Three seemingly unrelated things have happened in the last month:

  • Unilever put out a rather unusual RFP for a chance to win mentorship, funding, and partnerships with 7 of their brands
  • Inventionist, a product innovation unit of Deutsch LA, released a fuel price prediction app called Fuelcaster for insurance client Esurance
  • R/GA's Connected Devices Accelerator are slated to unveil their 2014 projects at SXSW on March 18

There's a shift happening. Agencies are behaving more & more like startups. If agencies want to hang on to their budgets, talent, and opportunities to do great work, the traditional model needs to change.

Sacrificing Critical Thinking for Consensus

The world has moved beyond the need for (yet another) banner campaign, Facebook app, or round of 'branded content' in digital. We need products for the digital world, and the advance of technology demands an entirely new process for creating things that matter. Agencies are tightly-knit groups of creative folk. The danger of being part of a group is that the very structures and processes that hold us together also mean they push us towards consensus rather than critical thinking. The solution is to challenge our own processes in an effort to produce better work.

A 2009 Forbes article painted the problem this way:

"Working with an agency often results in endless rounds of revisions, rewrites, and reworks. The meetings and pitches alone triple the workload for everyone else involved."

Don't worry, Forbes, it's not all rainbows & puppies on the agency side, either - it's just as frustrating to spend time pushing paper when you really just want to produce great work. There have been rumblings for the last few year that if brands want truly innovative work from their agency partners, they'll need to treat them more like consultants and less like production houses. Whichever side you sit on, the bottom line is clear: the existing model must change in order to keep up with the digital world. 

Here's four examples of parent companies, agencies, brands, and consultancies who are shaking it up.

Unilever: The Brand Redesigning the RFP

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What it is: Unilever's Go Global program put out an RFP to digital companies and startups which promises the privilege of international expansion alongside 7 of Unilever's brands.

The mission: Use technology to help Unilever connect to the 2 billion people who use a Unilever product every day. "Technology can help us to connect people, show them how we grow our food and make our products, and highlight to them how small behaviour changes can help them and their planet," the program site reads. "If your company operates in one of the three digital sectors outlined below, or even stretches the definition of them, then we encourage you to apply," applicants are instructed

The work: Winners not listed yet.

The verdict: Jury's still out, but this is the kind of thinking outside the box that is sure to at least challenge trad'l agency thinking.

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Deutsch LA: In-House Innovation Agency

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What it is: Deutsch L.A.'s in-house product innovation unit, Inventionist

The mission: A small, nimble team dedicated to helping brands invent their future, "to help our clients find opportunities, revenue, and growth by inventing new products and services for the digital age. We believe that great products are the best ads," says Winston Binch, partner & chief digital officer of Inventionist

The work: Inventionist released Fuelcaster this week for insurance client Esurance, a fuel price prediction app that uses a mix of gas station data and market indicators to tell consumers whether to fill up today or wait 'til tomorrow. "Tell us your location," the app promises, "and we'll tell you the future." Pretty darn useful if you ask me.

The verdict: By behaving like a startup - pivoting to create things people need instead of pushing messages we think people need to hear, Inventionist is shifting the game from production to invention.

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R/GA: The Agency that's Actually an Accelerator

What it is: The Connected Devices Accelerator, a partnership between R/GA and startup accelerator TechStars

The mission: "Bringing together design and marketing services. To help startups build a brand, not just a product," R/GA's intro video states. The method is simple. Bring in young startups, offer them $20,000, mentorship, the option of  funding in exchange for equity upon completion of the program. 

The work: One example is Owlet, a smart baby sock that tells parents their baby's heart rate, sleep quality, and sleep temperature. VentureBeat reported the company has already raised $224,000 towards bringing the device to hyper-connected parents everywhere.

The verdict: Partnering with TechStars is smart, mainly because agency creds don't necessarily carry over into startup land. R/GA, however, may be about to change that. This year's class of startups will make their debut on Demo Day on March 18 at SXSW - check it out for yourself.

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Holacracy: The New Structure for Success

What it is: Less of a business model and more of a methodology, 'Holacracy' has stirred up quite a bit of debate in recent months, carrying with it an air of 'the next big thing' in business management.

The mission: Holacracy's self described purpose is to create 'real-world-tested social technology for agile and purposeful organisation. It radically changes how an organisation is structured, how decisions are made, and how power is distributed.' In short - it organises 'circles' of people around tasks that need to be done, instead of relying on managers to drive work through their teams - in essence - it distributes authority throughout a traditionally structured company, where some voices tend to dominate the conversation. 

The work: There are two companies hot on my radar who have implemented Holacracy: one is online shoe retailer Zappos and the other is digital strategy consultancy Undercurrent.

The verdict: It's too soon to say if the shift has paid off for Zappos, who only announced their shift to Holacracy in January. However, Undercurrent seem to have found their stride nicely, creating work that pushes the boundaries of what's coming out of traditional agencies (see their work for Ford Fiesta & Hyatt). Whether it's Holacracy or just a bunch of really bright minds at Undercurrent I'm not sure - either way, whatever they're doing seems to be working like a charm.

Think Different

Benjamin Franklin said it best: "If everybody's thinking the same, nobody's thinking." 

To me, the takeaway is clear. Great products really are the best ads. And the best ad agencies are the ones marrying traditional ad planning with product design. They'll be the ones stealing share & talent from agencies who fail to adapt.