Does your agency see you as a guinea pig?

Innovation is all the rage in marketing land, but when agencies start using their clients as guinea pigs, things are bound to go wrong, argues James Sugrue.

Imagine you’re about to get a filling, and the dentist casually tells you: “By the way, I’ve never done this before.”

Would you be cool with that?

Didn’t think so. Hey, you don’t even want to be a hairdresser’s first customer.

And God forbid a pharmaceutical company should launch a new drug without completing all the necessary R&D.

Because, quite rightly – unless you’re an impoverished student – no one wants to be a guinea pig. No one wants to be the first.

Credit: Walt Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films

Except, it seems, in marketing.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not making an argument against innovation here. Far from it.

It’s innovation that has been instrumental not just in the success of start-ups like Tesla or Airbnb, but also long-established firms like IBM and Procter & Gamble.

And here in Australia, we’ve seen innovation drive the success of companies like Smartgroup, Mint, Cochlear, and Atlassian.

No, the business case for innovation is very clear.

And marketers get that. In fact, they deserve high praise for their willingness to innovate… terms like ‘prototype’, ‘Test & Learn’, and ‘Minimum Viable Product’ that were once heard only in tech firms are now heard regularly in marketing departments.

My contention is around agencies’ attitudes towards innovation.

In short, most of them are keen for their clients to innovate. They’re honest enough to explain that it’s higher risk, albeit with higher possible rewards – but they are letting all of that risk fall onto the client.

With their creative thinking, agencies encourage clients to produce innovative tech solutions – stuff that’s at the cutting edge of feasible – and yet the agency is doing it for the first time. With all the attendant risk of the dentist’s first filling.

And actually, this is a shame. Because if agencies were able and prepared to take on some of the risk in their own time and venture into the unknown, I believe the rewards would come back to them, in many forms.

For a start, it would foster a spirit of innovation across the whole company by allowing its team to build their own products. Walk the talk so to speak.

And if they do hit gold, it will likely pay off in terms of new business. Imagine going in to pitch to a client, and being able to showcase something that the agency has built for themselves and achieved global success?

Of course, not all projects will find a commercial application. But when something works, and it’s really exciting, the agency can offer it to clients – who can make the smart move of picking up something new, yet, proven. And that creates huge trust.

But most importantly of all, building prototypes for new technology ensures that the agency is fully ready for a client brief, when the client decides they are ready to explore that new tech.

James Sugrue is the founder of AFK

As we move to a world where clients want us building stuff, will an agency’s own suite of prototypes become a measuring point, as well as their client work?

Could we be entering a world where clients ask not just what agencies have built for others, but what they have built for themselves? I hope we are.

Because in the words of Google’s Mike Yapp, agencies need to start thinking “a little less like designers and writers, and a little more like inventors.”

So if your agency is not exploring innovation projects for itself but only for you, then the next time you take a trip to your agency’s bathroom, look in the mirror and ask yourself: do they see me as a guinea pig?



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