Andreas Krasser
Jan 11, 2017

Agency innovation: You must un-learn what you have learned

DDB Hong Kong's Andreas Krasser shares three things the agency had to let go of while launching its own startup.

Making this required letting go of some highly valued romantic notions
Making this required letting go of some highly valued romantic notions

Our industry always talks about the end of advertising as we know it. We say that the current agency model is doomed, and that if we want to survive in this world where digital entrepreneurs define the future of business, we have to (re-)learn how to be lean and nimble. We’re basically telling big corporations to be the opposite of big corporations, and instead act more like startups.

A lot of talk, big words—after all that’s what we’re good at. Yet, too often we fail to turn these big words into actions. Now this is where I should say that we at DDB Group Hong Kong are different, that we walked the walk even before talking the talk. Well…we didn’t. Quite frankly, we’re still a big company, following big-company rules and processes, practicing big-company 'efficiencies'. One thing that I believe does set us apart from many other big agencies, however, is that we gave it an honest shot. To understand what it really means when we say ‘act like a startup’, we created our very own.

In October of last year, our agency launched Crafted By My Heart, an iOS app that allows people to create customised jewelry based on their heartbeat. Our experience so far has been an emotional rollercoaster, to say the least.

There have been the definite ups, like generating media coverage worth more than US$1 million, going viral via Playground’s Facebook page, garnering 4.5 million views and more than 9,700 shares, or simple things like receiving really nice and encouraging emails from satisfied customers. Then obviously, there have also been some downs, such as dealing with unforeseen issues in the manufacturing process, the resulting delays, complaints, and so forth.

While our startup is currently generating some money, we most probably won’t be switching industries anytime soon. But honestly, apart from financial success, this whole endeavour has had an even bigger, and more meaningful, impact on our agency. It helped us to un-learn a few old habits. Here they are.

1. Love for perfection

Many big agencies, and businesses in general, tend to fall into the perfectionist trap. For many companies the old saying that the perfect is the enemy of the good applies. They spend too much time refining their products, campaigns and initiatives and testing them in artificial environments, rather than assessing and evolving them directly in market. And we all know how fickle trends and consumers can be. If you’re not moving fast enough today, you might be irrelevant already by tomorrow.

So, throughout this journey of ours, we made a special effort to un-learn how to love the absolute perfect, and instead tried to embrace the good. This obviously doesn't mean we’re content with putting unfinished products to market. No, it means that we have understood the value of taking minimum viable products to market, while using real-time feedback to improve them on the fly.

Believe me when I say we had nearly endless discussions before going live that were all about the design elements that “weren’t quite there yet” and missing functions that would be “soooo good to have”.  But in the end, we always settled it by going back to one question: “Do we really need it in order to go live?”

2. Obsession with control

Un-learning our love for perfection also meant that we had to let go of our obsession with control. Let’s face it, despite knowing how empowered consumers actually have become since the rise of social media, our industry is still obsessed with the illusion of being able to control every single reaction and every outcome related to our work. It is this very obsession that makes us second-guess, and even more often kill, bolder ideas and initiatives that seem a little more ‘out there’.

Launching Crafted By My Heart has opened our eyes towards the fact that we’re certainly not in control of what happens. Sure, we can make decisions, plan for the worst and put detailed contingency strategies into place, but there will always be outside influences that just cannot be predicted.

Being in charge of every single step of the customer journey, starting from user experience to manufacturing, quality control, all the way to delivery and customer support, certainly has helped reach this conclusion, but more importantly, it helped us to see the only sort of control there is. Not the wishful kind directed at other people or at our environment, but the kind directed at ourselves and how we react and respond to certain unexpected events.

3. Devotion to narrow job roles

Last, but certainly not the least, launching our own startup has helped us un-learn to define ourselves based on job roles and job descriptions.

During the course of this project, we would often be short of resources—even more so than usual. We would also very often work after-hours and on weekends. But never would anyone ever say, “I’m not going to do this, because it’s not in my job description.” We had planners edit videos, suits and project managers write copy, technologists do customer support, creatives review legal documents, financial analysts evaluate UX design…everyone involved with this project did not just done their own part, but at some point, also everybody else’s. There was just no other way if we wanted to get this thing off the ground.

I sincerely believe that like this, an innovative mindset can work itself into the entirety of a business, completely reshaping how we work and how we approach challenges. Creative directors become technologists, planners become product developers, risks become opportunities, and change becomes the status quo.

In our case, this experience of fluid job responsibilities has also increased the understanding of each other’s value to the agency, and therefore strengthened the mutual respect within the company.

Concluding remarks

While creating our own startup might have helped us to un-learn a few old habits that are characteristic of bigger agencies, we—as mentioned earlier—still are a big agency, dealing with big-agency issues.

So, we certainly did not change the agency model overnight. But we did put our money where our mouth is. We did put ourselves out there. We did welcome experimentation.

And the market has reacted; we are currently in talks with a company that is interested in collaborating with us to bring Crafted By My Heart to the next level.

Here’s to un-learning a few more things in the future.

Andreas Krasser is head of strategy and innovation at DDB Group Hong Kong

 

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