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Wait A Minute Makers: Before Agencies Can "Make Things" They Need To Create "Makeable Ideas"

You’ve heard it here before: Ad agencies should be concerned with "making stuff." But, Y&R’s Rick Liebling argues, agencies first need to master a new way of thinking about big ideas.

It’s an ever-increasing refrain—agencies need to make things. In order to compete and be relevant in today’s fragmented, disrupted, disintermediated marketing/media world, agencies need to rethink their models and produce something more than just Big Ideas. Allison Kent-Smith, founder of Smith & Beta, put it thusly in a recent Co.Create article: "It’s no longer just about great ideas. It’s about great ideas that get made."

Now, one can argue that this is just another business management fad that will pass and that ad agencies should stick to doing what they do best—coming up with compelling communication ideas. But let’s for a moment go with this line of thinking and agree that agencies need to fundamentally change. If you take the time to think about it rather than just accept the idea you’ll hit a brick wall of reality: Forget actually making something; most agencies probably aren’t fully equipped to think of things that can get made.

By that I mean, one doesn’t simply start thinking like a designer or engineer after spending years thinking like an artist or author. All of those professions have built formal modes of thinking that best suit the output they create. Thinking in the same way to create a different solution is unlikely to produce the desired results. Rather, you must first mentally step back, then shift laterally, then dive into the new style of thinking. In other words, before agencies can create "makeable things" they need to create "makeable ideas."

This is a significant shift for an agency, not just something that can be communicated in an email or PowerPoint presentation. It’s a fundamental change and requires a new way of thinking not just for creative but for senior management, HR, accounts, and planning.

Creating things in our digital world requires experts in UI/UX and design, creative technologists and others who may not be part of the existing agency structure. It requires a commitment to the concept of "platforms, not campaigns." It probably necessitates a new fee structure as well. These are all long-term changes for an agency.

Once all that is in place an agency is still not ready to start making things. First they must train themselves to conceive of "makeable ideas." What do I mean by that? If in an internal creative meeting the idea ends with someone saying, "And then the monkey grabs the dad’s cell phone!" you’re not concepting "makeable ideas." This is where planners really need to play an essential role. Not to stifle creativity, but to unleash it in a focused direction. Planners should guide the creative towards ideas that can be downloaded, worn, played, customized, broken into constituent parts, crowdfunded, gamified, or otherwise hacked. When you start thinking that way you are starting to create a "makeable idea."

"Makeable ideas" don’t spring solely from a creative team. They come from a multi-disciplinary collaborative effort. Much of what is in Kent-Smith’s article rings true because she understands this fundamental truth. She states, "An agency must have user experience, interaction design, and information architecture front and center. UX experts are not easy to find, but heavy hitters in this area will transform ideas that are impossible to ideas that are reality."

Here are five steps agencies need to take to start creating "makeable ideas" that will lead to "makeable things":

1. Make the creative process open-source

From traditional creatives to coders, UX designers to fashion designers, bring in people with different skills sets. You’re ideating for a different solution, you need different inputs.

2. Think platforms, not campaigns

It’s not about a 30-second spot or banner ad. It’s about ideas that can evolve and support a multitude of additional ideas.

3. Understand APIs

Can your idea connect to the Internet? If not, it’s probably not a viable platform for the 21st century.

4. Adopt an iterative process

"Makeable Ideas" are tweaked, nuanced, and massaged and gather strength as they face testing. Conceive, test, improve.

5. Create a physical/digital tension

Many of the best platforms understand how to balance consumer behaviors that transcend between physical and digital. Think about how your idea engages people in a physical space, or physically, as well as in a digital or mobile space.

Rick Liebling is Creative Culturalist at Y&R New York. He advises clients on how to engage in culture in order to better understand consumer behavior.

[Images: Flickr user Yersinia Pestis, Ross, Madelinetosh, and Swamibu]

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  • M. Sandbox

    We were just discussing this in a meeting this morning about an ad campaign for a company. It revolved around getting a product out, per clients view or making sure that the content was great enough to use across mutltiple platforms, mainly digital. 

  • Breean E. Miller

    "Think platforms, not campaigns. It’s not about a 30-second spot or banner ad. It’s about ideas that can evolve and support a multitude of additional ideas."

    This is right on. Agencies would do well to work toward creating platforms, and then integrated campaigns to promote such platforms. Look at Levi's Go Forth, or Reebok's new#LiveWithFire.

    These are platforms - much larger than campaigns - and they connect, and continued to connect with consumers in a real way that establishes trust, loyalty and experience with these brands.

  • Jakob Boije

    In the design world, planners (or design strategists as they are called there) need to worry about entire ecosystems of physical and digital in order to deliver value to clients. 

    Digital integration/thinking is clearly the way to go for most "brand building jobs" today, but there's a whole physical world sometimes left behind by agencies (and I'm not talking print collateral) that also needs plenty attention for max emotional customer attachment. When will the world of design consultancies shake hands with the agency world? Will it even work, considering the different business models and expected speed of delivery?

  • Kate Perkins

    This article refers to "planners" who do all of this figuring out - "planners" should equal the head of your tech department and that persons's head of project management so you know A.) what technology exists to solve your problems, B.) do you have the resources to access it (people who know how to use it, their time) and C.) how long will that take.  Or consult the tech lead and PM at the vendor you plan to use.  Seems like one of the adjustments some agencies will have to make is working with a vendor at the planning stage.

  • amorita

    Rick—a great thought and a fodder for lots of conversations. Thank you for putting it out there.

    I've often thought in a similar vein, only in the realm of micro business/solopreneur branding. My interpretation of what you are saying is that the creatives should think like a startup—rather than waiting for clients to hand them a job, start coming up with ideas that can be made, tested and iterated. Startup Weekend, Hackathon, Lean Startup Machine et. al. (as well as a whole school of "LEAN/Agile" software teams) might provide a good starting point for any creative service providers who want to "start making things" to explore the structures/environments that encourage more of what you talk about here. 

    In my mind, digitally-focused agencies such as Jess3, Barbarian Group and Coudal Partners have been practicing making "makable ideas" for some time, and I hear Mullen (and probably Y&R too) experimenting with different team structures and creative processes. Do you think these are examples of people heading the right direction, or are you talking about something more fundamental/radically different? 

  • Rick Liebling

    Amorita -

    Thanks for your thoughts. Yes, I think the examples you gave are spot on. I think it is a very disruptive notion for many agencies, but that is the world we live in right now. Continuing to base your methodologies and strategies on outdated models won't produce successful results - as a certain political party found out earlier this week.

    The question is - which is going to be better: introducing a new way of thinking to an existing, large process (traditional agency model), or creating a new, small process that you can scale up? I think it might be the latter, but how do you abandon what's been working for years? It's very difficult.

  • amorita

    forgot to hit "post" on this yesterday (and miraculously, it was still sitting here when I came back to check on something) - think there's something about the UI of this form that's prone to make people forget the last step! :)

  • Eric Brody


    My comment is what happened to my comment from yesterday morning? I was the first to comment on the article.

    Eric Brody

  • Steven Stark

    Too short? No, it was too light on ideas and too heavy on circular logic. I get the point, but my point is that there's no there there. OK, all of you who heaped your praise on this bit of puffery, tell me this — in clear english — what did Rick actually say?

  • Traderbeck

    This is kind of a dog whistle thing. If you do a little research into the subject, you'll see what I mean. It makes sense if you've read about the topic or are involved in this agency debate, but if you just stumbled into the discussion, I can see how it would sound like total BS. My two cents: Great job, Rick. I always thought the "Big Ideas vs. Making Things" argument was a fallacy. Why does it have to be one or the other? Both matter. Everything starts with the idea but nothing ends there. Finding people with a range of skills/the intelligence/vision/endurance to carry ideas through to these creations is the key. 

  • Rick Liebling

    Here's what I was trying to say, in a condensed version:

    Many people have suggested agencies should try to 'make things.' My position is that 'making things' is different, and requires different thinking, than what agencies traditional do. So, before agencies can make things they need to think differently. I then gave five examples of this new type of thinking. 

    You may disagree, or felt I didn't articulate the idea cogently, but that's what I was going for.

  • TimFremmich

    This is definitely something that is important to think about. I suspect Aldo and StevenStark miss the point because the article is too short and perhaps expect that people have read about the subject before. 

    At our agency this is something we (or me at least) spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to implement and therefore research a lot. Articles like these are great to get your mind going, but as you point out Rick, the process is quite long and very difficult. So I will add these thoughts to my long list of thoughts on the subject and keep on trying to implement this type of thinking.

  • gravity7

    I would add that makeability of a design idea isn't just a matter of its intrinsic viability. it's a matter of client capabilities also. Is a make-worthy idea suited to a client? Will the client sustain it? Does the client want it? Make-ability isn't only an abstract metric, but in fact rests upon the abilities of those we make our ideas for. 

  • Rick Liebling

    Gravity7 - That's a great point, and one I was probably not considering, but should have. The agency and the client need to have a strong relationship built on trust and a strong understanding of the client's business situation.


  • Michele Martin

    It's a great piece. In the end, it's all mind sets and the psychology of solutions. My only hesitation is that in your article, you mention that "one doesn't simply start thinking like a designer or engineer after spending years thinking like an artist or author." I disagree that there is a difference. 

    Some of the most brilliant individuals I know, people who hold rank in each of those 4 fields, are all similar in their thought processes. A truly great artist or author can recognize a problem and solve it within their work, breaking down some and making it accessible, as the most brilliant man I know in UX is an innately gifted artist and storyteller. I do not think any of these exist separately, rather, I believe that they must co-exist in order to create the innovative thinkers & makers we require to move forward as companies, as individuals, as society as a whole.

  • Richard Kastelein

    Great article Rick - and a topic I have been thinking about a fair bit recently - mainly due to the overabundance of proprietary thinking around creativity and innovation in the London agency scene. Having recently put on a hackathon around TV, I found agencies reticent to get involved with briefs, challenges or support due to walled garden thinking. Largely to the detriment of the brands they represent in my opinion. Bill Gates can't fill up all the air hangers in Seattle with enough staff to make Internet Explorer browser a better UX than Firefox with it's Open Community driving innovation at breathtaking speed. Apple and Facebook both have, in essense, 50,000 developers working on spec for them. Movements around Joomla and Wordpress are redefining how we deliver content on the web and have millions upon millions publishing, developing and using their CMSs. 

  • Gunther Sonnenfeld

    Oh man, where to begin! (Having flashbacks from my agency days...)

    Rick -- you raise some great points here. This makes me think about two things in particular: Reinventing the creative discipline, and developing ideas that are business as well as market-relevant.

    On the creative front, open-source ideation is great, but it also can be counterintuitive to collaborative structures. Successful ideas must be carefully nurtured, and more important, they must be owned and accounted for. Traditionally, this meant that creatives were credited for great ideas that were executed on. Now, they must must be credited as "conductors" for great ideas that are collaborated on, or, for ideas that are sourced outside of their own departments. This is a tough one for creatives who have spent years earning their stripes in the "old" system, but it's not impossible. It's a learning process, and not all egos are balanced equally.

    On the development front, all disciplinary types must be educated on how ideas can scale inside of a business or inside of a market. In other words, agencies need to develop 21st century skill-sets. This is critical, and is the same problem startups have. In the startup world, most companies don't have the benefit of understanding how ideas work in a marketing or brand context. In the agency world, most companies don't really get how ideas work in a business context. If agencies are to make or invent things, they'd better start learning how ideas manifest at the macro- and microeconomic level. Further, they'll need to adapt their operations and business models to rapid shifts in the market -- and most are incapable and/or unwilling to do so.

    With that said, agencies like Deutsch and Rockfish and Y&R are smart to think that they are well suited to invent things, because they are -- they understand "consumers" and they study culture. But they must never forget that this comes with great pain, because that is how all great companies (especially startups) innovate. To date, the idea of "failing forward" has not been synonymous with agencies that must constantly squeeze their margins and justify the success of their campaigns (and platforms) or their retainers. Clients will not continue to allow agencies to innovate on their dime, so it's time to throw discretionary funds into the pot, or get more creative on partnering up -- like putting skin in the game.