So, you want to work in innovation?

Richard Wallace

This week Fearlessly Frank co-founder Ben Little talks pitching madcap ideas to Royal Mail and why he had to leave ad-land for good…

In a recent interview with one bright and optimistic potential candidate, the conversation of career change came up and I was asked two questions; the first was, “what is innovation?” (good question) and the second was, “how does someone cross the bridge from doing marketing and communication services to doing innovation?”

Here’s how the conversation went…

When you think of ‘innovation’, what do you think of? The word sparks a lot of debate, especially these days, as the industry of innovation consultancies and agencies moves from a gaseous state to a solid state. A space now occupied by everyone and everything from ad agencies to management consultancies, a lot of people are making their claim, and more people than ever are banging on our door saying, ‘I want to work in Innovation’.

An easy place to start, is at home. Fearlessly Frank is an innovation consultancy. We are not a marketing and communications company, nor a PR agency, nor are we a management consultancy. When we talk about innovation, we talk about the creation of future earnings-enhancing revenue through propositions and methods not currently used. Simply put, we help companies make more money — not incrementally, but fundamentally. We answer far-reaching questions such as “what will you be selling in ten years’ time, to who, and how?” And we’re measured against it. We bring the entrepreneurial gene and the conditions to think in new ways into organisations that have become overly occupied by ‘business as usual’.

So how about that bridge?

My career began in a global American advertising agency, making tea and binding pitch documents, and I loved it; being on the frontline meant I was always working with the best people and I was always learning. With each pitch came an opportunity to play a role, and before long I was ‘allowed’ to speak up and add a point-of-view.

The first pitch I presented in was to Royal Mail. At the end of a two-hour presentation with enough polyboard to build a house, I was given a three-minute slot to contribute ‘something a little different’.

I had this crazy idea that if Royal Mail wrote to every house in the country and gave them a Royal Mail email address, they could compete with Hotmail in market-share within months: your house name or street name with number@royalmail.co.uk.

I was 19 and very proud, and then one of the clients spoke up: ‘Email is the enemy’. Swiftly brushed under the carpet, I witnessed a series of nostalgic scripts re-presented, designed to show the audience the emotional depth of a Clintons birthday card, and everyone was happy.

The truth was, my idea was only ever going to be a bit of theatre; even the biggest agency on the planet (at the time) couldn’t deliver an idea that different. Nor did they need to. They never thought in creative ideas that solve business problems; they thought in billings and awards. I loved working there and I never gave up on pushing my ‘crazy ideas’, but in my heart I knew I was always going to have to leave — not just the agency but ad land all together.

Two agencies and eight years later, I did just that and founded Fearlessly Frank with my partner Wayne Guthrie. No more IPA, no more Cannes, no more Campaign. We were alone. It was scary, but it was great.

My bridge into innovation was a journey of blind optimism, supported by fantastic mentors, all great thinkers and entrepreneurs, daring clients, supporting us, believing in us and our way of thinking. It was unstructured, uncharted and experimental.

Today, things feel a little more consistent. We have a fine-tuned a process, a methodology, tools, systems and great people who do fantastic work. Every month brings new challenges, and often new team members. In the early days, finding people that could do what we do was hard. But today, in an agile world occupied by more entrepreneurial thinking than the industrial revolution, it’s getting easier.

Today, we look for patterns of behaviour. In my mind, the people capable of crossing the bridge come in a few forms:

The advertising industry has always attracted bright opportunists. I worked with some of the best; so bright they could have done anything. But they chose advertising, the noble profession that allowed freedom of thought; a profession that held top table C-suite relationships. But in the World we live in today, advertising is a commodity and creativity is undervalued. Formally commercial creativity under-utilised many exceptional people who thought beyond advertising, I’d argue these people might have more luck, more fun and find greater opportunity working in innovation.

The daring and the different are the people who think like entrepreneurs, who spot things others don’t, and are often mad enough to start something, build something, change something. Our clients value people who have done stuff, built things, and have the scars to prove it.

Finally, the deep and observant. We innovate not from the point of technological capability but from the point of consumer pain-points and demand. If you can understand people, you can innovate. The people who take the time to pause and look around, challenge what’s happening now and think about what might be, are invaluable to our clients.

Regardless of who you are, the skills you bring, or your desire to work in innovation, there is something I learnt and truly believe, and that’s that you can’t do it from within another industry such as marketing and communication services (especially advertising).

I’m a big subscriber to Govindaraja’s three box solution and, in truth, it’s as applicable to the aspiring innovator as it is to the companies we help innovate: in order to transform you, have first have to manage the core. Then, you have to abandon the past. Only then, can you invent the future.

So, you want to work in innovation?

Ben Little is co-founder of innovation consultancy Fearlessly Frank.