Imagine an industry whose interests seem to constantly collide with those of their clients. Where the length of titles is more important than the depth of legacy. An industry that hasn’t changed how its product is “manufactured” for more than four decades. An industry where its brightest minds write a resignation op-ed as if they were leaving hell.

Welcome to adland. A business model that is broken. But it doesn’t have to be.

Rethinking our business model

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete” — Bucky Fuller

Blaming others seems the easy way out in adland today but criticizing the state of the industry won’t take us anywhere. Let’s use our energy to rethink our value proposition and how we can build a new business model.

The advertising industry is often overly obsessed about the end product. We fall in love with a solution so much that we forget the problem we were trying to solve. While it’s understandable -considering that our end product (a campaign, an idea) has a lot of visibility- to be sustainable the value proposition cannot depend on the product alone. Consider Nokia, for example. Once a key player in the mobile phone industry, it hasn’t been able to create a clear value proposition to compete against the likes of iPhone or Samsung.

There’s always been this tension: Are we a product or a service industry? Are we paid for our ideas (the product)? Or for how we serve our clients (how we deliver the product)? Every time I ask this question to a colleague, the conversation suddenly derails into a never-ending debate. My point of view is simple: we are in the experience business. Similar to entertainment or lodging, both what we produce and how we deliver it are critical.

Reviewing some of the most disruptive and fastest-growing businesses, we can see how experience has played a bigger part than the product itself. When people refer to Uber, they talk about a user-friendly app, the ubiquity and speed to get a ride, rather than the drive itself. SLACK, the fastest growing business app, doesn’t simply help teams communicate, it enables synchronous collaboration.

Advertising agencies should create experiences to solve business problems using creativity (the product) in the least painful way possible (the service). If we can solve problems in a simpler, faster and cheaper way (less painful), why not? If we can leverage technology platforms or external partners, why not? Creativity is about finding the best solution, not just the one we can implement ourselves.

Change starts at home

How might we do everything in a radically different way than what we’ve been taught?

There’s a saturation of the word innovation in the ad industry. And with emphasis on the wrong place, creating something cool, the latest fad, rather than looking for real impact. Innovation is not just a noun (the end product), but a verb. It’s about creating a culture of innovation -an approach, a mindset, a process- focused on solving real problems for real people. Innovation, same as creativity, can no longer be simply the name of a department or the end product.

Our team made the conscious decision that change should start at home. Asking the right questions before we fall in love with an answer. Challenging our beliefs to the extreme: How might we do everything in a radically different way than what we’ve been taught?

We’ve embarked on this journey with one commitment: to evolve from one prototype to another until we break it. Experimenting to see what sticks, what makes us better, to separate real change from fads. Our ambition is to humanize and democratize creativity to solve real people’s problems.

It sounds simple yet it requires courage to put people -rather than the industry egos- at the center. We choose to adopt a beginner’s mindset: open to continuous learning, receptive to new perspectives and willing to adapt to the unknown rather than defending what we know.

We want to focus our energy in solving real problems for real people. We don’t want to get caught up in pleasing our own industry. We want ideas to can come from anyone and everyone — multiple perspectives make ideas richer. We want to provide a transparent, fluid and safe environment for our clients, partners and people to experiment and thrive. We want to encourage our people to bring their personal passions to work, rather than leaving their soul at home.

Adopting a beginner’s mindset has encouraged us to work in a continuous beta form. We are taking it one experiment at a time:

  • Applying human-centered design (Design Thinking) to create a culture of agile problem solving that sees challenges and solutions through people’s eyes.
  • Providing real power to our team members by removing hierarchies and egos that get in the way, by developing an adaptive operating system based on the principles of self-organization (Holacracy).
  • Experimenting with new tools to behave in a more collaborative and agile way, having to write our own rules as we make progress.
  • Crowd-sourcing our culture-building events so that they are developed and managed bottom-up instead of dictated by the “boss”.
  • Collaborating with the startup community to be challenged and inspired by their fresh perspectives.

Our journey has been uncertain, frustrating and exhausting, to say the least. We are making progress but there’s still a long way to go. This is my first step in documenting our journey. Hope you can learn and be inspired both from our mistakes and progress. Talk soon.

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