Mention open source to someone and the first thought that blossoms in that someone's mind is Linux and other computer software formats available the last few decades -- formats that operate anywhere, under any situation and under no restraints or limitations. Over the last year Publicis Media unit Blue 449, with eBay among its clients, has fashioned a work environment modeled after open source. In this exclusive interview, Blue 449 USA President Keith Mackay (pictured above) explains how this model impacts his organization and sizes up the likelihood that it could become prevalent throughout the advertising industry.
Simon Applebaum: Keith, how did your organization adopt an open source environment?
Keith Mackay: Open source was really birthed out of the need to combine two different agency cultures; Blue 449 and Optimedia. In order for us to be a modern, agile agency, we had to look at build and buy as a possibility, but [we] also had to look at the notion of partnering. As an agency, [we had to be] comfortable introducing additional partners into the challenges that we're trying to solve for clients.
The second area was collaboration, [which] has always been a heartbeat of our agency. It's been something that has been key and critical to our culture and something that I've tried to nurture in a leadership position.
I also noticed something else. As technology allowed us to be more productive, to respond quickly to client needs, I noticed that more and more often we were solving problems not just in silos created by agencies, but in silos created by technology. I was growing more and more frustrated. I'd get back from a meeting and see 13 e-mails going back and forth. We really hated a lot of that, and we started to create what we call "hacking" as a new addition to our culture. If you've got a challenge or if you're stuck on something or you've got a hypothesis, pull people together.
That's created a significant amount of efficiencies in how we work, but it's also really empowered and inspired the junior and mid-level staff to get more involved in the bigger strategic conversations. It allows us to be more nimble.
Applebaum: How do you define open source agency?
Mackay: Agencies get too hung up in scope of work. We need to figure out what deliveries we're creating to our clients and how we get paid for that. It's a critical element of the business. What is the ambition when we're trying to solve a problem for our clients? What are the barriers to achieving that ambition? What is the communication challenge or marketing challenge that we need to put into practice to overcome those barriers? It's really about reorienting ourselves to not just solve problems within our space, but to be more expansive in our thinking and really focus on the fact that we need to drive success for our clients regardless of where that solution may lie.
Applebaum: How has this model impacted your agency and, more importantly, your clients?
Mackay: This model gives us permission to embrace the innate curiosity that sits within, especially among a lot of the younger staff members that join us. People have their job and their passion, which tend to be two separate things, but how can we tap into both and balance that energy for the betterment of our agency culture? More importantly, it's about understanding that we all have a role to play regardless of what your title might be, regardless of what department you might work in. What that has done is create a new energy within the agency where people know that their point of view matters. Do I think we have a long way [to go]? Absolutely. The soul of open source is that we should be constantly evolving. We should be constantly re-looking at what we're doing well or what we're not doing well, and defining that.
Applebaum: Take one client at your agency. How does this process impact the kind of advertising that they do now?
Mackay: With a client like eBay, a lot of our planning process with them starts with understanding where ideas can sit within culture, whether it be owned, whether it can be paid. A big part of what we're doing more and more is starting with what that challenge is, what platform can help overcome that challenge. Do we need to deliver new experiences? Do we need to change perception or do we need to drive volume as far as sales go? Then stepping back and saying, "Great. Here's the way that we're going to do that."
Applebaum: What's the role of innovation here?
Mackay: Innovation is core and critical to an open source agency because if our challenge is to try to solve a problem for our client, and that problem requires smarter back end, or that problem requires us helping to overcome an e-commerce challenge that a client might have, or if that problem requires us to stretch budgets in a more dynamic way, that may require the merge of technology and messaging. Our Blue Collective unit is there to be a way for us to make sure that if we need to bring somebody in and be, as you say, collaborative in what we do, we can.
Applebaum: Ultimately, do you see the advertising community -- agencies, media planners and buying organizations -- adopting this model?
Mackay: We picked this positioning because we felt it was future-proof positioning. We didn't want to create a positioning that would only allow us to be relevant in the next three to four years. We didn't want to hop on something new and hot and now. That's why we deconstructed the agency model and created what we did. Do I see it as being something that the agency world needs to move towards? Absolutely. Personally, I hope not ... because then it takes our unique positioning and gives it a bit of a competition.
However, from a mindset standpoint, absolutely. Technology is not going to slow down. If people thought Millennials were complicated and confusing, wait until Gen Z comes on board and redefines everything for us once again. We can't be a big tanker that takes forever to turn around. We need to be nimbler than that. I think it will be critical.
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