I just finished devouring Josh Linkner’s Disciplined Dreaming. In it, Linkner asserts, in my opinion correctly, that we live in an era in which business cycles are measured in months, not years, and that the only way to sustain long-term innovation and growth is through creativity – at all levels of an organization. Said another way: creativity represents the only sustainable competitive advantage. Seth Godin‘s endorsement of the book sums it up nicely: “The creativity gap is real and it’s getting worse. Linkner challenges you to become a disruptive force for change.” As a marketer who has spent the last 20 years constantly challenging the status quo with creative ideas and encountering resistance to those ideas, Linkner felt like a kindred spirit, and his words were music to my ears. Said another way: “I’m not crazy!”
For me, this book was validation of the approach I have taken every day I go to work, where developing creativity – mine and others’ – is my primary role. Because few or no processes have really existed for nurturing creativity in the workplace, I’ve often taken on the role of creativity cheerleader somewhat in isolation, encouraging it, rewarding it, and pushing others to push the boundaries, often doing so without authority or the backing of a “process”. This can be difficult and painful, so I loved the way Linkner put a stake in the ground with a five-step guide to “disciplined dreaming”, or what I have called “creativity combined with intellectual rigor”.
His process, which many of us actively follow without realizing it, includes: defining the problem, preparing for the process that will reveal a solution, discovering different paths to get to the solution, and “ignition,” a fantastic chapter on innovative ideation methodologies that I’m now adding to my solid repertoire of techniques. I mentioned in a previous post that I wanted to publish some upcoming posts on idea generation, and I will get around to that and to putting forth my thoughts on the change management challenges it entails. But today and in Part 2 next time, I want to leap-frog and focus on the fifth and last step in Linkner’s process: ‘The Launch’ – bringing your ideas to life.
I am a strong believer in prototyping ideas and conducting demonstration projects to test and launch ideas. Over many projects in the high-tech industry, where I’ve been outnumbered by left-brainers, I’ve learned that it is much easier and faster to get buy-in to new ideas if you can show how they come to life. Walls that were put up come down and aha! moments happen through the use of videos, slides, a mocked-up website or ad, a customer testimonial, or a simulated customer conversation. Linkner explores these and other ways to bring your ideas to life.
But, he does not explore the relationship that can accelerate the process and optimize this critical phase – the relationship with a creative agency. I’d like to share my thoughts on this with you.
The use of a creative agency for execution of a campaign or specific program is common. It is not as common to use an agency in the earlier ideation or selling phases of an idea. One of my mantras as a marketer has always been, “I don’t outsource strategy.” Defining the customer, developing a zealous understanding of the customer, ensuring that the marketing goals align to the business goals, and creating unique, compelling strategic points of view that ladder to the brand are all requirements of the job that marketers must own and drive. Having said that, a partnership with a creative agency in the ideation and selling phases can be a progressive, positive force that yields competitive advantage, especially when you’re trying to solve a very tough problem. I’ve used creative agencies in the past for these strategic phases for three reasons:
- They make a living being creative. Where sometimes bureaucracy, ambiguity, resistance, and fear can inhibit creativity in the corporate environment, the whole raison d’être of a creative agency is to be creative. There is no history of stifling creative expression; in fact, it’s just the opposite. Their very jobs are on the line. To have that level of highly-trained and experienced professionals on your project can mean the difference between good and great and can inspire creativity in the client.
- They are objective. They provide an unbiased second opinion. I believe this is priceless. As marketers, we drink the proverbial Kool-Aid all too often. A creative agency can steer us back to the customer, can ask hard questions without having a vested interest in the answers, and can see things we just don’t see because we’ve overlooked it, turned a blind eye to it, or pretended we didn’t see it. This is why agencies don’t advertise themselves – they have no objectivity. Doing the “house ad” is the worst assignment possible.
- They are flexible and have your back. They don’t get upset about sudden shifts in strategic direction. They will work tirelessly through the night to get you something the next day. They will give you as many iterations as you want. All with a smile.
How does this lead to competitive advantage? The obvious reasons are:
- Speed: Collaborating with an agency can accelerate ideation and speed time to an answer and to execution.
- Scalability: The agency can become an extension of your team, enabling multiple, simultaneous demonstration projects, the ability to reach more people internally, and real-time feedback to further inform decisions.
- Quality: The client/agency collaboration can make your good ideas great.
The more nuanced reason is the central theme found throughout Linkner’s book: creativity cannot be copied or replicated.
What do you think? Have you used a creative agency to help you through strategic ideation and selling of your ideas? What was your experience?