News & Views

The Truth about Real Innovation

by Contagious Contributor

Glyn Britton, managing partner at Albion, shares his take on what innovation really looks like

During my ten years at Albion I have been closely involved in three key moments of genuine disruption. Skype, giffgaff and Betfair were all genuinely innovative companies that brought about real change and impact within their sectors and beyond. Having worked with all three, I’m in a pretty good position to talk about innovation and what it really looks like.

When we launched Albion we didn’t plan on being an innovation agency, but we were excited to set out to work with companies that wanted to do new things in new ways. A decade ago, it was mainly startups that were innovating and disrupting the face of traditional markets, and now more established companies want a piece of the action too, with corporate innovation becoming increasingly more common.

The problem with innovation, though, is that it’s an over-used and over-debated word. People can spend more time fiercely arguing over what innovation means rather than actually doing anything. From what I’ve seen, real innovation actually requires three things.The first is experimentation – the willingness to try out new things, continuously hacking, playing and prototyping until you find the thing that sticks. The last is real change, a truly disruptive new business model that challenges the status quo. But it’s what lays in the middle that is most important, and most-often over-looked  determined follow through.

Many people fall into the trap of talking about real change, doing lots of experimentation, but failing to follow through. And it’s not surprising because, to be honest, follow through is hard. It takes time, and it can be messy.

Skype is a prime example. People often consider it to have been an overnight success story, but the truth is far from that. In reality, the process was far longer, harder and messier than you could imagine.

Skype, in fact, took two years to experience S-curve growth, and it was four years until it crossed over into the mainstream. Those years building and marketing the product were hard, because we faced a huge amount of criticism, mainly from the press. It was odd, it was new, and almost no one was backing it. It was also messy. The product vision came from the founders, but we had to work with multiple marketing directors, sceptical Estonian engineers, and new products (that we could have spent a year working on) could be pulled the day before launch. So how did Skype get from a cool experiment to disrupting the global telecoms market?

Well, the teams were truly committed to the product. We used Skype for everything – even for functions that were probably better on email. We used it to manage projects, we used it for meetings, and we lived on it.

And we were focussed. The one marketing challenge we really had to focus on was making it OK to talk into your laptop. In 2005 this was weird! People who did it looked weird. We had to find a way to make people feel comfortable using Skype, and comfortable talking to a screen. So we gave away 1 million headsets, made the branding look ‘cute’ (a revolution then for a tech company) and created ‘dial tones’ that made the software feel more similar to an actual phone. We slogged away on every free marketing tactic we could think of. Innovation was born of necessity – there was no media money.

But the final result, after all those years of hard work, was real change. Half a billion people ditched telcos and signed up to Skype. Talking to your laptop screen was no longer weird, but the norm. Skype paved the way for the messaging apps that rule the world today.

The same was true with giffgaff and Betfair – the real stories were harder and messier than how they’ve since been remembered. Sheer bloody-minded follow through was necessary to turn an experiment into a disruptive business.

Real innovation isn’t about chief innovation officer, shamanic retreats, or hanging out at ‘Southby’ in order to look cutting edge. Innovation requires you to have a team that drives towards building something new, with everyone involved buying into what you are trying to do. It’s not about individual glory – it’s about commitment and determination to challenge what, as consumers, we often take for granted. This rule applies to the corporate innovation model as much as it applies to startups.

Regardless of whether you’re innovating as part of a startup, as part of a big organisation, or as an agency supporting a client, disruption is a learning curve. Everyone needs to buy into this new method of development and measurement for it to really move ahead. Common sense principles, a willingness to give it a go and determination to follow through will ultimately lead you to disrupt.

Innovation is a buzzword, it’s in-vogue and everyone wants to claim they are ‘innovating’. But there is a difference between those talking, and those that do. Be turned on by growth, not awards. Be motivated by toughing it out and cracking on, not by basking in the glory. Don’t just try new things, drive real change.

Glyn Britton is a managing partner at Albion, a member of the MDC Partners owned KBS Albion Group