After my post last week I got some wonderful feedback from friends working at agencies asking what they can do to keep the startup feeling going.
While I do think that the financial model of agency business makes it near impossible to develop, launch and maintain a product I also believe there are analogies of product development that fit with the time/money balance of the agency model. I'm going to explore this a bit starting from the point of view of the design agency.
The design agency
Most of the shops I've worked at have been design agencies. (Wolff Olins would probably contend that they are a "brand consultancy" but I'm going to lump them in here because the focus on visual design is such a big part of the US business.) A design agency is a shop that's led by visual design, creative technology and strategy. They create amazing eye candy, visual content and, at their best, revolutionary brands. They design and build websites, print materials, interactive installations, videos and product design. There are sub-divisions of course. Some are better at web design others at product design or typography but they're all focused on the look and feel of their final product. A client wouldn't go to them to write an article, do public relations or be the dev partner for an enterprise e-commerce site.
The design-project cycle
For these shops the average project, or phase of work, runs about 4-8 weeks and, at scale, each designer or developer is working on one major project and one or two smaller projects at any given time. Everyone's pretty busy. High-quality, cutting-edge visual design is their selling point. However, in the opinion of many designers, client control and internal politics often gets in the way of their best work. Designers usually leave design agencies because too many "great" designs are "ruined" by the client or senior management causing frustration. At Syrup we lost some great talent (and didn't even bother hiring others) because of this issue. Frustration grows to the point that the designer (or developer) can't get inspired. They start talking about the client in negative terms and expect them to "ruin the work." When this happens it's time to get them doing something else. An uninspired creative is a big problem at a design agency.
Uninspired people can't solve problems and design is problem-solving
What design agencies should realize when thinking about whether to begin a startup is that their product is visual. It's not organizational or managerial. The profit of the company comes from the skill and efficiency of each designer and developer. The first part, skill, is rooted in the fact that design is problem solving.
When a client comes to an agency to get assets for their marketing promotion, their content or their brand they're really asking for a solution to a problem. It's the designer and strategist's job to contextualize the problem and solve for that in a way that inspires the client.
The efficiency side of the equation is: how well a designer can solve that client's problem in the shortest amount of time. If a designer is too slow then the company quickly loses money. If the designer can't visualize the problem clearly for the client then there will be multiple rounds of revisions and the agency loses money. The reasons for either of these happening is an uninspired, unfocused or inexperienced creative.
As an agency we need to keep the designers inspired, clear-headed and always learning.
I think this is where the startup mentality can be effective. Creative people don't need breaks, we need time to explore our own ideas. Time to solve our own problems. With an agency this has to be balanced within the 4-8 week cycle of client work.
I think the best product to create during this time is art. Allow designers to explore personal ideas and communicate concepts publicly and away from client work. If we encourage designers to dig into personal projects and then provide a public space for distributing that work I believe we can make better designers. We encourage designers to be practiced in solving problems and experienced in solving them quickly.
Personal work + recognition = inspiration
I propose a design-agency-as-art-gallery model. A place where designers explore personal projects, sell them, take 70% of sales and then return to client work in 4-8 week cycles. This takes advantage of the natural time cycles of the business and allows the agency to raise the profile of themselves and their designers.
There are plenty of designers who make art on their own time and plenty of small design shops that attempt to sell art work. This would be a planned and formalized approach that included a space, online or real world, for the promotion and sale of that work. It would be managed by the agency and promote the individual designer or developer.
For the agency it would mean taking some of the account management people and transferring them to the art and PR side of the business. I imagine that off of this the agency would be able to divine new revenue channels beyond the initial art product one. Moving into content and promotional work as well as creating portfolio work that would help expand client expectations. It would also help move talented designers onto O1 visas from the hard to get H1-b by creating a public persona for their unique talent.
Next week I hope to explore how the consultancy could explore alternate businesses. But I'm excited to hear feedback on this concept.