5 Innovation Practices the Ad Industry Should Steal

Two years ago I traded in my Agency Planning Director job to make a fresh start in the Innovation business. Here’s what I’ve learnt from the Innovation business that I wish I had known while working in the Agency business!


“We’re not actually experts in any given area,” says David Kelley , CEO of IDEO, the Product Design Consultancy “We don’t care if you bring us a toothbrush, a toothpaste tube, a tractor, a space shuttle, a chair. It’s all the same to us—we want to figure out how to innovate by using our process and applying it.”

The Ad Agency business is no different, having no specific category expertise and yet where is the expertise beyond broad creativity? The communication creation business remains rather mysterious to clients. Clients brief their agency and then a few weeks later a pile of stuff is presented, some good, some less good. But how did we get there? There is something uncomfortably random about how Agencies deliver their output!

Ultimately the Ad business is about Solving Business Problems with Ideas. Good process needs to explore the different ways to get to the heart of a business problem and then ways to generate strong alternatives?

Agencies need to invest in their process, which clients believe in and that everyone in the agency understands and wants to be a part of.


Innovation accepts that lone genius is no match for the idea power of a diverse, committed team, and thus demands that we broaden the weight of responsibility for delivering ideas.

In advertising, the art director, copy writer creative team model is broken.  The lonely planner in the corner office needs to multiply, but without solid processes, the uberplannerness that problem solving demands becomes the domain of the few.  How can we harness the brain power of a diverse team rather than a few rockstar planners and creatives?

We need half the agency to be able to lead processes to get clients to a solution. These people are part planner, part business thinker, part conceptualiser, and with a solid process, they don’t need to be terribly senior.


We need to move our people expertise beyond categories and consumption, and towards a simple understanding of people. What motivates them, excites them, turns them off, and how they feel about our category?. I am astounded at how little agency people talk about how humans work, how the human brain processes information or how reward systems work. These all inform the ideas and programmes we recommend for clients.

Understanding people at a deeper level is not a planning or research function, its everyone’s responsibility. How can you be in the business or solving problems with ideas without  understanding how humans work?


The innovation business is good at sharing what works and what did not work, no matter how painful the latter may be. There is a strong belief that failure and failure tolerance are essential components to success.

We need to find ways to share more, about processes that work, great ideas and weak ideas, or simply sharing something inspiring. It’s about being open to learn and evolving to make things work better, be more fun, more effective, cheaper, or whatever matters to you.

We need to celebrate success as well as share the lessons of our failures. In the Agency world, crappy campaigns just get forgotten, we only talk about those 5 or 6 killer campaigns that made us proud this year, the other 35 are buried!


This is about discovering new ways of working, processes, pushing ourselves beyond the familiar. This is where we give our people freedom to work outside of current process to try something for the first time and to make things better. So many agency systems have not changed in decades! Do you really believe that creative briefing format is working to create better work?

It’s about expanding our world beyond that of Advertising festivals and being comfortable with our world as a work in progress.

I know if I had discovered the ways of the Innovation Business before I fell out of love with advertising, these lessons would have made me a better planner.