In marketing departments today, we’re seeing an epidemic of innovation anxiety. Talking to CMOs, you can sense they are overwhelmed by the complexity of both the challenges they face and the solutions that are being offered. The simple fact is that it’s getting harder to be innovative.
Unfortunately, I’ve found their typical response has been to focus on technology as the answer. To be innovative, marketers typically buy in to a range of new point solutions. To be successful, though, they must know when and how to use the tools and to employ them in the right way.
If you look at successful innovation efforts outside of marketing, you often find a different pattern of behavior. You find a culture peppered from top to bottom with a structure designed to uncover and foster good ideas—and eventually turn them into profitable innovations. Of course, these companies use technology to support and reflect that structure, but they do not expect the technology itself to drive the innovation.
For an easy example, let’s look to Google. Most people are aware of its bold and (at one time) unusual approach to innovation. It begins, of course, with the idea that innovative ideas can come from anywhere. It looks for bold innovations that solve big challenges and problems—such as designing self-driving cars or providing Internet access around the world. It requires that all technical people work 20% of their time on projects of their own choosing. And it moves toward its goals by continually innovating rather than striving for instant perfection. These are all points our industry can learn from.
Of course, Google also uses technology to support its innovation efforts—and lots of it. For example, it had a custom innovation management tool called Google Moderator that helped people discover new ideas, foster discussions, raise issues, and organize meetings. But the tool itself (which was, incidentally, a 20% project) was grafted seamlessly onto the ongoing effort, not something Google put in place before it started innovating.
Obviously, marketers have a different set of challenges. For them, the structure and hoped for results of innovation will look different, but it still involves putting people and ideas first, and using technology and tools to enhance the effort—not lead it. Here are a few approaches for all brands to consider:
1. Start with “What if?”: We need to first build a deep understanding of our consumers’ needs, hopes, and the things that make their lives easier. Then we need to ask “What if?” questions. What if we approached them this way? What if we provided this kind of service? Would it make their lives better? To do this, of course, we need data and insight—but also the people who can ask the right questions.
2. Spark data/creative collisions: The landscape we have today, with elusive customers and individualized habits, requires us to dig much deeper with creative ideas. Those ideas have to work a lot harder, and to do so they need to be inspired by a thoughtful analysis of data. At Wunderman, we use a methodology that brings creative and data people together at critical points to make sure we do this formally.
3. Align great technology: Technology understanding is critical. If you don’t know what’s possible, then you don’t know what you can create. But only once you know the “What if?” can you secure the right technology solution to deliver on that promise. With this approach, you’re not buying a range of ad-hoc solutions and trying to retrofit the stack to your own business. You’re getting exactly what you need.
4. Work better together: Innovation happens when people and ideas come together. Google requires its employees to participate in Google Cafes, where people from different disciplines chat about ideas. In the agency world, it’s increasingly common for us to place our people on-site with our clients. We’re doing that with an increasing number of clients—that way, they’ll have more interaction with those who know the products best. This, in turn, will hopefully spark better ideas.
5. Build global perspectives: Nowadays, we’re seeing the growth of a global generation where ideas and trends rise in one place and spread rapidly to others. It’s vitally necessary for agencies and brands to have a global footprint that can surface ideas and innovation from anywhere.
In truth, this is a very optimistic time for marketers. We have great tools and data—so that we can get a deep understanding of our customers. But we have to turn on that understanding and create the conditions for innovative breakthroughs to happen. Only then will we get the benefits that all of this exciting new technology brings.
This article is the second in a quarterly series from Wunderman. Here is the previous article: “Wunderman CEO: Brands’ Struggle With Data Stalls CX Innovation”