The new role of ad agencies as chief disruptors

A big new opportunity from advertising agencies is their ability to proactively disrupt their clients’ businesses before others do – something that’s almost impossible from the inside, writes Dr Ken Hudson.

Disruption is everywhere. The press is replete with stories of the next Uber, Netflix, Whats App or Airbnb. Even perennial technology darlings such as Twitter or Facebook seem so yesterday.

It’s intoxicating, heady stuff as one big idea or digital technology can seemingly transform an industry and lead to growth rates going through the roof.

What I find interesting about all these examples is that none of these powerhouse brands came from an established business.

Perhaps that is the point of disruption. The entrenched players are unable to anticipate the next disruptive idea because they do not want the game to change that much.

Hilton for example has been in the hotel business for more than 95 years and has 610,000 rooms. Airbnb matched these figures in just four years. Or consider the case of Duolingo which has completely disrupted the training industry and now has 50 million active users improving their language skills in one of 15 languages for free.

There is nothing incremental or business-as-usual about these dramatic changes.

But spare a thought for all the entrenched players in the car, phone, insurance, banking, media, telecommunication, retail or indeed the marketing industry for example.

Who can advise, warn and predict these sorts of disruptive changes?

Who can help protect their clients and anticipate how to respond to these changes?

Who can help to disrupt their client’s business before someone else does?

Who indeed?

Perhaps disruption by its nature cannot be predicted.

Or perhaps the management consulting industry could fill this void (Deloitte, for example, has a digital disruption capability).

Or just maybe this presents a big opportunity for the advertising industry.

I believe that the advertising industry is in a unique position because it can operate in the space where consumers, brands, creativity and technology intersect.

My starting suggestion is this: Every advertising business should now appoint a chief disruption officer or chief disruptor (certainly every major client should do so as well). Their brief is to proactively generate ways to disrupt their clients business.

The role of the chief disruptor and their team is to alert the clients to emerging disruptive threats and opportunities. The role is far more than a once-per-year scenario planning situation or trying to passively predict the future.

This is a hands-on role which actively challenges existing assumptions, behaviours, business models, products, channels and creates never imagined possibilities (for the entrenched players).

The important point is this: clients cannot disrupt themselves.

They suffer from a collective blindness that means they cannot see what others can. I remember when my wife was pregnant, for example, and suddenly the world was filled with women with these life-giving bumps. I suspect they were always there but I just did not see them.

Clients start from a position of ‘what exists’; disruption starts from a place of ‘what could exist’.

The chief disruptor is a strategic role which needs to have access to the most senior people on the client side.

It needs to be set up as a separate profit centre that operates outside of the existing remuneration arrangements (any disruptive thoughts on what this might look like?).

To succeed the chief disruptor and their team needs to set up a process and tool kit that engages the client’s imagination, fears and budget.

It will require a great deal of courage to go against industry norms and a fearless independence of thought.

As Mike Cannon-Brooks, one of the founders of software giant Atlassian recently said, ‘part of an entrepreneur’s job is to change the world in some way. You don’t do that by adopting someone else’s world view.’

Substitute the word entrepreneur for chief disruptor and you have a sense of the type of role I am imagining within (or outside of) an advertising agency.

Any takers?


Dr Ken Hudson is an ideation and innovation consultant with a PhD in organisational creativity and was a former marketing director at American Express.