Ad Agencies: The Perfect Start-up Incubator. Or Are They?

Ad agencies are full of lateral thinkers, full of budding entrepreneurial brains. You can find all manner of genius in one place. Brilliant storytellers, great salesmen and women, risk takers, minds that can make the complicated truly simple and ambitious souls whose drive is one the most powerful natural resources on earth.

So shouldn't it follow that these should be the best place for new businesses to start? New inventions, new platforms, new products should be flowing out of the doors of every agency like water from a tap. Today, it's not like that. Surprisingly, in an industry full of so much progressive talent, we are very slow to change. It's an industry trapped by a system that dates back to the 60's - paid by the hour to create campaigns in order to sell things.

Now I'm not going to try and solve everything. That will need a collective effort from the industry. But I do have an idea I would like to put forward. Which is this. Why not do both? Why not create campaigns that could also become businesses in their own right? So the agencies can continue to deliver to their clients but importantly set free the entrepreneurial talent within their walls.

Lets take Facebook. Lets imagine for a minute that Mark Zuckerberg works for an agency. He's part of a team on the Nokia business, the brand with the famous line - connecting people. He's been given a brief to develop a digital campaign to deliver on the brand promise. The budget is okay.

The way things stand today Zuckerberg would work for a certain amount of hours and he would create an idea that would be presented to the client. "Here's a nice idea Mr. client, it's called Facebook. It's going to connect people" he says. "It's going to be big" he pleads. The client goes for it and it gets made. It takes off and runs for a while until the budget runs out and after the campaign period it lies idle. The 'campaign' is finished. Zuckerberg knows it really should be expanded and he believes in it. The public want more. A business entity has been created.

But the agency, rather than back him to go for it, decide he needs to spend his time chasing after another small client to fill the budget for this year. Their hands bound by an outdated cost structure and contractual system. The client owns the rights to the project but the marketing departments time and budgets are rightly devoted to short-term gains - selling the new phone on the market in Nokia's case. That would essentially mean Facebook is dead in the water. Looking good in some award annual stacked on a shelf in a dark, dusty back room somewhere.

But what if we could change it?

Lets think about doing it like this. We create the campaign as we usually would, meaning Nokia get their digital brand campaign. We even allow them to pay us by the hour in its development. So we aren't trying to change the entire compensation system, threatening the health of account people all over the creative world.

But what we do change is the ownership of the project after the campaign period. The intellectual property rights revert to the creator and the agency, lets say after 6 months. It would be a similar contract to that of actors or photographers where the usage of their work reverts to them after a set period of time.

Where would that leave us? And in this hypothetical case, the Facebook 'campaign'? Well, it's always going to be Nokia that started it. Meaning their brand is seen in a good light. The agency can invest in its development knowing that it's already consumer tested and there is a market demand meaning a good chance of success. Zuckerberg can stay at the agency and continue to create value for them. The world gets to see Facebook. Sounds good to me!

I'm no lawyer but I don't see why this small change in contract wouldn't work. It seems to me to be a very simple way to alter the slow to change world of advertising agencies and allow them to make best use of the great people that they have in their ranks.

I also think we could do this retrospectively. We'd just need brands to agree. Looking around I can see so many examples of amazing potential businesses lying dormant as they were initially labeled as 'campaigns'. I believe some could and should be businesses in their own right.

Lets look at Flat Eric and Levis. The little yellow furry character became a huge star through the Levis advertising campaigns from BBH. There was so much equity built up through the media outlay, making the client happy and selling a lot of jeans. So why not now, for example, use his fame to create a cartoon series? Then sell it to TV networks and publishers.

There is an argument that he is intrinsically linked with the Levis brand. But I don't see that as a problem. After all Levis would get brand exposure that pays for itself. What isn't there to like for them? I guess they could also have first option to invest in the business. As for the agency, the creators of Flat Eric could realize their entrepreneurial dreams and the agency could generate even more value from the ideas created within their four walls.

That's why, as part of my MBA thesis at the Berlin School of Creative Leadership, I will be looking into the feasibility of creating businesses from campaigns. Will brands allow us to use dormant campaigns? How about agencies? How can we fund these start-ups? What does the ownership structure look like? What other campaigns could become businesses? Can they ultimately make profit?

Lots of questions with answers I don't yet know. What I do know is that if we, as an industry, continue to stand still the alternative is that agencies lose the best creative minds, which in turn means brands lose the best people working on their business. They lose them, not to other agencies, but to their dreams. Lets make sure that doesn't happen. Lets give everyone the opportunity to realize their entrepreneurial dreams at their agency.