To Imitate or to Innovate: How Influenced Should Your Agency Be by the Work of Others?

Kresimir Simicic

October 18, 2019

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No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main

Unlike the arguably overly dramatic John Donne, we don’t have to contemplate our own, or anyone else’s, mortality on a regular basis. However, his point still stands in business terms – any kind of creative (agency or otherwise) must always walk that fine line between isolation for innovation and being in the thick of things.

Sorry to break it to you, but regardless of what you may want, your agency will never be an island, but rather always be somewhat exposed to outside influence. Which leaves us with only one question: how much should your agency be influenced by the work of others?

Accept the Flow of Things

The first step towards answering the question “Should I copy other agencies’ work?” is accepting that ideas will always flow from one agency to the next. It’s going to happen, and trying to stop it is like trying to stop the sands of time. Now, we’re not saying you have to go full “hang ten,” but realizing that you will be influenced by trends and the work of others will stop you and your team worrying about it so much. This, in turn, will allow you to produce more original work – if you’re always wondering “was this influenced by somebody else?”, you’ll never produce anything!

So do big-time agencies copy work from each other on the regular? Well, one recent example of trends, styles, and ideas going from one agency to the next are the weird, surreal, flat-illustration people that have popped up in every tech giant’s marketing, from Airbnb to YouTube. Dubbed “Alegria” by their creator, L.A.- and Brooklyn-based design firm Buck, these stylized figures are now being penned by graphic designers the world over. Annoying? Possibly. Something to be overly worried about? Definitely not. In fact, one of the reasons they were designed as they were was to make them replicable.

Walk Your Own Path… but Stay in the Park

While completely avoiding being influenced by others’ work is impossible, it’s important to ensure that you aren’t simply stealing ideas (consciously or not), or just following what others are doing. Despite Picasso’s claim that “great artists steal,” it is better to be known for innovation and originality rather than imitation. Being able to produce something unique will differentiate you from the competition and make you far more attractive to potential clients.

That said, it’s also important to recognize when you should be in the same flow as other agencies. After all, trends come and go, and it’s important to capitalize on these while you can. Clients expect a certain look (minimalistic pastel colors, anyone?), and being on top if this can help secure contracts. Keeping yourself isolated from these trends can make your agency stale, and quite possibly lead to imaginary friends… (WILSON!!!)

However, when you see a new trend on the horizon, don’t just jump on the bandwagon for the sake of it. First, ask yourself: “Is it worth following this trend?” and if yes, figure out how you can do it better. The aim is for clients to be clamoring to work with you because you do “it” best.

The Practicalities

So far, we’ve talked about the theory behind flowing ideas, imitation, innovation, and originality. But it’s also important to figure out how to make this a reality within your agency, and what practical steps you can take to make sure everyone on your team is on the same page. This basically means being able to clearly communicate the values of your agency to everyone involved, ensuring that team members know never to copy work from other agencies. It’s also important to foster a transparent environment, where all team members feel not only compelled but comfortable in being inspired by another’s work — there’s nothing wrong with admiring the creativity of competitors, after all.

Additionally, everyone in your agency should know how important it is to give credit where credit is due. If you and your team think another firm’s work is top-notch, tell them as much and give them kudos for it. Who knows – maybe it will lead to beautiful collaborations and even greater projects!

Often, the most original ideas come from team collaboration, whether with outside agencies or within your team. It’s important to do this in person as well as on digital platforms, where a solution like Productive can help keep you connected. Being able to share ideas, concepts, and work instantly while collaborating on the same project will help your team generate new and innovative work.

What Goes Around Comes Around

Finally, it’s important to note that this is not a one-way street. However many original ideas are flowing into your agency from outside, just as many are going from your team out into the world. Keep an eye out for other agencies that have taken a page from your book, and see this for what it is: part of the flow of ideas (unless they just straight-up copied it, of course). They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and it will do you and your team good to remember as much!

Not only is it impossible to throw yourself into complete creative isolation, but it’s also undesirable, with possibly detrimental consequences (we’re looking at you, Tom Hanks). The flow of creative ideas and trends from one agency to the next helps foster an ecosystem of evermore innovative and original ideas. If you’re wondering “how to innovate my agency?”, so long as you and your team know the limits and expectations, you’ll be free to let your creativity flow, like the waves around a tropical island.

Kresimir Simicic

VP of Business Development

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