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Creative Cannes Lions

Debbie Morrison: Why it pays to look outside the office

By Debbie Morrison, Managing director, global partnerships and events

July 16, 2019 | 7 min read

The recent passing of the school and university exam season reminds me of a strategy that I’ve always found helpful. Whenever I was stuck under exam conditions, trying to dredge the answer to a challenging question from the recesses of my memory, I’d look outside, gazing through the window, seeking inspiration. The answer was always out there, somewhere.

look outside

This is a technique I’ve embraced wholeheartedly over time in the workplace, too. Not gazing out of the window, but rather seeking external perspectives and points of view different from my own and those of my own organization – and even different from my industry. Taking on board external perspectives and looking to the edges is, I believe, the key to innovation and solving familiar challenges in new and sometimes surprising ways.

It’s incredibly easy to become very insular – and so cut off – by the day-to-day grind and the same familiar faces, the same ideas and ways of thinking and working, and the same approaches your organization has always taken to solving familiar problems. In today’s media and marketing ecosystem – a landscape characterized by constant flux and an ever-increasing rate of change – this can be dangerous. Doing things, the way “we’ve always done them” poses a very real and existential threat that your organization may become the next Blockbuster or Kodak.

Rather than run from disruption and novelty, you should embrace it with open arms. Take every opportunity to get outside your normal workplace and hear what others are thinking and saying. Last month’s Festival of Media is exactly the kind of crucible of new thinking and new ideas I’m talking about. From what I’m told – and although Cannes has never floated my boat personally – from the galvanic effect I’ve seen a week on the Riviera have on colleagues, clients, and collaborators over the years – I’d go so far as saying that Cannes is the ultimate event for innovation and inspiration. This is especially true in recent years, with the advent of tech players showcasing their new wares. It might be a keynote speech on the main stage from a prominent global advertiser. It might be a casual conversation in – where else? – The Drum Arms. Or it might be Extinction Rebellion’s unfurling a banner outside the Palais or storming the Facebook beach. It’s impossible to predict where or why inspiration for how to do things differently might strike, but like the long-established catchphrase of the National Lottery, it’s very definitely true that “you’ve got to be in it to win it”.

This year I’ve looked for inspiration at events run by Mediatel, ISBA, WFA Global Marketer Week, the Advertising Association, and Procurecon. I’ve also been to the ANA’s Ad financial management conference in the States, looking for new stimulus and new ideas as I settle into my new home at Ebiquity. And while, on the face of it, an Ad financial management conference in another market might not sound like the most relevant place to find inspiration, that’s perhaps the most inspiring and eye-opening event I’ve been to this year. The highlights included new insights on supplier diversity, procurement for social good, the evolution of agency remuneration, and deep insights into setting up an in-house creative agency. I’ve always rated overseas conferences highly. While markets and the issues brands face in those markets may appear to be similar, it’s incredible how often you can stumble upon new solutions at overseas conferences you’d take months to solve at home.

Going to conferences and events takes you much further out of your comfort zone than reading the trade press or watching a TED talk, however helpful those can be in broadening your perspective. It also provides great opportunities to exchange ideas with other delegates and explore their different approaches to familiar problems.

The physical dislocation, the lack of a familiar routine, the one-damned-thing-after-another-ness of a conference, the apparently random juxtaposition of speakers across a programme or on the same panel. New ideas and insights are generally agreed to be the consequence of combining old information in new ways, and conferences are just brilliant at doing precisely that.

Two words of warning.

Going to conferences and events can become a way of life

You could make a full-time job out of being a delegate, clocking up lanyards and hangovers in another Holiday Inn, another temporary home. You need to be judicious about which events are good and likely to be good stimulus for you, so ask your network where they think you might find the inspiration you crave.

Lots of events are very heavily commercialized

With the conference programme and content heavily influenced by the sponsors’ agenda, hidden or otherwise. Unlike some, I don’t write off sponsored conferences or special sessions at conferences, but I always want to know who’s behind each session and why. There’s no point going into a session on in-housing being run (and bankrolled) by a consultancy that stands to make significant revenue from brands in-housing and following the panel’s conclusions that “Everyone should in-house everything” without knowing about the financial relationship.

It is said that the world is run by those who show up. There truly are many benefits to being there, and it’s regrettable that conference spend is often among the first to be cut when budgets get tight. For me, that is a false economy. Yes, a £3,500 Cannes delegate pass with full access privileges may be beyond justification for many brands. But what about taking an AirBnB outside Cannes and visiting fringe events that don’t need a pass to get into? Or going to a series of lower-key breakfast briefings run by industry associations, trade publications, agencies and consultancies dotted through the year?

In my role at Ebiquity, I’m constantly on the look-out for opportunities for us to share the deep insights we uncover every day working hand-in-glove with clients on media, analytics, and tech briefs. Instead of simply publishing digital content, I’m all for providing opportunities for our clients to meet, network, and learn about the latest trends and issues for their competitors and peers.

As the CMO from a leading global brand said to me at a recent event: “You need just one idea to transform the way you work or make a difference to driving growth in your business. So, if showing up to an event only gives you one new insight – one new idea that can accelerate growth – it makes it all worth it.”

By deliberately taking yourself out of your comfort and familiarity zones and looking to the edges, you might just turn your Blockbuster into the next Netflix.

Debbie Morrison is managing director, global partnerships and events at Ebiquity.

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