So, this week saw the great, the good and the curious of UK planning come together at Google HQ for the latest Firestarters - the series of events I'm curating for Google to facilitate different thinking and debate around some of the more interesting and challenging issues facing planners.

The debate surrounding our first two events on agile planning and design thinking in planning had directly informed the subject for our third - what might the operating system for the agency of the future look like? Rather than have a series of isolated debates, we'd always intended to link the discussions from these events together, and the subject of legacy thinking and processes had come up in the debates at both previous sessions.

So to provide some provocation on the subject we had three excellent speakers: Mel Exon from BBHLabs, Martin Bailie from GlueIsobar, and James Caig from MEC. As Mel says, it's "a hairy, humbling monster of a question", not helped no doubt by the fact that I'd only given them 20 minutes each to tackle it. But tackle it they did, and with some aplomb.

In her talk, Mel made the point early on that agencies are almost all about culture ("their operating system a set of programs designed to encourage creativity and responsive behaviour, not codify inflexible structures and processes"), so the choice open to us is about what kind of culture we want to create or be a part of. Increasingly sophisticated social and algorithmic curation will force all marketing content to the point where it needs to become exponentially better, more useful or more entertaining. And the best marketing becomes indistinguishable from the product or service it is promoting (something she termed "Marketing Singularity"). This being the case, perhaps our aspiration should be to create marketing products and services that are so good, that people are prepared to pay for them - marketing as a profit centre. This kind of aspiration requires an operating system that is networked, able to deliver at scale through small, nimble teams with hybrid skills (I loved the Nigel Bogle phrase she used about how "big is a collection of smalls"), characterised by reductive thinking everywhere, focused on designing experiences (and not just virtual ones), and built around people rather than just technology ("Renaissance (wo)men"). I've embedded her slides below, but please do check out her own narrative around her excellent talk over on the BBHLabs blog.

In his talk, Martin pointed out how clients don't always value the same things as agencies do, and how outcomes have become divorced from outputs. Agencies have two masters (the client and the consumer) but only get paid by one, so perhaps an answer to agencies' short-term addiction to client cash is the opportunity to exploit existing ideas, engage new partners, and the idea of consumers as an additional revenue stream. A more flexible approach to serve both masters.

He then talked about modern technology ecosystems - the relationship between an open data platform, a layer that is able to extract value from that data, and the delivery of that value through multiple platforms. And he speculated about what such an ecosystem might look like for marketing, with agencies orchestrating outcomes from a common marketing OS, and working with specialists to deliver outputs. It's a truly fascinating prophecy. His prediction being that agencies who work directly with customers will ultimately lead the others because they are closest to the data and able to define new models and create new revenues. His slides are below but again, it's worth taking a look at his own narrative over on his blogJohn Willshire had an interesting build in the comments to Martin's post about how the fear of losing in the short-term forces both agency and client to retreat to short term thinking.
Google Firestarters Conference: An Emerging Agency OS

View more presentations from Martin Bailie

James expounded Simon Waldman's thinking on Creative Disruption and what he calls the "incumbents dilemma" - how to really understand (and more importantly know when to react to) the trajectories of change around us (and as an example of this he talked about how an audit of his agency's revenues had revealed 64 different streams, 42 of which didn't exist 3 years ago). So themes such as the need to transform the core functions ("we are being asked by clients new questions that we've never been asked before...questions that clients themselves haven’t had to ask either"), looking for the 'big adjacencies', and innovating at the edges (I've talked a fair bit about this concept myself).
Picking up where Mel left off, James had a real focus on the importance of people in driving this change ("whatever the system we have, we will still need the right operators"), and particularly at an individual level - the importance of trust, confidence and empowerment, and permission to fail not just in a team or organisational context (a great example here of Ruskin's praise for the original Gothic style that allowed individual labourers and craftsmen free reign to augment the basic structure created by the architect). He ended with a vision, and a powerful appeal for us to be less precious about who owns what, and for creativity to happen not just in agencies, but between agencies. The slides are below, but it's worth reading James' post about the talk here.
The discussion afterwards, as always, was spirited, lively and the source for more good thoughts and ideas. In some sense, as Simon notes in his thoughtful write up of the event, it is perhaps surprising that there was consensus around some of the more disruptive ideas, yet there was still a healthy degree of debate and disagreement.
Firestarters

Naturally enough, discussion focused on a broad range of challenges: what and how agencies charge for stuff (and how easy it is for undercharging to become the default with the new or the uncertain, simply because we want to encourage change); applying expertise in new ways; the challenges of being truly entrepreneurial; using new capabilities in 'forward ventures'; issues around IP; retaining entrepreneurial talent (if they have a great idea, why would they not just go and do it themselves?); risking our own money (agency venture funds); exploring new partnerships (VCs, Universities); and a deeper fusing within the fabric of client companies (data and people).
But in amongst all the talk about challenge, there was at least as much talk about opportunity, reflecting perhaps some of the "indefatigable optimism" (as Mel called it) that we'll undoubtedly need to navigate the future and that Phil talks about eloquently in his write up. The overwhelming sense in the room was a feeling of excitement about the future and what it might hold. And that, to me, is a hugely positive thing.