ellipsis flag icon-blogicon-check icon-comments icon-email icon-error icon-facebook icon-follow-comment icon-googleicon-hamburger icon-imedia-blog icon-imediaicon-instagramicon-left-arrow icon-linked-in icon-linked icon-linkedin icon-multi-page-view icon-person icon-print icon-right-arrow icon-save icon-searchicon-share-arrow icon-single-page-view icon-tag icon-twitter icon-unfollow icon-upload icon-valid icon-video-play icon-views icon-website icon-youtubelogo-imedia-white logo-imedia logo-mediaWhite review-star thumbs_down thumbs_up

Top marketing innovation killers

Sean X Cummings
Top marketing innovation killers Sean X Cummings

Our jobs shouldn't be that hard, should they? This is not rocket science or brain surgery. This is advertising and marketing. But alas, in truth, much more is known about both rocket science and brain surgery than about marketing. Why? We, as people and consumers, are a completely unpredictable system of chaos. If we understood people to the depth we did rocket science, there would be little need for the entire profession of psychology.

Most of the brash arrogance that agencies spout at clients during the course of their ego-laden "I'm smarter than you" rants is based on opinion, gut instinct, historical reflection, and an over-reliance on metrics. In the end, we do not know what the consumer will do -- we're guessing. Hopefully it's an educated guess. But even when we layer on reasoning after reasoning as to why someone did something, apply the greatest possible metrics to consumer behavior, and create quantum predictability models, in the end we are still blind. All of our advanced systems do little more than increase our ability to measure the effect of marketing, not determine what people are thinking and why they think it.

What makes one brand or campaign succeed while others fail? What makes one agency a success while others implode? Once again, it's the people -- the people behind the campaigns who have the creative insight to assemble their thoughts into a "multicultural critical theory interpreter." Success relies on the ability of marketers to peer into the souls of the populace en masse and viscerally understand what will work. It is more art than science, and unfortunately that art has been nearly obliterated by the past two decades of M.B.A.-driven measurement and analysis.

What follows are four of the reasons why marketing innovation gets destroyed, as well as solutions for overcoming these innovation blockers.

This first innovation blocker is easy to spot: An agency walks into a client's office and pitches an "innovative" program. It requires unproven technologies and an unproven strategy, but it is so "innovative" that the client gets excited and signs off on it. It is the ego of the client -- not the needs of the business that the client works for -- that often results in such a project being approved. The client wants to bask in the glory of its brilliance for recognizing opportunity; unfortunately, what the client is usually basking in is the glow from a blazing inferno of crap.

The problem is that the program, campaign, or product is often surrounded by massive delays and difficult implementations. By the time it launches, the final product is a pale reflection of the original idea. Inevitably the campaign launches with a fizzle, complete with angry consumers, frustrated clients, and ignorant agencies.

These types of failed campaigns are almost always the fault of a specific team within an agency. Often, the people involved in the ideation and pitching phases do not have the technical understanding of what is possible within a given platform, but their egos get the best of them. But knowledge and competency levels vary greatly among teams within a given agency, and too often clients hire based on the reputation of the agency as a whole -- not the abilities of the team that it will be handling its campaigns. 

Unfortunately, if our industry is to move forward and innovate, a version of this death cycle is necessary. Our industry is too new. Only through failure do we learn what doesn't work. However, failure is not necessarily the problem. It's how we fail. When we experiment recklessly and subsequently fail, we wind up with clients that are so burned by the experience that they will never approve another "innovative" program again.

The solution
It is no longer about one big program -- so stop brainstorming them, pitching them, and creating them. All you do is suck money out of the client, launch mediocre campaigns that you represented as brilliance, and ensure that digital marketing is viewed on the client side as a crapshoot for effectively reaching the consumer.

Rather, create a framework. Design smaller ideas that launch off the same basic platform so that initiatives are more nimble and adjustable. Be efficient with the client's money. Act like it's your own personal money. Build failure into the system. Expect that only a couple of ideas will gain traction and that 80 percent of them will fail. When ideas do gain traction, use the learnings to feed the flames and expand the success.

Each client is unique. And although you can apply lessons from one client's programs to another's, you can rarely duplicate success. Unfortunately, marketers attempt to wholly replicate successful programs all too often. Instead, they should be taking what they learned and adapting it for their new clients.

When an agency pitches, it demonstrates how a given strategy or tactic worked for another client. The new potential client gets excited because it likes the look of the program and would love those kind of results. The problem is this: The results and goals that the agency presents to its new client, based on a past program success, are not the results and goals that the program was originally created to achieve. In other words, only with 20/20 hindsight was the agency able to surmise why the original campaign was surprisingly successful. Its original client did not set out with lofty expectations.

In short, don't set the client up for expectations you can't meet. Be honest.

The solution
As I explained to one agency I was working with, "I want to be the best follower in the world, but I want to follow ideas that are adapted -- not replicated -- for me." In other words, I do not want to have an agency use my company's money to learn big things; I want to learn and adapt small things. Revolution is a painful process, but innovation builds on what has worked before.

Break down what has worked in the past and plug it into a toolbox of options. But always start by asking the question, "What does success look like?" Seek to answer that question. Look outward first in terms of what will help achieve success, and then look inward and dig into your toolbox to see what you already have.

Too often, agencies turn first to their toolboxes to see what has already been done. It makes sense. It's easier. But as a result, marketers often tack irrelevant elements onto online projects -- they fall back on the "send to a friend" link instead of looking into something innovative like Tynt.com.

When you see a great campaign and are jealous that you didn't come up with the idea first, don't be amazed by it -- be amazed that some client approved it. There is a substantial knowledge gap on the client end in terms of what constitutes innovative marketing. It is an offshoot of the first-mover disadvantage. A client, due to its lack of knowledge regarding available technologies, might be amazed and approve something. Or, more likely, the client will force you to jump through so many hoops that the proposed program is no longer cost effective. Immediacy is the problem -- the need to have results now! But in many cases, corporate structures have grown into massively risk-averse entities. The client does not get a raise or promotion for doing something great -- rewards are only doled out for not doing anything bad.

This has resulted in a cult of client-side mediocrity.

The solution
Once again, stop going after the big idea. Educate the client on what's possible. Make your client a subject matter expert. Your client contacts know their business way better than any agency ever will -- they just don't know what media will most effectively reach their consumers. Set up education seminars at your agency on at least a monthly basis. Bring in vendors, technologists, and visionaries, and share information with the client. If you create an internal advocate, it's much more likely that your riskier ideas will get approved as they move up the food chain.

Start small. Build on small successes, and you will create a relationship where innovation is possible.

Also, request that your client create the same type of opportunities for you to learn its business. Trust me, the scope of what you do not know about your client's business and how it operates would stun a herd of buffalo.

"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." -- George Orwell, "Animal Farm"

A truer statement could not have been written when it comes to innovation as a result of "ideation by committee." During the last two decades of political correctness, we have reduced corporate culture to one in which everyone has a voice in the decision-making process.

Unfortunately, some people are smarter, some are stronger, and some are infinitely more creative and innovative than others. However, companies across the country pile people into rooms and say, "We're going to come up with a great idea." Seldom have these sessions done anything more than create a feeling of inclusion -- a sense that everyone's voice is being heard.

Some people have the natural ability -- or have been taught -- to think differently. Unfortunately, we are suffering the effects of two decades of M.B.A. programs that didn't teach people how to think. But luckily, that trend is shifting. According to a great article in The New York Times, we're seeing a move toward multicultural critical theory.

The current system of communal happiness works against innovation. Change is a violent and disturbing act, and you need people who think that way. What we have now is the system that, through focus groups, ended up with the Ford Edsel. The client, the vendor, and everyone else, down to the receptionist, gets involved in coming up with the next innovative idea. But you see, when everyone's voice is heard -- even the banal ones who don't understand the nuances of need-states of consumers, media distribution and formats, and word-of-mouth transference -- you end up with mediocrity.

The solution
If you want to innovate in advertising, take the smartest people you know (yes, even the ones that piss you off) and send them off in pairs, much like Noah's ark. Create a competition for the best idea, campaign, or product. And then designate a "change agent" -- a person who has the ability to pick ideas that really work. That's the person who selects the best idea to present to the client.

Oh no, wait -- that's how traditional advertising worked for years. And it did work. But somewhere in the new age of the internet, that culture was lost -- and internet advertising has suffered as a result. Not everything in traditional advertising can be applied to digital, but this system did work and still does.

I could go on to list additional marketing innovation blockers. I could rail against focus groups and group think, which result in ads that offend no one. (And if your ad does not offend anyone, guess what? It impacts no one.) Rather, we wind up with watered down versions of brilliance that crash and disappear without even a whimper.

But regardless, in the end, overcoming all of these innovation blockers requires a focus on mitigated risk. Not no risk. The key to innovation is setting up a system in your company that encourages small teams to go off and ideate by themselves -- without layers upon layers of corporate mediocrity screaming, "We can't do that!"

Over the past decade, we have witnessed a fundamental shift in which agencies have started to be run by CFOs and account teams. If we want to start innovating in this industry again, we have to restore the creatives as the heads of agencies. Sure, many more agencies' financial structures will become completely screwed up -- they will not be as profitable, and in fact, many will fail as a result. But we will innovate.

Seriously, if I have to see another droll banner ad, click-here piece of creative crap, or homepage takeover that has no relevance to the product it's advertising, I'm going back to traditional.

Sean X Cummings runs his own marketing consultancy, sxc marketing.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


to leave comments.

Commenter: Lana Ng

2010, February 03

This is an excellent article. Marketers today need to learn and understand clients' businesses and how to bring solid value. I have worked at numerous ad agencies in the past and have met only very few leaders who understand - very unfortunate.

Commenter: Cliff Medney

2010, February 01

Very insightful-especially your comment on-and i paraphrase- "ask not how great a campaign concept it is, but how did they sell it to the client". Or, even more to your point (i believe) elevate the hell out of the creative product so clients are compelled and enthusiastic players in the "scary great" creative product and maybe even the insightful "how we got there" process. Thanks for sharing!!!

Commenter: dave deger

2010, February 01

Well said and couldn't agree more. From a former client perspective I would also add that it is readily evident when a room is packed with note takers, there for billing purposes only.

Bring only your strategy team, not your lackeys and maybe future budget discussions might go a bit easier