As our first leader to have an understanding of the impact of digital technology, Malcolm Turnbull’s succession to the prime ministerial throne seems to have reignited the public’s interest in the so-called “innovation economy“. Clearly, Australia needs to do more than simply dig up our natural resources and send them overseas.
The media have continued to fuel this excitement, publishing countless interviews with start-up success stories like Atlassian, and with the up-and-coming occupants at incubation spaces like Fishburners. To be honest, it’s hard not to get excited; however, appreciating the distinction between innovation and invention is important.
Let’s be clear: Uber didn’t invent taxis. And they didn’t invent geo-location, e-commerce or customer reviews. What they did was identify pain points in the process of getting from A to B, and then offered a better way of getting there. Real innovation is about understanding where customers are having poor experiences and creating better ones in their place.
The bulk of the innovative work in digital happens in small increments, and I think we should be shedding some light on that too. For example, by listening to their users and analysing the aggregate data, Atlassian are able to constantly improve products like Confluence and Jira. On a smaller scale, boutique design agencies like Melbourne-based Bravo are able to revolutionise the property settlement process for PEXA, just by understanding that the old-world paper process was frustratingly opaque for both buyers and sellers.
As a digital design veteran, I’ve always been sceptical of our industry’s fixation on how start-ups like Uber, AirBnB and even Amazon innovated to create massive disruption. In my opinion, there are four key reasons why these references are largely irrelevant in the marketing world:
- Clients mostly brief for campaigns, not innovation. They generally don’t have the budget, timeframe, or risk appetite to really do anything new. Let’s not forget that Uber’s seed and angel investments totalled $1.5 million, and have since raised $8.2 billion in venture capital!
- Even when clients do brief in search of innovation, they often struggle at getting the ideas to market. Many of the clients I’ve worked with have backlogs of innovative ideas, but are paralysed to implement them due to internal conflicts, constant reprioritisation, and an inability to quantify metrics for success.
- Agencies trying to push an innovation agenda mostly just want to noodle around with “cool tech” or make “field of dreams” apps as award entries, rather than for actual consumers to download and use.
- Brands often act superficially, aiming only for PR to promote themselves as being innovative.
Innovating on the job
The modernisation challenges that the advertising industry faces are well documented. There are already a plethora of articles complaining about the state of the industry, how formulaic and slow it is, and why innovation is important for brands. It’s really easy to focus on how broken things often seem. Unfortunately, few people seem to publically explore ways we can improve. So I wanted to share some practical advice — something government could heed when it attempts to create innovation culture of its own.
The following steps outline the process we use at The White Agency to help our clients uncover and bridge gaps in user experience, with the ultimate goal of innovating:
- Spend time understanding our client’s business, their specific goals, and the challenges they face;
- Examine human psychology and explore behavioural economic concepts as they relate to the category our clients occupy;
- Research people in the context of their interactions with the brand and dive into the wealth of quantitative data that’s typically available about our audience;
- Synthesise our customer knowledge into personas that bring the audience to life, going way beyond simple demographic clichés;
- Translate our insights into hypotheses in the form of design challenges that frame the problems;
- Craft interactive experiences in the form of stories that demonstrate how the problems might be solved;
- Execute experiments with the goal of gathering feedback; and
- Validate with real customers to ensure we’ve solved the problems we set out to, without creating any new ones.
Driving the innovation evolution
Obviously we can’t continue to rely on the wealth of our country’s mineral resources. Conversely, we shouldn’t expect Australia to magically become the next Silicon Valley. And even if we were that naïve, there are a thousand start-up failures for every disruptive success story.
As a nation, Australians are too focused on holding down a job and buying property. However, like start-ups, established brands need government-backed incentives to take measured risks. Brands can act like investors by demonstrating the commercial viability of their ideas as well as their ability, drive and commitment to achieving success.
Australia has progressively developed a culture of safety, where failure is intolerable. Thankfully, the political will is now there to drive the country’s innovation culture. I just hope that this enthusiasm extends to the sort of incremental innovation that agencies are already helping clients with today.