Last Wednesday Ben Malbon and I hosted the first ever Google Firestarters in the US. We took as our theme 'The New Operating System for Agencies', a subject that had elicited much debate when we ran it in the UK and one that Mel Exon (who spoke at that event) called at the time 'a hairy, humbling monster of a question'.
Our first speaker, Ian Fitzpatrick (CSO, Almighty) began by considering an operating system as a collection of assumptions and convictions that might be compiled into repeatable routines. Such systems can easily accumulate layers of complexity over time, and as they do assumptions and habits might compound with them. Ian's challenge to us was that the new agency O/S is defined by the parts of the agency source code we strip away, not what we layer on top of it. That equates to fundamentals including the people we hire, how we organise the role of leadership in the agency, the financial model, and the work that we deliver. It means recruiting talent to challenge the legacy OS, organising to plug into networks and client programmes rather than by role, leading for adaptability over efficiency, hybrid compensation models, and serving the user.
Decoding from the legacy O/S starts with people, using the language of measurable client business outcomes, the value of output being measured across the breadth of client organisation and their networks of partners or channels, adding scale and functionality through new networks rather than new operational appendages. And we need to delete bad code.
Next up we had Noah Brier, co-founder of Percolate. Noah expanded on his recent Strategy as Algorithm thinking, considering how strategy might fit into a new O/S. When we talk about strategy, he said, we often talk about both strategy and execution but the strategy is really 'about building algorithms (rules) that help drive optimal outcomes in decisions'. Ultimately we will always be thinking about the same key components of what combination of business objectives, audience, channels, brand positioning will deliver the right end result. The challenge, says Noah, is that a strategy is much more than a plan in that (to use the words of Lawrence Freedman) a plan 'supposes a sequence of events that allows one to move with confidence from one state of affairs to another' whereas a strategy should equip you to adapt to shifting circumstances. So rather than talking about strategy as a detailed, fixed blueprint, it’s better to think about it in the terms of an algorithm or set of rules that help you make the right decision as you progress. Noah went on to visualise how an algorthim mught become a brief, and talk about how the new agency operating system needs to move beyond campaigns to tie everything together, and how we need to think about our strategies as network maps, not columns and rows.
Spencer Baim from VICE, talked then about how the new agency O/S needs to work within the context of broader culture. Communications products, he said, can be as valuable as the very products they describe, and in this sense marketers potentially have more power than ever in bringing new ideas into the world. Most agency thinking exists outside of culture and yet in order to capitalise on this opportunity, those ideas have to move culture forwards, or come from the heart of culture itself. The VICE model is designed around this concept and around creating brand ideas that are worth following, and that evolve over time.
Johnny Vulkan of Anomaly suggested that in a world of constant change (particularly in the last decade) it is hard to suggest a fixed OS of the future. There have been too many false dawns (remember agencies setting up shop in Second Life?). So we need to have a way of approaching the changing terrain rather attempt a map, and this led to a couple of useful 'shapes' that are core to how Anomaly work and might have some longevity. The first focused on how advertising can become disconnected from a client business, which makes it critical for agencies to want to know as much as they can (in the broadest context) about that business. We need to organise around a business problem, not a channel, and argue about the right solution that we believe in. The second was about how continuous iteration can be a hugely beneficial model in finding the right solution over time.
Sarah Watson from BBH NY then finished with a great talk unpacking what an O/S actually is, and talking about how most agency operating systems are all but invisible, existing in the fabric of the everyday processes, behaviours, and assumptions. They are 'values made flesh in the process'. Which can potentially make them lethal. The 'higher order' O/S needs to focus on the way things actually get done and the human motivation of the people who do the work. Sarah's call to arms was for us all to look inside at our 'unspoken operating systems' which might dictate the extent to which we can innovate, motivate and perform, but also holds the key to the value as agencies. This leads to some fundamental questions around what gets made and what doesn't (and why), how stuff gets approved, who gets promoted, where do we all sit, who are the aspirational role models and so on. 'An agency OS,' said Sarah, 'can be both an unseen engine of greatness and the silent killer of change'.
Each of the talks were fascinating and provocative in equal measure, and the debate that followed echoed this, with discussion focusing around industry talent, appetite for and blockers to change, and how changing work and work patterns brings constant new challenges. But I like to think that there was also much optimism in what was being said for the future shape of our agencies and our industry.
Something that struck me at #firestarters last night: The ad world has a good history of entrepreneurialism. If you want change, go make it.— Noah Brier (@heyitsnoah) December 4, 2014
My thanks to Ben and Google for hosting, and to our excellent speakers of-course. You can see a Storify of the event here, there are already a couple of good write ups from Valeria Maltoni and Ed Cotton, and Ed has also pulled together a summary of thoughts into a deck.
Ben and I are keen to run more Firestarters in the US in the early part of next year so do watch this space for more news on that.