Why advertising innovations don’t happen at head office


Innovation in an advertising network is a notoriously difficult business. So hard, in fact, that most people who want to innovate give up and start their own agency, with 12 people and 2 clients, to make it easier.

So, maybe the solution is to accept that the network itself is its best source of innovation, and make its 80 offices the vital ingredient. After all, the Disruption Day (widely viewed as the vital ingredient in TBWA’s ‘Disruption’ popped up from its South African office.

In reality, there are 2 sources of new management ideas in an agency:

1) The Management. Typically, they are well-informed, experienced and tasked to think big. Ideally, they would spend 40% of their time ‘envisioning the future’ (according to Hamel and Prahalad’s ‘Competing for the Future’. The fact is, they don’t. (Obviously). And, they might be too distant from the practical issues. Lastly, they can only have one pov.

2) The Local Teams. They, of course, have a more localised view. But, they are practical and in touch with day to day needs – so they are the ones with the test bed for new ideas, to see what really works. Best of all, there are tens of them, so each one brings a unique set of of stimuli to the overall problem.

The best answer is surely that both sources of ideas need to work in tension. Local offices will, in some cases, choose the wrong tack. But, they can be pulled back.

The key to this is a different idea of ‘network’ and ‘network management’.

It is not, unlike frequent practice, about control. It’s much more like ‘loose control’ – the management equivalent of ‘fuzzy logic’. A little like HP’s famous labs of ideas, each of which could be spun off if they got big enough.

To run great businesses that learn and grow, we need to set clear gates about performance, and directions for development, but empower (nay oblige) people to experiment with new ways to organise themselves to reach that goal. Then re-apply winning ideas across the network.

If we have the right talent, that will happen.

If that happens, then the network can become a learning network. And innovation can become a network strength not a network weakness.

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