OPINION: Innovation is not a big idea

OPINION: Innovation is not a big idea
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Innovation is not a big idea; it’s a different way of working. Understanding what’s going on and putting it in a PowerPoint is not the hard part. Changing work habits is, especially if your habits have built a sparkling career.

In 1993 the greatest basketball player to grace the NBA decided to walk away from the game he dominated and try his hand at baseball. It was a dismal failure. Two years ago in Australia, an extravagantly talented Rugby League player called Israel Folau made the switch to Aussie Rules with a similar result.

In the first case, Michael Jordan probably couldn’t imagine not succeeding. He was accustom to dominating his rivals and probably thought, once he got his eye in, he would do the same on the baseball diamond. To an objective observer basketball and baseball are very different games, and even if Michael was handy with a bat in his youth, he hadn’t spent the same thousands of hours he had sweating and scowling his way to basketball greatness.

In the second case, however, an objective observer may have seen what the AFL saw; an athlete who was very good at kicking and catching an egg-shaped ball.  It wasn’t hard to imagine him getting the hang of the sleeveless game from the south.

Creatives are a lot like athletes. The better they get at something, the more trophies and money they get, the more confident they are about being great at other creative codes. Creativity is creativity, they’ll claim. If they can come up with a great TV idea, why shouldn’t they be able to come up with an app? Or a movie? Or a line of groovy surf wear?

But like athletes, they got good at something by doing it over and over again, not because they have a magic universal creative gene.

When we talk about the transition the advertising industry is making, we’re actually talking about thousands of individuals learning something new. Madison Avenue is learning how to be more like Silicon Valley. Marketers are learning that media is not just for telling stories – it’s for people to use, manipulate, create, and play with. Put simply, it’s software.

The difference between basketball and baseball is nothing compared to the difference between making software and telling stories. What’s more, if agencies care about their clients, they need to be good at both.

As my colleagues in the corner offices at the traditional end of the business tell me – that may be so, but it’s still all about the big idea. There are so many problems with this fatuous claim that I don’t know where to start dismembering it. So I’ll start by tearing the head off.

In Madison Avenue you sell ideas, but in Silicon Valley you sell the idea executed.

For 50 years, advertisers have made templated media (30 seconds of film, a printed page, a piece of mail). When clients buy a TV idea, they know that a mature production industry is standing by, full of directors, photographers and editors. They are confident that, if they paid for the right level of craft, they can go and enjoy craft services. In Silicon Valley ideas are like arseholes – everyone has one. The same PowerPoint that would seduce Madison Avenue is pointless in Silicon Valley. The clients of this world are venture capitalists, and they don’t buy ideas, they buy working software. Also, they want to meet the engineer, not a guy in a suit in front of a projector.

It’s not surprising that the first generation of marketers to try and make software is now gun shy. Their agencies sold them software ideas thinking it was just like selling a TV spot. The idea is always the hard part, right? For the making bit there must be an obedient digital production community waiting to execute.

But in the world of software the journey from idea to execution is messy. Good software is iterative; the result of lots of smart decisions, not one big clever idea. You also can’t force anyone to use software, so unlike a crappy TV spot that can buy an audience, software earns its users one feature at a time. What seems like a small tactical decision can have profound strategic impact.

For example, a few months after the launch of Nike Fuelband, we added a feature to the mobile app that showed your fuel points compared with your Facebook friends. This simple leaderboard had people interacting with their Fuelband far more because it recognised a very particular media behaviour (the obsessive checking of feeds), and a very particular human behaviour (the fun of competing against friends).

So what was the big idea for the Fuelband? Just as there were other MP3 players before the iPod, there were other all-day-activity trackers before the Fuelband. The success of Nike’s version was its flawless execution. It wasn’t a big idea so much as lots of little smart decisions that, added together, created an inspired experience.

And that is innovation.

Nick Law is global chief creative officer at R/GA.

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