Innovation at the speed of thought

The world has gone digital, but agencies and brands can successfully navigate their way through the pace of change by sticking to seven simple rules, Ajaz Ahmed argues in his new book Velocity.

Velocity by Ajaz Ahmed and Stefan Olander
Velocity by Ajaz Ahmed and Stefan Olander

When your day job moves at the speed of Twitter, writing a book can seem like a bizarre thing to be doing with the remainder of your time. Not least, because it takes up so much of it. Velocity, the book that Stefan Olander, the vice-president of digital sport at Nike, and I have just completed took a year of involved discussion, and just as long to write and edit. Then we had to wait another couple of months until we could finally hold the finished thing in our hands. Given that the book is all about the pace of change in a "world gone digital", we had to embrace the irony eventually.

You can imagine a few of the questions that sometimes gnawed at us along the way. Will this cutting-edge example feel prehistoric by the time the book is out? Will this red-hot start-up have floated or flunked out before we even get to the printers? Will they even be printing books in 2012?

Thankfully, those sorts of worries never really got to us enough to threaten the project. First, because we are both inherently optimistic. And second, because neither of us has ever been very good at angst (or admitting defeat).

Most importantly, though, we both share an absolute conviction about this "world gone digital" that, to use a favourite phrase of Stefan's: "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

That, in a nutshell, is why we wrote Velocity, and why we think it has something to say. We believe that, however fast the changes in life, branding and business happen today, sticking by seven simple ideas will see you through a landscape that is being transformed with tremendous speed. Read in the right spirit and applied with enough rigour, these seven laws should not only enable you to master any fears about the emerging always-on world, they should also equip you to flourish in it.

1. A Smith & Wesson beats four aces

We borrowed the first law of Velocity from "Canada Bill" Jones, who said it in the 1880s. His point - that there is no such thing as a totally safe bet - was true in his day, and every day. But today, it's a more important thing to bear in mind than ever before. Never in the history of human commerce has thinking you know it all been a more dangerous thing to do.

Our sincere belief is that Velocity - the acceleration in the pace of social, cultural and commercial change brought about by digital technology - has made companies more vulnerable than ever before. And that it has never been easier for a brand to go from hero to zero, from cock-of-the-walk to sitting duck.

Companies who have a vested interest in the status quo have historically had a fatal habit of acknowledging change only when it has already made them redundant. Ignoring a new set of rules is understandable - until change derails your gravy train altogether, it's a natural human impulse to cling to it for dear life. But it's one we all need to fight, and we go on to develop our strategies for doing that throughout Velocity.

2. It's easier done than said

Today, the best way to see if something has legs is not to discuss it to death or throw it at the wall and see if it sticks, but to put it out there, and see what the public thinks.

Digital has laid waste to so many of the old distribution networks that forced us to put products and campaigns out there on others' terms and timetables. It allows us to go from concept to execution, from design to distribution, from internal R&D to external feedback in a few seconds or clicks.

At the same time as digital has opened up new ways to reach the public, it has complicated the old ways of keeping things from them. The bigger your project and the longer you work on it in secrecy, the greater the chance that snippets will leak out, and your big bang will be sabotaged by spoilers leaking out along the way.

All of which stacks up in favour of getting your good work out there today and getting it perfect tomorrow. It's better to invite your audience in to see what you're trying to do, rather than exclude them so they are forced to spy and sneer from the sidelines. In a connected world, customers who care enough to download your beta offering and tell you how to make it better beat any old-time market research method.

3. The best advertising isn't advertising

"Stout is good for you."

"Cigarettes make you and your breath sexy and sophisticated."

In case you hadn't noticed, a lot of the approaches that helped to create the industry of advertising in the 20th century don't really work so much in 2012. Once, in a world of interchangeable products and uninformed customers, ad agencies used to be required to dazzle and distract the customer away from the boring content in the pretty packaging. Their job was to show off and sweet-talk the customer into a one-night stand.

Now, digital provides companies that were once just about a transaction into a meaningful connection for a mutually respectful relationship. Telling stories through software doesn't mean dressing up your brand identity in a cybersuit. It means taking the best tools from today to connect your audience to your core ideas in innovative and intimate new ways.

4. Convenient is the enemy of right

For every award we have won at AKQA, there's a grumpy bloke in a bar somewhere who will tell you point blank he wouldn't want to work for us. He has heard that we work silly hours, that we want blood, sweat and tears, not just competence and punctuality.

In a way, that bloke is right. AKQA has never been a place for a clocking-on kind of mindset. We didn't set up the business because we wanted a place to be comfortable and coast through our lives. We want to do things people have not seen before. We want to take the brands we love to new places.

We understand that this is more often a knackering marathon than a walk in the park, and we embrace it, because we want to create a working environment that challenges us, stretches us and amazes us, day in, day out.

As far as I'm concerned, you can't do interesting things in digital unless you embrace the idea of constantly testing your limits. In Velocity, we look at how athletes give their aspirations vivid descriptions. But we also salute the example of great product designers who - from Charles and Ray Eames to Sir James Dyson to Sir Jonathan Ive - stubbornly, sensibly stuck to their values even when the accounts department said they should compromise. Because they did just that, their intent reached their public undiluted, and the rewards their creations reaped more than made up for the extra investment.

5. Respect human nature

Like everybody else in business right now, we talk a lot about data in Velocity, and about the radical effect its proper use can have on a business model or a brand's relationship with its customers.

Accordingly, this chapter argues that if you're not doing that, you're missing out on the early signals and important indicators about how well you are serving people and what you could be doing better.

But the flip side of that is that often the best way to find out about a person is to treat them like a person. If you habitually reduce everybody who interacts with your brand to a demographic or a data set or a set of predestined behaviours and allegiances, you're in perpetual danger of missing an even bigger picture.

Respecting the human also means respecting the eternal human desires for "authenticity" and "compelling stories". Those terms are easy to use, as we know from the frequency with which we hear them these days, but harder to do justice to.

Our job is to use software and new technology to explore new frontiers in ways that have emotional resonance.

6. No good joke survives a committee of six

Oversight routines, finance departments, corporate counsels and your company's best-practice policies all exist to stop your company being sabotaged by somebody into doing something crazy and bringing the whole organisation down.

The funny thing about that is, sometimes, not going crazy can be just as dangerous. We liken a great idea to a great joke because, as with any audacious and memorable idea, it will probably have the potential to make somebody, somewhere in your organisation nervous or, even, offended. But the flattening effect of groupthink should make you, as a leader, nervous.

A too-smooth approach can leave you anonymous and unmentioned, and that can be fatal. A Velocity-fuelled business environment obliges us to develop new ways to foster and protect bold ideas and stop them getting minced by the corporate machine.

We believe good leadership means building teams that encourage ideas from all quarters and acting on them at speed, without ever losing track of the ultimate goal of a closer customer connection.

This doesn't mean a managerial free-for-all: more than ever, it means someone has got to take the wheel, make the changes, embrace the difficulties, take responsibility for the gags and grapple with the kind of problems that won't go away at the touch of a button.

7. Have a purpose larger than yourself

The accelerated pace of cultural and commercial change that we document in Velocity can seem incredibly destabilising, dangerous and difficult to get a grip on. But we wrote the book because we firmly believe that if you breathe in, look around and refuse to let panic cloud your judgment, you will see that there are opportunities everywhere.

In some sense, nobody is an "expert" on advertising - or on anything - any more. You, me, our clients, their customers: today, we are all, to some extent, on a level playing field, with smartphones in our pockets and the potential to rethink the way we do things. That means that there is almost nothing not up for grabs, no areas that are off limits to the kind of people whom, in the days of fenced-off elites and monopolistic distribution systems, might have been called "outsiders".

Velocity is not a get-rich-quick book or a join-the-dots how-to guide. When James Hilton and I set up AKQA in our early twenties, we aspired to create a workplace that would keep challenging us and our team, project after project, day after day, year after year.

Equally, Stefan and I didn't want to tell you how to do what we did - what use would that be, when we've already done it? We just hoped to collect insights, experiences and observations to help unlock a future that makes the most of who you are. In Velocity, we argue that great athletes - thinking big for their goals, then driving on with relentless practical application to reach them - can teach us all something about going from dreaming of something to actually doing it.

In a time when the future comes at us faster than ever, Velocity makes turning those impossible dreams into digital realities easier and speedier than ever before. Why wait for someone else to get there first, when you can start making them happen now?

Velocity - The Seven New Laws For A World Gone Digital by AKQA's Ajaz Ahmed and Nike's Stefan Olander was published this month.