The Nine Nos of Innovation

Wile E Coyote would have made a great Innovation Director, if not for his high failure rate

Jeremy Ettinghausen, Innovation Director, BBH London & BBH Labs

Innovation types are generally optimists. Innovation types generally believe that new and shiny trumps tried and tested. We’re the people who are meant to say “Yes!” to everything; Yes!, let’s try that. Yes!, let’s see if we can break it. Yes!, let’s fail faster, better, triumphantly!

But in the development of every project and in every organisation it’s important to have a gatekeeper, someone whose job it is to say ‘no’ now and again. No to an extra feature, no to a new app, no to novelty for the sake of novelty, no to yet another attempt to shoehorn Pharrell into an activation plan. The ‘no’ guy is rarely the most popular character in the room, but his (or hers) is a necessary presence.

Since I am cruising into my grumpy old man period, I fairly regularly find myself being the ‘no’ guy, the fella who puts the ‘no’ in innovation. So, here are, in no particular order, my personal, prejudiced and pejorative Nine NOs of Innovation.

1) NO Holograms

It’s true that there is nothing shinier than a hologram — look at all the colours and how it’s just there! And not there! But since you’re never going to be able to do anything more epic with a hologram then tell Obi-Wan that he’s your only hope, you might as well not try.

2) NO dead celebrities brought back to life to duet with Pharrell/Drake/Taylor Swift

Holograms and dead celebrities brought back to life to duet with Pharrell go together like cheese and burgers and this innovative idea is presented to Creative Directors at least twice a year. Basically, using holograms or other techniques to pair the living with the departed, screams of a desire to show off craft skills rather than demonstrate understanding of consumer need. ‘How the hell did they do that?’ is a question that should only be asked of magicians.

3) NOstalgia

Innovationismists are meant to be forward looking, trend watching and future facing. And this is all well and good except for the fact that as humans we are far more comfortable with the past than we are with the future.

‘people value having the past gently nudge its way back in to the present’ - @thisisaaronland

The success of nostalgia apps and services like Timehop shows that a connection with our yesterdays creates a poignancy that connection with our tomorrows can never hope to deliver. So, to bowdlerize McLuhan, feel free to speed off into the future, but don’t forget to keep an eye on the rear view mirror.

4) NO Crystal Balls

Futurology is an important tool for marketers. Hypothesizing about what 2020 will look like is both a fun dinner party game and and important task when partnering with clients who are making big bets about the future behaviours of their consumers and the future growth of their businesses. But looking too deeply into the crystal ball risks ignoring all the interesting, quirky, relevant things that are happening today. The outlier technologies, the edge case uses, the new behaviours that audiences are learning. Most of the time we’re making things for today, to be launched within the next 12 months and while we can dream of an infinite shelflife for our products and services and communications, they will at some point in the near or distant future, evolve or die. So relish the now, make things that people will use and enjoy and share today, not for a hypothetical future that might never arrive.

And also…

5, 6, 7) NObody kNOws NOthing

Psst, wanna invest in a startup that matches people who own airbeds with travelers who can’t afford a hotel room? No? Well you’re not alone. A half dozen big name VCs passed up on airbnb. How about taking a stake in a smart cup that tells you what’s in it, after you’ve poured what’s in it into it? Yeah, that one got $1million. And they say that Hollywood is the town where Nobody Knows Anything…

8) NOvelty

There are two definitions of novelty. It can be the state of being new, different or unusual. Novelty can also also be something cheap that provides fleeting amusement. Innovation should be original and different, but should have a purpose greater than fleeting amusement. Social benefit, sustained growth, market disruption — these are all good purposes. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place in life for fleeting amusement and definitely a place for it in advertising, but innovation without purpose is usually the wrong sort of novelty.

9) NO Cynicism

The Previous 8 Nos do reveal perhaps a jaded, misanthropic mindset quite opposed with the sunny optimism required from an innovation practitioner (and who, reading this, wouldn’t consider themselves an innovation practitioner?). So one item of balance to even things out.

I recently read a wonderful piece by a developer called Maciej Ceglowski — it’s called ‘Web Design — the first 100 years’ — look it up. Almost everything he says can apply as well to the marketing or digital or innovation communities as it does to web designers. His boldest assertion is that the web of 2060 will look pretty much like the web of today — a good thing he argues. And it’s a good thing because today’s web does some pretty amazing things; it allows fascinating connections between people and products and brands and cats; it puts all human knowledge and entertainment at our fingertips. And it’s a wonderful place for anyone with a desire to try something new, do something different or simply observe the fresh and shiny to explore and play and make in.

Innovation should be joyous and liberating and optimistic about the potential of strategy and ingenuity and creativity and technology to make a positive impact on people’s experiences and lives. Even cynics should say yes to innovation with purpose, every now and again.


This is a version of a presentation given at Silicon Beach, September 25 2015