How Nicole Yershon creates space for disruption and rough diamonds

Happyplaces Stories (video)

We met in Lisbon, at the House of Beautiful Business and instantly had some amazing conversations. We continued this in London. Nicole is a consultant, speaker, mentor and connector with a broad experience of bringing organisations into the 21st Century. She is a radical entrepreneurial spirit with a vast International network of startups, a ‘why not’ attitude and ability to translate business problems into innovation opportunities, delivering real value to businesses faced with transformation wrought by digital disruption. Nicole founded Ogilvy Labs — the dedicated Innovation unit of Ogilvy & Mather Group — where she worked with brands such as Amex, IBM, BP, Crimestoppers, Selfridges, Unilever, BA and Wetherspoons. Nicole works in the startup ecosystem around the world with the likes of Appear[Here], Microsoft Ventures, IBM Smartcamp, Cisco Big Awards, Collider and Blippar, to name a few. Nicole sits at the creative intersection between advertising, media, technology and marketing.

We met at Shoreditch House to catch up and to then eventually also film. After we discussed life, love, her book, my upcoming book, other plans and what not, we tried to find a spot within Shoreditch House to film. When we finally did, somebody reminded us that filming is against House regulations. We, of course, knew this, that’s why we found a quiet corner where no one would be visible in the background. But, rules are rules, and you never know if Harry and Meghan might be hidden in a cupboard, so we packed the gear and went on a quest to find a space where we would be able to film. During our search Nicole shared some great stories about her work, her book, her father who put live football on tv and changed things that he was told couldn’t be changed, to eventually end up in a nice café where we were allowed to film.


Bringing the world in

This is my confessional. So, forgive me, father, for I have sinned kind of thing. A little bit about me. I am Nicole Yershon, and I’m an author. And I also ran an innovation lab at a very large organisation for 17 years. But I’m steeped in a kind of advertising and marketing history since I have been doing that since I was 19. With some amazing people in London. What I do now. I run a company that brings the outside world in. What is going on when people are so busy with their day jobs and meeting deadlines and don’t really know what is happening outside of their window. And I will bring that world in. Whether that be understanding technology or innovation. Different companies that are out there doing interesting things, relevant problems attached to relevant solutions. And I also have the ability to make things happen. So whenever someone is having a difficulty deciding how to move forward, or they don’t know what they don’t know, then I usually am the best place to help them with this big black book.

They are the ones that I felt were at the best place to effect change in companies, especially with technology. Because it hasn’t been educated out of them, to look at something different.

Rough diamonds

It is not an easy space to be in. Bringing the outside world in or effecting change in large companies. It takes a certain kind of personality, because most people say that they want change, but they don’t really want change. I have spent my career pretty much cutting through the bullshit of what really needs to be done and implementation of making it happen. And that really need a certain kind of personality. I ran a programme called the ‘Rough Diamond’ programme at this large organisation which was a diversity talent programme. And it was getting kids in from the age of 14 to 16 about to be expelled in parts of London like Hackney and Greenwich where they ordinarily think that their future would be a Tesco’s checkout, and they’ve never really been at a company like a large marketing agency. So it was bringing them into a space. And then not only have them come in for a week but really have the time to work with them and give them kind of an insight into how they could effect change in those kinds of companies. To ask loads of questions. They are the ones that I felt were at the best place to effect change in companies, especially with technology. Because it hasn’t been educated out of them, to look at something different. That insight in the early days when I was asked to bring in an innovation lab into an organisation. No one really knew what that looked like, I didn’t know what that looked like. But I knew that it would involve different personalities. My book is called Rough Diamond, and it is based on this idea, of finding those people, the rough diamond in society who will question things and ask ‘why’, ‘who says’ and ‘why not?’. They are the ones that will push forward constantly with change.

The ‘pain in the ass’ kind of people

I think it is easy for me now to recognise the people who want change because they just ask the right questions. They don’t switch off, and they are also solution-based. They’re not afraid to ask a question or to say ‘I don’t know’. They embrace, and they are able to say ‘I don’t know, but I know someone who might’. They are super-connectors. I find that it’s the best way, when there is so much stuff going on out there, by asking those questions, to connect to someone who knows more than you do.

I was able to be that person where management said no, and I did it anyway.

The biggest ability is curiosity. And then connecting the right person with the right problem. It is all about connecting dots. Connecting people, connecting scenarios. They’re the kind of things that aren’t measured on a finance director’s finance spreadsheet. And yet, they’re the things that cut through so brilliantly. That is actually true creativity, which is problem-solving. But everything is always under metrics, and it is quite hard to measure that kind of personality. They are normally seen as the troublemakers. They’re usually the entrepreneurial types. The ones that you find to be a pain in the ass. They are the ones who are affecting the change for you. I was fortunate that I was able to be a maverick for 17 years. I was able to be that person where management said no, and I did it anyway. They gave me the ability to do that, which I’m always thankful for. So, therefore, you need that buy-in within an organisation to allow people like me to function. To try and to help them to effect change from the inside.

Finding problems for solutions

Obviously, you don’t want anarchy. It needs to be structured in a way that allows for serendipity. I structured these things into ‘semesters of learning’. Where you had a very clearly defined semester on one technology at the time. For example, A technology would be ‘streaming’, and I would see 10 to 15 different streaming companies every single week for six months, and so would all the people who were doing the semesters with me. Then we would find a brand that had a problem, and the solution would be streaming. There was a client who wanted to speak to all staff in which became a live stream that went to 22,000 desktops in 19 countries in five languages. That was about 10 or 12 years ago. I would get the tv-department to be able to do this work, even though they said they would only do tv. I would be able to say: ‘Well, not anymore. This is a new kind of revenue stream and business generation where we don’t do just tv and print, but we can now do streaming.’ Or gaming, or mobile, whatever the semester was. We would see who was out there, we would attach it to business, and we would implement it. We would get paid to implement it, and we would have a case study for it that would then go to awards. There were lots of metrics that it hit, to keep us functioning as a disruptive lab-environment because we would actually attach it to business.

Part of the job that I would do, and that’s the beauty of doing what I do because everyone else has a day job to do. My day job was to go to places where I knew no one and nothing. But if I had a format in place, that semester about ‘streaming’ was one of them, or ‘future travel tourism’ or ‘future retail’, or ‘future transport’ with Great Western Railways or ‘future supply chains’; all these things I would be able to allow me to go to random events. And to have a topic that I would be working on and to go to events with that in mind to learn from the people that were there. It was quite an uncomfortable scenario because I would go to places where I honestly didn’t know anything. But I would have something in the back of my head of how I could connect what I was working on to the event where I went to.

It’s all about people

I’m always learning. We’re always learning. I embrace vulnerability, I know that I don’t know everything. I love to listen and learn from people who inspire me. It is a beautiful feeling when you connect to someone with who you can just chat away for hours. A couple of years ago I had a life coach. She said to me: ‘Maybe we should look to get you out of your comfort zone a little bit.’ And I said: ‘Well, I’m always out of my comfort zone. I go to places, and I know nobody. And she said: ‘Yes, but that is your comfort zone. What we need to do is getting you more empathetic and to understand and learn from other people and to go a little bit deeper. And to look at different parts of you that are not always onwards and upwards focussed on getting stuff done. But maybe take a little step back and to understand the people around you who can’t function how you function. They can bring something else to the mix.’ In my team, there was always a big emphasis on emotional intelligence testing. We would always test my weaknesses versus someone else’s strengths, where someone else’s weaknesses were my strengths. And we would play to them. In a large company, most of the time you have got HR doing these reviews that play to their weaknesses, saying: ‘You should get better at this.’ Maybe they are never going to get better at that. Maybe you should find out what they are good at and get them better at that, and give the things they’re not good at to someone else who has that as a strength. There were lots of learnings that I would do within the lab environment. Because change is all about people, not just about the technology. Those were the things that were quite healthy for the team to learn about.

I never stopped doing what I do, I now do it for myself and not in a large company. In a large company, a lot of people say no, and you have to do it anyway, now I’m able to find people to work with who really do want to have an understanding of what is going on. The rate of change is so astronomical. Once clients have identified what their problem is, then it is really easy to pull someone like me in. Because I know enough to be dangerous, but I know the right people to drill down to make something happen. And there is a lot of people that don’t know how to make things happen. They have meeting after meeting. That is probably because of their business model because it has been defined that they’re paid by the hour for meetings. Where my business model is a ‘leverage’ business model, where I pull in the right people. And the team is small, maybe four people on the job which gets things done much quicker when there is not meeting after meeting or face to face meetings.

I work with people who really want to create a space where they know that they don’t know but know that they need to change

I’m given permission by the people who want it, and you can work out very quickly if people do as they say or say as they do. I work with people who really want to create a space where they know that they don’t know but know that they need to change. Or they fall off the edge of a cliff. Because it is just not working anymore how it was working. Those are the exciting people to work with because we call all roll our sleeves up and get working. It is non-hierarchical, there are more layers of people; small little task teams to get something done. And being given the freedom, I guess to do it.

Serendipity

Every day for me is a new opportunity. I’m a big believer in serendipity. You put certain things in place but then you allow yourself the ability to go to random places and meet people. The ability to have a cup of tea with someone who ordinarily wouldn’t cross your path. And then do a video with them. And find a random café that allows you to film. And who knows what then happens after that. It is about being open minded and open hearted every single day to new opportunities, possibilities. But in a little framework, like I talked about like the semesters, there is always a tangible framework that you work within to make things happen.