Structuring Innovation To Navigate Uncertainty

Cecile Blanc – Senior Director, Global Solutions and Innovation at Xaxis, part of GroupM

2020 started with Google announcing its intention to render third-party cookies from Chrome obsolete. Six months later Apple made a similar move with IDFAs. In between these two events, a pandemic took the world by storm, accelerating digital transformation and changing media consumption habits almost overnight. The ability to quickly adapt has become a survival skill for digital advertising businesses, which have entered the most condensed innovation cycle ever.

Innovation is a bottom-up, decentralized, and unpredictable thing, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be managed.

An excerpt from Eric Ries’ ‘The Lean Start-Up’, this quote provides a great starting point for businesses looking to structure their own approach to innovation. From Henry Ford to Elon Musk, we have been trained to think of innovation as the territory of visionary leaders, but the truth is: they are the exception rather than the norm. Innovation doesn’t just happen. Talent is a business’ main asset, whose value can only be fully extracted if employees feel empowered to contribute ideas. To navigate a year like 2020, we need all hands on deck.

How to structure innovation

Successful innovation lies less in the volume of ideas than in the process to harvest them. Clear expectations should be given: are you looking for ideas that will generate revenues in ten years or two? Are you willing to invest or are you looking for ideas that can be quickly taken to market using existing resources?

In 2017, I launched an internal innovation competition at Xaxis called Xcellerate. The principle is simple: anyone from across our 47 markets can contribute product ideas that are then selected and incubated over the summer before a winner is chosen and deployed. Every year since launch we have found additional ways to refine the process, for example testing ideas with our sister media agencies which act as the voice of our clients during incubation.

When positioning Xcellerate this year we were very clear about what we were looking for in the context of the global crisis. But because Xcellerate is “extra-curricular” and our markets were busy fighting to mitigate the immediate impact of the crisis, we weren’t sure what participation to expect. It ended up being incredible, both in the volume and quality of submissions. Our team expressed a real desire to be a part of the innovation efforts. The lesson we learned is that structure – while paramount – will only get you so far. The holy grail is a balance of structure and culture.

How to foster your own culture of innovation

Our industry is widely dominated by Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon – all big tech companies with cultures centered around product and innovation. Media agencies including Xaxis were instead built on a culture of client service. Although some have proprietary tech – as we do with our AI platform Copilot – they build solutions individually to clients by assembling data sets, tech platforms and other building blocks. Despite the differences, there are however principles that all businesses can look to emulate from big tech companies:

  1. Friendly competition is ok
    Amazon has a doctrine that says no more people should work on a project that can be fed by two pizzas. I agree that small groups work better at the ideation stage. Pushing for alignment and consensus too soon can slow down development and deprive contributors of a sense of ownership for their idea, hindering motivation. However, it can be worth bringing them together later to scale. The winner of Xcellerate 2018 for example was a merger between two separate but similar ideas coming from Europe and APAC.
  2. Give it a go
    “Move fast and break things” is a famous Facebook mantra. Most businesses will not be keen on the latter part but in essence, it means that the best way to see if an idea has legs is to give it a go. When we incubate Xcellerate ideas our goal is to build an MVP (minimum viable product) of the solution envisioned. There is no better business case than showing a fleshed-out idea to your clients to see if they would be willing to run a test with you.
  3. You must make time for it
    Google’s policy allows employees to dedicate a percentage of their time to the pursuit of a project outside their role. Similarly, I have seen the benefits of allowing people to own and push their idea. They develop additional skills, and bond with people they would not have otherwise met – which is also how you build culture.

Pushing innovation can be challenging at times, especially within large businesses. Years ago, a mentor shared this piece of mortifying wisdom about the group we were both working for at the time: “Whatever project you’re starting here, someone somewhere is probably doing the exact same thing and you will never know”. Competitions like Xcellerate are a great way to tackle that pitfall, to take the pulse of your company and see what local markets are up to. The more structure you can create around innovation, the more you can decentralize it and infuse the culture of your organization.