Are you serious about growth? The type of Innovation firm you hire will tell the story.

As global brands and consumer businesses start to look for new opportunity for growth, a massive crop of creative agencies are looking to ride the wave of a single buzz word: Innovation.

Buyer beware, there’s a difference between marketing that masquerades as product innovation and outright invention.



Chances are you’ve already said it more this year than you have collectively, ever. There’s a reason for that: Innovation drives business growth. And the connection of design and technology today drives innovation. From the Fortune 1000 list to the the Unicorn list, innovation (or lack thereof) is the common denominator of who’s grown, and who hasn’t. With an incredible 70% of US companies on the Fortune 1000 list having disappeared in just 10 years. (And now there’s the Fortune Unicorn list) — you can’t afford to be wrong with your next outsourced innovation hire.

As corporate lethargy thaws, a crop of “me-too” digital agencies have swept into boardrooms selling innovation. But buyer beware. Not all innovation companies make things. And not all digital agencies are capable of total delivery. You don’t want to end up hiring the wrong type of company for the right opportunity.

So what are the key differences between these types of companies?


Lab Mentality.

Agency lab openings are ubiquitous. Millennial labs. Maker Labs. Mobile Labs. IP labs. Labradoodles. But the existence of a lab does not an innovation company make.

All ideas are at risk from getting realized but a “lab mentality” increases this risk because it can kill product viability. Often the ‘agency host’ of the lab creates politics and pressures that break the lab down despite its best intent. In an agency, labs can engender a corporate psyche that misrepresents innovation as a shoppable item, thus treating the lab itself like a convenient store for product design and creative technology. Innovation requires deep, relentless collaboration between client partner and internal team. There is no innovation store. And attempting this model all but guarantees a great idea will never get off the ground beyond a fancy meeting or two.

That’s not to say a fancy meeting is not important. In fact, they are critical to getting innovation buy-in. But, the streams of work and activities that happen post meeting separate the Lab Rats from the Scientists.


Disposability Complex.

Successful innovation companies take product to market, not just Powerpoint and Prototypes. And agents and engineers of innovation thrive on unfinished, iterative development – making each unfulfilled prototype a step to a final product. The company’s contracts and service model (they way they make money) in turn drives this mentality. “Productive” service models are only found inside organizations that are serious about going from imagination to realization.

The psychology of any agency is bred differently. Agencies create advertising – disruptive experiences and pieces of communication conceived individually with their very own expiration date. From their service model on down, agency products are not bred to be enduring solutions. If unmanaged, this sensibility seeps into what is made – affecting your product’s purpose and performance.


“Make-it” Research.

Have you ever wondered why advertising tends to reminisce with you? Simply put: making an ad that connects requires a familiar feel. It’s a time-tested way of telling new stories but the research methods used in conjunction with this thinking are not sufficient for the business of design problems. Sure agencies have research teams. They even have fashionable “millennial departments!” But how they research matters – covering market research and well beyond.

Make-it research picks up where market research leaves off – with a focus on new learning, not just reiterating what others may already know.

Who is doing the make-it research also matters. Product designers seek all human-related aspects that look beyond marketing: new instances of disruptive innovation, new technology, physics (which affects usability), biomechanics (how the body works), statistics, physiology, cognitive psychology, anthropology or sociology. These topics add to a true human-centered design approach, but are rarely addressed by a digital agency tasked with a design problem.


Risk Aversion.

When solving problems, creativity is not king. Risk is. In the business of product design, solutions are forged in the fire of risk. Conversely, agencies inherently breed defense mechanisms around risk because they do not want to stifle creativity. But a multitude of elements must be considered. Averting them, hoping a good idea will defeat all odds sometimes will work. But often it won’t.

Risk aversion minimizes opportunity because it leads to the internal perception of design truths as risks, not opportunities. Innovation can not be decoupled from risk and no project is free from it. Knowing the difference between what is actually a risk and what isn’t is critical.

Today the connection of design and technology is what drives innovation. But only if what you’ve made actually gets to market.

Is your next project really a growth opportunity?

The key to your next successful innovation project is better identifying the aforementioned realities and hiring a company that embraces the reality of risk with a steadfast process to identify it and design with it in mind, not run from it.

Take the time to search out actual innovation firms. I don’t know about you, but as an avid reader with a broken truck, I’d rather take her to the mechanic than the library to get fixed.