The Digital Age disrupts the practices and beliefs that gird the archetypical relationship between advertising agency and client. The Procter & Gamble Companies discarded a relic of the client-agency relationship, the creative brief. They seek more authentic engagement that leads to more compelling campaigns. What possibilities do clients open when they move from exchanging information to engaging in co-creation? What role might the practice of collaborative innovation play in redefining roles between client and agency?

I live in Cincinnati: the Queen City. Cincinnati, pushing against a bend in the Ohio River, became known as The Gateway to the West at a time in U.S. history when the Alleghany Mountains delineated east from west.

The Cincinnati business community consists of a couple planets and satellites orbiting the P&G sun, which has for years cast its economically munificent warmth and light over the land.

P&G began its ride on the back of a pig—many, many pigs. The city was home to the nation’s first commercial pork slaughterhouse. Fat rendered by that industry served as raw material for what became a long line of soap and cooking products. Readers open to nostalgia will rejoice to learn that soap continues to be made a stone’s throw from downtown.

Soap—and the need to promote its cleansing properties to a dusty nation—led to soap operas. P&G and its agencies mastered the one-hour drama and the 30-second commercial.

As the world turned, the Digital Age began. Hogs no longer torpedo down Hamilton Avenue to meet their end in hand soap and breakfast. Soap operas and the client-agency relationships that leavened each hour of midday escape have changed, too.

The Creative Brief, Revisited

At this year’s Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, Marc Pritchard, the global marketing officer at P&G, took aim at a part of the value chain that has anchored the client-agency relationship: the creative brief. Consumer products companies such as P&G have used the creative brief to guide agencies in developing ad campaigns. The campaign, for example, should resonate with left-handed tuba players who do not want to see dandruff on their uniforms midway through a Sousa concert.

P&G has moved from creative briefs to business challenges.

Pritchard’s take: the creative brief, a static artifact conceived before the Digital Age, impedes innovation. The briefs prescribe scenarios and outcomes to the point where they suck all the creative energy from the room. They stifle the innovation they ostensibly solicit.

Pritchard says that P&G has moved from creative briefs to business challenges. The company has, for example, replaced detailed briefs for Tide laundry detergent with straight calls to action: Make Tide Pods irresistible.

From Collaborative Engagement to Collaborative Innovation

P&G moves from prescription to engagement as they move from brief to challenge. This move opens the door wider to possibilities that the Digital Age offers. The business challenge, for example, lends itself well to a critical question that would form the basis of a collaborative innovation campaign.

The challenge of, “Make Tide Pods irresistible,” becomes, “How might we make Tide Pods irresistible?”

The critical question, framed as such, would serve as the means by which the client crowd sources the campaign (figure 1).

Figure 1: engaging in collaborative innovation

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All people who work at the agencies—not only the usual suspects—would convene as the community, engaging in the externally focused, enquiry led form of the practice.

From here, clients can choose two paths. On the one hand, the client could open the challenge to one agency—the agency of record for the brand in question. On the other hand, the client could open the challenge to multiple agencies. Perhaps they would choose a list of pre-approved agencies (e.g., all agencies of record for the organization).

The latter idea opens further possibilities. Both client and agency bemoan the stop-and-go inefficiencies and ambiguity associated with preparing pitches. Perhaps the process, with all its baggage, falls prey to the transparency the Digital Age brings—here, through the practice of collaborative innovation. Looking further ahead, you can envision the continual disintermediation of agency services, as marked by a cascading set of challenge questions that drive engagement through collaborative innovation (figure 2).

Figure 2: disintermediation of a campaign by challenge question

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…gain transparency and efficiency in exchange for abandoning a false sense of control.

The most compelling ideas to each question may not come from the same source. Developing the collaborative innovation practice and associated challenge hierarchy could deliver breakthroughs in campaign development and reset the client-agency relationship on a sturdier foundation. Both parties must accept the quid pro quo that the Digital Age applies to all transactions: gain transparency and efficiency in exchange for abandoning a false sense of control.

Organizations not ready for this level of disruption might use the campaign to select the agency that becomes their agency of record. Regardless, you can see the possibilities or the writing on the wall, depending on your outlook on life.

The Voice of the Consumer

Creative briefs attempt to capture the essence of the voice of the consumer. What does the consumer want, exactly? What problems does the consumer want to solve?

Crowdsourcing has emerged as a force of nature in the world of collaborative innovation. Crowdsourcing—specifically, sourcing crowds to solicit ideas and funds from everything from blenders to television stations—has become main stream.

You could imagine again the development of a wholly “open” brief, whereby the client and the agency invite the consumer to participate in the development of the brief through co-creation (figure 3).

Figure 3: telling the story of the brand

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Parting Thoughts

Eric von Hippel wrote Democratizing Innovation a number of years ago. In his book he advised companies to pay attention to their power users: people who purchased their products and customized them in order to meet specialized, more demanding application scenarios.

Pritchard’s abandonment of the creative brief represents the next step in deeper, more immediate engagement in forming the outline around which a company’s products make sense to consumers. The volume that succeeds von Hippel’s book—one yet to be written—might someday be called Democratizing Storytelling. In this narrative the client asks a series of go-for-the-jugular questions that explore the possibilities of the brand. The agencies innovate, accordingly, in more direct, immediate ways. The consumer introduces the voice of reality.

By Doug Collins

About the author:

Doug Collins is an Innovation Architect who has specialized in the fuzzy front end of innovation for over 15 years. He has served a variety of roles in helping organizations navigate the fuzzy front end by creating forums, venues, and approaches where the group can convene to explore the critical question. As an author, Doug explores the critical questions relating to innovation in his book Innovation Architecture, Practical Approaches to Theory, Collaboration and Implementation. The book offers a blueprint for collaborative innovation. His bi-weekly column appears in the publication Innovation Management.