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How to keep your agency’s innovation lab thriving

If it’s not called a lab, it might be ‘collaborative playground’, ‘innovation factory’ or the more tried and true ‘R&D team’. Once widely coveted by partners and covered by press, there remains a little mystery around innovation labs for the creative industry. Is innovation really an integral investment for these turbulent times? Does it make sense for smaller companies to divide that off? Isn’t that all so five years ago?

Ambassadors Lab

I started at Ambassadors in a visual effects role back in 2008, but it wasn’t long before I realised that the production pipeline our industry was using was pretty outdated, and quite frankly, wasting everyone’s time. So we created a media platform in the cloud to help us creatively collaborate, manage and distribute assets across multiple platforms.

That was Cube, and soon enough other agency and brand clients were using it too.

We used this as a launching pad, and over the years were able to grow the team to 14 and establish partnerships with Booking.com, Philips and Uber to bring original concepts to life and craft other smart tools that streamline the way they work.

PVH-owned brands Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein have launched their own tech startup committed to innovating their tooling and processes. Cannes introduced the Innovation Lions.

Things have changed a lot in that time.

PVH-owned brands Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein have launched their own tech startup committed to innovating their tooling and processes. Cannes introduced the Innovation Lions.

But as briefs and budgets tighten, and with 2019 seeing record downsizing in UK creative shops, it gets me thinking about the role of the innovation lab in the creative industry.

And more importantly, if Labs will continue to flourish.

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Life in the Lab

If I look at the way our own Lab works with and apart from Ambassadors, I think so.

In fact, I think that dedicated innovation labs are more crucial than ever for agencies and production houses. These are turbulent times of change and it’s almost inevitable to get caught up in the daily struggles. But if you have a dedicated team, whose sole responsibility is to be ahead of the pack, scouts as you will in a changing territory, you’ll be able to see waves of change before they come ashore.

Now is the time to be agile and flexible and experiment with different ideas and technology.

Now is the time to be agile and flexible and experiment with different ideas and technology. And that simply isn’t a part-time responsibility, because when the going gets rough, everyone will be in the trenches trying to keep it together.

You can only do that with a dedicated team with a genuine interest in technology, curiosity for what would be the next big thing, and a keen idea on figuring out better ways of doing things.

So, if the idea is there. If you have budget. How can you keep your Innovation Lab as a sustainable arm of your business?

Don’t marry any one tech solution

What we’ve learnt along that way is that especially with so much hot, new tech, it might be tempting to specialise in one area like machine learning or AR.

Being a jack of all trades might seem counter-intuitive, but if you want to stay innovation lab rather than tech expert, don’t settle down.

Strive to maintain a healthy balance of curiosity and cynicism as you teach yourself the ins and outs of each technology solution.

VR was all the rage in the early days of Labs. We’re big fans of it as a creative tool to this day, and we’re proud of the work we did on building viewer empathy in nonprofit projects like Terres Des Hommes. We invested a lot of time to get the feel of its impact on productions and people... but then we kept moving.

Strive to maintain a healthy balance of curiosity and cynicism as you teach yourself the ins and outs of each technology solution. Machine Learning is slowly becoming mainstream, so earlier this year we experimented with voice recognition for a reimagination of the tin-can-telephone in Can-We-Talk for Adnight Amsterdam.

If you test early, by the time clients are ready to integrate it into products or campaigns come 2021, you’ll have a solid understanding of the limitations and effects.

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Maintain independence and profitability

To throw a Tony Robbins quote in there: "we all want to thrive, not just survive".

Same goes for a Lab. If you want it to get past a one-man band and sign on the door, you’ll need to ensure you’re generating some direct profit that’s independent of the agency mothership.

Collaboration and security is important, but all relationships need their space and this will only help your team from getting cut if times get rough. It’s a chicken and egg situation really - the Lab team may seem on paper like support staff, but they’re the people whose sole focus is change management and innovation and who are going to help your business as a whole carve out new directions.

While we luckily started out with a product in Cube, it took us a bit of time to properly figure that all out. For a long time we were around about breaking even, some months supporting what was then a team of three, and some months not.

Our challenge now is to make sure we still have time to experiment, look around and play with all the cool things, and not just focus on the product.

Use the Lab as a testing ground

Your Lab isn’t just where sexy, award-winning client projects are brought to life and where profitable tools are made. Labs can also play a valuable long-term role in testing out operational or systematic changes before they’re made throughout the entire company - and this doesn’t just apply to multi-conglomerates, but small or mid-size creative companies too.

'Lab thinking' can apply to how you run the mothership and make sure that work is being done in the most efficient, smart way possible.

Basically, 'Lab thinking' can apply to how you run the mothership and make sure that work is being done in the most efficient, smart way possible. Now Ambassadors is spread across three studios, it’s not as sensible as it once was to move the entire company left and right.

But if your Lab is operating semi-separately, it’s easier to test what works and what doesn’t and to question everything that’s been established before you.

Focus, perseverance and persistence are required for any business. Even when projects are moving forward overnight, you’ve got to keep the bigger picture in mind. Unfortunately, that’s where the value of a Lab can be questioned.

Keep experimenting, keep moving.

Yes, production houses can work with a cutting-edge technology partner to bring a brilliant creative idea to life. You can bring in an innovation gun for hire. You can even have a business consultant make some significant changes at your company. But if you have a dedicated team there in the down-time too, your entire business model can see the benefit of innovation.

Keep experimenting, keep moving, and you’ll be able to foster a mutually beneficial relationship and team that’s constantly looking out for your agency or production house a few years ahead of the rest.

Keep an eye on the wave.

Article originally published in Shots.