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Can ad professionals think like entrepreneurs?

FastCompany’s ‘World’s Most Innovative Companies’ is perhaps one of the most reliable gauges and widely followed annual rankings by creative professionals globally. What makes it an instant hit with the global creative economy is how well it balances a corporation’s revenue growth and profit margin, with its creative models and progressive culture. A reason why, every year, yet-to-be-discovered creative companies such as Cree, Solarcity, Trevi Systems, Airlight Energy end up rubbing shoulders with the usual Innovation champions in Google, Apple and Twitter.

This makes you wonder: if Design Companies like IDEO can be regulars here, what will it take for advertising businesses to break into this list?

Sure, tech corporations are frontrunners in this ranking, but it does also feature innovative companies from over 34 industry sectors, who in their chosen disciplines are creating and innovating?

Creativity is not enough

As Ted Levitt, former editor of Harvard Business Review and one of the most incisive commentators on innovation, clearly laments that having ideas doesn’t turn you into an innovator. He explains that ‘creativity’ is not the miraculous road to business growth and affluence. What is often lacking is not creativity in the idea-creating sense but innovation in the action-producing sense, i.e., putting ideas to work. To make it happen one needs the instinct and willingness of an entrepreneur, the passion and discipline of a start-up, and most importantly a D-I-Y prototype culture of creation.

Peter Theil, Silicon Valley’s most successful visionary venture capitalist, (credited with founding PayPal and helping start Facebook among others) believes that creative value creation begins by asking the question ‘what valuable company is nobody building today’?

As, the author of ‘Zero to One’, Theil urges creative entrepreneurs and start-up hopefuls not to aspire to become ‘the next Facebook or Twitter’. This visionary thinking is aptly summed up in the manifesto of Founders Fund, which he co-owns: ‘We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters’. He believes that innovations even in Silicon Valley in past decade have been in ‘bits’ [trivial things]: mobile apps that address the pressing problems of the young and technologically savvy people who design them; hot to whistle up an Uber car; or locate friends on the other side of a crowded bar.

Theil is again busy helping Silicon Valley change the innovation game with ‘atoms & bits’ by fueling technology startups dedicated to innovations in life sciences, space exploration and longevity. And he urges all creative economy entrepreneurs to prototype innovations that create real value.

The Inconvenient Truth(s)

Which actually brings us to the question: by being in the business of helping brands and marketers create value, have we somewhere lost the entrepreneurial instincts which once helped our creative industry come into being?

Being in the creative solutions business, have we become too focused on pure storytelling, to not consider other innovative ways of helping both clients and consumers’ solve real life issues?

Whilst Silicon Valley startups use technology as a means to solve a life problem, are we relying too much on technology as the solution itself for all complex business issues?

Why are advertising professionals turned entrepreneurs in creative start-ups based on personal interests (like artisan cafes, lifestyle themed retail and specialised e-com portals) more successful than the ones who branch out to start new model agencies?

And finally, how are we preparing to move from Creativity to Innovation based businesses, in this new emerging order where client organizations are rapidly embracing ‘the art of prototyping’ across the organizational fabric, shaping their entrepreneurial instincts within the company? The Inconvenient Truth being that when they directly work with those masters of innovation at Google, Facebook, IDEO, the comparisons with creative agencies are inevitable.

The writer is Sailesh Wadhwa, strategy planning director at Lowe Malaysia.

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