The Ever Elusive Pursuit of Greatness
What makes an agency great?
Not good. Not new and innovative. Not hip. But actually great. Think The Beatles, Hemingway, or Muhammad Ali great.
And once an agency is great, how does it sustain that greatness?
These aren’t easy questions to answer. Even more daunting, there are more than 20,000 agencies trying to answer this same exact question. Sure, there are legends in advertising who have a really good grasp on how they became great. But like most things, it’s easy to define what made you or your agency successful in retrospect.
Moreover, there isn’t one single thing that can make anyone or anything great. It’s a highly synthesized mix that comes together at the right time and place to ultimately create something unlike anything else.
Great athletes often have natural athleticism, a burning will to win, years of practice, and a diligent work ethic. Add on to that the right mentors and you have the perfect storm of attributes that separates competitors like Michael Jordan and Serena Williams from the rest.
So, once again, how can an agency be great — not just now, but over time, consistently?
Before I go further, I want to make a quick, yet important point: Nebo isn’t great.
We want to be great. We’re working hard everyday to be great. But we’re not there yet. I think we have a good foundation, the right philosophy, an amazing culture, really smart people, and awesome clients.
We’re a good agency right now — but, we’re not great. Not even close. At least not yet. Maybe never — that’s yet to be determined.
But, I’d rather try and fail than accept just being good. Good is the enemy of great. Good leads to just enough success to distract from the path of greatness. Good is comfortable. Good feels right. Good is better than most. But good is not great. Good is settling.
First, I think any organization has to have purpose — agencies included. That’s not my opinion, that’s from advertising icon Roy M. Spence Jr. in his book It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For.
Secondly, I think an agency has to prioritize its team over clients and its culture over profit.
However, that’s still not enough to be great. A lot of agencies have those things, including us, but they're still simply good.
I think what separates the truly great agencies from the rest is to be able to consistently create, nurture, and brilliantly execute on the f'g best ideas in the world.
Technology is fleeting. The best hires will come and go. Processes will change. Relationships will fade. Media landscapes shift. Intellectual property has a shelf life.
To be great over time, an agency has to be relentless in creating the best ideas. Ideas that change brands. Ideas that inspire consumers. Ideas that transcend what we think could be or will be. Ideas are the only sustainable differentiator.
There’s the rub. How can an agency consistently do this? If anyone knew the formula with certainty, they would have done it already.
So, how can an agency consistently create the best ideas?
To me, it’s organic. An agency needs to create an environment where the best ideas are born, take root, grow, thrive, and are cultivated to reach their full potential.
This is where most agencies fail. We all have processes for good, but no one has processes for great. The word process is part of the problem. Simply applying proven methods to new challenges can lead to good, or occasionally really good, but rarely great.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against process. It helps. It has its place. But it’s not enough.
We can’t confuse process with practice. I believe in practice more than process. Practice teaches us to think. It teaches us to exercise our minds and emotions. It teaches us to solve problems.
And if you have the other variables in place, and practice and train enough, you can sometimes get to great.
But greatness needs more. Greatness is also a product of its environment. To be great, the soil that ideas are born in has to be rich. Even rich isn’t good enough. It has to be the best soil. The seeds need rain, the right temperature, and to be nurtured. In perfect harmony.
Greatness doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and great ideas aren’t created in one, either.
This is why our intelligence team has been born.
Its role isn’t to own innovation or control ideation. It’s not here to simply roll out ideas and piece together actionable insights from applied research. It’s not even here to own the ever-elusive pursuit of greatness.
No, it’s here to create an agency environment where we can co-create the best ideas in the world. It’s here to foster a culture where brilliance can be nurtured. Where ideas can flourish. Where the greatest strategies in the world are not only born but thrive and take on lives of their own. And equally important, an environment where just good ideas die.
And we don’t use “co-creation” for the sake of espousing trendy buzzwords. Co-creation is the core of this intelligence team. It’s the belief — and practice — that draws an entire agency’s worth of expertise into collaborative innovation. It’s the drive behind client relationships that build shared trust rather than oversold project plans. And it’s what allows us to execute flawlessly on the ideas we create.
Nebo’s intelligence team has a brutally hard mission. It has to create an environment where we can consistently and sustainably co-create and flawlessly execute on the best ideas. In a manner that’s inclusive with our clients and other teams. In a manner that pulls together all of our research and collective wisdom, but without being lost to numbers, statistics, and the hideous nature of simply creating and pitching good ideas. It also has to remember that, on the other end of this entire pursuit is a world of people with needs and fears and hopes and dreams. It has to be real.
Nebo’s intelligence team has to be part scientist, part athlete, part child, part chef, part psychologist, part designer, part consumer, and, most importantly, part gardener.
The big question is can we execute. Can we create this environment? Can we collaborate? Can we be strong and disciplined enough to pull off this incredible balancing act of art, science, process, and commitment? And can we sustainably make good our sworn enemy? We've only just begun exploring how we execute in the sister post, Bringing the Intelligence Team to Life, and although we still have a long way to go, we're excited for where this new venture will lead.
If we can, we'll have a chance to be great.