In the research that AMI does every year, one of the things we hear is that clients are looking for agencies that can bring them fresh concepts, big ideas and innovative solutions. So, what do these kinds of innovation initiatives look like and how do agency owners inspire that kind of thinking inside their shop?

My podcast guest Kris Hoet owns the international agency Happiness and is a master of innovation. He loves the idea of messy experimentation and really collaborating with clients on projects rather than following the same old templates over and over again. He’s been on both the client side and the agency side and sees how much good can come when you infuse your agency with collaborative, out of the box thinking.  

Come along as Kris and I lay out a plan to help you inspire your team for this kind of action by learning:   

  • Why Kris made the jump to the agency side — and why he started his own agency
  • Innovation initiatives and driving change in every aspect of a company
  • Why small changes across a company are better than one big change
  • Getting ideas for change from other industries
  • Some feeds that Kris follows to get inspiration
  • Finding the time to focus on innovation and learning for learning’s sake while also running a client-driven profitable business
  • Why everybody needs to be involved in an initiative
  • Working in a messy way with these innovation initiatives and why that demands more trust between agency and client
  • Why you can do this with your employees you have (if they’re actual good employees)
  • How to inspire your team to want to innovate
  • How to get innovation started

Kris Hoet has a broad experience on both the client and agency side and brings a unique perspective to his work at the crossover of creativity and technology. His passion for technology and how to translate that into change and impact first came through when he was working as a client enabling better connections with consumers by building some of the first online cinema experiences in the late 90s and kickstarting some of Microsoft’s first influencer marketing activities in the early 2000s.

Currently Kris is heading up the innovation initiatives at Happiness, an agency he co-founded, a role he also fulfills for the global FCB network to which Happiness belongs. Before joining Happiness, Kris was part of the management team at Duval Guillaume responsible for some advertising classics such as TNT’s Push to add drama & Carlsbergs Bikers. During his time there the agency became Digital Agency of the Year twice and following that was elected Agency of the Year for three consecutive years.

Kris is also a renowned speaker at international marketing conferences. He was one of the Advocates of the TED Ads Worth Spreading program and is still a curator of All Gunns Blazing, a selection of some of the most innovative worldwide creative work of the famed Gunn Report.

He is an avid mountain biker and a self-proclaimed petrol-head with a special love for vintage cars.

To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site (https://www.agencymanagementinstitute.com/kris-hoet/) and grab either the iTunes or Stitcher files or just listen to it from the web.

If you’d rather just read the conversation, the transcript is below:

Table of Contents (Jump Straight to It!)

  1. Kris’s Agency Background
  2. Differences Being an Agency Owner Rather than Employee
  3. Innovation Initiatives: What They Are & What They Look Like
  4. Using Innovation Initiatives to Inspire (and WOW!) Your Clients
  5. How to Implement Innovation Initiatives in Your Agency (Action Steps)

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Build a Better Agency, where we show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invested employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25+ years of expertise as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.  

Drew: Hey everybody, Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build a Better Agency, and today my guest is Kris Hoet. So Kris and I have known each other for…I don’t even want to speculate how long. Kris was one of the authors when Gavin Heaton and I put together “The Age of Conversation” books back probably ’06, ’07, something like that. So Kris is, you’re going to recognize right away, has an accent that sounds a little different than how I sound. So we’ll let him tell you a little bit about his background. But let me tell you a little bit about his professional background and then he can tell you about where he calls home.  

So Kris has a broad range of experience. He’s sat on both sides of the table, the client side and the agency side, which allows him to bring a unique perspective to his work. And Kris has always been fascinated by the cross-over of creativity and technology and he’s got a great passion for technology and how to translate that into change. And really sort of came into being around that idea when he was at Microsoft and he was involved in kick-starting some of their first influencer marketing activities back in the early 2000s. Currently, he is the head of innovation initiatives at Happiness, an agency that he co-founded, and he’s going to tell us more about that. And he also fulfills that role for the Global FCB Network to which Happiness belongs. Before that, he also worked for other agencies, and he worked on some advertising classics that you will recognize like TNT’s “Push to Add Drama”, and “Carlsburg’s Bikers.”  

So during that time, the agency he was working with became the digital agency of the year twice, and then following that was elected agency of the year for three consecutive years. So Kris obviously has a path of success that he trails with him wherever he goes. He’s also a speaker all over the world, at international marketing conferences. He was one of the advocates of the TED Ads Worth Spreading program and is still a curator at All Gunn’s Blazing, which looks at some innovative world-wide creative work, if you’re not familiar with that as part of the Gunn Report. Personally he is an avid mountain biker and one of the things that I know about him is that he is fascinated by vintage cars, if I remember right, Kris, it’s Mustangs, right?

Kris: Yes, absolutely, that’s absolutely right.

Drew: Yeah?

Kris: First of all thanks for having me on the call, but I’m a petrol-head as we call it.

 

Kris’s Agency Background

Drew: Well I’m glad to have you. It’s great to have your perspective on the show so thanks for joining us. So talk to us first about…so Microsoft is probably one of those companies that once you get there it’s probably a pretty good gig. So what made you hunger to go over to the agency side?

Kris: Well there’s a few reasons. Microsoft, when I joined, Microsoft was in a little bit of a different place than it is today. I think if you look, I think you can imagine Microsoft right now being kind of an exciting place. They have solid products. It’s not the same as Apple, but it’s at least in a better place than it was when I was there when we went from killing MSN to launching Windows Live. I think Windows 7 had just been released, all kinds of things that people I think commonly acknowledge as being not the best, to say it…

Drew: Right?

Kris: And so we were doing marketing initiatives, and I think in the beginning it was kind of exciting. I collaborated with a colleague of mine on a project called “Bring the Love Back,” I don’t know if you remember that one. It was a little video with the advertiser and a consumer sitting in a restaurant where she’d say, “I want to break up.” Which was often used in marketing events I think later on, and which was really a breakthrough for how Microsoft did some of their stuff. And especially knowing that the initiative didn’t come out of Redmond, Seattle, but some odd place in Belgium, that’s where I’m from. And after a couple of years, I think I spent five years there learning the European Mark-ems for MSN and then Windows Live, you saw that these initiatives didn’t get any room anymore. And so, it just is one of those topics that I’m most excited about, it was time for change. And I think I wrote a blog post about the change and there was some restructuring at Microsoft as well and that all didn’t really work out.  

And then immediately, four or five companies contacted me, one of which was an agency called Duval Guillaume, and it sounded exciting. It was something very different. And still I had a feeling I could do a lot of stuff with them, I could teach them. And I literally, and it is probably sounding a little bit, “I think that guy really knows his stuff,” but it was a mistake. I had written a few blog posts around, well I think it was called “Where is Agency 2.0” or something of the like. And then I was working with a lot of agencies at the time, and there were a few things that I was missing. So when an agency contacts you and says, “Hey, do you want to become our head of digital and our head of strategy?” That was like a unique opportunity to do something about it. And I remember being at the agency for maybe a week or so, and I was thinking, “I have no idea what these guys are doing.” And it was a bit of a struggle and an eye-opening. And if there is something I advise everybody some form if you can, then it really makes a lot of sense to spend time at both sides of the table. Because even if you’ve experienced working with the other side, it’s very different when you are working at the other side.

Drew: Absolutely, I think a lot of agency folks who have come from the client side find that insight, “A,” unique inside their agency, but “B,” incredibly beneficial, yeah. So working for an agency is a little different than starting an agency, as most of our listeners know. So what made you decide that you wanted to start Happiness? What prompted that? And then tell the listeners a little bit about it, because you’re structured in a unique way in that you have offices in a couple different countries and you’re doing work in a much broader sense. So give everybody a sense of “A,” how you guys are structured and where your offices actually physically are, and “B,” what prompted that desire?

Kris: Okay, so the agency I spent five years at is called Duval Guillaume, and as you said we did some iconic work. The times were a little bit different but I think we did about 100 million views on YouTube without a single paid view or seeding, or whatever.  It didn’t really exist anyway. So that was kind of exciting times. But then they belonged to a network, and I think the vision of where we wanted to go further in the change and where the network wanted to go didn’t really comply to just, so we said… Or at least, I together with the two credit leaders, we kind of decided to leave that agency, to go someplace else.  

And then very quickly one of the creative leaders and myself, we got onto a conversation with the original founder of an agency, Happiness in Brussels. So the agency Happiness in Brussels existed for a while. There was a bigger structure right now which we co-founded, but there was a basis there that was already solid, meaning that it had probably 20 or 30 people staff, and it had already also a good creative recognition. But the person felt that she needed, Karen who was the original founder, needed additional support to bring the agency further. And for us it was interesting because we could bring the ideas that we tried to bring to the table at the other agency, to bring it further, that all the sudden, it wouldn’t work anymore, we could do it here, because it would be our own. We wouldn’t just be management, we’d own a piece of it. And so indeed, right now you have Happiness in Brussels and we have another office in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. So it’s two odd locations. And also…

Drew: And not necessarily locations that one would match up together?

Kris: No, and part is because we also have a digital production unit which is based out of Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, as I should say. But also it is, if you look at South-East Asia is one of the biggest places for start-ups. And we’ve always… When Geoffrey, my creative partner and I, we worked at Duval Guillaume, I think in 2012, when just right after TNT “Push to Add Drama” and the Carlsburg and these things had been released or some of these had been released, I think we won 15 Lions in Cannes and we were media agents of the year. If you know that we were an agency of 45 people at the time…

Drew: That’s crazy.

Kris: That’s like a line for every three people. So it’s pretty impressive, and something that we hadn’t seen coming. We’d been always creatively successful, we would have our line or two, whatever. But not 15, right? That would be a massive.

Drew: That’s a big year, yeah, yeah.

Kris: Yeah, and as a result of it we’ve started working for Coca-Cola in Paris and for Carlsburg in Copenhagen, PNG in Geneva, Smirnoff in London, and they didn’t seem to make a big deal out of that location, that we were based in Antwerp, not even Brussels. And I think, I don’t remember who it was, but all of the sudden one of the bigger clients, I think it was at Coke, said, “I don’t really care where the ideas are coming from as long as they’re good ideas.” And that sort of made us thinking, “Why would we go sit in London?” And so later on what would happen is, “Why wouldn’t we go to Hong Kong or Singapore where you’re competing with all the other international small groups? Why don’t we go to a place that maybe is a little bit more interesting and a bit more challenging and that suits a little bit more what our belief is and who we are?” And Saigon seemed to be like a really good place to do that. And I have no regrets of that decision ever since then.

 

Differences Being an Agency Owner Rather than Employee

Drew: So other than that it was time to move on, what about ownership as opposed to just joining another shop as a manager, or the management role, what about that was appealing to you and did that actually play out the way you thought it would?

Kris: Well you have a lot more, you know it’s weird to be owner. So if the three of us, although we are quite different, but still, in terms of where we want to bring this agency to, we’re on the same page. So if we make a decision on either investing something or how we want to organize or reorganize the business, or how we want to deal with a big issue on a client or whatever it is, then we can just do it. There’s no, like I used to have somebody in Paris who had to give their go on whatever it was, or even if it was on small things at the time, there’s often approval you need to get. So this time you give your approval. So you get a little bit of a sense that you own it, and at the same time the responsibility that if it doesn’t work out, is also yours. And that there’s people obviously counting on you making it work, because if it doesn’t work and you lose business, then you have to let go people and you don’t want to do that, right?  

And so, but it gives it a lot more boost and excitement on trying things, because if you cannot get some change or you cannot drive some of the things that you, and I want to change all the time, then you lose interest. And I don’t want to wake up in the morning and question why I go to work. I’m in the early 40s, it’s way too soon to just be getting up and just spend some time in a office and then go back. I just really want to make a bigger difference than that. So and here I can, with all of the responsibilities that go with it.  Right now we’re doing pretty good business. I think we’re 55 to 60 people in Brussels and 30-something in Vietnam, so it’s going alright. And at the same time I have, as you said, I spend basically half of my time with that agency and the other half I spend on helping FCB as a network, on the innovation projects or mostly their own agency and kind of transformation. So it’s interesting to try and make some change to something that you own and then see how you can get some of these ideas to work in a network where there’s what 8,000 people work or something?

Drew: Right, right.

Kris: So different challenge, but interesting nevertheless.

Drew: Yeah, so has it been everything that you hoped that it would be in terms of all of that?

Kris: Well it also gives new headaches, that’s for sure. And obviously, not every decision that you make… If you were in an agency with just management, you make it, if you make something it’s somebody else’s responsibility to make it work numbers-wise. And then you can be mad at them if it doesn’t work.

Drew: Right, or they say, “No,” right.

Kris: I know they say, “Come on, you got to say this,” or… And here you’re more responsible for that, because sometimes you gotta say, “I really want this, or I think it’s necessary, but I can see why this is not something we should push in the next six months.” But I think that overall it has been really an awesome experience.  The energy that you get from it, of the not only renewed task or responsibility to drive change, but also the responsibility, more responsible for the people that are part of the company makes your thinking about it even more in a very positive way, as in, “How could we do this?” I saw this person in the morning, and I’m not saying that you don’t do it as a manager. Because also as a manager if you see somebody coming in that doesn’t look happy, you’ll think about sorting that out.

Drew: Right. Different motivation there, yeah, yeah.

Kris: Yes, it’s yours.  It’s a different kind of responsibility, so no I like it.

 

Innovation Initiatives: What They Are & What They Look Like

Drew: Yeah good, so one of the things that I talked about in your bio is that you are responsible for heading up the innovation initiatives. And I think in many cases that that has the risk of being like a buzzword like, “I’m empowering my people.” So what I want to really dig into for the lion’s share of our conversation is what does an innovation initiative look like, and how do agency owners bring that kind of thinking and activity into their shop? So let’s take a quick break and then I want to jump right into that.  

Podcasts are a great way to learn and a great way to educate your staff. Another great way are live workshops and AMI offers many of them throughout the year. If you’d like to check out the schedule, go to agencymanagementinstitute.com/live. Okay, let’s get back to the show.  

Okay, we are back with Kris and we are gonna be talking about innovation. Every agency owner I talked to is anxious about making sure that their agency is staying out ahead of ideas and creativity, and very concerned about being innovative. And certainly clients are telling us in the research that we do every year that one of the things that they’re looking for from their agency are fresh, big ideas and innovation. So Kris, talk a little bit about this idea of innovation initiatives inside your shop, what do those look like?

Kris: Yeah, so I think one of the important things to note is that even though I head up innovation, we don’t think about it as a, say a unit, or a separate track on where we have three initiatives that are being dealt with very separately, like a lab, or any kind of maybe common innovation setup. The idea really is that I’m probably engaged both with clients as with our own staff, as in trying to make changes or drive some of the changes, or try something new on every aspect of the company. So I might have a… We chat earlier this morning with one of the executive creative director, on something specific I thought we should do different in how we review ideas. And usually my ideas are a little bit more far out on where we can agree on in the end, and probably that’s for the better. But it’s an interesting discussion.  

Or it might be on a client where I think we have an opportunity to change the collaboration a little bit in a certain way, or change how we do R&D. We do a lot of R&D on ideas, mainly with our technical guys in Saigon, but maybe have a little bit of a different flow in how we do that. Or see if we can even have different partners for a specific production setup. But it can also be very common.  As part of the innovation role I also head up most of the digital projects, although digital is integrated within the agency. When a request comes in as in a client wants to throw away their website and do something new, then I’ll be the go-to guy.  The first person to go and see what is it that they really need and how can we put this thing on the rails in a direction that is very exciting for both the clients and for us. So it’s quite wide, sometimes difficult to define exactly what it is as in an account manger does this, or art director does this.

Drew: Right, right.

Kris: Which often makes it a little bit difficult in introduction as in, “What is this guy doing?” But I have…I don’t know, in a lot of projects engaged on trying to make a little bit of a shift and trying to make a small step, a small change. I think also that it’s essential. I don’t believe in the one big initiative projects. I think you need to do like a million small things at the same time across the company, and see how they impact each other, see which flies, and then take it from there. And I’m probably one of the driving forces for a lot of these small things.

Drew: So that requires a certain mindset to look, for example, at the way you’re collaborating with a client, and think “A,” there’s a different way to do this, and “B,” here’s the different way. So how… One of the things the agency owners tell me is they’re running like a chicken with their head cut off, they’re so busy. So how do you make sure that you stay in a mind-frame where you recognize opportunities to do things differently and how do you bring those ideas forth?

Kris: I think part of the mindset is I’m… If I also look at myself, I need to feed myself with different kinds of information. I’m usually not very easily inspired by other great advertising ideas, but I’m looking into things that startups are doing, or looking into what maybe the MIT Media Lab is doing. Or I’m looking into local technology companies. And it doesn’t even have to be technology, but I’m usually inspired by other businesses that are trying to change. And then thinking about not just the, call it the more superficial layer of literally what it is that I do.  I don’t want to do the Uber of something. But you’re trying to understand what is the underlying shift that’s actually been made for this to happen, and is that underlying shift something that we could use? And I think part of why often people bring me in on a conversation is because they know I’ll look at it differently than how they look at it.  

I don’t see myself as an advertising guy either, and I know a lot of people probably say it, but I’m not. I don’t get the similar excitement as many of the purely ad guys get. And then I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the excitement that they get from other advertising pieces. I think it’s interesting that you’re not all getting your excitement from the same places, because it brings a much richer inspiration. And I think you also made a very good point.  I think the most thing that will really get in the way of changing anything is the day-to-day. It is always… Okay, so even for the simplest things, you might say, “Okay, we got whatever, Facebook in for an exploration session, 20% of the company won’t be able to make it for some stuff they got to do.” And I’ll always be the first one to challenge, “How can you let this go before that, because this thing is for what happens tomorrow. What I want to show is for what’s going to impact your job next month, next quarter, whatever it is.” But then I got to help for it, and also to find time for it, I realize it’s not easy.  

But I think it’s really crucial that you find time to learn.  And I know that Google always bring this example of where people can do their own stuff as a part of their own time. I don’t really care if it’s be busy with their own projects or anything, but the fact that there is a culture where you realize that not the full amount of time can be booked on a day-to-day, I think is really healthy to drive some of that change.

Drew: Yeah, so you know you were talking about other places, getting inspiration if you will, or ideas from other places. If you had to say the three or four things that you make sure every day, week, month, however often you’re consuming them, where are non-traditional, so non-agency sort of sources, that you tend to always go to as sort of your, “I’m going to get some fresh perspective or ideas from?”  

Kris: Well, I don’t know exactly how all the feeds through our lists. I’ve found my own way to go through them, at least at reasonable speed, so I don’t have to go literally word-by-word through a thousand updates a day, whatever it is. Then there’s always Twitter and Facebook and some other channels where occasionally some good stuff appears.

Drew: But who is, for example if I were to take a peek into your RSS feed or who you follow on Twitter, are there… You said start-ups, is there media outlets or resources that other agency owners are like, “Yeah, that would be good brain food for me that I haven’t been consuming.” Are there some things that you would recommend your peers pay attention to that perhaps is not traditional enough that it’s been on their radar screen?

Kris: Some of the interesting feeds that I like and…Motherboard for instance, The Creators Project, which I like a lot. There is Monday Note which is around mobile, which is a really, really interesting website. PSFK, but it’s a more logical one.

Drew: Yeah.

Kris: Let me think about… A lot of strategist websites, they tend to get their inspiration from culture and writers, which is less so my thing, but at least if they can cite it for me, then I think it’s really cool.

Drew: Right.

Kris: FiveThirtyEight, a fun site around data. Yeah, there’s many.

 

Using Innovation Initiatives to Inspire (and WOW!) Your Clients

Drew: Yeah, so how have you and your co-owners created this culture that “A,” every agency worries about the billable hours. So how do you create a culture where it’s okay to not be billable all the time and how do you balance that with the business-end of the business, which is, “We have a lot of mouths to feed, so we need to make sure that everybody is billable enough that we can pay the rent and pay people and all that?”

Kris: Well I think if, especially in an agency business, you are so client-dependent, and there are changes with client projects and budgets happen often. So I wouldn’t be able to say that this is the same way throughout the year. There’s definitely periods where we probably are 100% dealing with the business and there is very little room to do anything else. It depends on maybe a client just said that a big project is not going to happen, and you’d obviously want to make sure that you don’t have to fire people or hire too much, you want to keep that balance. And then sometimes we get a little bit more wiggle room, and sometimes we don’t have it. But at least we want to make sure that we organize or have people organize plenty of moments or external speakers where we can try and do small hack-a-thons or little workshops where we try and do meetings that are not immediately client-specific or for the moment, to make sure we keep feeding that culture. But it’s not as in how Google defines it, like one day out of five or whatever it is, you can do your own stuff. That is impossible I think within an agency of our size anyway.

Drew: Yeah, it’s got to come in smaller bite-size pieces, yeah.

Kris: Yeah absolutely, but it’s about what it is that you organize, or let your staff organize for themselves. It’s about the idea that you let them work on for their own or that are partially related to the agency as well. There is one of the parts of the newer website that we’re building where we also have a piece where we will feature all the side projects of the individuals, even if they’re not agency related, because we can use the platform just as well to promote our own business as in to help them promote their initiatives. That’s part of Happiness as well. So it’s different ways to support it. I wish it was as easy as, say, maybe it’s more difficult than I make it sound. But I wish it was as easy as Google and just so that, “Go do your thing for X amount of time,” not in our business. But we keep the idea alive and we try and do as much as we can to make sure that there is a reality there.

Drew: And how do you connect those dots for your clients? So I would think that your clients love the fact that you guys are focused on innovation and learning for learning’s sake and that it’s not all advertising-driven or client-specific, but that you are creating and cultivating thinkers inside your shop. So how do you connect that with your client so that they understand what they’re buying? And again it’s a point of differentiation for you I would assume?

Kris: Yeah, there’s many different things. I think as I said before, you’ve got to, yourself, you’ve got to take many different steps or many different initiatives at the same time, smaller probably, but to try and drive change for the agency. And I think today, it’s very okay also to say to clients like, “Look, we don’t know everything, right? We are also changing, we are also trying to figure it out.” I think we used to come from a time where an agency has to say it can do everything, otherwise you know they do the agency.

Drew: Right.

Kris: Right now that sounds unbelievable to me and I think it makes a lot more sense if you just say, “You know what? We’re learning, but there is another thing we can tell you, why don’t you learn with us?” So while I don’t, if there’s big learnings or insights that we have from an experiment that we did or an event that we went to, even if it’s a little bit more off-topic, “Why don’t we gather some of that back together and let’s discuss it together as well?” So if you find ways to bring it back to clients it’s also easier to make it work in the agency reality. So again as I said before, it’s not just cutting a piece of the week away and say, “Go do whatever you want.” But you can, by linking it back to your client you can make more wiggle room exactly for that. But you got to try and bring it back. “So what is that thing I went to the last week, what does that mean for you? And if we can do that I can get, it’s easier for me to send somebody to that thing in the first place. Or be busy prototyping something in the first place.” But you gotta bring it back. If you don’t bring it back, it becomes, I don’t know, a useless knowledge in someone’s head.  

Drew: Right.

Kris: And I think one of the essential things you got to do today is, whether it’s your staff or your clients, you’ve got to inspire for action. And I use those words deliberately because inspiration happens all the time, but you got to inspire for action. You’ve got to make the inspiration in a way that after you’ve talked about an inspirational piece, the next thing always is, “Okay, what does that mean for us? What are we going to do now, or change now, or do differently, now that we’ve seen this thing?” That it doesn’t become like that’s been cool and you can talk about it to your, whatever, advertising friends, that you’ve seen the coolest thing the other day, and then what?

Drew: Yeah, and in my mind as you’re talking about that, you have to inspire for action both internally and with clients, right?