If giants like Google can fail at innovation, what chance have the rest of us got?

Jon Davie is UK CEO at Zone, the digital marketing agency which counts Coca-Cola GB, Tesco, Barratt Homes and Prostate Cancer UK among its clients. Jon writes a monthly content marketing column for The Drum.

Last week saw Google announce the closure of the Glass Explorer programme, giving us all an opportunity to say “I told you so”, and to revel in some of the sarcasm and cynicism that the internet does so well.

(As always, The Onion was particularly on the money, suggesting that unsold units of Google Glass would be donated to “underprivileged assholes in Africa… positively impacting the lives of poverty-stricken smug pricks throughout sub-Saharan Africa”.)

The Glass showroom opened next door to the Zone offices in King’s Cross last summer, so we were among the first in Europe to try the device. The Google team were great neighbours, and I’ll miss the little group of twenty-something tech pioneers who congregated on the pavement, proudly wearing a £1,000 computer on their face and pretending it was completely normal.

There’s no shortage of commentary as to why Glass failed as a consumer proposition, but I think there’s a broader lesson in all of this. If a company with the scale, resources and expertise of Google can still get innovation wrong, what chance do the rest of us have?

Digital evangelists love to talk about the lessons we need to learn from Silicon Valley. Tech start-ups are supposed to embrace failure – the faster you fail, the quicker you learn. Modern businesses aren’t making it up as they go along – they are “pivoting”, continually trying things until they find a repeatable and scalable business model.

Last year the New York Times commissioned a 96-page strategy document, which cited the newspaper’s attitude to risk as a challenge in the digital era: “Failure is not something that we’re comfortable with,” the report said. “But that mindset can limit our appetite for and tolerance of risk. When we do shut down projects, the decisions are made quietly and rarely discussed, to protect the reputations of the people who ran them. As a result, lessons are forgotten and the staffers involved become more risk-averse.”

But saying we need to embrace failure is one thing – actually doing it is something else altogether. Big, successful companies become big and successful precisely because they are good at what they do – they institutionalise the norms and behaviours that deliver the same thing time after time.

That’s why hugely successful companies full of smart people get caught out when the world moves around them – whether that’s Microsoft and the move away from desktop computing, Nokia and the rise of the smartphone, or Kodak and the emergence of digital photography.

What’s all this got to do with content marketing, I hear the editor of this column ask. The crucial point is that embracing new forms of marketing means change – and change means the potential for failure. It’s easy to say that the marketing industry needs to change, as Unilever CMO Keith Weed did very eloquently last year.

“In a landscape where content is currency and consumers are making both content and connections for themselves, marketing is no longer just competing with film and TV for attention,” he said. “We are competing with Fenton the out-of-control dog chasing deer in Richmond Park, which many millions of people have viewed, enjoyed and, crucially, shared.”

But saying we need to change and actually changing the way we behave are two different things. And as the pioneers for the great Google Glass experiment will tell you, the future can be a lonely place if the rest of world doesn’t follow you.

Jon Davie is managing director at Zone. He tweets @JonDavie

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