Advertising agencies typically don’t have R&D embedded in their playbooks, budgets or DNA. They’re hardwired to favor what’s worked in the past. They have incentive structures that thwart long-term employee and client loyalty. And perhaps their biggest challenge is their relentless quest to deliver service because that often comes at the expense of pure product inventiveness. In our age of digital media disruption, this is a recipe for atrophy, despite a lot of good they are capable of.
Which is why I was intrigued by a small agency called Rockfish Interactive, featured as AdAge’s Small Agency Of The Year. The organization is divided in two: Rockfish Interactive (the agency operation) and Rockfish Labs (a technology and product incubator). According to AdAge, the incubator arm has launched a slew of web-based products, with ambitions of spinning them off as standalone ventures.
Founder-CEO Kenny Tomlin told AdAge:
We don’t want all of our cash flow and revenue to be 100% client-driven. The agency’s revenue model, Mr. Tomlin explained, requires that a healthy percentage of its dollars come from innovative businesses — sprung from the minds of Rockfish staffers and created on the shop’s own dime — that generate positive cash flow for the agency. That experimentation, of course, attracts the kind of tech talent that can also be used on programs for marketers. It also speaks to one of Rockfish’s core principles: That there’s no better way to understand the marketing challenges of a client than launching and running your own business.
Rockfish is a nice counter to the traditional agency consulting business. I question its ability to scale, yet its success points to a growing cottage industry of independent, entrepreneurial digital think-tank incubators that take marketing far beyond the advertising campaign. They’re taking innovation, design and insight much further upstream — embedding the marketing into the development of culturally relevant products and experiences. Another such example would be 3iying, a girl think tank (and here’s a video interview I did with founder Heidi Dangelmaier at Clickable’s Interesting Cafe). I don’t know a lot about the Barbarian Group, but I do know one of its lead strategists, Noah Brier, thinks like this as well.
It’s the rise of the anti-advertising agency.