How Innovation Differs within Agencies vs. Product Companies

April 16, 2013

Product Manager Cath Richardson—whose professional purview spans a wide-ranging continuum from software engineering to tactical sales outreach—has many fingers in many pots. She’s our company’s Great Connector, ensuring that esoteric technological innovation finds a happy, human-friendly home. It hasn’t always been this way. She comes from an agency background, where work flow and output stem from different needs and motivations.

We’re in the TARDIS

Every Brit is familiar with the TARDIS. An invention of 1960s-era science fiction, it’s an old-fashioned phone booth that also functions as a time machine/spacecraft. Obviously. At my former agency, in London, we talked about developing a quantum state of making and thinking. Which meant we didn’t work in a standard agency fashion—dividing strategy and production neatly in two. By sketching and prototyping early, we developed our strategy through creating. But our work was still neatly divided into phases—discovery, proposition development, design and build. Each phase had a primary focus, such as gathering insight, planning a vision or building towards a public release.

At a product company like ezeep, work doesn’t fit into such tidy cycles. It’s not just that you think through making, you also have to balance thinking about today with six months from now and also two years from now, all at once. Singular focus on the next few weeks leads to a lack of vision and direction, while solely thinking about the future prevents you from building a product that fulfils customer needs today. A typical work day might involve planning the next cycle of development, getting user feedback on a recent release, interviewing someone who might be your customer in six months time, and developing your product roadmap. You’re not just planning for the future, you’re actively modelling it, prototyping it and testing it.

At first this feels a bit like having vertigo—maintaining a constant awareness of the now and the future, both at the same time, induces dizziness without end. While too-often flip-flopping between these states makes you feel unproductive at best. Or like the Big Bang is happening within you—every day, all the time. To maintain any kind of flow, I’ve found it’s imperative to establish just one area of focus on which to concentrate for half-day stretches. But, in essence, we are traveling in the TARDIS—both scary and exhilarating at once.

We’re Our Own Masters

The focus between providing value to clients and providing value to customers is an obvious distinction between agencies and product companies. The best agencies show their client how providing more value to the customer will bring greatest value to them. But often politics intervenes in the agency-client-customer love triangle. When you work for an agency, it can feel disempowering that you don’t have complete ownership over a product you’ve brought from conception to reality. At times during a project, you’re forced to concede to competing interests, and in the end you know it will be handed over to someone else to look after and improve (or perhaps f$ck up) as they see fit.

When you join a young company working on its own product, you immediately discover a liberating sense of ownership. You are directly responsible to your customers. There are no tricky vested interests to negotiate and any internal politics you have to navigate are entirely your own. 

In a product company with a tight team, you also find another type of ownership. You are the only person who does your job. Quite literally. You are the only person in the team with your particular skill set and area of focus. When you change from working in a pool of peers with crossover skills to a team with distinct proficiencies, the shape of collaboration looks very different.

We’ve Got an Agenda

Agencies are well-structured to make things. Typically you design a new product or service in a defined time period, there is a clear business goal and you are largely unencumbered by legacy. This particular combination of constraint and freedom creates a great environment for innovation.

But agencies aren’t in the business of investing in the long game. Any client project has an exit strategy built in from day one. For both the client and the agency, the incentive is to create something very successful in as short a time period as possible—the client pays less, and the agency has a great case study to bring in the next client. Even in the best agencies (like the one that used to employ me), it can be difficult to create a long-term relationships with clients.

A young product company with big ambition faces a different challenge. You might expect that switching to a product company means you will be single-mindedly focused on developing a product but you quickly learn that what you are building is a company. The product you are developing now is only the tangible manifestation of that company’s vision. You’re also developing business models, testing liquidity in the market and experimenting with completely different products that might fit future opportunities. You can’t be too narrow minded about what you’re creating or you miss out on critical opportunities. You’re playing the long-game.

Agencies have a replicable process to produce innovative work. A product company doesn’t have the luxury of process or a defined method to achieve results. We are focused on finding the pockets of opportunity that exist today to make the long-term vision we believe in a reality. We have an agenda—a view on how think the world could be. So many factors hang in the balance. Can we can make it happen? We’re working with infinitely higher tolerance for risk—but pulling it off will bring the greatest possible rewards. So we hope and aspire.