“When Worlds Collide: Technology and Creativity” – An Interview with Nicole Yershon
Until very recently, Nicole Yershon was director of innovative solutions at Ogilvy Labs at Ogilvy Group UK. Beginning 23 years ago, Nicole’s career in advertising took her to two of London’s most renowned and creative agencies; Simons Palmer and GGT. In 2000, with a brief from the chairman to “bring the agency into the 21st century”, Nicole joined Ogilvy London where she worked as the director of innovative solutions. Her first four years with Ogilvy saw her overhaul the agency’s broadcast and video-editing capabilities; taking them from analog to digital, with the creation of RedWorks Broadcast. In 2005, Nicole’s drive for innovation grew to encompass the agency’s new media projects and campaigns; encouraging Adventure Ecology to flood Second Life to raise awareness of global warming, Fanta to develop a mosquito-sound mobile application for kids and IBM to be one of the first to advertise on digital escalator panels. Consolidated in 2007 into the Ogilvy Digital Innovation Lab (part of a worldwide network), the agency’s innovation activities have seen Nicole build partnerships between industries and across media channels to fuel unprecedented creative campaigns, and educate, both within the agency and beyond, speaking at global conferences and building clients Labs of their own. We caught up with Nicole to ask her a thing or two about technology, advertising, creativity and the future.
What are the biggest challenges you face in the ad industry today? What are the biggest challenges your customers face? What gives?
Looking around at the advertising industry, I’d say the biggest challenge is trying to be innovative and instigate new ways of working and new business models – while still catering to the existing models. Balancing both is proving difficult for most industries and sectors. Every large agency should ask itself: Are we agile? Do we understand the ever-changing landscape of technology? And are we brave enough to try things people don’t dare do? The best companies thrive on what people fear most: change.
For customers, the biggest challenge they face is keeping brands relevant. There is an enormous pressure on big brands across the world, both in emerging markets, and at home. There’s a recent article in the Economist that highlights the problem of smaller rivals assaulting the world’s biggest brands. How do we keep our brand useful and speak to our customers in all areas of their lives, across all platforms and all marketing disciplines?
But we shouldn’t beat ourselves up, too much. The ad industry has changed considerably in the last 10 years – we don’t have to cope with just doing TV or the press, posters, radio. Now we’re in a time of rapid, continuous disruption – from mobile web to augmented reality, virtual reality, gesture recognition, streaming, AI, the Internet of Things, and so many other technological changes. We will continue to test and learn – as traditional methods of communicating slow down and evolve into alternative formats that hit all touch points of people’s lives.
Ask yourself – Is my business committed to experimentation, collaboration, small teams? The challenges aren’t going away. How do we, as an industry, as individuals, keeping on moving forward and not looking back?
You’ve famously said “we don’t know what we don’t know” – what do you do to find out what you don’t know?
I go to places where I know no one and nothing – always out of my comfort zone. And this is something we help our clients with. You can’t hang around in the advertising industry and learn what’s new. You have to take yourself to new places to be open to learning. How does a company open itself to alternative ways of thinking?
Most importantly – I try to continuously build new relationships and partnerships. I try to understand my strengths and weaknesses – the strength is understanding in a short space of time enough to be dangerous to take back that information. If anyone needs to know more, then at least now I have the contacts that know way more than me! Hence the black book – everyone should have a black book for ideas and their sources. It’s been 16 years of amazing people met along this journey.
To what extent are decisions made on data and analytics? Is there still room for creativity?
Start by asking “what if?”
There is always room for creativity. Surround yourself with curious people – put yourself in an environment that stimulates conversation. Start at the bar. Where do people gather to discuss ideas? Where are the watering holes for innovation? Go there with no agenda and no fear.
The word is serendipity. When you hang out with people who know more than you, you’ll be inspired. Anything, quite literally, can happen. Big or small data, creativity is more important than ever.
How do you balance the story of your brand with the realities of today’s hypercompetitive markets? How does a short-term, quarterly focus hurt advertising?
A quarterly focus always hurts innovation. Because innovation is usually viewed as an R&D function, as a cost center, its not viewed as critical. It doesn’t by itself bringing money in.
So the innovator must also become an intrapreneur. There are always senior leaders out there that get it and understand the value and function of innovation. And there are others whose only concern is the line item on a spread sheet for that month. This sort of myopia exists across all businesses – there’s no point fighting it. So the intrapreneur has to find alternative ways around this type of short-term thinking. How do we take this innovation and apply it to our customers’ problems? How can we change the conversation? How do we create new value that did not exist before?
How do you work on customer trust? Who is responsible for creating and shaping the customer experience in the company? How should they approach their work?
It’s everyone’s responsibility across all disciplines and touch points to see themselves as the customer. We are all people, no different from the customer.
Always put yourself in that head space of “why should I care or why should I buy this?”
David Ogilvy used to famously say: “The customer is not a moron – she is your wife.”
We all know what we should do. And sometimes it takes a bit of courage to stand up for the customer. If you look at the most successful companies, they are customer-obsessed.
What are some ways you use to motivate your team and ensure they are focused and engaged?
There are always other ways to inspire and motivate your team that go beyond monetary rewards. Perhaps they only want to work a 3 day week and do something different on the other 2 days, perhaps a job swop. In the lab we used to run emotional intelligence testing – to find out what motivated everyone and we all had different strengths that supported each other. We knew we were not perfect individuals. It was a fearless, non-hierarchical structure that allowed us all to roll our sleeves up and get stuck in and show our vulnerability if things were difficult.
You’ve discovered 6 R’s for Innovation – can you share these with our readers?
We measure our work by what we call the six Rs of innovation success: revenue; reputation; recruitment; retention; relationships; and responsibility. I’ll cover each one briefly.
A lot of the work we do as innovators are very difficult to measure in numerical terms. Revenue is quite an easy one to measure, if it is direct, but because most of what we do generates indirect revenue, it is not so straightforward. That’s why we call ourselves “intrapreneurs” and act like entrepreneurs inside a big organization. Innovators, by default, are connectors, extending the capabilities of their companies. An innovator will find new clients, who can then be handed over to a different team within the business.
How does innovation build your business reputation? Innovators spend a lot of time in other industries trying to raise the profile of what the business does, both to get new clients, and to learn new stuff from them. We do workshops, talks, gather contacts and increase our visibility and earn a reputation way outside the advertising sphere. For example, I am on the digital advisory board for Greenwich council, and the chair of BBC’s future tech advisory board that meets quarterly. I’m on the NESTA advisory committee, and a mentor for a space-focused start-up. We pursue really random stuff that we just find interesting to make sure that we’re really plugged into other areas. But this pays off in terms of building a reputation for innovation.
We had an initiative called Rough Diamond, a collaboration between disrupters and innovators in educational learning who we partner with to identify, develop and nurture new creative talent. The whole point of it is to try and diversify our recruiting department and our business as a whole. Innovation doesn’t just happen, it has to recruited and nurtured. Millennials want to work for companies that give them a sense of purpose, and demonstrate innovative ways to make things happen.
Retention is all about creating a place within the company that allows people to do different things, so if you’re getting a bit bored of your day job or you want something to add on you can probably do something different, through the labs. If staff are feeling a bit disillusioned by the job – as everyone does, from time to time – it gives them that extra thing to do.
Relationships matter because you need to recognise that you and your business cannot know everything. Knowing and understanding other innovators will help you build a better business. At Ogilvy Labs we had two big official relationships: Knowledge Transfer Network, which is part of the government’s Innovate UK network; and Collider, our accelerator dedicated to marketing and advertising start-ups, which helps brands and agencies identify, understand, engage with and sell to their consumers. We invest capital in these start-ups, we coach them through a highly structured programme and we connect them to potential corporate customers and investors. It’s so important that businesses build an awareness of start-ups. We work with a lot already, and we make sure we’re finding the new ones out there.
All businesses have a corporate social responsibility. How do we give something back in the community – such as mentoring at schools. Because I work as a technologist, I am always looking to inspire people through technology, and I’ve recently been running classes to get girls into coding and HTML. There is also a lot of pro bono work we do, with charities – helping them fundraise by looking at technology.
How will this change going forward? I believe innovation is going to become even more critical as the landscape becomes more fragmented. Every day we find new companies coming into the world with new ideas and new capabilities. And the rate of disruption is increasing. So my message is still the same: ask – “what if?”
Thank you for your time, and good luck.
INTERVIEW by Christian Sarkar