As we’ve noted here, on an ongoing basis, advertising agencies are getting serious about product development. Be it a desire to create beyond the parameters of a campaign, the ability to attract diverse talent, or the pressure to establish new streams of revenue, agencies are beginning to redefine their offering to clients. Yet, there’s a significant question at the root of this shift: Should agencies be creating product in the first place?
Winston Binch, chief digital officer of Deutsch L.A., thinks so. In fact, he thinks agencies are better poised than others to create products that consumers will actually use. "I think marketers make really great inventors because we understand culture, we understand people."
Deutsch L.A. is now able to put that theory to the test with the launch of Inventionist, a product invention arm that will focus on inventing new ways of working and offering product as a marketing solution.
"The most successful digital I’ve worked on has been in the platform and app space," says Binch, who before joining Deutsch was behind digital products such as Domino’s Pizza Tracker at Crispin Porter + Bogusky. "Product has the power to improve and drive marketing by creating real value, solve real problems and create long-term connections with people," he says.
When it comes to product ideas, the challenge for agencies is that rarely is the instruction to invent something on a client deliverables list. And if it’s not on the list, there’s likely no budget or time for anything above and beyond. Binch says the idea behind Inventionist is to create a framework and a process for clients to dabble in bigger, non-campaign ideas with very few strings attached.
It works like this: For $10,000 any client (regardless of AOR status) can engage the Inventionists, led by director of invention Bud Cadell and a small dedicated team. The first stage is a five-day sprint in which digital product ideas are matched to a business problem. A 45-day prototyping process follows and finished products are launched within six months. Its first client, Esurance, is in the midst of a five-day sprint.
"What we wanted to do was make it easier for clients to invest in this type of thinking and this type of work, and not force them to buy it as part of a standard marketing deliverable," says Binch. "It’s tough for even the best client to sign off on that because they have objectives to meet. I think that’s why you don’t see more Nike+’s, because they don’t fit into that marketing package easily."
Bud Cadell cautions that only the adventurous should apply: "I have to caveat this with: This service is not for every marketer out there. We’re probably not a great fit for clients that are just trying to fill what they’re measured by each year. We want to investigate new revenue models with our clients—whether that’s equity sharing in a new venture or revenue based payouts—we’re looking to position ourselves more as a partner than a vendor."
For Deutsch, the plan to bring invention into the agency was not simply a whim. When Binch was brought over from Cripsin a year and a half ago, his remit was to build the agency’s digital capabilities and explore product development. In preparation for this move, about a year ago the agency created a new creative discipline called invention strategy. In the process of figuring out how to embrace invention thinking and make it something could be consistently sold to clients, Binch launched 30 Days to Beta: an experimental process where the agency website was redesigned in 30 days.
"We really did that because, well, we needed to get our website up, but we also wanted to learn about agile and lean development," says Binch. "The more I started showing clients what we did in 30 days, the more they started saying they wanted that 30-day package. Which hit on something pretty important—in today’s world you have to think in real time and be a lot faster than ad agencies typically are. That’s where we came up with this notion of an invention service."
Along with offering new marketing solutions to clients, the goal is that the leaner, speedier practices gleaned from the Inventionists will filter through the entire agency. Which means fewer layers of approval and empowering teams to make decisions, says Binch. "We’re focused on invention, but the thing here is to add speed to creativity and reaction time, to be digitally smart and instill this notion that we can’t just sit around and do nothing throughout the agency."
Another upside of creating digital products is that all of a sudden, working at an agency seems that much more interesting to engineering and developer talent—or at least that’s the hope of many agencies moving into this space. "There’s a real commonality in the talent I talk to," says Binch. "They want to make stuff. More important than money or title, they want to be in a place where they have the ability to make things and put them out into the world. By understanding that, we can make room for these folks and give them something to do that’s really useful. This is not just product development off to the side; we really want to make this a vital service."
And being vital is the key in this industry-wide swing: vital to clients, to an agency’s talent, and to consumers. "The reality is that digital is still not as profitable as advertising. It’s just not," Binch says. "But what it does is, if you get to great digital product work, it energizes the agency, it puts us on the map and it also creates long-term business success for your brands and that starts to create a lot of opportunities for the agency. We’ve got to make stuff, put it out into culture, test it and learn.