As New Tech Emerges and Clients Demand Invention, Agencies Bank On Innovation Labs

360i and others test the next frontier

For the past few years, digital agency 360i had tinkered in its innovation lab with a line of toys to help those with paralysis actively play with children. This month, the concept became a reality with the release of the shop's Adaptoys campaign, which was launched in partnership with the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. The goal is to raise $155,000 in order to build race cars controlled by headsets and later a voice-controlled pitching machine.

Adaptoys is just one of the cool products to come out of the lab, which is designed to work with new technology and figure out ways to use them in client campaigns.

Agency labs are not new—Resource/Ammirati, recently acquired by IBM, opened one of the first labs in 2006—but as new technology, from virtual reality to augmented reality, becomes more mainstream and clients demand more invention from agencies, innovation labs continue to grow apace.

360i vp, innovation technology Layne Harris said the work his team does shows clients that the agency is not just "reacting to trends" but rather is "steeply invested and knowledgeable about those trends." Over the years the agency's lab has become more ingrained in daily procedures and client work, rather than existing as an external unit for the shop. When the creative team works on a brief or pitch, someone from the innovation lab sits in, contributing ideas—this tactic helped spark the idea for Oscar Mayer's Mini Wiener Rover that delivers freshly made hot dogs.

The benefits are clear for the client, but many agencies also find partnering with startups and other brands works just as well. Jonathan Bradley, partner, programs for R/GA Ventures, said hosting accelerator programs for startups—and eventually allowing some of the companies to reside in R/GA offices—promotes a "sharing of knowledge." The agency works with the startups, learns about the latest technologies and what they do, but also flexes its own creative muscles, which in turn leads to breakthrough work for clients.

Smart tone startup Lisnr—which developed technology that sends an inaudible digital signal through speakers and activates an ad, a video or even a purchase via a user's smartphone—went through an R/GA accelerator and has benefited the agency, its clients and the startup enormously. Bradley estimates roughly 10 R/GA clients have experimented with the product while other brands including the Dallas Cowboys and T-Mobile have tested the technology as well.

Investing in an innovation lab also helps the agency create a network of tech-savvy companies and "curates an ecosystem that encourages innovation to come work with us in our programs," Bradley said. Now R/GA doesn't need to go looking for the next best idea. Instead, the ideas come to them.

Anomaly has a similar IP investment venture. Over the years the agency has continued to invest in partnering with and launching up-and-coming brands including EOS lip balm and Mighty Jaxx art collectibles to gain some equity for the agency.

This system also teaches the staff what it means to be entrepreneurial. "It gives us a completely unique perspective on what in-market success looks like," Anomaly New York CEO Karina Wilsher said. That in turn helps the team become more commercially aware and can then "bring that expertise to bear with clients" including P&G Ventures, Hershey's and Johnnie Walker.

"It keeps things interesting. It breeds a culture of risk and reward and makes it a more dynamic culture," Wilsher added.

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This story first appeared in the May 16, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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