Leaving the cave to hunt: how marketers can create a culture of risk-taking and innovation

They say you should live everyday like it's your last. Sorry, but that's complete BS.

So after I've quit my job, blown all my money and woken up the following morning with the king of all hangovers, what am I going to do then?

As humans we're programmed to be fearful. Self-preservation is our natural instinct. We need to plan for tomorrow and can't assume a constant 24-hour mortality clock.

But we do have curiosity. It's why we rubbed rocks together to see what would happen and why we left the safety of our caves to hunt. They were measured judgment calls, where reward over risk was calculated to make sure we survive another day.

From my time in marketing and advertising, it feels like there has always been a distinct juxtaposition between the relative safeties of staying in the career cave, and leaving it to chase down the proverbial mammoth.

We too often wax lyrical about when a risk paid off, when the prey is slayed and the victor is hailed as the hero, but we forget the times it catastrophically backfires and heads roll.

When you have kids, a mortgage or are just thinking about your long-term career progression, popping your head above the parapet might seem less appealing than a career of attrition in the trenches. But this attitude does have consequences.

Take the REI #Optoutside Black Friday campaign, where this outdoor sports retailer closed its doors to the hordes of Black Friday shoppers just to make a marketing statement. It has been hailed as a piece of marketing genius. But if the campaign was entrusted to the overly risk averse, it would have been far too risky to have ever happened.

So in a world of data, short-term sales targets, NPS scores and city confidence, how do marketers leave the safety of their cave?

Creating a safe culture for risk

There needs to be a creative culture to allow ideas to happen, and a support network for them to be incubated and given life support if needed. Organisations need to provide room for innovation to succeed, and maintain a healthy attitude to failure.

Failure can be just as important in the journey towards success. It's how we react to failure, learn from it and optimise from it that's important.

Oreo’s now famous 'dunk in the dark' tweet had to be designed, captioned and approved in minutes. If a fear of failure forced it to go through multiple layers of management before going out, it would have never seen the day. By creating the right environment for innovation and ‘risk taking’ to happen, something magical could be created.

In a recent client meeting, I asked the brand teams "if you couldn't get fired and had a job here for life, what would you do?" After the inevitable sniggers, they really started to open up. Providing people that space and that permission to take a risk allows for much more constructive and creative thinking.

Don’t be afraid to invest in risk

Coke's 70/20/10 is a great example of how organisations can invest in innovation. This model suggests that the majority of media spend, 70%, should be invested in known formats or channels. 20% is spent on formats or channels a little less known but still well in the comfort zone. The final 10% is for genuinely new stuff, things that make you feel uncomfortable, or that you’re prepared to trial without knowing the outcome.

The 10% sometimes appears as the “innovation fund,” often colloquially known as a 'fuck it fund'.

The concept is great in principle. Ring-fencing part of the budget to invest in riskier but more exciting approaches is an effective way of making calculated risk-taking part of your organisation’s culture.

Sadly far too often in our industry, the sign-off process, the measurements and KPIs are focused around measuring the 70%. Innovation budgets are notoriously leaky as well, like that sports car you always dreamed of, they're the first thing to go when the realities of life hit you.

One lesson that I’ve taken away from this: I'd rather have an innovation fund of 1% and actually get a process of testing and learning underway than procrastinate and stall over a larger 10% budget that's ultimately drawn back into the business. So long as risk is allowed and given some investment, that is enough to start taking a few steps into the unknown and seeing how it goes.

Agency partners should also use all the tools at their disposal to help mitigate the risks for the marketer. Risks should be calculated as best as possible, otherwise it’s just a blind gamble.

If you have a clear view into the key drivers of growth for your organisation and the ability to predict future performance, you can safely invest into the ‘unknown’ innovations and track their impact on your KPIs.

While agencies can never totally de-risk the process of leaving the cave for marketers, by providing the right tools and skills we can exponentially increase the likelihood of a successful hunt and a safe return to the cave’s fire. If clients and agencies can help provide the right environment and processes, it will also allow marketers to capitalise on their natural instinct to be curious, to discover new things and to learn and adapt them for success.

Toby Strangewood is group strategy director at Maxus

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