“There’s nothing like needing to solve a business problem to get your creative juices flowing.”
Eliza Esquivel, chief marketing officer of Mondelez, offered this corporate confession when addressing delegates of the Institute of Communication Agencies’ annual Future Flash event. Esquivel made the comment as a prelude to sharing how the snacking giant turned to creative communication to get itself out of a sticky business situation: declining gum sales. In sharing this story, she provided hope for agency delegates in attendance looking to innovate for their clients.
The entire event was structured around the central question: “What keeps you up at night?” Speakers were asked to identify their concerns and then provide a framework for what they’re going to do about it. Topics ranged from agency invention to digital publishing models, architecting social success to embracing simplicity, from the future of branded currencies to the benefits of pursuing innovation for the public good. Alone, each speaker shared their experience and presented unique points of view. Together, however, the two-day agenda served as a playbook on how to navigate the knotty briar patch that is “innovation.”
From that we’ve pulled out four essential tips for anyone looking to create breakthrough work.
Find Insight in the Gaps
Tom Morton, head of strategy and associate partner of Goodby Silverstein & Partners in New York, delivered a talk called “How to Succeed in Low Gravity.” Despite the slightly esoteric title, the session was deeply grounded. Morton suggested that every brand has it’s own centre of gravity – the anchor from which all brand truths spring. Too often brands overlook their own gravitational force, he said, a risky move that could prevent breakthrough ideas.
To illustrate the point, he told a story of Nicorette. The smoking cessation aid’s centre of gravity is that, well, quitting universally sucks. In identifying this truth, Nicorette ran a campaign that was up front about this. It’s tagline “Makes quitting suck less.” In letting the brand’s law of gravity inspire a campaign, it ended up with a fresh approach. “You can do something different from the category if you act on it,” he said.
All of the information needed to find a given brand’s hidden “gravity” is out there, he said. In the Nicorette example, Morton said it was public knowledge that of every 20 people who attempt quitting smoking, 19 fail. “All of this information exists out there, but it’s not getting put in the brief. You can’t fix the underlying flaw until you detect it.”
His advice for better homing in on the laws of gravity that govern a brand? Cut out the noise. “Turn down the rhetoric,” he said “The relationship people have with your brand is more like a friendly acquaintance than a passionate affair. If you want people to care, don’t assume they care too much.”
Push through tough times
When Esquivel told the audience that a critical business problem yielded an incredibly creative campaign, it was meant to inspire innovation regardless of the hurdles. “Rather than being risk averse when there’s danger, it’s a really good time to explore new opportunities,” she said. For Mondelez, the new opportunity was Project Sprout, a four-pronged, creatively “out there” but strategic campaign to help life flagging gum sales.
For such a large company to embark on an exploratory creative endeavor required some pretty grounded parameters. First, Esquivel said small teams are a must, and tight deadlines can work in your favour. “You can get to great creative work a lot more quickly than you think.” Also, hold yourself accountable to actual growth, she advises. “Measure the dollar signs. Data is taking over our world in a really freighting way. We’re measuring the wrong things. We get happy about CTR but at the end of the day we have to sell stuff.”
Finally, she called for fearlessness. “Take risks, try stuff, make stuff. Clients need to learn it, and agencies and clients need to be comfortable doing stuff together.”
Make the Right Investment
Winston Binch, chief digital officer at Deutsch LA, is a big proponent of agency invention. He says invention – wherein ideas are conceived and turned into digital products – is a great way to connect with people who are faced with infinite ways to spend their time.
That said, invention requires investment. “Advertising is the only industry that doesn’t have a budget allocated for R&D,” said Binch. “Before we had a digital business, we made the decision to invest in developers. You continually need to flex and scale because digital is a project-based business.”
To do that, the most important element is to have the right internal support. It starts at the CEO level, he says, largely because anyone embarking on a path of invention won’t have all the answers. There needs to be permission for experimentation from the highest levels of the organization and it needs to be built into the company’s mission. “If not, people get brought in and then it doesn’t work and people leave.”
Keep it Simple
Too often, innovation or invention gets translated into “big” ideas. Jess Greenwood, who handles creative partnerships at Google says when it’s best to adopt the mindset of an experience designer and keep it simple. Experience designers, she says, are trained to find the places where friction gets in the way of a smooth experience. Understanding how to make interactions, communications and offerings to potential consumers simpler can help clarify what is often a muddy process.
“Experience designers put the user first and spot gaps in systems,” said Greenwood. “They’re extremely good at seeing where people are falling through the gaps and filling those gaps with experiences. The more seamless an experience is, the more likely people are to be habituated to it.” Her advice for simplicity? “Don’t be afraid of clichés. What a cliché is to an experience designer is a behavior people have already learned.”
She also encouraged marketers to challenge the perceived edges of an idea. To illustrate the idea, Greenwood pointed to the Google+ “Front Row” project, which literally used the edges of the field in Manchester United’s stadium Old Trafford to bring die-hard fans into the game experience. “The frame you’ve been given isn’t always the frame you’re stuck with.”
While most of the event’s speakers offered examples of how their respective companies were grappling with the industry’s rapid change, author and entrepreneur Andrew Keen was the requisite rabble-rouser. Much of his talk was deemed an anti-advertising screed by many in attendance – though he did alight a roaring conversational fire – he did have an incredibly sage word of wisdom for anyone seduced by the hypnotic lure of “innovation.”
When talking of experimentation, inevitably the conversation will turn to failure. “Failing up” is a popular idiom but it can’t be wanton and with zero consequences. “Worrying about failure is real and we shouldn’t be ashamed of that. We have to be careful about being seduced about this idea of embracing failure. It’s the discourse of the successful.”