Oystercatchers Event | October 2013 | Ewen Sturgeon | CEO | DigitasLBi International

Oystercatchers Event | October 2013 | Ewen Sturgeon | CEO | DigitasLBi International

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Ewen Sturgeon:
 I guess my perspective is a little different because it’s the agency perspective in terms of how we work with our clients to try and help to innovate, and it’s difficult.  I think it’s worth mentioning the way that I think about what we do is that we generate insight and strategy, we create things, we distribute those things, and we try to measure how effective they are.  When we’re creating something, we tend to think of that as either something that is campaign centric, or something which has a longer storyline or a narrative, that maybe is episodic and manifests itself in various different formats, or something which is a utility, a service, a service that we are designing – something new.  And that’s the bit that we think about the most, so forgive me if a lot of my thinking is orientated around that piece of what we tend to try and do for our clients.

Ewen Sturgeon:  I thought I’d start by not giving an exhaustive list, but maybe some of the things that I’ve seen over the years that make it quite difficult.  The first is what I’d describe as the digital marketing envelope.  I remember when I started two decades ago; it was actually reasonably easy to initiate innovative work, something that was interesting and different because the internet as a marketing channel and device was pretty much irrelevant.  It was to preserve some quite senior sponsors inside the client and whether you got it right or wrong was largely irrelevant.  There was a great canvas to do stuff and thing about stuff in quite an innovative way.  Of course what’s happened is it’s become hugely immaterial to the performance of brands and businesses and so what tends to happen is if there’s available bandwidth of people or budget, the way that tends to get oriented or directed is how can we optimise and improve the performance of what we’re already doing because we’re under a huge amount of pressure to deliver results.  So it’s become increasingly difficult to think as an agency and help our clients to think beyond business as usual.  So I’ll come back to this in a second in terms of how we try to overcome that problem.

Ewen Sturgeon:  One of the other perspectives is what’s called technical depth, and I might have changed the vertical axis here.  I might have said suboptimal and awesome rather than crap and awesome, but what tends to happen (and it’s quite understandable) is, given the pressures of deadline and the commercial pressures and budget pressures, is that very often what happens when you’re doing a product release or a platform development, is that those pressures will mean that you’ll take certain short cuts or make certain kludges.  Over time, the compound effect of that creates what we call technical depth.  The reason why that’s important in terms of innovation is, let’s just say for example that one of our automotive clients has asked us to reinvent the car invigorator, and we of course will come up with lots of clever ideas as to how to do that, and we are quite conscious that in the background there will be a reasonably sized bill attached with our thinking, but probably a bill four or five times that in terms of internal IS, who then say that because of the technical depth and the way we’ve built our system, there are lots of workarounds and things that we have to resolve that make it very expensive for us to deliver on this customer vision.  So this is a very real challenge that we are quite cognisant of and we’re thinking about how we innovate.

Ewen Sturgeon:  One of the other areas is (this is quite inelegant I’m afraid but it’s not agile) and I guess the point here is that a lot of process and approach inside clients is quite understandably aimed at mitigating risk and optimising commercial performance.  What that means certainly in our world, is that there is a desire to understand what is being specified and created, what that’s going to do, how that’s going to perform, how long that’s going to take, what if it goes wrong, all those sorts of things.  And that is unfortunately not the behaviour required or the approach required when trying to be more innovative.  What it requires you to do is it requires you to try and fail, it requires you to do that repeatedly and of course, understandably again there’s a lot of risk attached to that and people are not used to that.  The reason that’s important is this guy, he framed it quite nicely actually! This is a guy called Theodore Sturgeon.  There’s not very many of us and I’m quite embarrassed that it took me 46 years to discover this guy – it was actually Chris Clarke who, somewhere in the audience, introduced me to him.  He was a science fiction writer in the 1950s and his law, Sturgeon’s Law, is that 90% of everything is crud.  Now I’ve contemporised that – 90% of everything is crap.  I think it’s important because when you’re innovating, the problem is that most of what you produce won’t be right.  It might not necessarily be crap – you can learn a lot from it, but it won’t be right.  So back to a process or methodology which is designed to mitigate risk from the system because the commercial pressures on all of us to perform are extremely important, then being agile is almost antithetical to the way we want to operate as an organisation.

Ewen Sturgeon:  So, how as an agency do we try and help our clients with those challenges and try and be successful? He looks reasonably successful, that’s why I chose the picture! I think the first thing, there are meant to be some arrows here but it did occur to me when I arrived that they probably wouldn’t show up, but if you can imagine it sort of goes roughly like that! It sounds like an obvious thing to say, but at the centre of the principles that we try and work to, is try to be solving a problem.  Try to be solving a problem that is relevant to the clients because so often what we see is that it’s a neat bit of thinking, it’s an elegant piece of technology, it’s whatever it is, but actually it’s not aimed at solving a problem.  And going back to the marketing envelope is that it’s so much easier to work in this way if what we’re trying to do is aimed at some of the stuff that’s really important below that dotted line, in terms of resolving commercial performance and thinking differently about how we do that.

Ewen Sturgeon:  So that’s where we start, and I think the first and most important thing is to connect with people that don’t necessarily start with the same domain expertise or industry expertise that you are concerned with.  I think it’s innocentive.   I think 70% of the problems that are solved on that platform, the crowd sharing problem platform, are solved by people who have a domain expertise unrelated to the specific problem at hand.  The first thing is connect, is gather eclectic view and views you would not expect.  The second thing is, for us in our non-visual circle, is experiment.  So don’t talk theoretically is actually build something, create something very theoretically and of course that’s the advantage of having a second skill inside an agency is that you can create stuff very quickly.  And have a hypothesis that you are trying to prove or disprove.  It can be complicated, it can be simple, but do that quickly.  And very often we think of that as a slightly unfortunate term as it comes from a slightly different, less reputable industry, is we call in the convincer.  We’ve created something which the client can see and work with and acts as the convincer inside the organisation to convince other people that there’s a problem and there’s something that we can do to resolve that problem.  It’s real, it’s tactile, you can play with it, it works.

Ewen Sturgeon:  The next step is keep going! Back to Theodore Sturgeon, and the problem is that most it will not work.  There’s got to be a commitment to carrying on.  Angry Birds was the 52nd game that Rovio invented and it was on the verge of bankruptcy and the others had not been successful.  The challenge is to be committed, to keeping going, and once you’ve been doing that is then to reconnect and ask the question of a community of people that are not necessarily attached to what you are doing as to whether what you have done is still relevant and are you trying to solve the same problem? What will happen very often is that you’ll iterate this journey and actually you’ll end up in a slightly different place, you’re solving a slightly different problem.  Instagram is a perfect example of that.

Ewen Sturgeon:  Those are the principles of innovation that we try to adopt.  I think there are some important foundations as well.  We’ve tried to nurture a community of innovators; we have about 250 or 300 worldwide from all sorts of different walks of life and different places that we constantly socialise our ideas with.  The second thing is that, you’ve got to be doing it yourself; I don’t think it’s very helpful to be abdicating innovation with a client unless you’re actually active and doing it yourself.  We build products ourself that we use to automate what we do and we have all sorts of other projects, the result of which one has just appeared in the Barbican as a prize winner, around innovation so that we can see that we’re committed to doing that as well and create innovation programmes for our client.

Sam Jones