Part 3 in the series Prototyping the Agency of the Future

You might think that an industry that is all about communication would master empathy. Curiously enough, adland has a hard time understanding how regular people really feel and think. When words like “awesome,” “cool,” “award-winning” and “no one did it before” are the norm to describe an idea, it’s pretty clear that people’s needs are not at the top of the agenda.

Putting People Back at the Center of What We Do

“Our industry couldn’t care less about the process”

As I mentioned on the first piece of this series, the advertising industry is obsessed with the end product. The pressure to come up with never-seen-before ideas often gets in the way. We always remind our team that our purpose is to solve real problems for real people. And that we shouldn’t get caught up in pleasing our own industry.

The creative development process has traditionally been exclusive: Ideas are expected to come only from those with the word “creative” on their titles. In our case, we believe that the best ideas come from the interaction between insiders and outsiders: multiple perspectives make solutions richer. That goes without saying that some people have a special gift and craft compared to the rest. But by making the creative process more inclusive, we benefit from a broader talent pool.

To make the process more inclusive, we decided to adopt Human-Centered Design (Design Thinking). Our challenge was to see if a method used by innovation shops could also work for developing marketing campaigns. Our initial assumptions were:

– The current creative process is broken

– We need to put people back at the core of what we do

– We want to recover the passion of solving problems versus falling in love with our ideas

We started small, experimenting with tiny projects. Felipe Cabrera, VP of strategy, became partner in crime to help train the entire team. Our initial focus was working with those who seemed more open. As we started to scale, we faced resistance in every direction. Even those who were enthusiastic at the beginning became hesitant too. Felipe was frustrated: “Our industry couldn’t care less about the creative process,” I remember him saying. “We are so protective about our ideas that we are apathetic about making the process more open and transparent.”

Teaching a New Mindset, Not Just a Process

“To be creative it is better to be social than smart”.

At a certain point, we got stuck. Even though our team felt it made sense and we started to get some wins, resistance increased. Was the new process (Design Thinking) getting in the way of creativity? Weren’t we getting the right advocates? Were people not getting what we were trying to achieve? After several iterations, we realized that we had to encourage a new culture, not just the adoption a new process. To build this new mindset, we established certain priorities:

Empathy over egos: To develop a human-centric approach required retraining our brains. Getting back to understanding people (versus seeing them as consumers). Connecting with their emotions and stories, is easier said than done. We had to learn how to walk in their shoes to really solve their problems.

Experimentation over perfection: To let go of our training is hard. Prestige plays a big role in adland. One of our creatives once asked me: “What if someone who is not technically a creative comes up with a better idea than mine? If I share something that is still not developed to my standard, what would that say about me?”

Collaboration over expertise: To establish a culture of creativity where ideas can come from everyone. Not to say that everyone is equally creative but that interacting with people’s different perspectives opens more possibilities. Or like this recent Harvard Study says: to be creative it is better to be social than smart.

Doing over planning: To move into action and learn from it, versus spending weeks or months planning. Realizing that testing ideas at a raw form removes the life-or-death situation. That it’s easier to kill ideas at an earlier stage, before you actually fall love with it. Not only does it hurt less but feedback helps to recalibrate and connect deeply with people’s emotions.

A Journey Full of Flaws (and Learnings)

Change is messy and is not easy. That’s why I love it. We made many mistakes but most importantly, we kept correcting the course. Here are some small lessons that might help those in a similar journey.

People were afraid that the new approach could jeopardize the quality of the ideas. Will collaboration result in accepting a lowest common denominator? Solution: Get some quick wins to immediately fight this. Share the wins, make early adopters the new heroes.

Human-Centered Design could be initially be perceived as a fad. Solution: Involve creatives throughout the process, let them experience first-hand the power of empathy interviews. Turn “creatives” into advocates. “It was energizing to be involved in the whole process, we weren’t just democratizing creativity, we were opening the whole process to everyone”, said Travis Klausmeier, associate creative director at LAPIZ.

People feel confident behind their professional titles. Exposing real feelings, asking people to let go in front of others, to embrace vulnerability, was super tough for many. Solution: We pushed the envelope by creating situations that were not usual, like group meditation, providing feedback live regardless of hierarchies, creating a “safe to try” environment.

Legacy systems have always more advocates than a new system. People feel comfortable with work as usual and don’t want to be perceived as going against industry standards. Solution: Focus on those who have more to win and less to lose, like younger team members, and include them in projects that have great creative opportunities. Felipe said it better: “Why worry about what the ‘naysayers’ would say? Let’s focus on what we can build next, the ‘naysayers’ will eventually get on board”.

Curation still matters. Democratizing the creative process doesn’t mean removing the expertise. Storytelling and craft continue to be important and creative specialists need to own the final product. You also need seasoned “experts” playing a bigger — not necessarily autocratic — role when selecting the work.

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