This is post I’ve been meaning to write for a quite some time now, it’s spawned from a number of conversations I’ve had with people in several digital and mobile agencies around London.

Aside from an odd 14-months at Nokia, I’ve spent all of my professional working life within agencies and it’s always felt like the right fit. The combination of creative and technical minds plus big brands has always had that lure and promise of creating amazing work. The process of getting a bit of paper containing a brief and turning it into a real life experience is pretty great.

So with all the right ingredients, creative juice and technical ability on tap I posed the question - Can The Next Instagram/Hipstamatic/Klout/Angry Birds Be Born Within An Agency?

Actually my question was more like why hasn’t this already happened? Why aren’t more agencies making bets and try to build products and services that would make venture capitalists in Silicon Valley jealous?

I’m not just talking about internal projects that agencies do in spare time (or better still, dedicated time) but for client work too.

In my opinion it comes down to a mixture of two things – clients themselves and agency culture.

The sad truth is that if you’re expecting a client to drop a brief and a lump of cash in your hand that sparks off The Next Big Thing™ then you’ll be waiting a long time. It’s rare to see a ‘big idea’ digital or mobile brief from a client that isn’t suffocated by its own bullshit.

Instead of spending the time to create a 50 page deck containing arrows and buzzwords, why doesn’t the client ever take the time to step back and think ‘Who the fuck is going to do this and why?’

Brands need to realise that the available hours and minutes of the people they are trying to reach are being eaten up by Facebook, IM, Twitter, Foursquare, Angry Birds and browsing the web. What makes them think that people are going to spend time interacting with yet another augmented reality app for any longer than a couple of minutes before getting back to flinging birds and reading tweets?

Adam Glickman makes the fantastic point on Fast Company:

Startups and agencies alike always ask themselves, “What is the problem we’re solving?” If agencies want to think more like tech startups, they might focus less on clever storytelling and more on utility. In today’s media rich, attention-poor world, offering people something of use is the best way to cut through the noise.

Nike’s “Write the Future” and the Old Spice guy were the year’s best ad campaigns. I loved them as much as anyone. But I didn’t spend more than a few minutes with either–I was too busy devoting my spare moments to a relationship with Angry Birds and Foursquare.

I get that not every brief needs to turn into the next Facebook and I totally agree that there’s is nothing wrong with 1 million people using your app once as part of a short-term campaign.

But we can do better surely. How about 1 million people using your app every day? How bout every hour? Year after year?

Do clients and agencies want to keep creating branded fluff or do they want to build temples?

There’s no reason Hipstamatic couldn’t have come from Kodak’s agency. Or a global agency build something like Klout or CoTweet and have brands and rival agencies eating out of their hands paying to use it.

Agencies are just as guilty as clients, we pander too much for their insistence of ‘new’. Too happy to take their cash in return for some bollocks app that might get your client a couple of pats on the back in the boardroom but ultimately will be forgotten by the 5000 people who used it for a week or less.

I keep thinking back to another quote from the article on Fast Company:

Tech startups begin with the big idea, then seek to monetize.
Agencies start with a budget, then seek the big idea.

Two guys on a limited budget can get together and build Instagram, getting 7 million users in less than a year, a couple of guys at Odeo can start a side project called Twitter and become one of the biggest things ever. But at agencies we are consistently unable to turn a app costing 5 or 6 figures into something that can engage people for longer than a campaign (if that).

There are realities of course, I’m no account manager but I know that calling out your client for lack of sense and ambition isn’t the best way to keep people paid and the lights kept on.

So why aren’t more agencies (mobile epecially) creating stuff off their own backs? I know first hand how many amazing ideas get binned in pitches and projects, why not take a punt and prototype one that could benefit the agency (or brand)?

In my personal experience there is a extreme fear of failure and lack of desire to do anything innovative outside of paid client work which stems from the very top of the organisation. There must be 15-20 mobile agencies in London at the moment, how many of them have created apps that were part of side-projects or R&D initiatives?

It’s not like there’s a lack of will. Here’s a little secret – creatives and developers are ITCHING to do cool, innovative stuff and have great ideas every day. Some of these ideas might just be your agencies ticket to new clients, press, talent or revenue.

Try this test – if you’re reading this whilst working in an agency, when was the last time the creative and tech team all got together to launch something fun and interesting outside of client work?

The majority of the time the answer is either ‘a long time ago’ or worst ‘never’.

How are agencies meant to stay relevant and keep staff engaged without exploring technology and ideas in this way?

There are some agencies leading the charge – ustwo (@ustwo) based in Shoreditch have a portfolio filled with a mixture of client work and in-house projects.

They have heavily invested in their own IP and openly talk about the risks they’ve taken, one app called MouthOff has made them £123,456 through sales and licensing to brands, whereas another cost £80,000 of studio time and “utterly bombed”. Did this failure deter them from trying again? Nope! They currently have another big project in the works. Remember that Twitter spawned from the failure of Odeo…

I think I’m slowly finding where I sit within this industry. In the past I use to think that winning a award was the ultimate recognition of great work and aspired to produce campaigns that might get a sniff of a D&AD or Cannes Lion.

But fuck that. I’d rather have users who love and regularly use my app/service than any advertising award out there.

I want to build great products that people love and want to use. I want to solve problems by combining awesome experiences with technology and data.

Can that happen at a agency? Or is the only place for this sort of desire at a start-up or going it alone?

I think Don Draper sums up how I feel in this epic quote:


  • Jonathan

    I think it is mainly because agencies are more commercial. More focussed about making money than inventing their own stuff. Their goal is slightly different to the guy who doesn’t really think about making money.

  • Douglas Crets

    Great post. I think that it’s actually more likely that an agency will sprout up inside an Instagram or a Klout, because I think that the people that work in this realm are great producers of content. I even think that American Express might even create their own agency, if their symbiotic relationship with a company like Involver or Foursquare becomes profitable.

  • Phil_Adams

    Hi. Good post that poses an important question. The agency that I work for, along with some of its friends, made and promoted this in its spare time. It’s a Twitter sentiment analysis engine that helps people choose what to see at the Edinburgh Fringe based on what other people like them have said. It has gained a fair bit of traction in a short space of time for what is effectively a hobby project.

    So agencies can do utility. But, for the time being, we ‘re much more likely to be briefed to do storytelling. We’d have been waiting a long time to do something like this on behalf of a client.

  • Mark Sampson

    Murat, a great post which raises some real interesting questions. In my view, the real problem is with the leadership of the agency itself. If the firm has a culture of pleasing the client and delivering what they want, they will never be focused on innovation and disruptive ideas themselves. They will be too client sensitive to ever look for a lucrative opportunity outside of serving their customer.

    The same problem is why American Express never became PayPal, Maxwell House didn’t become Costa Coffee, or Lloyds didn’t become Agencies aren’t fostering a culture of innovation, they are just answering to the client.

    Google with its “20% time” is the master of cultural innovation – allowing motivated, smart employees to work on stuff they find interesting has ultimately ended up creating awesome offerings such as Google Mail, or Google Maps – therefore keeping them at the top of their game.

    Your quote from Adam Glickman raises an interesting point – that although some ads from the likes of Nike, and Old Spice were pretty cool, they aren’t engaging. What’s engaging is playing around with Angry Birds and Foursquare. Personally I believe the future of delivering great work is engagement – and the idea of “Gamification” can help agencies on that journey – delivering an experience which keeps the “player” just coming back for more.

  • good for nothing

    nice post and very much agree with what you’re saying.

    There’s a need to encourage more experimentation agency side and client side

    We currently have a 50 day window of opportunity to encourage agencies to make something not for their clients which might kick off on the web – if it makes money then it also might saves lives too – hopefully it’s a good excuse to experiment which might lead to more ‘making’ in the future as you say

    Our platform has just launched here and needs more projects from ‘makers’

    And here’s the recent post making the case for agency experimentation which made me comment on this post

    Fancy getting involved ?

    • Murat


  • James Barnes

    This is a great post that highlights a considerable problem in London’s mobile creative industry. Agency leadership is risk averse and panders the want of clients who possess even greater risk aversion. That’s the nature of the game – all eyes to the bottom line.

    Your choice = side project or go it alone.

  • Ben Thoma

    In my experience the division between software developers and ad agencies has become more hazy, but it’s far easier for a tech agency to act as ad agency, than an ad agency to act as a software company.

    One of the big problems is how we look at our output. Ad agencies tends to always think of their concepts as short term objects. There’s no infrastructure or funding built in for the long-term improvement/management of an Instagram-like solution. Agencies want to build it, launch it, collect results and build the next concept. I’ve painfully tried to keep longer-term software-like projects afloat, but it literally loses all interest from the top and gets bogged down by problems in process.

    Agencies are just not designed to make, maintain and grow great pieces of software. They are fickle beasts and would rather spawn the next kid than care for the last one.

    • Murat

      Great comment.

      The irony of the short-term view is that clients constantly ask for ‘longevity’ then proceed with strategies and concepts that have no place outside the campaign ending.

      I also feel your pain of attempting to launch or sustain projects that have long-term potential.

      But as Josie said, the future is changing and the leaders in 5-10 years will be creating something completely different.

      • Ben Thoma

        I wouldn’t be surprised if this became the “next” agency structure. These small wonders will work late nights, get tons of acclaim, and have 2-3 ping pong/foosball/pool tables. Their parties will be killer. Then that small agency will be bought by some huge one who wants to put that offering in their portfolio. End of the fun as that, now, division of aforementioned huge agency eventually becomes the equivalent of a banner factory.

        Sorry to bring the pessimism on this one, but I think if you really want to make something like you’re talking about, it’s best done outside ad agencies.

  • Josie Brown

    It’s those words ‘service industry’ that mean an agency whilst in the shackles of a client relationship may never create the NEXT BIG THING, because they’re too busy trying to be the NEXT BIG THING or work with the NEXT BIG THING.

    But the future is changing, and the people who are running agencies in ten years time are the people who will be creating a chance to do something really very very different, and truly huge. Don’t write off the future leaders of this industry, they may surprise you in ways you weren’t expecting. Either that, or their gonna be greedy bastards who make that NEXT BIG THING for themselves rather than their board directors.

    Keep up the great posts. You keep my tech world buzzing bud. x

    • Murat

      But the future is changing, and the people who are running agencies in ten years time are the people who will be creating a chance to do something really very very different, and truly huge.

      Don’t write off the future leaders of this industry, they may surprise you in ways you weren’t expecting. Either that, or their gonna be greedy bastards who make that NEXT BIG THING for themselves rather than their board directors.

      Loving this comment JB

  • BJ Cook

    I’m a big fan of Josie Brown up there based on what she said. We’re a boutique digital agency in California and we’ve got a few products we’ve built. And one in particular that we’re hoping will disrupt a space or two. If you start in the agency world then go into the tech startup world them come back into the agency world; you have a way different perspective on getting things done and not worrying about failure.

  • e.

    Love your article, but why would I develop into an agency a great idea I would develop by myself in my own structure?

    What’s the incentive: a raise? A Cannes Lion? Gratefulness ? …

    It may look a bit cynical, but for me that’s the beginning of an answer to your question, from a very french pov…

    • alec brownstein


      Love the article. Great insights.

      I have some of the same hesitations as the commenter before me. As an agency creative, if I have an idea for the next Facebook or Instagram or whatever, why would I hand it over to the agency? There’s no incentive/ownership structure within any of the agencies for which I have worked that addresses ownership of IP on an individual level. On the outside chance that my idea does turn into a million or billion dollar enterprise, I will not be happy with just a pat on the head or an advertising award.

      The same goes for content. As agencies try to get into the TV or movie business and they’re asking creatives to come up with TV shows or screenplays, there needs to be an ownership understanding. I’m happy to write commercials or ads for agency clients, but if I’m being asked to come up with a new revenue stream for a client or the next “Survivor,” I think that falls outside the purview of the job for which I am being compensated, namely “copywriter.”

      My final thought is that in my experience, an agency doesn’t know how to get out of its own way. Agencies, especially big, conglomerate owned ones, are not built to act like startups. Everything they do goes through the lens of making an ad. A simple idea has to go through round after round of creative, account, and strategic approval (to say nothing of the client) where it gets watered down and whittled away to something crappy. If, after six months, an idea does manage to make it out of the building, its moment may have passed or someone else may have already done it.

      IMHO, if I have a new business idea, I have a better shot of actually turning it into something if I link up with a couple of likeminded friends, find a developer on or, and actually build the damn thing.

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  • Carol L. Weinfeld

    Yes, if the agency structure and culture are changed. Granted that is a big “if”, but it is possible. One would need to demonstrate the value of creating utility through the technological invention to the client’s business and brand. Some clients could be open to innovation. The creative people in agencies could create the next Instagram.


  • Carl Martin

    Another great post Murat.

    Your recognition of agency culture is spot on. Having been there and done it, the mentality within agencies means that although the tools at their disposal have changed, and a whole host of new ‘theory’ at their disposal to sell in an idea, the approach to creating ‘campaigns’ is very much still the same.

    I am actually in the process of writing a post about ‘success metrics on mobile for brands’, and it has taken for me to move from agency to brand to really appreciate what this means.

    The harsh reality is that agencies are dying a death, and as more and more brands start to bring expertise in house, they will become more reactive and forward thinking. At the same time, more and more people are becoming entrepreneurial, thus leaving behind agencies and brands all together to pursue their own ideas.

    I for one would love to see agency culture change, but ultimately, as brands move beyond just selling their product and become their own media empires, the future does not look any different.

    Top post mate.

  • Flavius Saracut

    Seems to me that you have the entrepreneurial bug, and that’s a good thing. It’s an interesting subject that you touched, and it’s the path we’re following too at, we’re building products for our clients but in the same time we’re going to launch our own product, or several products, we’ll see how it goes.

  • Gary Bury

    Really good/ interesting post Murat.

    I think the reality is an agency is set up to supply their knowledge and skills to a brand in exchange for cash, where a brand/ startup is about using the knowledge and skills it has available to make stuff that sell for cash.

    In essence, in an agency there is no scope, time or funding for in-house projects.

    But I’m with you, it’s crazy really because an agency has all the skills necessary to make their own great stuff, and I bet their employees would love it.

    Not only that but in-house projects have the potential to solve the age old problem that all agencies have of; how do you earn anything more than the number of hours you have available to charge out? The answer is you have to sell something different to hours at a given charge out rate.

    You should have a look at Beep Industries in Manchester, an agency team turned who’ve turned to making their products

  • Mark

    I agree with what he said *points up*. The Gary Bury fella.

    Here at London’s best-looking mobile agency Movement we try and recognise what our client’s need are and what we can do for them to get there. We also recognise we’re not a Rovio or an Instagram.

    Of course, with the relevant brief, the right objectives and the right budget we would try to develop an amazing utility/game or the latest app craze. In fact, we are enjoying that opportunity at the moment.

    But I’d be reticent to put all our experiment eggs in that basket of development because we’re not solely a products company and the requirements that clients look for tend to be a lot wider (mobile web/messaging/direct response, for example).

    I’ll probably be saying this to the grave: For brands, mobile isn’t just about apps, it isn’t just about utility, it isn’t just about mobile products. It’s about lots of things, but mainly creating or using forms of communication and connection, perhaps to build relationships, but definitely in order to sell more stuff.

    • Murat

      Does experimenting and trying to create nice things (big or small) only come about if there is a brief and a budget?

      What about outside of that?

      • Mark

        Well, everyone in the creative industries should experiment as much as they can, at work and outside of it.

        But we all know that it’s much more likely to happen on a more enterprising scale if you’ve got the luxury of spare resource. The reality is that agencies should have clients to service and if they don’t they’re using that resource to find them. Only the biggest agencies can boast that they have that laboratory kind of environment and even then they’ll be using it for the above end.

        I think a common agency mindset, even if this experimental time was available, is ‘let’s come up with something that we can sell to lots of clients/make our jobs easier/make things quicker for us’ rather than come up with a product that’s going to make us a lot of money by selling it to consumers.

        It’s not the business that agencies are in – not solely. If it were, we’d be set up differently, make different hires, have a product-lead business plan. Yuck. A good example of this is that bloody awful Skimmer thing that Fallon made a few years ago.

        I greatly admire companies that are set up to make and sell products, whether they’re entertainment, utility or otherwise. But their raison d’etre is different to communication agencies.

        We could ask: Can the next Old Spice Guy come out of Rovio? The answer is “almost certainly not.”

        It takes genius, talent and skill to come up with a campaign like that and you only have to look at the case studies to recognise the success of it. It wasn’t designed to spend a lot of time with, or “have a relationship with” in the same way as Angry Birds. It was designed to flog shower gel.

        The fact that communication agencies are in a different business to product development doesn’t make them any less relevant, or good, or impressive, or able to create nice things. For what those nice things are used for is where the difference lies.

        • Murat

          But there’s hardly any experimentation at all.

          I don’t believe you need tons of spare resource just to foster the culture of doing this stuff. There’s isn’t a agency out there that can’t devote a few pizzas at lunch times or incentivise staying a bit later to brainstorm and create things that people really want to do.

          From personal experience if you aren’t embracing the ideas people from within your agency have then they’ll be trying to find ways to get it done without you (or just getting bored).

          The smallest prototype can turn into something bigger, whether that’s free press, industry respect, revenue generating IP or being number 1 in the App Store. But if you don’t even try how will you ever know? Made by Many’s Hollergram is a great example of something fun that turned into a much bigger thing.

          Digital and mobile agencies ARE already building products for clients – that’s why this is so relevant. If you are making (or pitching for) apps, web apps etc you are building products right?

          So you don’t need to be big, or have new hires or to be set-up differently because you are already creating and managing this stuff.

          And that’s why the Rovio/Old Spice Guy example doesn’t work because Rovio aren’t making viral social ads, they make apps. Just like mobile agencies make apps – so the title of the post could basically be “Could a mobile agency create the next Instagram”

          It just needs a mentality where ideas don’t need a job number to get made.

          • Mark

            It’s basically down to objectives, though. Do you want to be a client servicing agency or do you want to make consumer-facing products? Or do you want to do both?

            To be honest, I’m a little confused what we’re talking about here. Are you saying that mobile agencies should spend their time also making products to sell straight to consumer? Will it make us more money? Because that is why agencies exist, you know – to make money servicing their clients communications needs. And I don’t see how making products to sell ourselves is going to make us much more money than our core competencies.

            Anyway, the Rovio/W&K example is totally relevant (and it was cited from your blog-post) because agencies, mobile or otherwise, don’t only make apps. We make marketing. We help our clients sell stuff. We might sometimes make apps in order to do this.

            We probably won’t make apps as good as Rovio or Instagram because they do it all day long. That’s because they do only make apps. But they won’t be able to put together a strategy to use the mobile channel to sell shoes or steak or cars. That’s not how they’re set up.

            I think you’re comparing oranges and lemons when the orchard is big enough for both.

            • Carol

              what about singing fingers?

  • Mark

    Actually, isn’t this question kind of analogous to yours?

    Will the next Star Wars/Tom & Jerry/Harry Potter/Monopoly be born within an agency?

    • Murat

      Maybe if that agency is called Dreamworks or something

      • Mark

        You’ve answered your own question.

  • dave swartz


    I’m the Cofounder and CD of MEDL Mobile, a shop that does nothing but build mobile apps all day long. I spent 20 years at ad agencies and this is the most fun i’ve ever had. We hire great people out of ad agencies and we are looking for a few more. Any brilliant creative minds out there looking to make a real leap?

    Get in touch.

  • Neil Barrie

    Great post Murat. You’ve thrown down a good gauntlet there.

    I work at Zag, the brand ventures arm of BBH and we exist to do exactly what you’re talking about. To date the biggest ventures have been offline orientated (e.g. ila security but this is now evolving with the launch of It was fascinating to read the thread on this and I recognise lot of the issues raised.

    On Alec’s point about incentives for employees to share their ideas – we offer to cut people in to a small share of profits generated – the way we tell people to think about it is that if you’ve got the skills and the contacts to make it happen yourself then don’t come to us but if you don’t but you would love to see your idea on the market and participate in the success to some degree then do come to us.

    Anyway look forward to comparing notes soon.

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  • David Gillespie

    Ben Thoma took the words right out of my mouth.

    The only thing I’ll add is I came to advertising after 5 years in the games industry and another running product at a start-up. Whenever somebody hears this they say two things: 1) Have I played any of your games? and 2) I have an idea for one…

    People see the success of certain products and services and fail to realise the hours, days, weeks, months and longer of iteration, testing and refinement. People talk about making Plants vs. Zombies, nobody talks about the three years a long developer spent getting the balance right.

    I do not believe agencies have the stomach for it. Their business models won’t allow for it and culturally it is too focused on whatever the next shiny object is.

    Please note: I would love to be proven wrong.

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  • shann

    Great post – something I’ve been struggling with myself for a while.
    My view is that what takes the chance away from the agency world is the cost structure.

    Creatives who work in agencies want to do innovative stuff, but they also want to get paid (pretty big) salaries for it, and work regular working hours. That, for me, is a core issue because any startup is rather based on the longer term investment.

    The reason why senior management struggle so much to foster innovation is because they’re responsible for the profitability of the business. And when your overheards kick in monthly, experimenting isn’t very profitable.

    Personally I’m for developing a new kind of agency that redefines salary and bonuses. We can’t have a system that wants the start up behaviour with the salary of the established business. We all have to take a hit. As agency employees, we need to earn our freedom, and not merely dream about it.
    Until we do that, there will still be a overblown focus on what can generate revenues within the next 4 weeks rather than a year down the line.

  • Geoff

    I’ve worked in interactive (CriticalMass), then web application development and social gaming at Disney…. and I think the answer to your question is generally and even resoundingly–> no–> interactive agencies can’t do that and are almost setup to fail if they try….. the first reason is that agencies are usually managed or directed by creatives without any background in computer science or passion for technology.

    So the best engineers will typically move on after a few years as they won’t have the same say, salary, lifestyle, professional development and career opportunities they would at a software development firm.

    Next up is how agencies make money, usually with billable hours and projects with relatively quick turn around so they’re always under pressure to quickly turnaround work to cover their fixed costs. So their business model make it hard for them to invest intelligently in R&D or product development.

    In fact if they manage to break free of the above and make a product, they invariably drop their creative service agency and focus on product development since the revenues are consistent and can scale up dramatically. Wasn’t etsy like this?

    Agencies offer professional creative services and this is a good and valuable service….but most engineers want to work for a company that makes products.

  • Geoff

    Also just wanted to say thank you for writing a great article, raises a lot of interesting questions.

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  • millhouse

    I think the agency ustwo have had a good go at this with Whale Trail? Really nice app but they spent LOADS of money developing it…

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