Whether it's an established marketing director considering the next big launch or a new girl wanting to demonstrate why she has been hired, a client is usually under pressure to show its organisation a confident view of what's next. Or else, the question might turn into who's next?


The new/old marketing director, then, turns up in reception with a marketing plan that includes the word "innovation" and threatens to bin all the work previously agreed.

Whereupon once-loyal defenders of that work throw it to the wind and celebrate, because there is no-one – and especially not a strategist or a creative – who really loves to do the same thing twice. "You’re quite right, it’s time for a change!" they cry. "Let’s have a workshop!"

So, outside of those categories that are being either fuelled or disrupted by technology (retail, photography, media), where are all the new ideas? When there’s no urgent reason to change the way you do things, why do so few of our beloved brands manage to innovate?

The industry itself is to blame for some of our clients’ nervousness in communications and service design. We have made the whole idea of innovation seem mysterious and terrifying. We have given it a capital "I". We make it seem difficult, rather than achievable. We tell clients that the proposition that took them 50 years to establish is now defunct. We speak of disruption, rather than improvement. (My limited experience tells me that disruption is about as popular at board meetings as it is on rail journeys.)

We dismiss perfectly good commercial ideas with a sniff as "business as usual" – as though building business, however usual, isn’t a good thing for most of our clients to aspire to. And, perhaps most frustratingly, we use Nike+ FuelBand as inspiration for a brand new way of doing things, forgetting that the genius of the FuelBand is that it delivers a simple and brilliant brand promise forged in 1988 that has been communicated, with dogged consistency, for 25 years.

Innovative ideas thrive on a touchstone. We should focus all those workshops and discussions instead on what provides our clients’ companies with their individual touchstone and how digital channels could help them to extend its value or relevance to people today.

Then, crucially, we should offer our clients solid commercial proposals for magical ways of bringing that idea to life, including test programmes and opportunities to de-risk the exercise.

But, most of all, we should be prepared to roll up our sleeves and get involved in the culture we want to "disrupt", including all that boring stuff agency people are allergic to, such as sales targets, employee communications, governance and systems integration. There is nothing so irritating as the teenaged idea that we can implore our clients to change. The most successful innovators – including my own colleague, the great Lorenzo Wood (global innovation guru and tech superbrain) – spend the majority of their time considering how to help clients convince their organisations to invest in an idea rather than just having it. 

Because when agencies bemoan the braveness or foolhardiness of the marketing directors who emerge from the revolving doors of their businesses, it is a category error. The clients are neither responsible for the braveness of the advice taken, nor are they the promoters of newness. It’s the revolving door that’s in charge.

Given that most businesses are putting their senior staff under increasing pressure to deliver sales in tightening economic circumstances, it’s no wonder that many marketing professionals still seek out quick wins (by binning slow burners) or sure-fire returns (by pursuing proven tactics).

So the only way to make people braver is to make them money. To figure out what sells things, or reduces costs, and do more of it.

Boring, isn’t it?

Fern Miller, chief strategy officer, international, DigitasLBi

For more insights, see our other Applied Thinkers.

Applied Thinking 2013