I am writing this from the front seat of our agency in Nigeria, trying to get some innovation mileage in on the business odometer. Everybody is throwing around the word these days, sometimes I’m insulted, other times I’m offended, other times I’m like “Oh well…let’s do it.” Do we really need this innovation stuff right now? I mean I don’t work out of Silicon Valley, you know. I work in Nigeria, an economy described at best as ailing, oil prices are crashing at the speed of light, Christine Lagarde has politely said IMF won’t loan us money and clients have said they won’t give agencies free money either. I need some really big clients, with some really big budgets who won’t mind me winning a lot of awards on their behalf. That would be Heaven right now. And if I could really get some innovation mileage in, which direction would it be? In other words, what exactly do I want to innovate?

This is the big question, really – WHAT DO YOU WANT TO INNOVATE?

I find that when agency leaders do not address this question, then innovation becomes nothing more than PPT and buzzwords. And who needs more of those. I believe in order to get some innovation mileage in, the question needs to be addressed on two levels.

One, what can we truly innovate?
Two, what should we really innovate? Let’s chat a bit about these two levels.

An agency is an agency is a creative business…at heart. Let’s be honest, few of us will complete the climb to become product development partners with our clients. So, our options are to innovate the following; our creative product (the content and the process), production techniques, client servicing programs, the clients’ experience of the agency, our business model and perhaps our financial models (capital structures, earning models, cash flow patterns, etc.). These are primarily the spheres within which I reckon we might gain some significant mileage. Each of these demands some really significant evaluation of the commitment levels that our businesses can bring to bear and what it demands. The innovation of our creative product is trickier that it seems. The creative product itself has several dimensions: the creative process (think Leo Burnett’s Humankind), the creative input (think Account Planning processes), the creative content (think traditional, digital, activations and integrated) and the creative culture (think team dynamics, agency culture and faded t-shirts).

The agency leaders must examine each of these in isolation, and then in concert. Production techniques must also be considered as a possible area of innovation, though there is little to show high yield here given trends in consumer behavior. Client servicing programs are definitely worth looking at, in terms of structures, training and disciplines. The clients’ experience of our businesses is a key area that agency leaders tend to ignore. This shouldn’t be so. If Starbucks spends a lot to improve the experience of customers buying $4.99 coffees, agencies should definitely work on improving the experience of million-dollar budget clients. It’s only fair that we do so. The business model and financial models are matters that the Board must engage with agency  leaders on. They are too crucial to leave to the hands of agency leaders, even well-meaning ones. Now to the question – what should we really innovate. My friend, Graham Robertson (Beloved Brands, Canada) has developed a brilliant matrix for deploying marketing efforts. While he uses this for his clientele, I found it very useful tool to think about innovation. Have a look:

Graham counsels mapping Big vs. Small and Easy vs. Difficult to focus your leadership/marketing/innovation efforts. I totally agree.

As an agency leader, you must be clear about your Home Runs. These are typically the initiatives for which you have the greatest alignment of resources, management will, creative energy and client support. While some do offer big wins, they may be tougher than you imagine. You cannot classify innovating your creative product as a Big Win, if you’re not guaranteed of the humility of your ECD. It takes a mountain of humility for creative leaders to admit they can do better. This might be best taken as something you need to find easier ways to do. It is important to quickly tick off your Just-Do- Its, as these buy you leadership credibility to do more and get people behind you. These can also help you with new business wins, which are huge in the credentials of any agency leader.

CAVEAT: know what thou must avoid. These are usually easier to spot than imagined. Anything major innovation that does not get your Board buy-in is to be avoided. These must be distinguished from those you need to find easier ways to do. An initiative for which you struggle to get your management team aligned doesn’t fall into this category. You just need to tweak your management team – change their mindset or change some of them. But you must avoid innovations without Board support, while doing the work of stakeholder management to get the support you need in time.

I guess what I’m saying in summary is innovation needs to evolve from the realm of PPT and buzzwords, to become a real management agenda. I do believe that we need a structured and authentic way to go about it. “To thine own self, be true…” – can you really execute that particular innovation?

So…I don’t mind chatting about this further via mail (feyi.olubodun@insightnigeria.com) or we could just trade innovation war stories over coffee at the next PAG Conference. What do you think?

In the meantime, I’m in the front seat of Insight Nigeria, trying to get some innovation mileage in on my agency odometer, in this incredible economy. And just before I click send to Zoe, the oil price dove another 5% to $30.99. Pheww! Keep calm and carry on innovating.