Once more with feeling: How real innovation is long, hard and messy

On 26 June 2014, I spoke at the 2nd Annual ‘Innovations Stories’, an event organised by Innovation Social. Here is a transcript of my talk.

Why am I qualified to talk about innovation? Well I’ve been at Albion for nearly 10 years now and, in that time, I’ve been closely involved in at least 3 moments of genuine disruptive change — Skype, giffgaff and Betfair. So I should be in a fairly good position to tell you what it looks like.

By the way Albion never set out to be an innovation agency. People started calling us that about 2 years ago. However we did set out to work with companies who want to do new things in new ways, because that’s what we find exciting. 10 years ago, that was pretty much startups. Now big companies want some of that startup magic, and that’s working out pretty well for us.

Real change = Experimentation + follow-through

So, if I want to argue that we need to go further, then I’m going to need a working definition of what innovation is, so we’ll know when we get there. I know this is dangerous. As usual the agency industry spends more time arguing fiercely over definitions than it does on actually doing anything.

I think innovation is…

  • Experimentation: Trying new things. Hacking, prototyping, playing.
  • Real change: Disruptive new business model that changes behaviours and replaces what went before Obviously. But also…
  • Follow through: Determined, tenacious commitment to the new way

I think that the ad industry:

  • Talks lots about real changes
  • Does lots of experimentation
  • But is terrible at follow-through

If I’m totally honest, what I don’t understand is the path from (the Cannes Innovation Lions-winning) “Giant 3D selfies” to any real change, to new behaviours, to a new business model. Sure it’s beautiful, it’s clever, it’s new, it’s novel. But it doesn’t seem to have much sense of purpose or strategic direction. So can it be innovation? I’m not sure, I think it’s ‘just’ a new technology.

But I do know that purposeful experimentation and tenacious follow-through is how we at Albion have been part of those 3 moments of real change.

Real change is long, hard, and messy

Let’s talk for example about Skype. People misremember the Skype story.

They remember an overnight success story. A moment of revelation when they discovered it. A classic case of product-market fit and viral growth. And of ‘innovative’ marketing that drove that growth.

The reality was nothing like that. It was longer, harder, and messier.

  • It was longer, because it took 2 years before Skype experienced S-curve growth. 4 years before it ‘crossed the chasm’ into mainstream use. Pretty far from the overnight success it’s remembered for.
  • It was harder, because those 5 years were difficult. We faced criticism and incredulity from the outside world, especially the press. Skype was odd, and almost nobody was backing it. (Commentators conveniently forget this in retrospect)
  • And it was messy: The organisation was pretty dysfunctional. All product vision came from the founders, which became a barrier as the business scaled. We survived 7 marketing directors. Sceptical Estonian engineers. New products, that we’d worked on for a year, were pulled on the day before launch, never to see the light of day.

So how did we get through it? What does the ‘follow through’ in my model look like? How do we get from a cool experiment — the novelty of talking into a laptop — to real change; a new world of freer long distance communications?

Real change takes commitment, focus and hard work

As individuals the team were truly committed to the product. It was shocking in 2005 seeing meetings of 12 people, all on their laptops throughout. They used Skype for everything — it replaced email, they used it to manage projects. Skypers used Skype for stuff it was really unsuited for, but they truly lived it.

We were really focused on one marketing challenge. We had to make it OK to talk into your laptop. In 2005 that was a weird thing to do, people doing it looked like weirdos. We did this, not with whacky marketing innovation, but by giving away 1m headsets, making the first ‘cute’ brand in tech, making dial tones that we’re distinctive but phone-y.

What we didn’t do was much shiny marketing innovation. We did lots of hard working banner ads and POS.

When we did do marketing innovation (like one of the first Facebook campaigns in 2006) it was born out of necessity — there was no media money — and success was measured in paid-user acquisitions, not Mashable headlines (there was no Mashable then).

The result was, eventually, real change. Half a billion people ditched telcos for their long distance communications. New behaviours became normal — not just talking into laptops, but things like the ‘Sunday open channel between living rooms on different continents’. And Skype laid the groundwork for the mobile messaging apps that rule the world today.

It was the same story with giffgaff, with Betfair: Both longer, harder and messier than the stylised story that’s been told since.

Real change isn’t about awards and Chief Innovation Officers

What’s missing from all these stories is: Unconferences in forests; Cannes Lion awards for barely-run campaigns; Obsession with Beacons (or whatever is hot today); Innovation teams, labs, skunkworks, and CIOs. In other words, the trappings of the ‘innovation industry’.

With Skype, with giffgaff, with Wonga, the ‘I’ word was never, ever mentioned. Doing the new thing was a whole company endeavour. It was driven by a higher purpose than ‘trying new stuff’. And it required sheer bloody minded hard work.

Albion is an agency built to drive real change

And that’s what we’ve tried to build Albion around. An agency built to do the hard work in the middle. Follow-through is built into our culture, our way of working — even our new logo. It’s a whole company endeavour.

We’re turned on by being part of the team that builds something new, not by taking individual credit for it. We’re turned on by business growth, not creative awards.

We’re turned on by toughing it out rather than basking in the glory. And if other agencies want to move from doing exciting new things, to driving real change, this is the journey I believe they need to go on to.

Originally published at albion.co.