How brands and agencies can create a culture of innovation at scale

All big organisations are wrestling with how to keep up – let alone keep ahead – of the unprecedented scale of change that technology and consumer demand is impacting on their businesses.

It’s not just agencies that are wrestling with how to ensure that their business processes and their employees are set up and empowered to deal with the constant need for evolution. Our clients are too – and it was interesting to hear that perhaps one of the biggest global corporations of them all – PepsiCo with its $62 billion market cap – is working hard to embrace the changing environment in which we all work.

While Simon Lowden, the company’s chief marketing officer, admitted that the corporation is akin to an oil tanker he has introduced working practices and philosophies that have helped inculcate a culture of innovation across a business that makes most of ours look like minnows. His advice on how he has done this could make valuable lessons to us all at a time when getting someone’s attention – and keeping it – has become a problem that both agencies and marketers are constantly wrestling with and the business environments is VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous).

PepsiCo shares many of the legacies that we as creative businesses also have. Lowden said that typically its NPD cycle took between 18 and 24 months. Compare this to the decision making process in your own organisation and it’s likely to be – or until recently have been – comparable. He sees the established structures that companies like PepsiCo have in place often exist out of historical precedent rather than commercial imperative and, as Lowden, said if they’re slowing us down and not making us faster why are we doing them?

In order to speed up the decision process Lowden has introduced five principles to his marketing team that apply to us too:

1. Championing diversity by inviting people from the outside. While this has become a fashionable mantra among agencies, the commercial benefits of bringing new thought leaders and fresh perspectives into the business are clear.

2. Agile collaboration. Instead of assembling great big teams to solve a problem, devolve work to smaller teams that are self-regulating, lean and autonomous and responsible for pieces of work. You’ll get more done without multiple stakeholders and the suffocating effect of committee decision-making.

3. Organising for uncertainty. ‘Dynamic Steering’ will allow teams to try things and move on.

4. Progression over perfection. Don’t be afraid to fail but always learn from these failures. Management is stultified by the illusion of progression for big meetings but the ability to fail – and for this failure to not be a blame game – is crucial in this new fast moving business environment.

5. The shadow of the leader. As the leader of any business, you must stick to the principles that you have imposed on those who walk in your shadow. If you don’t, you won’t have credibility and the people that you have entrusted to grow your business won’t feel empowered enough to do so either.

While the challenges of navigating the economic seas has always been the responsibility of agency management, technological change and the requirement for companies to have a swiftness to respond or to market means that we now have an opportunity to fundamentally reshape our businesses. With big organisations like PepsiCo already acknowledging and doing this at scale, those companies that don’t recognise they need to do the same are doomed to failure.

Big businesses needs to understand that innovation is hard, as well as conducting business as usual, also need to create an alternative environment where innovation can flourish. An idea is fragile and the wrong breath can burst it, you have to create a parallel universe in which they can thrive without the day-to-day business getting in the way.

Ben Little is co-founder Fearlessly Frank

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