10 Ways Silicon Valley Culture Can Reinvent Advertising

The founders of agency Enso Collaborative identify some of the key ways that Madison Avenue should follow the example of Silicon Valley.

One year into building our agency, Enso Collaborative, we’ve learned a lot from our clients in Silicon Valley—and a lot of what we’ve learned is antithetical to the traditional advertising agency model and culture. We’ve come to believe if advertising agencies followed the culture and approach of Silicon Valley, then agencies, brands, and people would benefit, so we decided to share what we’re learning. We’ve identified several key shifts. Among them:

From "always be closing" to "always be in service of the user"

Whereas traditional marketing is about driving sales (more units per person), which can create an adversarial relationship with people (selling to consumers), another approach to marketing can be in recognizing a real cultural need and developing a solution that meets that need. It’s about maximizing human value in alignment with financial value.

From incrementalism to setting really big, meaningful goals

Rather than focus on the next small step (whether that’s checking the box of a client brief, improving sales by 4% or winning an ad industry award), focus on the moonshots, or as Larry Page has said, frame the goal in a big, long-term user-focused way. Then there’s always more you can do—and the best people want to work really hard on big goals.

From the Don Draper "big reveal" to radical collaboration between client and agency

Everything we do starts with an open Google doc. So our clients are in our briefs (so to speak). We brainstorm ideas together. Client presentations go from high stakes "win or lose" affairs to work sessions about improving the work.

From seeking to find "the answer" to constant and never-ending iteration

In advertising, often there’s a quest for the one right answer. In Silicon Valley, there’s never one way to solve a problem, and always more improvements to be made. We share work, launch ideas, and then evolve from there. We never get attached to one version of our work. The nimble mind-set of condensing failures and successes into a shorter timeframe applies just as much to marketing as to product development.

From "making the new thing" to making things that are useful and meaningful

Orienting around the new can get attention, but it’s shallow and passing. Creating more positive opportunities for more people creates much richer, longer-term engagement.

From creating exclusivity to universal accessibility

While advertising traditionally stokes desire by creating a perception of exclusivity, today it’s more important to create mass, fair access to things of quality.

From hype and hyperbole to authenticity and values

While Madison Avenue sells the dream, Silicon Valley actually creates it; our takeaways have been—always show rather than tell, and reality can trump the cheap trick.

From a culture of idea ownership to cocreation

Traditional agencies feed a culture of ego where a creative’s career hinges on writing a famous line or getting the credit for a breakthrough idea which in turn creates a culture of opposition and competition. To collaborate effectively, you have to leave the notion of credit at the door and be willing to cocreate with your clients. In our work, no one takes sole credit for an idea (client or agency)—there’s no focus on whose name will be on an award.

From "unique selling proposition" to community activation around values

Rather than presenting technology as the latest cool thing, or two times better than the rival (the CPG model), the imperative is to help people see what technology makes possible for the things they care about. When brands and people are united around values, it can lead to shared success.

From reflecting culture to fulfilling cultural needs

Rather than paying millions of dollars to associate with a fleeting celebrity or trend, using resources to champion and celebrate real people achieving great things creates lasting value for everyone.

Ultimately, we’ve decided to look to the best companies in the world, like our primary client Google, for new working models rather than traditional advertising practices. So far, we’re seeing that the same kind of mind-set and culture that defines Silicon Valley can be applied to marketing and advertising. And that transition may be an imperative if agencies want to remain relevant and valuable partners.

Sebastian Buck and Kirk Souder are cofounders and Brian Hardwick is messaging and activation lead at Enso Collaborative, an agency that unites business success and positive social impact, and brings brands and people together to activate around shared values.

[Image: Flickr users Victor Bezrukov, Ian Sane]

Add New Comment


  • Boopboopadoop

    There are probably some valid points here.  But at least half of these broad declarations would benefit from some concrete examples.  "It's about maximizing human value in alignment with financial value."  What the hell does that mean? 

    If there's one thing that both Advertising and Silicon Valley could benefit from it would be ridding themselves of this kind of meaningless jargon.
    Just say what you mean without dressing it up in pretentious language that ultimately means nothing.

  • Sebastian Buck

    hi Boop -- we hoped that 'always be in service of the user' was clear, but here's an example to illustrate the point: a soap company providing hygiene education in emerging markets creates value for people and the company.

  • npoz1

    I also disagree with your first point that we can develop solutions to meet the consumers need. There is a difference in what can be done depending on if we are talking about marketing or advertising. The article header says advertising, but then your point talks about marketing. For advertising, we can't develop solutions that meet a consumers needs, unless their need is to find out about a new product or service. It's the client's job to create a product that meets a cultural need. It's our job to get the message out about that product.

    You have more flexibility in the overall marketing, however, to create the solutions you're talking about.That said, within advertising there can certainly be a shift in the message from the purely flashy to a most honest, "this is what this product can do for you," but you need a good product and a good client to start with, and not every product/client is Google.

  • Sebastian Buck

    hi Npozi - thanks for the comment.  Sorry for the confusion between advertising and marketing; actually we think both can be in service of people, and aren't reliant only on product development. For example, brand advertising that encourages people to get out and play, while also selling shoes.

  • mhensgen

    Loved most all of your piece, except the front end i.e. "traditional marketing is about driving sales (more units per person)". Actually, I believe that although increasing forgotten in today's agency world, marketing should be all about driving PROFIT, not volume, revenues, or what have you.

    And at bottom, the way to do that is to establish a meaningful (and compellingly competitive) connection with the customer. I thing your list of collaborative client/agency activities contributes mightly to that.

    Thanks for the piece,

    Mike Hensgen

  • NINICO Communications

    We agree. There's an exciting movement in the Valley right now and we love being part of it. It's a movement of true integration and openness where digital dictates print, conversation is king and content rules. It's more relationship-based than ever before.  

  • David Young

    The most critical thing an advertising firm brings a client is objectivity. The agency's detachment from a client's culture, where the product is the gravitational center of their corporate universe, offers the agency the chance to observe the product from the consumer's more indifferent vantage point.

    No product is the center of a healthy consumer's universe.  The fatal flaw in the agency model described above is the assumption there can be true collaboration between the two cultures of the agency and the client. The former is getting paid to be in this "collaboration" and the latter is paying to be in it. Whose ideas do you think will carry the day?

    The loss of detachment is a loss of objectivity. It makes this model sound more like a Madison Avenue smoozefest over cocktails (imagine Roger Sterling of Madmen) than a Silicon Valley marketing revolution.

  • Sebastian Buck

    hi David - thanks for the comment.  

    We agree that perspective is really important.  But we've seen different perspectives create great solutions within our agency (we're from very diverse backgrounds), and with our clients.  Our experience is that diverse perspectives create better work when working closely, than working at arm's length. 

    But that does take a client and agency culture that's focused on doing the best work, rather than driven by politics, or ego, or standard practices, etc.  We recognize that's not always possible. 

  • Dr. Dog

    Agreed. It sounds like a one-client agency who's stopped challenging the status quo and started saying yes to everything.