News & Views

Opinion / Innovation & Evolution: In Praise of the Imperfect Copy

by Contagious Contributor

Ahead of his role as President of this year’s Cannes Innovation Lions Jury, R/GA’s Global CCO, Nick Law, looks at the perfect imperfection of innovation.

Innovation doesn’t come in a neatly-packaged case study. It comes in fits and starts from people standing on the shoulders of giants who went before. The Eureka Moment is an expertly branded myth.

This is not to say that inspiration and its natural consequence, innovation, can’t strike. In the connected age we live in, they often do. It’s just not always as obvious as it was for Archimedes, who knew what he had when he had it. Innovation in the connected age is iterative. It’s expressed less as a yell of elation and more of a tentative maybe…’. With a few rare exceptions, it looks less like revolution and more like evolution: more like the accidental ‘imperfect copies’ of DNA that keep the species evolving.

Imperfect copies make the advertising industry nervous, therefore we have a complex relationship with iterative innovation. Over the last fifty years of evolution in advertising, most of our advances have come from a deeper and more profound understanding of craft. We honed techniques, refined copy, created visuals that were richer and more engaging. We developed tropes and tools that helped us put rigour around and justify this craft: the notion that ‘it’s all about the big idea’, for instance. To paraphrase Henry Ford, we made faster horses. 

Meanwhile, the technology industry, while far from flawless, embraces iteration as a key element of innovation. What is Facebook if not an imperfect copy of MySpace (or Friendster, or the earliest forums and chat rooms?) What is Twitter if not an imperfect copy of a text message?

Hands On Innovation

It can also be impossible to see how big an idea really is until you apply it. Twitter was invented as a hack for developers to communicate with each other. As more and more people got hold of it, it became a core information delivery system, a tool for organized protest and a medium for a new form of writing and comedy. Five years before that, developers were working on an idea that sounded equally mundane: a digital space for the sharing of information that was open to all. The site that became Wikipedia destroyed an entire industry, yet might have been thrown out in the early rounds of concepting at an agency. Not big enough, we might have said. What’s the story?

Even Apple, a company notorious for waiting on perfection before letting us get our grubby little mitts on their devices, has been forced to acknowledge the role of human beings in bringing those devices to life. At launch, the iPad was not a success. Shares in the company dipped dramatically under the weight of sneering social media commentary about the name (sounds like a sanitary towel) and the product itself (it’s just a big iPhone, right?). 250 million units later, the iPad is being used as everything from reading device to creative tool. Sometimes, we just have to use it to get it, and through the using, the platform comes into its own.

In a connected age, the only way to see whether you’ve got anything close to innovative on your hands is to get it into a user’s, and see what they do with it.

This idea of iterative innovation isn’t new. For years, our most famous inventors honed their curiosity working in other disciplines, and then applied that knowledge elsewhere to world-changing effect. Thomas Edison worked as a telegraph operator. The Wright brothers were bicycle mechanics.

As an industry, we need to look beyond our four walls and defy the conventional wisdom that the solution to every problem is advertising in some form or another. We have the tools to invent. We have an understanding of what makes people tick, and what persuades them to change their behavior. We have, increasingly, knowledge of the technologies that connect and drive them. So take that knowledge, and do anything at all. Test it. See what people do with it. It might not be what you thought. Take those learnings. Apply them. Make it better. And find a client who understands that things are built, and stories are told, not with a shout that dries to a whisper, but with a murmur that leads to a roar.

Innovation in advertising exists. We just have to change the way we recognize it.

The Innovation Lions are part of Lions Innovation – a new two day festival during Cannes Lions exploring data and tech as catalysts for creativity and celebrating the work leading the way. Visit for more information.

Contagious is proud to be an official Media Supporter of Cannes Lions & Lions Innovation 2015.
Visit the Cannes Lions site for more information and to purchase a pass.