How to foster a culture of innovation within your brand

Like many people in the digital advertising industry, I attended Cannes this year. Given the current climate of increased focus on ROI, conversations about attribution models and transparency, it’s not surprising that the industry is questioning its worth.

But among the networking and rosé, I find it personally valuable meeting with IAB members and partners alike to discuss innovation in the digital economy, including what to focus on in the coming months.

Last year everyone buzzed about VR and this year AI took pride of place. Every year I’m inspired by the innovative technology that might (one day) be as commonplace as email. Innovation comes from testing and learning capabilities, which evolves digital’s ability to wow consumers.

For instance, 98% of consumers hold smartphones vertically, yet brands still think horizontal. Through AR and VR, consumers can powerfully connect with a brand’s content, and advancements in technological achievement allow for faster reach and rich, contextual targeting, which turns passive viewers into active participants.

But technology can only take a company so far. At the heart of true innovation lives culture. Culture is something inherently created, and driven from every aspect of an organisation; not just a department specifically designed to do so. A culture of innovation needs to be encouraged, and people need to be given the flexibility to try new things, to be brave, to test, to learn, and to fail.

When the rate of change outside a company exceeds the rate of change inside it, then the end of the company is in sight; meaning, while innovating doesn’t guarantee success, not innovating will guarantee its failure. An obvious example of this was Blockbuster. Once the leader of the video category, it rapidly lost ground to startup Netflix, which saw a change in consumer behaviour, and continued to innovate its product and content offering as consumer preference – enabled by technology – changed.

It’s easy for companies stuck inside a boardroom to only talk about internal issues, but they need to look externally and see what’s happening in the future. Boston Consulting Group's Most Innovative study is an interesting read, and what always strikes me is the companies that rank the highest are the ones that often go on to become the highest valued. Go back just 10 years and companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Tesla were a fraction of their size, or didn't exist at all, but by focusing on innovation they have become some of the biggest organisations on the planet.

Innovation can be a scary thing, but brands that take risks are often the ones that excel. It’s good to experiment – not just to win awards – but to learn, too.

As innovation expert (and frequent speaker at our IAB events) Mok O’Keeffe has said, in order to be innovative, you’ll need to:

Know who your company is and what it stands for: Create a vision and explain the ‘why’.

Hire people that contribute to culture and don’t be afraid to remove detractors: Zappos, for instance, has a pay-to-quit scheme that offers people money to leave the company if they don’t like it; complacency kills culture.

Understand your consumer and meet their evolving needs: if you don’t, your competitor will. Data and technology, coupled with human insights, identify the best ways to reach customers. A better user experience leads to brand loyalty, which drives business and a circle of innovation.

Commit to your culture – live and breathe what you want to be – and go against the grain: ideas can come from anywhere, so give your team a licence to pursue new things. For example, Ritz Carlton, known for quality customer service, will give employees up to $2,000 per day toward ideas that improve its consumers' experience. By ‘putting their money where their mouth is’ the brand empowers people to make change.

The bottom line? Culture fails when bureaucracy drives out innovation; there’s a gap between what is said and what is done; it’s forced; no money is put behind it; time is constrained; and legacy ways of working/thinking are perpetuated for the sake of maintaining consistency.

So, while AI might not be fit your marketing needs now, making sure you're experimenting and evolving at least as fast as the world around you, should be a given.

Jon Mew is chief executive of the Internet Advertising Bureau

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