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3 Lessons (And Warnings) For Agencies Looking To Emulate Startups

AKQA’s Rei Inamoto led a discussion among ad and tech execs on whether--and how--agencies should act like tech companies. Here are some of the lessons that emerged.

Since AKQA chief creative officer Rei Inamoto first asked, "Should agencies act like tech startups?" he’s posed the question to many startup and agency folks alike. The answers he’s received focus more on reimagining the agency state of mind than on tweaking strategy. A recent discussion between Inamoto and execs from both sides of the divide revealed the following lessons for those agencies looking to harness the creative ethos of the tech company.

Beware of startup envy
The entrepreneurial thrill and long hours that go into building a startup create allure--it’s cool to start a company. But agencies aren’t predicated on the ultimate goal of a successful exit, which is why they shouldn’t act like they are, says Brooklyn Bridge Ventures partner Charlie O’Donnell, one of four speakers who joined Inamoto at AKQA’s recent "Agencies vs. Startups" panel during Internet Week. Startups often bury themselves in product development for their first year until they’ve built up enough enterprise value to gain access to the brands and resources agencies already tap. "Agencies are resourced appropriately to do what they do best, which is constantly iterating new ideas, rather than looking on the other side of the fence," O’Donnell says.

Become a minimal viable agency
Consumer engagement is a metric that’s paramount for both startups and agencies: Both need to know how their product--whether an app or a media campaign--fares with its audience. In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries’ unofficial techie bible, Ries lauds the benefits of what he calls the "minimal viable product," a product that has just the bare-minimum features it needs to go to market. The idea is that the MVP provides developers the fastest and most efficient way to gather valuable behavioral intel on how consumers engage with a product. That mindset can translate to agency behavior, says Eric Wheeler, CEO of social graph startup 33Across and an Ogilvy vet. "Large agencies are aircraft carriers. They turn very slowly," Wheeler says. "You almost have to create these minimal viable agencies--little startup groups of smart talent--and let them sit outside and start to iterate. They’re going to move much faster than what you could do internally."

Do as your client asks, not as it does
It’s no secret that big brands are saddled with big bureaucracies. In turn, agencies working for those big brands can be tempted to mirror their clients’ innovation-stifling corporate silos, which often stall progress, says Torrence Boone, Google’s managing director of agency business development. "Agencies have bureaucratic layers because they model themselves after the client organizations they serve," he says. "Agencies and clients should agree on rules of engagement for how to partner so they can produce the best work." Wheeler suggests clients can also take a cue from startups. "If you look at how big agencies have been compensated over time, they’re not incentivized to be especially smart or efficient," he says. "Big ideas can’t make it outside the agency very often because there are five levels of approval you have to get through before you can even talk to your client. Thousands of people at big agencies want to innovate, but the structure fights against the innovation itself."

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