Seductive startups: From labs to accelerators – why the BBC, Unilever and more want to get in on the act

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Seductive startups

Everyone in digital media seems to want to get in on the act with startups – and setting up labs or working with accelerator companies to come up with new tech and innovative ways of working are attractive options even for major players, says Collider’s co-founder Rose Lewis.

We know innovation sells. In big numbers. And one of the ways the marketing and advertising industry is embracing this is by working with startups. I have seen this transformation from beginning to end – from marketing executives toying with the idea of working with new technology, to a full-bodied embrace of the ground breaking innovations and new ways of working.

Not only does working with startups involve a shift in company culture, but sometimes a shift in business models – particularly within agencies. A common direction to take is setting up a subsidiary or small division with a completely separate agenda from the larger brand or agency’s vision.

Many of these spaces are identified as labs. These are the spaces designed for experimentation with new tech and innovative ways of working that will then be adopted and integrated into the larger business. BBC Worldwide has a labs division, where it operates a space for digital media startups to later be integrated into the business. Havas Media Labs focuses on thought leadership, business consultancy and new technology. Ogilvy Labs is self-funded and works as an R&D subsidiary within Ogilvy Group UK. But this is only one approach.

Some organisations are working with startups on an ad-hoc basis. As briefs are presented by clients, the brands and agencies will reach out to the startup community to help them solve these problems. One approach that has gained popularity is bringing in multiple startups to work on the intended brief in 24-72 hour hackathons. Startups work together to hack out a solution. The results are presented to the client at the end of the hackathon. Engine and Starcom are using this model.

Working with an accelerator is another approach. This is an organisation designed to ‘accelerate’ startups to market by providing them with the necessary support (financial, educational and commercial).

The real plus side for brands/agencies is that the accelerator provides access to innovative startups – identifying the right ones to work with and how to work with them. It’s harder than it looks. You’ll find other non-vertical (not industry specific) accelerators such as Techstars and Y Combinator are well known.

One company that has embraced startups to the full is Unilever. It has established a partnership with Cannes Lions called the Foundry 50, where 50 of the world’s best marketing and advertising tech startups will have the chance to attend and participate in Cannes Lions Innovation weekend.

The key message here though is that large companies should embrace startups and find a way of working with them as the rate of innovation is accelerating and much of this is happening in startups.

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