Should Agencies Act More Like Startups?

Or is it the other way around?

The panel topic may have been whether ad agencies need to "think like tech companies," but Jon Steinberg, president of viral marketing company BuzzFeed, suggested that the opposite question might be more relevant: Do tech startups need to act more like agencies?

Sometimes, startups that have big ideas about how they want to shake things up don't understand how things are done now, Steinberg said. That's why, when given the opportunity to speak at New York startup incubator TechStars, Steinberg chose not to give an inspiring speech about entrepreneurship—instead, he focused on the nitty-gritty of the ad industry.

"You can't disrupt if you don't know what you're disrupting," he said.

On the other hand, Steinberg also talked about working with brands to develop a more nimble, flexible approach to advertising. BuzzFeed and a company like GE might release 30, 40, or 50 videos promoting wind power and expect that only a few of them will really catch on. Brands shouldn't stress out about the content that doesn't take off, he said—they just need to feel comfortable with the idea that anything they release might get shared widely.

Paul Gunning, CEO of agency Tribal DDB Worldwide, didn't sound too comfortable with this approach, because it's risky for brands that have spent years or decades building their reputation.

"You can't screw that up," he said.

Gunning argued that the startup and advertising worlds run on opposing philosophies. Luck plays a big role in startup success, while agencies are "not in the business of luck." In fact, he said the job of agencies is to avoid risk and mitigate the effects of luck.

There's a problem with that approach, countered Rei Inamoto, chief creative officer of agency AKQA: It can lead to mediocrity.

"I think a lot of this business is based on mediocrity," Inamoto said.