Would Design Agencies make better Ad Agencies?

Design thinking is the simply a process for the practical and creative resolution of problems. So why the the all the fuss and chatter in business circles about design thinking and should the Advertising business even care? Well when you dig a little deeper, design thinking starts to sounds a lot like what Agencies talk about, but has mostly eluded them.

Design Thinking requires the ability to combine empathy, creativity and rationality to meet user needs and drive business success. Unlike analytical thinking, design thinking is more a creative process based around the “building up” of ideas. This multi-modal thinking is being mastered by the Design Consultancies, the likes of IDEO, Whatif! and others who fundamentally see themselves as solving problems by creating experiences, those experiences may include a product, a service or even a piece of communication. While their core business has mostly been product design, their way of solving problems with a human-centred approach and by combining analytic with intuitive and creative thinking puts them in a strong position to generate the kinds of ideas Advertising Agencies want to create.  In fact IDEO was recently commissioned by the United States Department of Energy to understand why people aren’t doing more to conserve energy. Many an Advertising Agency might see this kind of perceptual and behavior change work as their turf.

What Design firms do better than Advertising Agencies is that they are committed to being extremely open-minded at the start of a project, figuring out exactly how a client or user “experiences” the company’s product or service, and then trying out multiple prototypes before they select a solution. When an ad agency pitches to for a chain of coffee shops they might traditionally propose a billboard campaign, however when you put a designer on the case, the discussion expands to what the furniture looks like in the coffee shop, what it smells like, and what music is played and so on.

Now I don’t mean that say TBWA should start designing products for their client Apple. But rather that agencies could benefit from embracing more design thinking on 2 key ways:

  1. As a way of working 

Design firms organize themselves to be able to bring together highly experienced and diverse groups of people, these multi functional teams have talents with deep expertise in areas such as finance, technology or engineering as well as having other auxiliary skills such as behavioural psychology, cultural anthropology and so on.

At the heart of design thinking is a human-centred approach which requires that designers fully understand how people interact with the category in question, understand the pleasure and pain points in the experience and then start to create better ideas from there.

As practical problem solvers designers use a combination of analytic, intuitive and creative thinking, there is a real appreciation that true innovation is most often imagines rather than deduced.

 2. In thinking about the work they deliver

Design thinking believes that the only outcome that matters it that the desired result is achieved; as such they are committed to being solution neutral. The solution could be a service, a product, retail or web experience. There is no vested interest in any outcome form. Something communication agencies have spent the good part of a decade struggling with. If Designers ran communication agencies there would be no Advertising business or Direct or Digital business units as is the case today, but rather the individual expertise would sit within multi-functional teams.

 The big shift for Advertising Agencies is the rethink of the separation of “creative people” and account and planners. In the new world, we all need to be creative problem solvers, our specific business or writing skill is our skill-set or craft which gives us legitimacy in the team, and no longer can one person own the consumer understanding, we all need to be planners!

It’s very much early days for Agencies and Design thinking, myself an ad veteran only heard of the term one year ago. Agencies are rather distracted right now, grabbling with the shift in resources from traditional advertising to PR and digital while trying to survive a recession. Perhaps fortunes might be different if we embraced a little design thinking in the management of operations?

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