James here, from Mel here and from Martin here

Google Firestarters #2 – Design Thinking

The second Firestarters event, hosted by Google and curated by Neil Perkin, was an excellent evening – probably even better than the first evening. There were lots of interesting people to speak to and debate with in the break-out session and afterwards, while the Google catering is unrivalled. I’m amazed the staff aren’t twice the size they are, given the volume of cupcakes around.

The primary reason for the quality of the event is the speakers. Both were very interesting.

Tom Hulme (IDEO)

Tom talked about design thinking as a set of beliefs. He advocated it as a form of divergent thinking. Strong companies that perform well tend to be good at optimising and being efficient in their areas of expertise. Creativity in opening up new avenues can bring in new aspects to a business, which they can subsequently optimise and renew the cycle. Traditionally these would be have been consecutive but with things moving so quickly they should now be concurrent.

Tom’s 8 steps for design thinking are

  1. Challenge the question
  2. Be user-centred (and do so in context. Focus groups are not the place to introduce ideas)
  3. Look to extremes
  4. Messages or experiences? The answer is both – they are coherent.
  5. Be holistic – the business model and marketing model are now indistinct from one another
  6. Value diversity
  7. Launch to learn – prototyping is now redundant as it is so cheap to launch and run A/B tests
  8. Stay in beta

Tom is a very charismatic speaker and came up with wonderful examples – from Sneakerpedia being an example of message and experience combining, to Steve Jobs’ calligraphy course as an example of diversity to his open document containing useful tips for start-ups.

He also ended with a great quote: “Looking at why people really hate stuff is wonderful inspiration to come up with new ideas”

John V Willshire (PHD)

John is well-known for his unique analogies, and he didn’t disappoint with a seamless weaving of Bad Religion and Adam Smith.

John was a counterpoint to Tom, in that he argued the case against process. Channelling Bruce Nussbaum, he said that companies are only comfortable with design theory when it is packaged as a process. And then they are principally purchasing the process, rather than the idea or outputs themselves. Real work, in other words.

Process might make bad things good, but it also makes great things good. It levels things out into mediocrity.

When Adam Smith discussed the division of labour, he noted that the benefits to industry would be in dexterity, time and technology. However, he noted that this process wasn’t applicable to agriculture due to its unpredictability and variety. As John noted with regard to marketing agencies, “The sell is industrial. The work is agricultural”.


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A little less information, a little more action

My New Year’s resolution was to cut the current – to step away from the real-time information flow so that I can spend more time thinking and reflecting.

The first part of this has gone very well. The second part hasn’t – though I have reflected enough to realise that a third, related, aspect should have been included in the resolution.

I’ve successfully stepped away from the real-time more out of necessity than choice – my schedule has been unrelenting for several months now. I’m hoping that this will soon change, and that I can spend more time on both reflection and the overlooked aspect.

Before I divulge that, a brief review of three months of being more distanced.

On the whole, I’m happy with the decision. I may be less active on social media nowadays, but I’d argue I’m more efficient (albeit starting from a low base).

Despite potential benefits around phatic communication, the online signal-noise ratio problem is well-known.

Arguably a deeper problem is in filtering the signal strength – not all useful or relevant information is equal. What seems meaningful or resonant at the time can quickly turn out to be transitory or inconsequential.

I sincerely doubt that I’m now more discerning or incisive in my reading choice, but I do feel like my filtering of priority information has improved.

To give an example, I have a broad interest in technology and social media. As a consumer researcher, I need to understand trends, and ideally identify them before they reach critical mass.

But realistically, Austin is so far removed from the Home Counties that the information is largely superfluous. Beyond a basic knowledge of what the likes of  Beluga, Color, Path, Groupme, Quora, Instagram et al are providing (not least to see if they would be relevant to my atypical needs), I don’t need to know any more about them.

At least not yet. Do you know the proportion of the UK population that has heard of Foursquare? Not used, but heard of. How about Quora? The figures are 5% and 1% respectively (data comes from the digital media tracker I run).

They may morph into the next Twitter, but they may not. Furthermore, it isn’t the products or technologies I’m interested in, but the behaviours – Kevin Kelly has a nice diagram of benefits vs. company. And consumer behaviour (let alone attitude) is pretty slow to shift.

They may morph into Twitter, but they may not. Wired’s top 10 tech start-ups of 2008 doesn’t fill me with confidence. Only LinkedIn (21% UK awareness) and AdMob are relevant to me. That’s a 20% success rate from a small sample size – it would be much lower if you counted every company on Wired’s radar.

The slow speed of shifting attitudes and behaviours are why  so many of the “classic texts” – Ogilvy, Ries, Drucker, Peters, Collins, Covey, Pink, Gladwell etc – are still relevant.

Shamefully, I’ve read very few of these. This will hopefully be rectified as I make better use of the time spent away from the firehose.

Once I improve upon this, I can move to the next piece of the puzzle.


It is good to improve upon my sources of reading, but it is also a very limited ambition. In the same way that innovation builds upon invention, I should seek to create a practical outlet for my reading. Ideas are good, execution is great.

Given that I deal with knowledge and information, my definition of  “doing” is going to be far narrower than that which Neil Perkin has been excellently espousing. But the likes of Noah Brier, Neil Charles and Rich Shaw have shown that it is possible to merge technical proficiency with clarity of thought.

My short-term goals are going to be small-scale – I haven’t managed to port my blog over to a .com address (admittedly, procrastination has been the main obstacle) so I’m not going to be coding any apps.

But even a better understanding of Microsoft Office will help me improve as a researcher – both through more efficient uses of what I already know and the introduction of new functionality (macros?). Reading informs of the overt or already discovered trends or approaches, but a merging of reading and doing widens the scope to not only think of something new, but to actually implement it.

This entry also acts as a good excuse to repost this Dolph Lungren video

Cutting the current

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, particularly since I never actually seem to keep them. But I start with good intentions, so I suppose that is at least something.

In 2009, I vowed to read less, but better. That sort of happened, but the mass of information makes it difficult to resist.

In 2010, I attempted to widen my reading sources, by rotating my online sources of news. I lasted for about a fortnight, but more pressing priorities meant it quickly fell by the wayside.

Nevertheless, I return once again with a resolution for 2011.

It is quite similar to the 2009 resolution in that it is another attempt to combat information overload. But rather than simply say I will try to read more but better, this is hopefully a process that will help me achieve it.

In 2011, I will take a conscious step-back from real-time content consumption, and intentionally read (most) news and commentary much later than their time of publishing.

I’m not going to be as prescriptive as saying it will be 12 hours, or 48 hours, a week or a month. Particularly, since posts on MediaGuardian will be more time-sensitive than those on New Yorker. But I’m going to avoid the regular refreshing of Google Reader, and let links build up.

The last couple of months has proven the efficiency of this appraoch to me. An incredibly busy November and December meant I had to cut down my reading and surfing. Over the Christmas break, I have largely caught up on my RSS feeds and bookmarks. Google Reader trends tells me that in the last 30 days I’ve read circa 2,500 items. That would previously have been circa 3,500, while the current figure also includes items over a month old.

But there are many other benefits.

In the character of C’s, here are five interrelated reasons why I think this approach will suit me.  No fancy graphics. Sorry.

SIDENOTE: I’ve exaggerated it for the purpose of this post, but what is with the proliferation of lists consumed with Cs – is it the most alliterative word for media and technology related content? Whether Brian Solis5 C’s of community or Srinivasana et al’s eight factors that influence customer e-loyalty, its popularity is clear.

1. Concentration through centralisation and classification

What I found most striking in my catch-up of links was that I was far more selective in what I chose to read. When caught in the fire-hose, I may have read the same story four times from four different sources, not knowing who else would be picking up on the topic. Now, I’m able to select from a complete list of sources on my radar. A more discriminating selection process will also free up more time to do other important things. Like sleep.

It also benefits long-form content consumption, since I’m no longer in a hurry to steam through articles. Recently, I’ve been enjoying Vanity Fair, Atlantic and New Yorker pieces courtesy of services such as Give Me Something to Read – here is their best of 2010

2. Curation through collation and compilation

I’m not totally sold on curation – services like just annoy me. But trusted editors can make a difference. I don’t necessarily need to scour every link looking for the most interesting pieces, when people such as Neil Perkin crowdsource recommendations or people like Bud Caddell point to interesting things.

Incidentally, I may once again resurrect my link updates. I may not. It depends how this experiment goes.

3. Conversation through community and comments

Although the number of comments might be dwindling (or merely refocusing on the biggest sites with an active community), they can still be incredibly valuable.

Initial comments tend to be from sycophants or – in the case of social media monitoring blogs – companies such as Alterian or Radian 6 proving their scraping technology works but later comments can be insightful in their critiquing or extending the authors points. Helpfully, Disqus now sorts comments based on popularity (I should really start voting).

4. Context through critique and connections

Whether it is through comments or from myself connecting different commentaries or posts, different items can be combined or juxtaposed for context and additional understanding. And often it is the connectors that are more interesting than the nodes themselves.

5. Contemplation through consideration and cogitation

Finally, moving away from real-time motivates reflection and critical thinking. The need to rush into a response has been marginalised. I can ponder and muse before I decide whether to write a response to something or not. Nicholas Carr would be proud.

To make this work, each person will have a unique system that works for them. Mine is using Read It Later – a bookmarking service that syncs across devices. It also works within Google Reader, though I suspect I may need to also use stars if the volume of bookmarks needs additional features to distinguish information (on time-sensitivity, if not topic)

Of course, there are drawbacks to this approach.

  • It effectively makes me a lurker rather than an active contributor, so I’ll be taking more than giving.
  • I will continue to link, comment and blog but most likely after the fact, once people have moved on and the topic has lost some relevance. A balance will undoubtedly need to be struck.
  • I’ll have lower visibility through not being not being an early commenter or tweeter, and link-baiting my wares – though Twitter does seem to have made blog commenting and responding far more infrequent anyway. I think I can live with a lower Klout score, since I’m not doing this to reach an arbitrary number of undifferentiated people.

Let’s see how I get on.


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