“Family resemblances are a good thing. For families. But for agencies, it can get you into trouble. When the stuff you create for your boat manufacturer client starts to look or sound or feel just like the stuff you’re making for that software startup, oh, and the athletic-shoe retailer, and maybe the fast-food restaurant, too; you have to ask: Are you doing what speaks best to the audience? What’s best for the client? Or are you doing what you personally think is cool? Worse yet, are you doing what the competition is doing too?”
I was flipping through some old issues of Fast Company recently, when I found a very cool little article by Christine Canabou entitled Fast Ideas For Slow Times (May 2003). In it, Christine made the argument for the fact that offering something different/unique was a crucial part of any company’s success.
Creativity is no longer exclusive to the ad agency world. Likewise, innovation is no longer exclusive to the design world. In order for businesses to thrive, creativity has to become part of their product operational DNA. In order for agencies to keep doing exceptional work for an ever-growing list of quality clients, they have to breed curiosity, exploration and innovation into their DNA.
It isn’t change. It’s evolution.
Here’s the thing: If you keep doing the same thing you’ve been doing, nothing new is going to happen to you. Your sales aren’t suddenly going to double. Your market share isn’t going to enjoy a sudden increase. Nobody is going to really notice you. If you’ve been growing at 6% per year for the past ten years, it’s probably safe to say that you’ll keep seeing 6% growth for a while longer.
A little while.
As Christine puts it: “Do nothing new, and you won’t make a mistake. But do nothing new for too long, and you risk making the biggest mistake of all.”
Yep. It’s easy to let your successes pigeon-hole you into Sisyphean repetition. Before you know it, companies come to you with requests to do for them what you did for your other client(s): “That thing you did for Spalookaboo, Inc… the thing with the talking cow and the karate-chopping mongoose… can you do something like that for us?”
Look. The last thing the world needs is another subservient chicken. More to the point, the last thing Crispin Porter + Bogusky needs is another subservient chicken project.
Something is only original once. Something is only creative once. After that, everything becomes derivative and stale. Copies of copies of copies are just what Seth Godin might call brown cows. (No matter how good and cool they are, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.)
It’s completely natural to see a competitor’s latest product or ad and think “Doh! Why didn’t we think of that?” It’s also natural to want to jump on the bandwagon by doing something similar. (The reasoning being that if it works for your competitor, it’ll work for you too.)
Copying for the sake of not being left behind is an expensive and terribly ineffective business strategy. (And it’s lame.) 1) You’ll come across as an “also in”. 2) You’ll back yourself into a price comparison corner (kiss your revenue goodbye). 3) You’ll be turning your back on your biggest competitive advantage – the practical application of your creative power: Innovation.
At best, being a “brown cow” guarantees stagnation.
It also guarantees that you will have to spend huge amounts of resources to promote yourself over and over and over again. That’s time, money, people… all of which could be better spent actually doing something rewarding and relevant that will help your business grow.
You could be creating WOM-worthy work for smaller clients, for example. For non-profits. For NGO’s. For niche markets.
You could be broadening your horizons… meeting new people, immersing yourself in cool new subcultures. You could be making every day a learning experience. An exercise in curiosity. A creative harvest. (By the way, the cross-pollination of ideas and disciplines is the lifeblood of innovation. Ask IDEO and FROG Design how it’s worked for them.)
Yeah, Hybrid Thinking. That’s where it starts.
By default, you would also be broadening your reach across a wider range of industries than any other agency in your sphere of influence (not just because it makes great business sense, but because it’s fun.)
Fun feeds creativity at least as much as new experiences.
Think about it. What if instead of chasing big clients, you focused on helping great little companies grow into extraordinary ones? What if you only worked with clients that you want to work with? What if you turned away work that didn’t interest you? What if you did what every innovator has done since the beginning of time: What if you changed the rules, one client at a time, one project at a time?
Would you rub a few people the wrong way? You bet. But they’d get over it.
There are also other options beyond simply increasing the breadth of your playing field. The very nature of the way you approach your work, your services and the way that you market them doesn’t have to be set in stone. Don’t sell yourself short.
Tom Peters, for example, makes a good argument for agencies to evolve into more deep-reaching Professional Services Firms (see his downloadable ‘PSF Manifesto’). After all, if creatives can come up with great advertising ideas, they can surely come up with insightful ways to improve a company’s customer service call center, design unforgetable retail spaces and help create groundbreaking new products, for starters.
This kind of transition won’t happen on its own. Client companies certainly won’t be the first to suggest it. (“Hey um… you guys make great ads, but… do you also do product design?”) It’s one of those build it and they will come things. Create the service. Create the market. Become a purple cow all over again.
More importantly, help your clients become purple cows in their own fields. (Ultimately, that will be the key to your success.)
Trust me on this: Many of them wish they had access to this kind of insightful innovation for hire. Not everyone can afford to keep top-notch designers on staff. (Or brand strategists.) Or marketing communications specialists. Or graphic artists. As for consultants… well, they can be terribly expensive and often too narrow in their approach.
Similarly, not everyone can afford a PR firm and an ad agency and a product design studio and a retail design consultant. (Assuming that, even if you could, all of the pieces would fit together properly… which is pretty unlikely.)
Enter the fully-integrated PSF/Agency: Cost-effective, versatile, nimble, responsive, insightful, completely immersed in their client’s culture. One-stop shopping for all of your innovative needs. Beyond its core team, imagine a network composed of the most brilliant minds and creative talent in the world, just a mouse-click away. A phone-call away.
Imagine if a PSF/Agency like the one I just described suddenly opened shop in your town. What if it were courting your clients? What if it had access to more contract talent than you could ever afford to hire? What if it were a lot cheaper than you are? (Sound familiar?)
What if, although advertising were only one of their revenue streams, their work still blew yours away?
What would you do?
What if they cut your revenue in half inside of two years? What would you do to stay alive?
Lay off part of your staff? Advertise more? Lower your prices? Work for free?
Purple cows don’t have to shake their baby rattles to be noticed. They don’t have to put up billboards all over town. They don’t have to engage in price wars. All they have to do is be purple cows.
Here’s a fresh little bit of Set Godin insight:
“Ad agencies have been backed into a corner and mostly do rattling. It’s the high-cost, high-profile, high-risk part of marketing, and the kind that rarely works. What a shame that some of the smartest people in our fieldaren’t allowed (by their clients and by their industry’s structure) to get behind the scenes and change the product, the strategy and the approach instead of just annoying more people with ever louder junk.”
Yesterday’s purple cows are today’s brown cows.
Tomorrow’s purple cows won’t look or feel or sound anything like you.
The question is, what are you doing about it?
Are you sure your model still works?
Something to think about.