Are agencies ready to partner with startups for co-innovation?

For the last twenty years, I have worked in the agency world at PR and Communications agencies and most recently ran a digital agency. It’s sometimes hard to comprehend the degree to which the marketing world has changed over that time and perhaps equally hard to contemplate the impact that this change is continually having on agencies.

As we all know only too well, technology-driven change will only ever get faster. This change can only mean one thing – life will get tougher for agencies that struggle to adapt and rosier for agencies, and people, that do.

One of the challenges facing brands, and hence agencies, right now is how best to use technology innovation to increase marketing efficiencies,exploit new channels, measure marketing effectiveness or create new customer experiences.

There are two fundamental problems: how do agencies keep abreast of the latest technology innovation and how do they evolve themselves to embrace third party innovation within their existing business models?

Let’s face it, the sheer pace of change and the volume of existing startups makes it incredibly difficult to keep up with the latest technology.  Multiply these difficulties by specialist vertical applications of technology and it gets unmanageable very quickly.

The second challenge relates to a mindset that is closely coupled with the agency business model. The natural position for agencies, and indeed any business, is to propose campaigns and ideas that are all built and executed in house. This makes it difficult for an agency to recommend building a digital campaign built around an existing app when the agency could just built it itself and make a lot more money.

What’s more, there are a number of services which can help agencies tap into the startup ecosystem including databases that track the startup world as well as match making services. Yes, it might mean that the agency doesn’t get to build that app or it might lose some short term budget because of investment in a piece of technology, but it will elevate the agency’s standing with the client by solving a very real problem in an innovative way. Agencies that do this will soon get themselves into the position of being a trusted digital innovation partner and find that budgets are growing, not shrinking. 

As brands increasingly look to partner and collaborate with startups to leverage the latest technologies for their marketing campaigns, agencies must evolve to a model that enables them to work in a way that encourages co-innovation. In the same way brands explore new ways of innovating by working with third parties rather than relying on their own internal R&D capabilities, agencies too, need to look outside their own four walls to deliver innovative marketing campaigns to their clients.

Forward-thinking agencies have a huge opportunity to embrace this collaborative approach to innovation because there will be a huge number that don’t. I’m not suggesting it is easy. It takes guts. It takes new and different thinking. However, agencies are in a very privileged position because of their deep understanding of their client’s brand, They can use this shift to further elevate their relationship with the brand by tapping into the technology ecosystem to solve clients’ problems.

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