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The labs debate continued- why agencies need labs

November 22, 2010

Computer Relics

A recent post on Influx about agency labs generated a lot of conversation and debate, so it’s only fair that I sum up the discussion and try to make sense of it.

At its heart it’s all about innovation in agency land and who takes responsibility for it.

There were a number of comments highlighting the danger of agency skunk works that are isolated from their main units and can often be ineffective.

Bud Caddell
summed these thoughts up nicely.

“Agencies don’t need labs. Agencies need to become labs. From an evolutionary biology perspective, the agency ecosystem is in turbulence, and these organisms (the agencies) need to adapt as quickly as possible to achieve fitness in the new landscape. While having a lab may seem to satisfy that condition – by integrating mutation, crossover, and ultimately novelty into the larger organism, the challenge of spreading the lab’s practices and success to the larger organization is a huge hurdle – one that organizations almost always fail at.”

However, there were a couple of thoughts that were supportive of labs for different reasons.

Matt Albiniak
the justification for labs was based on the need for deep technological understanding.

“Unfortunately, it’s rare to find people that understand guts of an API spec and can apply that to a brand identity, or map it consumer behavior. Labs are absolutely necessary. They always have been. They’ve just never worked because not everyone knows how to share the information in meaningful and useful ways. I’ve seen a couple agencies figure it out, but it’s mostly due to finding those rare people that a) understand the technology and b) have the people skills to share it.”

For Robin Lanahan the need for a lab was based on the lack of bandwidth and dedication to the topic.

“The big agencies have big clients and big daily challenges and are often housed in big spaces not providing the right conditions for innovation. Having worked in the agencies that acted like labs in the early days (Wieden and Crispin), I know it’s possible. But in this day, commitment to innovation requires resources and people that can be dedicated.”

Mel Exon
of BBH Labs took on the challenge of the lack of influence and accountability directly.

The difference with Labs is that experimentation and the transfer of learning IS the day job, it’s all we do. The role of Labs here boils down to two things, I think – 1. Reducing complexity (new stuff can look and feel labyrinthine at the outset, it helps to have a few scouts) and 2. Accelerating the transfer of knowledge (to extend the metaphor, the scouts need to carry a ball of wool). What this hopefully sheds light on is the fact that we have enough fluidity and external focus to bring new approaches to bear, but that our relationship with the rest of the agency is a close, symbiotic one. To be successful, it has to be.

Based on these comments and the debate overall, it’s clear what agencies need to do.

No one is debating the need for innovation; it seems like a perquisite for the times, the only debate is how it’s done.

To embrace innovation, agencies need to do three things

1.    Encourage and incentivize their employees to think and be innovative. This will need to be defined and made clear, but if breakthrough is the requirement, everyone needs to step up and take responsibility to help make it happen.

2.    Hire technologists and add them to creative teams. No one can understand and the keep up with the complexities of evolving technology as a night job. There’s a need for someone who’s dedicated to doing this full time. This isn’t about someone who understands how to design and create user-experiences digitally, but a person who knows how an API or what’s inside the guts of a phone. Big digital agencies have them, their more traditional counterparts, don’t.

3.    Set up a lab. These can scale from employees who are given a small % of their time to be the “lab” to a fully dedicated unit. Obviously, these options have different investment levels. The important thing about a “lab” is that it has a mission which is all about thinking two steps ahead of everyone else and it transfers this knowledge effectively throughout the agency.

If anyone is interested in turning this discussion into a live debate- maybe one evening in NYC with beers, etc- please let me know…

Posted by Ed Cotton

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