Who says great ideas have to always be new ones? What if innovation could come from ideas recycled from completely unexpected sources?

In a single year, our agency takes on all different projects, from small to large, for-profit to non-profit, teen users to insurance buyers, transactional to charitable. That’s the way we like it and the variety keeps us on our toes. In fact, that’s one of the big reasons why my partner and I have stayed in this business after 15+ long years of agency work.

Specialization vs Cross-Pollination

There are obvious benefits for clients to work with agencies who either specialize in a single type of work, industry, user or deliverable. That client can sleep soundly knowing their agency has done their sort of work countless times (even in their sleep) and there’s little risk of making a blunder with their project. It isn’t too hard to also see the problems with specialization, which can take the form of undifferentiated design, me-too campaigns, one-size-fits-all technology, and worst of all a lack of new ideas leading to innovation drain.

This is where a firm like ours, which handles a variety of projects, can hit a home run for you. Like your trusted Swiss Army knife, variety allows us to take approaches from one industry and use them in brand new ways in another. It wouldn’t normally be considered “best practice” to take crowdsourcing, social and gamification that we’ve used for a sports headphones company and use it to launch a platform to solve world peace! Of course these approaches morph and change depending on the goals of the project. But the great thing is seeing the client brand set sail to new waters and take their competition and customers by surprise. We love cross-pollination.

Transactional vs Touchy-Feely

Every once in a while, we do a client project that is so different that it makes me wonder if there’s any shared learning at all. Take for example the fact that we do quite a lot of design for ecommerce sites with all the UX and technology approaches that go with them. Yet at the same time, we do branding, web design and social apps for non-profits. Is there a shared learning there for both sets of clients? In other words, should either client actually care whether we do those two very different kinds of projects? The answer is: yes and yes again!

So let’s start with the easier one: what does the non-profit stand to learn from ecommerce? It isn’t too hard to imagine that many if not most non-profits survive on charitable contributions, volunteer work and activism of the people outside of their organization. But how to get people to give their time, money and influence? Well, the old, less efficient way of going door-to-door might win a few hearts, just the same way a door-to-door salesmen used to sell a few encyclopedias. But just like Amazon or eBay changed the way people shopped, non-profits need to get their heads around how to be more “transactional” in their digital approaches. Using emotional branding and storytelling to onboard donors and volunteers is just the tip of the iceberg. Non-profits have to act like “merchants”, being in all the right places (multi-touchpoints), user flows that drive measurable actions (acquisition, transaction), and loyalty building to keep them coming back. All of these techniques are used by ecommerce companies and NGOs should test out these approaches.

You may be asking yourself, what can an ecommerce company learn from a non-profit?  Let’s start by saying that by the very nature of non-profits being more emotion-driven (altruism, passion, caring) they tap into a very different human need than the mere transactional. If on the simplest level, ecommerce represents an “impulse buy” driven by the need to fill some hole in our material lives; the non-profit represents a chance to “give back” or “pay forward” to fill a higher need. This is part is easy to understand and non-profits are certainly lucky to be in that line of business. But again, what can Zappos stand to learn here? A non-profit’s tendency to layout the facts in order to give us an opportunity to do the right or sustainable thing is what’s missing in ecommerce today. Frictionless buying to satiate our impulse for more stuff is great when looking at your bottom-line. But what about helping your customers acquire what’s right for their lives and the world around them? How can an ecommerce experience make each one of us a better person?

The Great Mismatch

This learning across projects and clients is fun to share. I think we see this in all parts of our lives, not just work. We need to always try hard to keep our minds open and make a point of taking in different types of experiences and meeting all sorts of people. Good ideas don’t always have to be new ones but can be recycled from other applications, mixing things up to create a new witch’s brew. The organizational structures we find ourselves in don’t always make this easy but if we wander down allies (sometimes scary ones) we don’t normally find ourselves in, this wider set of experiences can take us places we never thought possible.