How To Ignite Innovation in Large Agencies

Change is difficult, but columnist Andrew Ruegger has five ways to help your large agency evolve and cultivate a culture of innovation among your team.


The most frequent request we get from clients is to provide innovative solutions to their business objectives — which is challenging, but usually for the wrong reasons. The term “innovation” means new, and for a business, “new” typically means change.

This is always difficult, as any shift requires the alignment of many moving parts. This alignment takes time — a lot of time — and businesses that remain stagnant in times of rapid change are destined to fail.

The advertising industry in particular faces massive challenges as traditional broad-awareness media like television and print lose share to new programmatic, addressable marketing technologies, which evolve on a daily basis. This evolution further complicates things, as what may be best today is not necessarily the best in the near future.

When working for a large agency, change essentially translates into a very complex assessment between multiple business units to determine if the cost associated with the degree of change is worth the value that it will provide to the clients. Innovation, scale and scope are rarely friends.

Depending on the media channel you work in, the assessment will be drastically different. I’ve seen this challenge often in two areas I’ve spent a lot of time working in: paid and organic search and social.

To solve for this issue, having a core road map is important, as it’s a plan or method for change. But, if the road map is not dynamic, it will lead to mediocrity because it won’t allow you to adjust to the changes in the market. Conversely, if it’s too dynamic, the map will never end and you won’t get anywhere.

Keeping all these challenges in mind, here are five ways to ignite innovation in your large agency.

Enable The Inspired And Ambitious

We have a lot of brilliant people doing great work. However, it’s only when we enable and encourage them to rethink what we do and how we do it, and simultaneously provide them with a sandbox/think-tank environment to create, do we see innovation that improves our core.

Google gives its employees 20% of their work week to pursue any project they believe is worthwhile, which is a reason the company is a leader in innovation.

Invert The Management Pyramid

If you’re in charge of your company’s road map toward new products, there is no way to have the same amount of collective knowledge about the industry as those below you. It changes too fast and is simply too large.

Often, the best ideas come from the bottom, so make sure they can make it to the top. Collaboration and communication throughout the organization are essential.

Rethink The Traditional Road Map

The traditional road map is a very linear process that segments the steps to complete a goal or build a product. If step 1 was to evaluate all data sources to build a product, once done, step 1 would not be revisited. This becomes a problem if something amazing enters the market when you are on step 2.

This is a good method to establish a foundation for your core business functionality but can inhibit innovation.


Times change too quickly, and this model often flows as if your agency exists in a vacuum and nothing is going on in the world, when in reality it’s more like this:


Where smaller, more agile companies are evolving at a faster rate, making a static plan is a losing plan.

Instead, maintain a measurable dynamic road map for your core and implement a parallel decision tree-like innovation road map, or micro road maps. This way, when conditions are met through the innovation road map, they can be incorporated into the core during the step changes — essentially, when an individual does all the leg work on a much smaller scale and then blends into the core plan.


Hire And Structure For Agility

Look at your company objectively, hire the talent you need, and don’t settle for what you have. Far easier said than done, but the more agile you structure your company, the easier it is to pivot on consumer and market demands.

Develop A Culture Of Thinking About Where We Are Going, Not Where We Are

Innovation and market adjustment will always be, by definition, continuously challenging. Innately, we are all creatures of habit and equally as averse to change as large companies.

Change is hard, and any navigational adjustments are proportionally as risky as the degree of deviation. But, when do your homework and enable those who are ready and willing to work hard for positive change, the rewards will be worth the risk.

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About The Author

Andrew Ruegger is a Partner and the Director of Strategy & Insights at GroupM. He is a digital veteran with over 7 years of experience in advertising. He currently is responsible for running the data and insights practice for search and social marketing at GroupM.

(Some images used under license from


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