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: