The quest for performance shouldn’t come at the price of an innovative culture, says Nadim Samara
Back in 2008, the foundations of most economies were shaken by the deep uncertainty of what the future would hold. Confidence in both the global and regional financial systems and their long-term stability rapidly fell and with it the ambitions of many a brand. Future plans were put on hold, savings were being asked of most departments and the quest for effectiveness began. What we didn’t see at the time is that the impact would go even deeper. Something else got broken as result of the financial meltdown.
Before 2008, particularly in our region, economic optimism was tainted with euphoria and a dose of infallibility. Good simply wasn’t good enough but when the tables turned, quality was no longer described in quite the same terms.
Then began the rapid shift to maximum effectiveness and efficiencies with many brands focusing their investments on a narrow set of media, selected on an ever more stringent set of criteria. This also marked the digital pivot for the many brands that had sat on the fence until then, coinciding with consumers’ mass adoption of smartphones – among other digital technologies.
As time went by we developed more and more technologies to plan, buy and report media investments more effectively, empowered by increasing streams of data. In came programmatic buying, real-time bidding, data management platforms, tag management solutions, even the dynamic creation of content. Indeed, all the most recent media developments and innovations are largely driven by the quest for effectiveness and efficiencies. Today, it would seem brands only want lean muscle mass.
As the adage goes, we must know where we’ve been to know where we’re going and the problem is that we could have gone from euphoria to myopia in a few short years. While there is no question that a performance-driven approach is the most sustainable way forward for brands, adding a small dose of curiosity, exploration and invention in the mix is the key to finding the next big thing. We need to solve the now while setting up the next.
Technology is forever evolving and standing still in this context is as good as falling behind. Many of the media that we value today weren’t here a decade ago, at least commercially. They wouldn’t have made it if brands hadn’t explored what role these new platforms could play in their marketing.
Today, we’re introducing innovations such as virtual reality, real-time content optimisation or predictive marketing into clients’ activities. But with artificial intelligence around the corner, some question whether advertising will continue to exist in the way we know it today. None of this will be any good or happen if we myopically focus on the now.
If we didn’t have our culture of innovation, our innate curiosity and desire to aim higher, none of today’s ground-breaking developments would exist. Innovation is a key weapon in the fight against the commoditisation of products and services. For brands, media owners and agencies innovation is a key differentiation factor.
Innovating isn’t easy. If it were, everybody would give it a go. A company’s culture is at the heart of its approach to innovation. Some prefer to institutionalise it, instilling and supporting a vision with processes in order to empower their teams to take calculated risks. New ideas are encouraged and everyone in the company is empowered to come up with them. When they do appear, the company ‘incubates’ them so that they blossom. The alternative to this approach is to emulate the leadership’s entrepreneurial spirit, being ready to take risks that other companies would consider unthinkable, using the power of emerging and disruptive technologies to reinvent the way products and services are used. In other words, ‘go big or go home’.
Here in the region, while we love the ‘new’, we seem more ready to embrace developments from abroad than stimulate homegrown innovations. This is partly explained by a prevalent fear of failure, throughout the chain linking the idea with its execution. Innovation comes from trial and error. ‘Iterative learning processes’ some call it but also from an environment that stimulates critical inquiry, critical debate and accepts failures as a part of the process. Most innovations will have experienced failures on their journey to success.
Few companies here are ready to accept failure and therefore limit their own growth potential. To innovate, we must replace the fear of failure with the acceptance of experimental learning. Obviously, any risk we take needs to be calculated and commensurate to the benefits it would bring. What’s more, the benefits of innovation are greater for first-movers than for followers.
We are fortunate to work with brands and partners who accept the risks of innovation as much as we do but many more take a more cautious approach. Limited resources, time or even talent are stumbling blocks along the way. Lifting all these barriers is possible. If an entrepreneurial culture depends heavily on the top management, institutionalising innovation is a more achievable way as long as it is resourced. Allocating a small percentage of marketing or media budgets to research and development, be it to explore technologies, test communication channels and build new concepts or models will raise the bar and stimulate the growth of our industry.
“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere,” Albert Einstein once said. It is with unbridled thinking like his that humanity will keep on progressing.
(Nadim Samara is the managing director of OMD UAE & Lower Gulf)