News & Views

Dying in a ditch for innovation

by Alex Jenkins

Earlier this year I was giving a presentation to a group of about 20 chief marketers on the topic of innovation in marketing. During the post-presentation Q&A, the usual question of convincing budget holders to invest in innovation came up, along with 'How are other brands dealing with this?'

One of the examples I cited was Coca-Cola's marketing team adopting the 70/20/10 model - investing 10% of their total marketing budget in higher-risk, 'innovative ideas' (see the Contagious case study).

As it was a private session, someone asked if anyone else in the group actually used that model, and one of the CMOs (representing one of the biggest companies in his sector) put his hand up.

'Yeah, we do 70/20/10,' he said. 'And I can tell you the reality of what happens at my company. When times get tough, the 10% gets chopped. Then the 20% gets chopped. Then you fight to keep the 70%.'

Cue much nodding from the marketing heads around him in agreement...

I'm sure all Contagious readers have heard the rallying cry 'Innovate or die!', and no doubt some of you may even have said it.

But that declaration seems somewhat at odds with the reality of a situation where, as soon as times get tough, people don't run to their agency's innovation lab for help. Instead they shut it down. It's an expendable luxury, not seen as vital for survival.

I suspect that the nature of innovation labs is at the heart of the problem. Speaking at our Now/Next/Why event in London earlier this year, the creative director of BBH Labs, London, Jeremy Ettinghausen, observed that 'Agencies thrive on confidence and certainty. A lab ring fences and allows for uncertainty and questions.'

Simply put, it's hard to defend something which produces uncertain outcomes. But in a rapidly-changing environment, the only thing you can plan for is uncertainty. Setting up teams and processes to allow for and explore that uncertainty, I believe, is vital for survival.

Many years ago when I used to work with the military, I was fascinated by the language they used (e.g. embuggerance). One specific example that comes to mind was a lovely phrase for those occasions when you held an opinion but it wasn't so strong that you were willing to let it disrupt proceedings: 'I don't agree we should do that, but I'm not going to die in a ditch about it.'

They weren't (mostly metaphorically) willing to go to battle to defend their point of view.

If you want to produce innovative work, you need a passion for exploring uncertainty. But when times get tough (did you notice the triple-dip recession on the way over?), are you able to defend the need for it, to protect it from the budget cutters? And if you truly believe in its value, would you be prepared to die in a ditch for it?

Alex Jenkins is Editor of Contagious I/O