In 2011, the innovation world realised that the way we created new products was wrong. In his book The Lean Startup, Eric Ries exposed the risk of spending millions, pre-launch, creating a perfect product behind closed doors. This old approach, accepted as inevitable by every company in the world, produced a failure rate of 80% as most of those 'perfect' products flopped with real customers. Our cloistered R&D and processes failed so often because the actual market hardly ever responds the way we think it will.
A new way - dubbed 'Lean' - was proposed, and has since become almost ubiquitously embraced. The idea of Lean is that you take a new innovation as quickly as possible to market, then develop it on the fly using the feedback of early customers. Visit any start-up incubator anywhere now and you'll find companies eschewing extensive product development in favour of building their 'minimum viable product' at a sprint before signing up early customers to study how well the product works for them. Based on those learnings, the product is iterated continually until it becomes genuinely powerful. Lean start-ups deliberately make a succession of minor failures and recoveries on the path to success, to avoid one disastrous failure at the end. The logic is so seductive that everyone from Silicon Valley tech startups to Coca-Cola has adopted these 'agile development' principles.
The way we create advertising has everything in common with the old way of innovating. We spend months behind closed doors developing the strategy and creative work. We argue about it with clients and test it with consumers in research environments that bear no relation to the actual market. We spend millions on production to create a perfectly finished, 'maximum viable' creative product. Only then do we launch. We hold our breath and hope like hell it works. On a good day it does. But if we're honest, that's only on a good day.
When I first learned about Lean, I had all sorts of excuses for why it wouldn't work for advertising. How on earth would you iterate an ad? A minimum viable product would be what? A cheaply executed version of the ad? Rubbish. But as I saw increasing evidence that Lean Innovation was much more effective, I began to question whether I was rejecting it simply because it sounded, well, not nearly as nice as luxuriating for months in our own thinking up and crafting of a beautiful advertising thing. Developing a not-very-beautiful thing then exposing it to public scrutiny sounds awful.
And that's just what the old-school product developers thought. They're now considered lumbering pariahs, while the creative geniuses are the ones who've embraced the notion that their initial brilliant idea is really just a hypothesis – and who get superexcited about testing and refining that hypothesis until it really does look like a $100m exit.
What if we did try Lean Advertising? The planning job would be to find the right problem to solve. Why aren't people already buying the client's thing? The creative job would be to come up with the bones of a solution. Then we'd find a little population somewhere to try it out on. Execute the idea a few simple, quick ways and see what happens. Do people buy more? Why not? Take the learnings and make a few more quick executions and go back in. Just like the Lean Start-ups do, we'd find out a tonne of interesting stuff that you'd never get out of focus groups. In fact, testing research would become completely redundant. In a matter of weeks, we'd find our way to something that had proof of concept. A message or an action that we knew changed behaviour.
This would have a compelling side effect. It would stop all the subjective discussions with clients. We actually do iterate advertising – we just do it with several layers of client marketers, none of whom actually have any idea whether our thinking is right or not. It takes months, it's horrible and we all know it doesn't work. Lean Advertising would be impossible for clients to argue with, because we'd have real evidence that our thinking works. The effect of that would be bigger budgets and more latitude to execute the final creative product – because the confidence in our creative thinking would be much higher.
We could also charge more – because it would enable us to reach the Holy Grail of being able to put a value on a creative idea before we sell it to the client.
At first, Lean Advertising sounds like a nightmare. But the more you think about it, the more power it'd put in the hands of the agency and the better it'd get for everybody.