Episode 401

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Part of being an agency means that you solve problems for a living. Clients come to you with a problem, and it’s up to you and your team to figure out the solution and present it to them in a neat package. Simply put, creative innovation is woven into the DNA of an agency.

Under pressure and deadlines, creative innovation can quickly be squashed, rushed, or underprioritized. But Carla Johnson, an ideation and innovation expert, has studied and produced an effective formula for how agencies can reinvigorate their creative strategies.

Her methodology can be incorporated with client projects and daily agency strategy to improve systems and processes. Innovation doesn’t always have to be creative, but getting creative about innovation can change how your team solves problems and could even save you time and money when putting it to the test.

A big thank you to our podcast’s presenting sponsor, White Label IQ. They’re an amazing resource for agencies who want to outsource their design, dev, or PPC work at wholesale prices. Check out their special offer (10 free hours!) for podcast listeners here.

creative innovation

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • What our clients are really hiring us to do
  • Figuring out how to connect the dots more efficiently
  • Innovative ways to approach creative ideation on your team
  • Bringing clients into the creative innovation process
  • Getting creative about systems and processes during growth moments in the agency
  • The 5-step Wheel of Innovation
  • Weaving creative thinking into everyday life
  • The intersection of business strategy and creative innovation
“If you remember your childhood, there was always something we were make-believing or creating in our imaginary worlds. And just through the process of education, work, and reward systems, creativity is taught and rewarded out of us.” @CarlaJohnson Click To Tweet “We think that innovation takes a lot of heavy lifting upfront. If we just put our phones down and pay more attention to where we are at any moment, it's fascinating how much we can start to take in and notice.” @CarlaJohnson Click To Tweet “The pitch is the story of the journey of your idea. What did you observe? How did that inspire your idea? Now, here's the outcome we expect to see because of it.” @CarlaJohnson Click To Tweet “I can tell you, when a company sees that a problem can be solved, they'll be quicker to spend that money.” @CarlaJohnson Click To Tweet “Innovation and creativity aren't just about that big idea you put in front of the client. And if you can get 400 hours away from a tedious process that you can now make billable, that's incredible.” @CarlaJohnson Click To Tweet “If you want to bring the best that your clients want to see, I think it's important that you bring the best to your agency first. ” @CarlaJohnson Click To Tweet

Ways to contact Carla:

Resources:

Speaker 1:

Welcome to the Agency Management Institute community where you’ll learn how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money, and keep more of the money you make. The Build a Better Agency Podcast presented by a White Label IQ is packed with insights on how small to mid-size agencies are getting things done. Bringing his 25 years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody. Drew McClellan here with another episode of Build a Better Agency. Welcome back if you are a regular listener and welcome if this is one of your first podcasts. This week’s episode and topic is really a critical one. In fact, it is part of the core DNA of being an agency is our ability to innovate. And so I am super excited to have our guest, Carla Johnson on the show. Carla was on the show back in 2022 or late 2021, and we taught a workshop. Carla wrote a book called Rethink Innovation, and she studied really how do people generate a volume of really valuable ideas on demand, because at the end of the day, that’s actually what we do for a living. We ideate for a living, we help clients solve problems for a living. And what Carla observed is that over time we, as human beings, lose our ability or it gets dulled over time for just to be a big idea generator.

And so she actually did quite a bit of research to figure out, “Is there a framework or methodology that we could follow that would reinvigorate our ability to innovate and create?” And so sure enough, there is, and she wrote a whole book about it called Rethink Innovation. And in February of 2022, she taught a two-day work for our workshop for us down in Orlando that was out of the park. Awesome. So we’re bringing it back. We will be in Denver, July 11th and 12th, and Carla is going to teach that workshop again. So we’re going to talk today a little bit about the methodology, the framework, what are the steps, but also some of the ways agencies who attended that workshop the first time have applied what they’ve learned.

Carla is brilliant, she’s a great storyteller, but she’s also a prolific idea generator. And so I think all of us can agree that one of the things we have to bring to the party today is we have to be that outside observer with that inside knowledge that helps our clients see their world, their clients, their prospects, their products, their services in a fresh light. And that is really hard for them to do that. As we say here at AMI, it’s really hard to describe the label of a bottle when you’re inside the bottle. And so we are the outside observer and we have to be able to do that. And in most agencies, one or two of you are good at it and you are the bottleneck for idea generation because no one else in your shop knows how to do it and you don’t know how to articulate how you just naturally and natively do it.

That’s the beautiful thing about Carla and her book and the workshop is she makes it very simple for anyone and everyone to create a host, a big long list of viable ideas that are great fodder for your team to play with and explore as you try and solve problems for your clients. So super excited to bring her back on the podcast, super excited to offer the workshop again, and hopefully we’ll see a lot of you in Denver on July 11th and 12th. But in the meantime, let’s get to the conversation. Carla, welcome back. It’s good to have you back on the show.

Carla Johnson:

Drew, it’s great to be back here. I appreciate a return conversation.

Drew McLellan:

Well, it’s not just a return conversation, as I was saying in the intro, because the workshop that we did together, but two February ago, got such rave reviews that we knew we needed to do it again. And now I think we have a lot to talk about in terms of how some of the agencies have applied what they learned in that workshop. But before we do that, let’s go back for the audience and refresh their memory about the book and the work you did to get the book done. And then I want to talk a little bit about what we’ve seen since we last had you on the show and we last had the workshop.

Carla Johnson:

That would be great. And you and I have gone through this because I know you hear this a lot, is the whole spark that started me down the research path for this book is I was at an event and I was talking about a process from a previous book I wrote called Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing with Robert Rose, who I know you know. And it’s about how to create story driven experiences. And somebody came up to me after that speech and they said, “I love the framework, but what I still struggle with is ideas for to create the creative content that we’ll put into this framework.” And it just struck me because I, in my life, have never ever struggled for an idea. And in fact that’s probably one of my greatest struggles is having too many ideas and trying to execute on just a thimble full of them.

And I was talking to Andrew Davis who spoke at the summit last year, and he said, “It’s really not that hard. All you have to do is A, B, C.” And he said, “That right there is it. If you can figure that out and unpack what you just did like that in your head, that’s what people don’t understand.” So with his encouragement, I sat down that path to really look at where do people get inspiration for their ideas and then is that a process that can be codified and shared and learned and scaled, and the answer is, yes, which is what came out as my book Rethink Innovation. And it really is about where do people get inspiration from their ideas over consistently that turn into great outcomes and sustain that ability over a long period of time. And it breaks down into a five step process that anybody can learn and do.

Drew McLellan:

And when I say we, I’m in the back of the room heckling. And what is taught in the workshop is this framework. And when we did the workshop a couple years ago-

Carla Johnson:

I think it was February of 2022.

Drew McLellan:

I think so. I think that’s right.

Carla Johnson:

Yep.

Drew McLellan:

Yep. We had a lot of agencies grab what they learned and do some amazing things with it. And I think it’s important, and we’ll dig into this in a little more detail, but I think, as agency folks, we always think big idea is a big creative idea. And I think we have some examples of how agencies have done it, used it in some different ways. But the truth of the matter is our clients hire us for our outside perspective and big ideas, that’s what they want from us. It’s we’re finding more and more that on the execution side, if all they need is execution, they can do it a lot cheaper than hiring a great smart strategic agency. They can hire a bunch of freelancers or do it themselves or whatever, but what they really want is they want that outside perspective, that fresh perspective, and the ideas that are generated from that.

And I think in many agencies there’s a person or two who just natively is like, you’re like the microwave popcorn of ideas. You just pop, pop, pop, pop, pop. But I think for a lot of people, they get really stuck. They get stuck in their own head, they get stuck in their own doubt, and they don’t know how to unpack it in a way that they can replicate and, more important, that they can teach their entire team how to do. And I think that’s really the beauty of the book in the workshop is that you help them with a methodology that anyone can follow and use to the agency’s advantage.

Carla Johnson:

And I think one of the things about creativity and innovation that we hear over and over again is Steve Jobs talking about, you can connect the dots in hindsight, but when you’re right there in front of them, you can’t always do that. And I don’t necessarily agree with that 100%. I definitely agree that when you look back, it’s easy to see how the dots connected. But I think we have a greater ability to connect the dots going forward than we realize. And I think that that was a beautiful learning from this process is to see that it is something that we can actively be a part of. And I don’t want to say the word control because I think part of just allowing the dots to connect in organic or inorganic ways or whatever is part of the beauty that leads to the fluency and the volume of ideas that people end up with.

But I think I wanted to take the curtain away from the man behind the curtain like in The Wizard of Oz about what it means to connect the dots. Because we hear that and you say, “Yeah. Okay. We’ll just connect the dots.” And when you were a kid and had the book and the dots were all laid out and all you had to do was go from A, B, C, D, E or one to a hundred to make the shape of the clown or whatever, it was easy. But as adults there, it is a learnable process to learn how to connect those dots.

Drew McLellan:

I think one of the problems in a lot of agencies is they have one or two people who just natively know how to do it and they become the bottleneck in the agency and all the ideas have to come from them. And so, A, just in terms of volume and focus, that’s really challenging. But, B, what it means is everybody else is an order taker and that’s just not a healthy place for us to be as agencies today.

Carla Johnson:

I think it’s also really boring for the employees, to be honest, to just sit and to be passive, that kind of passive about the creativity that you put into your work. And I think everybody is born as idea people. If you go back to your childhood, there was always something that we were make believing or creating in our imaginary world. And just through the process of education and work and reward systems, it’s kind of taught and rewarded out of us. But I think as you and I go back through this process a little bit and then talk how we’ve seen agencies apply it from both the workshop from February of last year and then the summit and some other people that I’ve had feedback from in other speaking engagements, I think that it’s easier to see that this is something that really does happen naturally and it doesn’t take a huge investment of time. I think that’s always a concern for agency folks is how much time is this going to take because I ain’t got any.

Drew McLellan:

Right. That’s right. Or I got to make it billable or I have to-

Carla Johnson:

Yeah. Exactly.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Right. So let’s talk about some examples. So let’s talk about Kurt first. So Kurt was one of the folks who attended the workshop, and I know all these folks have stayed in touch with you and reported back on their successes. So tell us a little bit about his story.

Carla Johnson:

So Kurt was working with a client and he said it was one that they had started to build a relationship and more of the work that they were doing for this client, you would say is tactical. And I think one of Kurt’s superpowers is he’s a very strategic thoughtful thinker, but understanding that it was part of building that relationship over time. And so it’s one of those wonderful days when you get that call from the client who said, “We’re going to do some rebranding work, and I was wondering if you could help start us down that path with the strategy session and how we look at it.” And so he took the process from Rethink Innovation, the five step process, and he and his team used it in a half-day workshop with his client. And he said it was such a wonderful experience because it wasn’t just a matter of putting some Post-it notes up on the wall and reorganizing them.

And then he and his team going back to the office and having a couple of days to rehash, retalk, rework through all of this, they were able to take the five step process and complete all of the work that needed to be done, share it, which we would normally say, pitch it with a client there in that strategy session and get the okay to move forward. Now you think about all of that in total, including the number of… We’re always talking about billable hours, right?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Carla Johnson:

And if you can encompass everything in a half-day strategy session and then get the client to give it the thumbs up right there and not have to go back to the office and do things and that gap between what you work through with a client until you re-present to them and ask them for a yes, a lot can happen in that gap these days. So if you can go through the work and get the approval in the room right there, that’s really golden.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and I think always when we can co-create with a client, they’re much more likely to the like idea when they’re part of the process and they-

Carla Johnson:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

… didn’t see the step by step of how we got to the finish line we got to. Then, of course, they’re bought into the idea because they were part of its creation.

Carla Johnson:

And I think they’re part of that little bit of magic. They understand that secret secret process and they associate that great feeling and experience emotionally with your agency. And so when you call, you show up, you email, they have that little bit of a positive emotional halo effect with you. And I think it’s also the trust factor. They understand how you got to that and just like you said, they were a part of that. And anytime you can educate your client on how things are done, I think they respect it more, they appreciate it more.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely. Yep.

Carla Johnson:

You become better buyers of it.

Drew McLellan:

And I think too, the beauty of it is in all of these examples, the agency owner was the one who attended the workshop and then they were able to take it back and weave it through the organization. So Erik Martinez from Blue Tangerine, he was rabid about the process when he left the workshop, and I know he was super fired up to take it back and teach his team. And they’ve spent a year just weaving it into every part of the work they do and every kind of idea they generate. So it’s not just new business pitches and it’s not just going back to existing clients, but it’s also internal challenges and opportunities for them.

Carla Johnson:

I’ve talked to him numerous times since that first workshop and sat down with him and a couple of people have on his team when he was here in Denver actually for an AAMI training as well, and talking about how that works and works really infuses throughout the agency. And I think one area that we don’t always think of where we need ideas is the operations side of business. We just get caught up in, “This is how we do the thing,” and the ideas are for the client side or for the creative side. And I think he and his team have done such a great job of rethinking how they approach a lot of these things and it’s efficiency, but it’s also that experience that you deliver to your client across the entire relationship. And I think what he’s done and how he’s done that at Blue Tangerine has really been amazing with the results that they’ve seen. Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and I think for agencies today, there’s a lot of operational and systemized processing things that we are reinventing post-COVID. So we may have done something a certain way for the first 20 years of our agency when we were in a brick and mortar space and all the employees were under one roof. And today, our world has been turned upside down. So even if you’re a seasoned agency, you are reinventing. And if you’re growing, we know that there are certain sizes, 12 to 15 people, 25 to 30 people, 50 or so people, 75 people. And in every one of those growth moments, the weight of the growth crushes the systems and processes that got you to that growth. And so if you can’t innovate new processes and systems that really serve you at your new size, then your growth gets stunted. So the need to be able to do that efficiently and effectively is really critical more today, I think, than ever before for agencies.

Carla Johnson:

And I think one of the things that can help take some of that weight off of there is that you don’t have to create everything from scratch yourself. I mean, of course, you have the AMI community and everything that you learned there, but what about if you started to observe in your own world, what’s an operation of process that you experience, as a customer, that you love? And what is it about that you can take as inspiration back to your agency? And I think that’s often a disconnect is that when we think about those creative ideas, that’s not where we start to think about being creative because maybe part of the answer is you don’t need that process at all, maybe, you need to reinvent the thing. And that process that takes an hour, 10 hours a month doesn’t need to be there at all.

Drew McLellan:

When I think one of the things that I remember was an aha moment for me when I read the book and then when you taught the workshop was we’re under so much pressure to magically produce these ideas that we skip things like gathering bits and pieces of information that feels disparate and may not feel related at all. But when we ask ourselves the right questions, we do go into the ice cream shop and go, “Wow, that was really efficient,” or, “Wow, that made me really feel like I’m a valued customer,” or whatever the thing is. But we rush to the idea generation stage because we’re under so much pressure and if we took a little bit of time to gather the data and to gather inspiration the way you talk about and teach, now we have a bounty of moments and facts and feelings that we can then use as the raw materials for these ideas. And I think a lot of times we just skip that step.

Carla Johnson:

Absolutely. And I’m going to just refresh everybody on the five step process, and then I want to share a really fun example that I came across about a month ago. The five steps of the process, I call it the wheel of innovation because like a wheel, you continue to go around and around and around, it’s not something you do when you’re done. The first step is to observe, observe the world around you. So you just talked about being in the ice cream shop, we think that innovation takes a lot of heavy lifting upfront. And really if we just put our phones down and pay more attention to where we are in any moment, a little bit more presence and mindfulness, it’s really interesting how much we can start to take in and notice. And if we think about innovation and creative thinking being all about connecting the dots, then the observe step is all about collecting those dots.

And when you get down around the circle here a little bit, when we eventually get to that generate step, the more dots you’ve collected f