Moving, Fast and Slow: Agency Structure
The traditional, and established hierarchical models of advertising and communications agencies are, in theory, geared toward delivering perfection.. Departmental structures and sign of processes are put in place to ensure that anything that ‘leaves the building’ is as near perfection as it is meant to be. Big, established and well-organised corporate structures are both a benefit, and a hindrance. These structures have memories, “organisational memory” (Govindarajan & Trimble, p. 51) , this is the source of the years of experience which we have access to. Much like a family, knowledge is passed down from one generation of employee to the next.
These structures become a hindrance because this ‘memory’ can prevent new ways of solving or thinking about problems. Irrespective of new recruits, an agency has “capabilities that exist independently of the people who work within them… capabilities (which) reside in it’s process…. And it’s values” (Christensen, 1997, p. xxii). Capabilities, which are of the time it operates in, not necessarily those of the future. Clients also play a big part in deciding the fate of a business, the demand they have for specific services and products means “it is a companies customers who effectively control what it can and can’t do” (Christensen, p. 101).
It is this older, slower structure, which is reliant on client income, which we must preserve – as it is where much of the value of our businesses lies in the long term. The question is how do we move this ‘structure’ along, evolving it’s capabilities in times of rapid change?
One solution to keeping an older, rigid organisation innovative has been the creation of a separate division of the company, a “Skunkworks”, as pioneered by Lockheed Martin. It is a division created to work on advanced and often secret projects, usually behind closed doors – in Lockheed Martin’s case, a separate building.
Whilst secrecy and distance is a necessity when working on certain government contracts, communications agencies derive much of their strength from their ability to share knowledge amongst a number of different teams. An analogy I keep coming back to whilst thinking about this is the way a shipping liner works with a tugboat as it approaches a dock.
The shipping liner is where all the long term value lies, yet it is slow – it’s the least able to traverse difficult and unpredictable waters. The tugboat in contrast, is much smaller; it’s very fast and extremely agile – allowing it to explore uncertainty easy. Crucially, the vessels are linked – the tugboat is valuable only in context of the larger ship it works with, the shipping liner requires the smaller vessel to protect itself.