Innovation is the new black


  • Business
  • Saturday, 28 Aug 2010

IT’S the word du jour, it’s a fashion statement, it’s a mantra: “innovation, innovation, innovation”. One might be forgiven for imagining that by saying it often enough, heaps of lovely, creative ideas would gush unstoppably forth. Ah, but this is not the case, is it?

You see, while many important people talk about innovation and just how vitally important it is, they haven’t told us how to do it. Very frustrating. So perhaps, here and now, we should take a helpful stab.

Let’s start with “bucking the trend”. For example, Ad Age reports that Nick Brien, CEO of McCann Worldgroup, has launched “UM Inside,” with the innovative aim of trying to bring media strategy closer together with creative execution for clients. One can hear the slapping of the ad industry’s collective forehead as they ask, “Why heck didn’t I think of that?”

But isn’t Nick merely talking about rebundling the now disparate bits of what once used to be the classic advertising agency – placing media, creative, planning and even strategy consultation under the same roof?

But hold on; once upon a time, some bright spark felt dissolution of the agency bits was an innovative and totally groovy idea. Are we (and Nick) now saying that was a load of old tosh and that undoing the ruinous mistake of those wild “unbundlers” is the smart move? Or will Nick’s retro innovation turn out to be a repeat foul-up? Bit of a puzzler that.

Perhaps innovation should shock a bit. In the UK’s Independent newspaper, its choice of “the 10 ads that shocked the world” possesses a kind of single-minded approach to what might shock. Surprise, surprise, it’s sex! All but two of the ads fall within this category.

Now innovation could be down to a name. How about a prommercial? I knew you’d like it! Campaign magazine trumpets this as a genuine ad innovation. It’s actually a name given to an MTV promo with a product more or less featured all the way through. In this particular case, it’s Faithless’ new single Feelin’ Good with a Fiat Punto Evo driving aimlessly around.

It’s being blasted out as the future of the music industry. Words like revolutionary are being dangled. An entire three-minute advertising break will be given over to the video, all paid for by the Italian car giant.

Call me crazy but I would rather have a whole pineapple shoved in my ear than to have three minutes of electro-club blast interrupt my televisual leisure time. If this is the way TV advertising is heading, then I can’t wait to see some genuinely innovative combos of music and brands that might turn up: The White Stripes and Kit-Kat, Justin Timberland and Timberland boots (pretty obvious one that), Katy Perry and LipBalm (think about it), Cliff Richard and Durex (don’t think about it).

But then (talking of bottoms) didn’t Kylie Minogue do a thing with Agent Provocateur lingerie, and Madonna with Pepsi? So silly. If only they had called them prommercials!

Inherent in the definition of innovation is the need to take risks. But this does present problems.

Again from The Independent newspaper, there’s a long list of strikingly bold UK ads which have all been banned for their troubles. Burger King for showing very fat burgers in an ad for what is really a very skinny burger. Asda supermarkets for promising to take back stuff people didn’t like (something shoppers are entitled to do under law anyway). Ryanair (the UK’s AirAsia) for blatantly rubbishing their competition. A betting shop for showing a footballer kicking a cat over a football field.

And my absolute favourite, a recruitment agency ad seeking sex workers – lap dancers, prostitutes, etc. Can’t imagine what the problem might be there. But with the need to innovate does come the risk of rejection so being slapped down shouldn’t come as a surprise.

In the same vein and on a genuinely serious note, courage and conviction are the bedrock of innovation. And in the UK, there is a new campaign that to me is innovative, inspired and extremely brave. It’s a campaign aimed at combating negative perceptions of Muslims because, as a new poll showed, a majority of people in the UK continue to wrongly and foolishly associate Islam with terrorism.

The campaign, prepared by the Exploring Islam Foundation, runs under the theme Inspired By Muhammad. It features pictures of Muslim professionals with wonderful quotes from the Prophet’s teachings on the importance of the environment, gender equality and social justice. It’s quite excellent.

Newsweek ran a whole article on innovation and its importance, saying that while intelligence is growing, the power to innovate is declining. Reasons given were young people’s fascination with non-creative pursuits like video games and TV (and three-minute prommercials, one imagines). And the solution, like the solution to so many problems, is education; creative problem solving methods, promoting the asking of questions and, believe it or not, research and fact finding.

Strangely, most of this stuff can be found in a brilliant little book about advertising by a venerated and long-gone JWT creative guy called James Webb Young. The book’s called A Technique for Producing Ideas. It’s small, simple and a work of genius.

I can’t describe the whole thing but in a few pages it takes you through the stages of fact finding, digesting, incubating, inspiring and refining. Basically, all the things needed to innovate. Read it and you would believe you could do it. Nice to know it grew out of advertising.

So there you have it, innovation, not just faffed on about like a new trend but properly explained. But I leave you with a dark cloud on the horizon. An unnamed executive allied with our friend Nick Brien had this to say, “Advertising is trying to find its way. It’s a relatively healthy business but it has long-term structural issues and is trying to figure it all out.”

If anyone needs to work out how to innovate, he does.

P.S. Mantra: noun /mوn.tr/. A word or sound which is believed to have a special spiritual power, like prommercial.

·Paul Loosley is an English person who has been in Asia 32 years, 12 as a creative director, 20 making TV commercials. And, as he still can’t shut up about advertising, he tends to write every month. Any feedback; mail p.loosley@gmail.com. (please enclose a whole pineapple)

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