The intersection of product innovation and agency culture and practice is a theme that has generated considerable debate in our industry and one that has been put forward by several Google Firestarters regulars as one that we should run an event on. So on Wednesday we did just that, with a packed house and three excellent provocations to help us navigate this fascinating topic.
I've long been an admirier of the work of ustwo, the digital product studio who originated the amazing Monument Valley as well as work for clients like Tesco, Sony and Channel 4 ("we launch valuable products, services and companies that make a measurable difference to the world"). So it was great to have Brett MacFarlane (whose background has been in network agencies) from the studio talk about their philosophy, and what he called the ustwo 'experiment'.
Nobody, says Brett, should own creativity or innovation but everyone does ideas:
Innovation is not one dimensional and may be incremental (refine), evolutionary (refresh), or revolutionary (re-imagine). One of the key questions in thinking about agencies and product innovation however lies in the difference between demand generation (which still has lots of value - advertising works) and value creation, which is more challenging for agencies than the former.
ustwo are focused on maintaining the right balance between client work, games and new ventures, and actively pursue diversity in both their staff and in what they do. Independence gives them the freedom to explore new revenue models and career paths for their people, so staff can really work on what they care about ("the founders didn't set out to run an agency and that's the point").
Brett also talked about the importance of the ustwo environment - an adaptive space, a sometimes chaotic setting, little rigid process ("rather than a process, we have a starting point and approaches"), a focus on employee wellness, time for invention, commercials that focus on the long-term and on value, and equity for employees.
Along their journey they've had significant failures (including a messaging app where they waited too long before bringing to market), but also huge successes like the one below, successful apps for financial institutions that focus their design on how it makes people feel, and new ventures including the just launched DICE ("the ticketing platform for fans, not fees").
Brett finished with some thoughts on three key elements of ustwo culture: Collaboration ("we believe that the best work is accomplished by team members creating together and solving problems together"), Value ("we believe our job is to find the quickest route from idea to digital product because that's where the business value is"), and Learning ("in the complex marketplace, we believe future success belongs to those who learn the fastest"). In the end, he said, mindset eats organisation and evidence beats opinion, but it's all about the team ("only that team, at that time, in that way, makes that thing"). Perhaps the ustwo experiment is about breaking down the one last silo - the individual employee.
I've long wanted to have Andy Whitlock, product strategy lead at MadeByMany, speak at Firestarters and he didn't disappoint. Andy's smart, witty talk started with his own journey from ad agency to product lead and the quite profound differences involved within each, not least in the relationship with clients and where value is placed. With advertising the launch day is everything, with product innovation if the launch day is your biggest response you're in trouble.
Advertising is about earning a reaction. Product innovation is about earning a role ("Life's too short to make things no-one wants" - Ash Maurya). With advertising some degree of success is likely, but with product innovation total failure is a real possibility. In fact, there's a whole series of differences that need to be accounted for between marketing and advertising and product innovation. With the former ideas are the most valuable thing, strategies are sold in, attention can be bought, deliverables are clear, budget is fixed, and it may be separate from the business. With the latter ideas are just hypotheses, strategies are adjustable, users can't be bought, deliverables and costs are unknown, and it must integrate with the business.
MadeByMany keep their development loops very tight so that they never go too far down a particular road before developing a learning, and thereby minimising risk:
Yet perhaps the interesting place is where these things can meet. Marketing can learn from user-centred development and product people still need marketing of-course (they are often not good at it: "no marketing needs to stop becoming a badge of honour for product people"). Andy's final summary captured three points about making useful things, and telling good stories with them:
Our final talk from BBH Zag featured four speakers: Adam Arnold (Managing Partner), Richard Davies (Creative Director), Aran Potkin (Strategist) and Alex Matthews (Head of Creative Technology), and was interesting in that it was from an agency that was actually creating products. Zag describe themselves as a "brand consultancy that ventures". Adam spoke of how being an active shareholder in a venture changes the relationship you have with a client quite fundamentally. It aligns interest better than anything, and puts you in a position where you really do need to keep on adding value ('the saga continues after the product ships"). The team described the learnings they'd had from developing and working with (amongst others) Autographer (the world's first intelligent wearable camera), Money Dashboard (online money management tool) and Beakle (which enables people to connect to audio streaming for outdoor digital screens).
The talks were fascinating and diverse in equal measure, and we had three very instructive but different perspectives on the subject.
There may be no "new agency model" but their is a cohort of believers who expect better, are making better. Welcome friends. #firestarters— Brett Macfarlane (@macfarbt) September 17, 2014
My thanks to our inspiring speakers, to all those who came, and to Google for hosting of-course. You can see a Storify of the event here. Our next event will be in November. If you'd like to ensure you get notified of when registration opens you can sign up for my newsletter for more news of that.
So the Dots conference, hosted admirably by Antony Mayfield and the smart folk at Brilliant Noise on Wednesday was rather good. Antony kindly asked me to curate it for them so I'm somewhat biased, but it seems like lots of other people think so too, which is nice.
Adam (the best live blogger I know) did a fantastic job of writing up each talk at warp speed as it was being delivered and you can read the output behind each speaker biog here. They were all great, but talk of the day for me went to Professor Martin Elliot, Co-medical Director at Great Ormond St Hospital, who talked about this, and more besides, in an amazingly compelling way.
Soundbite of the day though went to Russell Davies who opened the conference with his usual brilliance. Russell talked about how the context of innovation was changing, and how digital companies have developed very different habits from traditional organisational approaches (something I talk about a lot). They put usability first.
He described how it's always been better to have a brilliant product than a parity product with marketing, but it was just easier to do the latter. Now marketing has got way harder and (with increasing digitisation) creating great products much easier. Yet still companies are still set up around persuasion and the focus rests with trying make existing ways of doing things more digital. So as Russell says, 'usability trumps persuasion'. Or put another way, get the basics right before you have an awayday. Russell's three rules were:
1. No innovation until everything works.
2. The product is the service is the marketing
3. Make things open - it makes things better.
You can read more about Russell's talk over here.
Co-incidentally, this cross-over between product and marketing is something that we'll be exploring in our next Firestarters (not the performance one) in a couple of weeks time (it's the 17th September so hold the date and more on that imminently).
The next Google Firestarters event is happening next week on Tues 15th at 6.15pm, at Google HQ in London. We're theming the event around 'Designing for the Future', and considering how we design for a world filled with sensors, connected devices, wearables and embedded internet. The only thing we can say for sure is that in many ways it will be a very different world to that which we know now. Or will it? What happens when almost every product becomes digitised and has a communications channel built right in? How should we design customer experiences for this world?
To help us address these excellent questions, we have three amazing provocations from three of the best future thinkers in the UK.
Anab Jain (above) is a TED Fellow and the founder of Superflux, the future-facing design consultancy working with businesses, think-tanks and research organisations such as Sony, BBC, Nokia, NHS, Design Council, and Forum for the Future.
Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino (below) is an interaction designer, product designer, entrepreneur & speaker, and one of the key thought leaders on Internet of Things. She runs the London Internet of Things meet ups, has worked in this area with clients like EDF, BT and British Gas, and also made the Good Night Lamp.
As usual it's invite only but I have a few guest passes to give away to readers of this blog. If you'd like one, please let me know in the comments or drop me a note.
Here's my favourite links from this week, curated by Fraggl: