What The Hell Is An ‘Innovation Agency’ Anyway?

What The Hell Is An ‘Innovation Agency’ Anyway?

A talk at music, arts and cultural festival, South by Southwest (SXSW) Dan Whitmarsh, head of tech at full service agency The White Agency saw two agency guys chat about innovation. Descriptions varied, but there’s always mistakes to learn from.

A few weeks ago my colleague James Keeler and I did a talk on how to foster an innovation culture and how we have tried to do that at The White Agency. This talk was at PauseFest 2015 in Melbourne so going to see a talk about ‘Innovation Agencies’ at SXSW was always going to be fascinating.

This session was split across two different agencies – Mickey Ristroph, CEO from specialist mobile consultancy Mutual Mobile and Ben Gaddis, chief innovation officer from tech-fueled creative agency T3.

Mutual Mobile

I always find it interesting how people define innovation and have heard so many takes on it, especially at SXSW. Ristroph feels that innovation is solving problems in new ways for the benefits of others. He stated “products you build as an agency need to be valuable, feasible and desirable”.

Some things to consider:

Is this product valuable?

Successful projects are measured by the value created for those that created it

Cutting edge of feasible

We all know mobile tech has opened a whole new world of possibilities in the last five years. How can we push the boundaries of what technologies can do?


Great products solve real problems for real people, or delight them in ways they did not imagine.

The digital experience becomes the purpose of the brand. The digital part is how they do it. Nike for example has had a very successful campaign where users upload video of themselves doing tricks that are then rated. This was a successful innovation piece that integrated content and commerce.

So if innovation is solving a problem in a new way and the definition of an agency is working for the benefit of someone else, Ristroph argues that Innovation agencies solve problems in new ways for the benefits of others.

Innovation however isn’t always valuable; it’s on us to make sure the work is good. He explained that innovation is only built by: passionate talent; cross discipline teams, and; working iteratively.

This struck a chord with me because at White we work in cross-disciplined projects teams, in an iterate manner, with many passionate members of staff.


Gaddis described innovation in a slightly different way – “Kick ass work for clients that want kiss ass”. This is T3’s innovation motto aiming to solve business problems in a small iterative way.

Gaddis, like Ristroph beforehand, talked about how innovation doesn’t always pay off – actually hardly ever. Only 18% of executives feel their innovation efforts deliver any sort of competitive advantage and a staggering 95% of innovation fails.

Gaddis explained the top four errors T3 made and what they would do different now – vital information for any agency wanting to build innovative products.

Error 1 – T3 built one size fits all mentality

There are lots of different types of innovation. T3 has now set up T3 Ventures, a smaller company whose goal it is to get in early and help the innovation piece. They also have their own lab group who only work on innovation. T3 gives clients solutions before they are ready for it and have helped companies like Atlas raise $630k crowd funding in 30 days to get their innovation piece up and running.


  • Hire the right people
  • 95% of ideas suck
  • Bring in outside thinking

Error 2– T3 ran away from process

It is vital that with any innovation piece you drill down to know all the details otherwise you will fail. Process, process, process! Every hour, on the hour, people in the innovation team are made to demonstrate their idea rather than just after eight hours.  I love this and it means that if someone is going off track they have only lost one hour not a whole day. I also feel this keeps motivation and interest levels higher.


  • Process isn’t a bad word
  • Neither is metrics
  • Sometimes time is your enemy – but anyone working to project deadlines knows this!

Error 3 – We did not commit to being first

If you don’t someone else will. You need to have experience on things that don’t exist rather than opinions. Experience is invaluable.


  • Talking is bullshit. Doing is not.
  • Put someone in charge of making sure you are first
  • Commit to ridiculous things

Error 4 – We expected our client to fund the bill

This just doesn’t work!  


  • Put your money where your mouth is
  • Change the conversation
  • Butter up your CFO

Obviously for most, getting an endless amount of money is not going to be possible, but it’s really about getting into the right mindset. T3 is a full service agency that has made some really cool products. One they demonstrated that I thought was cool was called Pulse. T3 used biometrics via a wearable device, such as a watch, and measure how the user is feeling and from this changes the experience within an app.

Pulse is linked to Tinder and instead of a person looking at a potential match and then making a choice after the user has reviewed the potential match, it does the swiping for you as it knows your true feeling.

I was really impressed by Ben Gaddis’ talk. I really liked the honesty where T3 felt they had messed up and how they are really trying to make something of themselves in the innovation space.

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