Media agency exec turned entrepreneur: ‘Media firsts are not innovation’

Nic Hodges to agencies at Mumbrella360: "Stop saying agile"

Nic Hodges to agencies at Mumbrella360: “Stop saying agile”

Ad and media agencies are often mistaken and shallow in their understanding of innovation and how to cultivate a startup-like culture, a media agency executive turned tech consultant has said.

Nic Hodges, who left MediaCom Australia where he was head of innovation and technology in May to launch two brand tech consultancies, said at Mumbrella360 that agencies have a tendency to regard novelty campaigns as evidence of innovation in advertising.

“This industry is happy to see novelty as innovation. That’s fine. It won’t cost you your business,” he said during a talk on what agencies can learn from startups. “But if you’re a startup, you’ll be out of business if you take that attitude. Bright shiny objects are not innovative.”

Hodges founded agency-startup consultancies Swarmdeck and Blonde3 when he left MediaCom after a four-year stint last month. He was formerly creative director of Clemenger Proximity and technical director at M&C Saatchi.

“Media firsts are not innovation,” he said. “Snapchat and Dropbox are innovation; things that are new and unique, that get real people excited about them.”

Hodges suggested that agencies needed to change their definition of innovation.

“Agencies look at campaigns to be innovative. But they need to look at themselves to be innovative,” he said, referring to the famous quote: “We’re too busy running the business to fix the things that are putting us out of business.”

“Advertising campaigns are almost never innovative. That’s ok, because advertising at its core is about communication. But there’s more to innovation than drones and QR codes,” he said.

Ad agency group giants like WPP “have to be everything to everyone”, but there’s a big opportunity for independents to move into unchartered territory and innovate within the industry, he said.

Hodges also suggested that agencies have a false idea of how to build company culture.

“Early Fridays, yoga and a well stocked fridge is not culture. Perks are good, but they’re not culture,” he said.

The activities agencies typically lay on for staff are what he called “fluffy” stuff that “doesn’t mean much in the real world,” Hodges said.

Agencies need to adopt and build around genuine values to successfully build culture, Hodges suggested.

“It does really not matter what those values are, as long as the company is aligned around them,” he said.

“Free beer is not what keeps people working 16 hour days for three years straight for bugger-all pay.”

Hodges used what he called “the fluffy mantra around ‘happiness’ that Coke has put together that absolutely nobody who works there believes in” as a misunderstanding of what company culture should mean.

He pointed to Spotify as a model for company culture. The music streaming service has created a series of “guilds” around its staff’s own special interests to build culture.

“Agencies go for things that are fancy rather than things that really create community. A strong culture allows massive change, which is imperative for startups,” Hodges said.

Spotify’s motto is “Think it, build it, ship it, tweak it,” an agency’s motto would add “then move on” to the end, Hodges said, referring to agencies’ reluctance to validate what they do.

His presentation echoed the sentiment of a film made by advertising creatives, launched last week ahead of the Cannes Lions, that mocked adland’s preoccupation with novelty in the pursuit of awards.

Robin Hicks


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