At some unspecified and largely unremarkable point in the past decade, innovation overtook integration as the industry's chosen "mot du jour". Since that point, there has been endless workshopping and soul-searching and no small amount of wool-pulling to ensure that agencies can present themselves as having genuine innovation coursing through their corridors.
So, what does it take to be truly innovative? Four years ago, when we set up Saint, we had the opportunity to build something from scratch - and it was critical that, in doing so, we ended up with a business that really walked the talk when it came to innovation. We started by looking at businesses that had, for a long time, displayed a real track-record of both embracing and displaying innovation.
First, we examined our parent agency, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R. Much of what is required to nurture a top-quality creative environment holds true for an innovative one. Indeed, Ben Kay, the RKCR/Y&R chief strategy officer, co-authored this article.
We also looked to our founding client, Virgin Atlantic, an airline that has been consistently innovating since its inception: the lounge, the limos, the private security are all evidence of innovation as a means to create a more special flying experience. Beyond that, we looked outside our own immediate partners to companies such as Google with its famous 20 per cent rule, responsible for such innovations as Gmail and Google Maps. And, finally, we looked at the new breed of tech start-ups with their flexible structures and rapid growth.
The immediate conclusion we came to was that innovation is as difficult to hardwire into a business as it is easy to pay lip-service to. It would involve a long-term financial and cultural commitment if it was to work. It also became clear that innovation is not an objective or a strategy but a belief, a belief shared by a group of people who are empowered and incentivised to act on it. We identified some common themes that we went on to condense into three golden rules that defined how we have built our agency.
First golden rule: incentivise group performance. This means having an open source mentality that is collaborative and takes pride in the success of the whole. It is often acknowledged that innovation is not the creation of something entirely new but rather involves taking a commonly held practice and applying it to a new context. If the right environment is created, this transfer will be a continuous, effortless process; and in a creative agency, this leads to the democratisation of ideas. It has been vital to Saint to create a culture where ideas are co-created and co-owned - not jealously protected.
But this isn't just about knocking down walls internally; by working collaboratively with external teams, it's possible to accelerate the transfer process. An example of this would be our project with Internet Week Europe, "Can you draw the internet?", where we pitted the creative industry against a group of school children - effectively democratising the notion that creativity is the sole preserve of the creative industries. This is now running in Internet Week New York and has facilitated even more collaboration from around the world.
Second golden rule: reward diversity. This principle involves embracing chaos and uncertainty within a framework. The very nature of Saint's inception as a largely autonomous unit within RKCR/Y&R is an example of this; giving it the space to grow into what it needed to be. Beyond this, there are other examples of this desire to embrace and reward diversity. Saint and RKCR/Y&R, for example, have consciously chosen not to adopt a planning process so that every problem is approached based on its own unique circumstances.
If you buy into the notion that there is one right way of answering problems, you restrict the possible outputs. But for every piece of process you do not create, you have to improve the quality of talent commensurately.
Culturally, it requires people who don't feel shackled by their job titles and are not afraid to share opinions as creatives, strategists and consumers.
At Saint and RKCR/Y&R, the only given on a project is that it will start with a "big bang" session where all the relevant people gather together to work out what kind of a problem we're dealing with. This collaboration continues throughout and ensures the process is never linear, always inclusive and ruthlessly constructive. This enables us to react quickly to any brief and still turn out great work.
Third golden rule: learn through play. It was clear the pursuit of innovation would mean embracing failure, because the only way to become really good at something is to give yourself permission to be really bad at it first.
Rather than being scared to try new things, we make a game of it and remove the pressure. Rapid prototyping has been formalised by the creation of "The Nursery", headed by our innovations director, Chris Jefford. Its purpose is to see if something can be done and whether it can be useful. The impact on the agency has been huge, resulting in people whose default thought process is "what if?", who aren't afraid to try new things and see them through. This is one of the most valuable assets we can give our clients.
Saint has gone from an idea to Revolution's "Agency of the year" in four short years. We've won numerous awards, grown revenue aggressively and consistently turned a profit.
But we are, of course, only beginning. The great thing about a core belief in innovation is that we can never stand still; we constantly question what is and imagine what next (see blog.saintlondon.co.uk/innovation).
We know that with a committed group of people who share a common belief in exploring the untried, it's going to be a hell of a ride.
Three golden rules have helped Saint foster a culture of innovation within its parent agency, RKCR/Y&R:
1. Incentivise group performance.
2. Reward diversity.
3. Learn through play.
Adam Graham is the managing partner of Saint@RKCR/Y&R
(From Campaign's "What Next in Digital" supplement, July 1 2011)