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Innovation in action: five lessons from Monty’s Magical Toy Machine

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If you work in marketing you’ll have seen the word “innovation” a lot recently. It’s the word that’s on everyone’s lips and in everyone’s creative briefs. There’s now even a festival for it in Cannes.

New tech is where it’s at – whether a media first, an experiential wow factor, or a digital service layer to “Uber-ify” a brand. But the thing about the new is that by definition it’s never been done before. Innovation requires you to take a risk, but this makes clients nervous. So just how do you deliver a crazy new idea?

Our company Techdept acts as an innovation lab for many brands, and one of our proudest achievements was working with Microsoft Advertising in late 2014 on the iconic John Lewis campaign ‘Monty The Penguin’.

The creative brief given to Microsoft Advertising was to get people to see the world through a child’s eyes. Their answer – Monty’s Magical Toy Machine – let kids bring their own toys into store, and turn them into interactive 3D animations. The concept was simple, emotional, and fiendishly technically complex.

Kids would hand their toys to a Monty helper, where it would be placed in Monty’s Magical Toy Machine, shot by cameras, and turned into a 3D animation on a giant screen. Kids would interact with their toy using Kinect technology.

Over 2600 children experienced our ‘Monty Magic’, with many travelling hundreds of miles to the flagship Oxford Street store in London. It was a key part of the campaign which won both Gold and Bronze at Cannes Lions 2015, and has been shortlisted many more times in many more awards. It even won a Drum Content Award!

Yet this idea was made in eight weeks: two weeks to prototype, two weeks for review, and four weeks to build a completely new experience, using completely new software. And Christmas is a deadline you can’t miss. Here’s how we did it.

Clear vision

Forget about the tech. Get a clear vision - one based on the benefit to the customer, that compresses the idea so that anyone can understand it. A good sign you’re on to a winner is if the idea is simple enough to write on a post-it note.

For us it was to make a child’s toy come to life. This vision ensured that a five year old would understand the concept immediately and also ensure the hundreds of people walking past the environment would “get it” quickly. It also gave the technical elements of the project a clear focus and helped the many collabrative partners on the project - not only Techdept and Microsoft, but also adam&eveDDB, Manning Gotlieb OMD and John Lewis themselves - a shared roadmap.

No walls

The traditional agency model – with a chain of communication between multiple partners – can be too slow, particularly when you are trying to find a new solution under tight time pressures. With Monty we were forced to employ a more transparent and organic approach, with continuous open communication, shared dialog, and transparent decision making. If any team member needed something it was up to them to ask.

This created a sense that we were “all in this together” building real empathy between the team. This was perhaps best epitomised by John Lewis’s John Vary, who supported the vision early on as ‘the client’, fighting for more budget for equipment – yet by the end he was acting as ‘the runner’, fetching cables at 3am.

Success needs failure

We wouldn’t have got the glory without some grit, and failure is always a key part of innovation success.

You should treat failure as a scientist would, trying out new experiments rapidly, failing fast and capturing lessons – data – from things that didn’t work out. By focusing what you can learn from your failures you can innovate by doing, getting your hands dirty, try things out rapidly.

There were many parts of the process that required this approach, including the capturing of the 3D image of the child’s toy. The eventual solution of photogrammetry actually came from an unexpected source: satellite imaging technology. We discovered it after much trial and error, and realised that its ability to realistically capture surface textures was going to give us what we needed, a realistic 3D image of a fluffy child’s toy, which we could then animate and make interactive.

Buckle up

Like any unexplored new territory, the ride to innovation can be bumpy. So buckle up, get ready for those bumps in the road. This requires a brave client, and a transparent two way street.

One example of where our buckle up principle was used was, in the inside of Monty’s Magical Toy Machine, the image below shows Arthur Tindsley from Microsoft in the inside of the Machine. But this interior – the area where the images of the kid’s toys would be captured – was never meant to be this beautiful. It only ended up looking this way due to a last minute ‘bump’.

When we were finalising the rig, we thought we’d finish the job properly and paint the MDF interior of the rig as we wanted it to look ‘finished’ on site. Only we hadn’t factored into our last minute paint job was that photogrammetry requires fixed visual points against which to create the 3D image. Our gloss white paint had covered up all the points!

A quick phone call to the awesome Cave Ellson at adam&eveDDB and a pragmatic conversation was had – with Cave sending down the illustrator of the Monty illustration book to work their magic. Within an afternoon the interior had been transformed into a visual wonderland, fixing an unforeseen problem with real style.

Open your mind

Doing new things requires new ways of thinking. Imagining an innovative tech idea is only part of the problem, you need to not only question your assumptions about what’s possible (the innovation) but you have to question HOW you achieve it.

New working methods, open and transparent, encourage genuine empathy and meaningful collaboration. The roles within the process should be able to be fluid, and you should be open to work with unexpected partners, and be open to new sources of creative ideas.

The future belongs to those that can mix art and science, creativity and code, marketing and technology. Genuinely new ideas never come from doing a better version of what you did last week. You should learn to challenge yourself to think laterally and take a step into the unknown, guided by these five principles. Good luck!

Dan Kirby is chief executive officer of Techdept.