A day on it’s safe to say I remain energised by some of the discussion, and pretty much all of the presentations, that I was lucky enough to be around at Tuesday’s Firestarters evening at Google.

But I guess with a name like that you’d hope the event would spark off something more than momentary.

One of the most compelling themes was around the way ideas get launched into the marketplace, and how this is part of, not the aim, of the the way we develop stuff. Tom Hulme’s way of articulating this was  ‘launch to learn’. Prototyping, being constantly in beta, feedback loops – all this stuff is pretty hot right now, and with good reason.

That reason being that it’s become so damn easy. Pick away at any supposed ‘overnight success’ story these days in, say, gaming, and you’ll find evidence of a company’s belief in the iterative process. Whether it’s Rovio testing and refining numerous versions of Angry Birds, or Zynga buying up Google Ad Words to find out which favoured terms might have sufficient currency to become titles of future games, this industry would seem to have prototyping in it’s DNA.

And where gaming leads I’d argue other sectors should follow. If we think of games as curated experiences that engage people through a finely calibrated mix of challenge and reward, aesthetics and participation, then I reckon that provides a pretty interesting template for what we in marketing are always striving to achieve.

In some areas prototyping has become so commonplace, with technology providing such easy access to engaged communities of interest, that, in Tom Hulme’s view, it might even become redundant. So cheap is it to launch, so expectant and poised are the audiences of co-creators, that it seems wasteful for some smart companies to get as far as producing fully-formed prototypes ever again?

And yet, I’m willing to bet that many planners who attended Firestarters, when they got back in to their office, working on their blue chip accounts, were asking themselves just how applicable these insights were to the people they work with day to day. Tom’s passion clearly lies with start-ups: nimble, agile, responsive. How to engage unwieldy organisations so intent, seemingly, on doing what they’ve always done, because that’s how they’ve always done it. They remain fundamentally  scared of the requisite ceding of control. John, in turn, revealed our reliance on process as the refuge of the unimaginative, but that doesn’t stop at least 50% of the people we work with being incredibly happy to take refuge there, most of the time.

Well, first off, I guess we have to remain optimistic – champions of the impossible, not just slaves of the possible. We should also learn to apply to real people what we do so well when thinking about ‘audiences’ in the abstract.

When we’re dealing with people we think of as ‘consumers’, we’re great. We empathise. We uncover insight. We understand the why behind the what. When it comes to stakeholders or clients or colleagues we sometimes lose that skill, I think. And yet those in close proximity and with a genuine stake in what we’re doing are sometimes our most important audience.

Daniel Pink had a great piece recently in the Telegraph where he talked about how as people we find it much easier to solve problems on behalf of others, than we do on behalf of ourselves. Maybe that’s why as planners we find it easier to tackle the problem our clients have presented us with than the problem we come across as we try to change their minds.

But, goodness, sometimes it is hard. Only today I had a conversation with someone (quite senior) at another agency who seemed not only to have capitulated to an incredibly superficial – and therefore ineffective – way of thinking about the problem in hand, but was advocating it themselves. Another day, another AIDA-derived TV-centric communications model. Altogether now, “TV drives awareness….”

But as well retaining our energy and optimism in the face of such attrition, I think there are ways we can assist bigger organisations in, if not specifically prototyping, then at least being more disciplined about the approach they take in developing work, ideas, and the kind of experiences we think they should create.

And arguably the best way is to do it ourselves.

If we think our clients need to design for openness, we should demonstrate how we’ve done it at our agency, and highlight what we learned. If we want to lecture clients on how their structure is inhibiting their ability to compete, we should try seeing if there’s way we can better organise ourselves first. If we want to preach the gospel of permanent beta, let’s commit to it in ways that genuinely challenge the agency.

At MEC I’ve just been lucky enough to be involved in the culmination of the agency’s graduate pitch scheme. Ostensibly it’s about last year’s intake demonstrating what they’ve learned on their year’s rotation around the various departments of our business. They take a live brief, work on it for two weeks, then present back.

Of course the real, if oblique, benefit is that the agency can learn so much from them. And we uncovered a few lessons that really play to some aspects of design thinking principles, particularly the way our assumptions are challenged.

1. There’s no real correlation between time spent in the industry and the quality of work that can be produced. I know this sounds like platitudes, but seriously the winning pitch was something the CEO and MD agreed could comfortably be put straight in front of a client in a real pitch scenario. That good.

Conclusion: these weren’t people with one year’s experience. They were groups with five or six years’ of knowledge between them. Add to that the time each of them spent at university, and before that doing A levels, and before you know it you’ve got 30+ years of life experiences, perspectives, opinions, questions and conclusions that help crowdsource better solutions than you’d have uncovered on your own. And that’s just one group. You can read about one  MECer’s experience, Laura, at her blog about the year

2. Multiple solutions are a richer sell than one solution. I think by now the idea that there’s one definitive solution to uncover from any given brief has been seen to be nonsense. We had 5 pitch teams, and 5 very different answers. That’s 5 lots of 30+ years.

Conclusion: if we can’t get clients to be brave enough to iterate and prototype then we sure can establish internal mechanisms to highlight that some solutions may be more effective than others. Shadow teams; to develop parallel ideas, uncontaminated by what others may think they know. Provocation; where teams test their thinking with people who have nothing to do with the brief. Planning reboots; where you put down all your assumptions and agreed direction to answer the brief from the opposite viewpoint. Blog the process; so people get a chance to input and add to the collective wisdom (or otherwise) of what you’re doing.

3. You get better solutions when you’re scared that you don’t know anything. The pitch brief was do with road safety among London teenagers. Planners who are short of time, know the client, think they know the audience and have already half come up with the answer – well, we call that experience but I reckon we should thinking of it as dangerous. The grad guys got out and met the very kids the rest of would purport to know. And guess what? They uncovered a kick-arse insight that made the idea sing and the solution impossible not to buy.

Conclusion: if we want embed agnostic design thinking into what we do then unlearning everything we think we know should be the start-point of every solution. As agencies we always say we don’t have the time to do this. But if we don’t do it we risk homogeneous solutions and, even worse, ideas that are irrelevant to the very audience we need to engage.

Of course, we kind of know all this. But sometimes it takes stimulus from somewhere else to bring it to the surface. The ways of applying those lessons might not be too obvious, or obstructed by convention. But if as planners we stop being intrigued and excited and stimulated and insatiable about how to bring in best-practice from outside, then we might as well all go home.

So, thanks to Neil, John and Tom once again. And I hope the fires continue to burn for some time.