Why Agencies Need to Be Maestros of Innovation

It’s time for the services industry to pivot. Again.

Forrester Research recently published a report, “The Future of Services Is Value Creation,” which envisions a new role for services firms to act as maestros, orchestrating the innovation ecosystem to innovate continuously. Businesses have access to a wealth of insight outside their organization across the cloud, but they need a partner to help them connect ideas across the ecosystem. There’s a lot more to the report than what I’m summarizing here; this blog post by author Ted Schadler delves into more detail. The central theme of services providers as value orchestrators got me thinking about some of the ways we need to evolve to be better partners in co-creation. 

As part of a global network of agencies, we at Isobar are  accustomed to tapping into the expertise of sister agencies to find the best thinking that brings about an innovative breakthrough, whether we need to find deep expertise in TikTok, Adobe Experience Platform, and so on. Forrester envisions value creation to be a more iterative and complex process, a “design-orchestrate cycle” that involves agile planning and continuous releases.

I get that notion fundamentally; Forrester is riffing on the concepts of design thinking and lean innovation that I’ve used personally. Especially at a time when businesses are navigating some enormous unknowns and rapid shifts, this more iterative approach is bound to create some stress and strain on many service providers. I believe making the pivot quickly and painlessly requires providers to change their mindsets in some fundamental ways. 

Ditch “Not Invented Here”

Every agency wants to believe it can develop the talent to innovate. And we need that kind of bold aspiration – long term. But innovation is a fast-moving beast, and agencies cannot always develop expertise in-house fast enough to co-create at warp speed. It takes time to recruit and develop talent. Co-creation at speed means looking to create an agile team of the best thinkers and subject matter experts for that client who needs to move fast.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with start-ups all my life – and I worked for one, too. Startups often have the expertise in a field that an agency needs to tap into – but startups also need agencies to broaden their sphere of influence. Agencies play this critical connector role by introducing startups to big brands and helping them establish credibility. This symbiotic relationship starts with the innovation maestro liberating itself from the “Not Invented Here” Syndrome. Being an innovation maestro means focusing on ideas and outcomes and not caring where they came from. 

Be a Partner, Not an Order Taker

Many services firms have allowed themselves to fall into the role of order taker. A client says, “Here’s what I need you to do to help me launch a product,” and the services provider makes it happen. But if services providers are going to really co-create an innovative solution, we need to stop thinking that way. If someone asks an innovation maestro to design banner ads, the answer needs to be, “There’s someone else better suited for that kind of work. But if you need an innovative product design or a thought leader to challenge your business, we can help you.” 

Our best work at Isobar happens when we think critically — when we ask a client, “What are you really trying to accomplish here,” or “How can we marshal the best skills possible inside and outside our immediate network to deliver ideas and insights you couldn’t get on your own?” 

A doer implements. A partner challenges. In Mad Men, Don Draper never asked a client what they wanted. He told them what they needed. As we live in a world of uncertainty, we have to act like this. If Mad Men took place today, Don Draper would still be doing that. But he wouldn’t disappear into his office, think deep thoughts, and save the day like a lone cowboy. He’d orchestrate a posse of thinkers who could move faster and more nimbly than even he could alone – people who knew things that he could not conceivably understand in a 24/7 cycle of idea development.

Act like Producers, Not Managers

The role of the client partner changes for the better when the agency acts like an innovation maestro.  When your client says they need to rethink the way they sell cars by extended reality – and do it now – you won’t succeed by simply thinking in terms of deadlines and deliverables. You need to first know how to work your talent network to find the right people who understand how to pull off that kind of transformation. It’s the mentality of a movie producer – the person who knows how to make movies even if they don’t know how to direct one or write a screenplay. Producers have a vision for what they want and the networking skills to find the talent to deliver on that vision.

Producers are so well connected that they can act quickly with the best thinkers in the industry. Project managers make sure everything gets done on time and on budget. You need a project manager to figure out how to get to the moon. But you need a producer to have the vision to say, “We’re going to the Moon.”

Empathy and Humility

Designers talk a lot about customer empathy, which helps them keep the customer at the center of product development. Maestros need to have empathy for all the players in their ecosystem. They need to be able to put themselves in the shoes of each player in order to understand the particular demands of each role. If you cannot do that, then you go beyond achieving the impossible to asking for the unreasonable. There’s a big difference between the two.

Humility goes hand in hand with “Not Invented Here” Syndrome. You need humility to admit that you don’t have all the answers — to find the talent that complements what you do know.  To surround yourself with people who know more about TikTok than you do. Admit what you don’t know. Embrace what you don’t know. Find someone else who knows more than you. That’s how you succeed as an innovation maestro. 

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