4 Lessons Madison Avenue Can Learn From Silicon Valley

What agencies can steal from big tech

street sign with man looking through a microscope
Silicon Valley accounts for so much business growth and innovation, we should look there for inspiration.
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We’ve heard it ad nauseam: The agency model is broken. Consulting companies are coming for us, and Big Tech is stealing our best people with cafeterias that promise carving stations and kombucha on tap.

As an agency based in San Francisco, we don’t see doom; we see an opportunity to reinvent ourselves. Silicon Valley is where the world comes for ideas, and we’ve spent the last few years scouring these companies for behaviors and attitudes that we can apply to our business model.

Rather than complain about tech companies stealing our people, we wanted to see what we could steal from them.

Assume you’re doing it wrong

In advertising, we come in every morning with the assumption that we know what we’re doing; that we’re doing “it” right. But in Silicon Valley, they show up every day and assume they’re doing “it” wrong. That’s what drives them to constantly break what they’re working on and rebuild it.

The reason the word “pivot” has become a buzzword in business is because it happens so frequently in Silicon Valley.

We have to look at practices that began in the Mad Men era, like pairing a copywriter with an art director and sending them off to brainstorm, not as the way to do it but simply one way to do it.

As one example, we tested what would happen if we got a large number of people from all departments briefed in a room but gave them very little time to ideate. As you can imagine, the clock ticking created some palpable urgency and energy.

Make change a habit

The reason the word “pivot” has become a buzzword in business is because it happens so frequently in Silicon Valley.

Remember the craze around check-in apps? Well, one of them was called Instagram. But when the founders noticed that people liked the photo feature more than the check-in feature, they saw an opportunity and shifted all their resources to pursue it. The rest is billion-dollar history.

By contrast, we marketers have been trained to spend a lot of our intellectual calories on frameworks that map out which elements are fixed. We have to develop new muscles where change happens constantly and our teams get comfortable with this kind of uncertainty. 

Embrace the growth equation

In the book Hacking Growth, authors Sean Ellis and Morgan Brown lay out a detailed model for growth, which boils down to the following: Desire minus friction equals growth.

As agencies, we focus on building desire. As Don Draper said, “We create an itch they want to scratch.” But the engineers in Silicon Valley know that lowering all forms of friction can be just as powerful as increasing the desire. (They’re really good at math.)

When we try to understand as much as possible about both sides of that equation, we end up with better results. It also works when you apply it to your agency and think about the friction points potential clients might experience when working with you.

Track data inside your agency

In Silicon Valley, engineers are the creative department, and they are trained to be highly responsive to data. They want to build things people use and love, and if they get data that says otherwise, they ask what they can do differently to be more productive.

We all apply data analysis to the creative work that’s out there in market, but what if we track data as it applies to our ideation processes, too? Test out exactly how many ideas were created in how much time and how many of them went to the client and were approved. That data informs which processes are doubled down on and which should be left behind.

Not every idea you test will work—we’ve certainly had our share of humbling moments when something we were sure would be great was not. But everyone is vested in the process, and our client satisfaction scores are up double digits, so we continue to try to steal even more.

In advertising, we like to say that a great idea can come from anywhere. Considering Silicon Valley is responsible for the most business growth and innovation in history, looking to them for inspiration is not a bad place to start.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 18, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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