Ad agencies can be innovation agencies

I recently ran a very interesting design thinking project with a leading global ad agency. They had approached us with one of their projects in which the customer was planning to launch a financial offering in Germany and had commissioned them to design not just a campaign, but the whole go to market. Besides the content of the project, the team and I realized something about ad agencies: They are made for innovation work.

In a very traditional world, ad agencies use their unique competence to find ways to sell stuff that’s already out there. The deeper we got into our project, into challenging the initial question, doing open research, prototyping innovative offerings, the more the agency folks realized: This is kind of what we do everyday, just not with the intention to create innovations or actually solve a problem! Here are my three simple reasons why ad agencies can be great innovation agencies:

1. They are in the “understanding people business”
If you want to do great advertising, you have to do your empathy homework and step into your audiences’ shoes. More than many Design Thinkers, the agency folks were able to empathize for the world of target groups they were not a part of.

2. They know about creative leaps
The best ad agencies produce artifacts that we don’t expect or wish for, but that still hit the spot of connecting us with an experience. This is a very powerful skill and something that many corporate innovation departments really don’t know how to do well.

3. They have the skills for prototyping
Most products are combinations of services, experiences digital and non-digital. There’s a lot of innovation work that can be done with the digital prototyping skills that agencies have.

So, what stands between ad agencies and Design Thinking work? I think it’s the consequent believe in the creative genius and the separation between “creatives” and “others”.