Ten Things I’ve Found To Be True about ‘Chief Innovation Officers’ In Agencies

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Well, it seems that the discussion around whether there is value in elevating someone within a creative agency to the role of Chief Innovation Officer is actually more of a heated debate than I thought. I posted a short piece on Friday of last week – ‘Do We Really Need ‘Chief Innovation Officers’ in Ad Agencies? Four of them tell us what they do‘ – which comprised (literally) four tweets from four of the most respected and prominent CIO-types of the moment: Mullen’s Edward Boches, VivaKi’s Rishad Tobbacowala, MDC’s Faris Yakob and Saneel Radia from BBH. The post was inspired by news that another member of the digerati, David Armano, has just been promoted to a new role at Edelman, as EVP, Global Innovation & Integration (details here).

As Edward Boches (so generously) pointed out, the response to the post was of infinitely higher quality than the post itself (always the intention: unless you’re Seth Godin, use blogging to learn, not lecture). To date, twenty-nine super smart people have responded with views and counter-views, and the post has been RT-ed over 100 times.

I thought it might be worth me diving into the comments and opinions and attempting to distil some clarity, all focused through my own relatively well-formed and hyper-biased opinions (which I deliberately kept out of the initial post). So, writing as possibly one of the first ex-CIOs in our industry (another post, another day), here are Ten Things I’ve Found To Be True about ‘Chief Innovation Officers’.

(Note: I use ‘CIO’ throughout to refer to ‘Chief Innovation Officer'; yes, I know it also means ‘Chief Information Officer’, but hopefully if you’ve got this far you know this post isn’t about the latter. If you’re looking for the latter, click here and you’ll be on your way shortly. I also use the term CIO to describe similar roles such as Head of Innovation, Executive Director of Innovation, EVP of Innovation, Most Innovative Person In the Agency, and so on).

1. Only The Innovative Survive: To survive, let alone thrive, agencies must effectively become innovation companies, moving at least as fast as culture (to steal something from Gareth Kay‘s response). If you think your agency is doing that, you’re very lucky. If you don’t, what’s your plan? Making a CIO responsible for driving the agency there is one plan. There are others. One thing that’s clear is that fortune favors the fast. To quote Jobs, ‘innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower’.

2. Forget the Title, Focus on the Remit: Not every agency needs a CIO, but every agency needs what a CIO does to be done. Yes, done by everyone if possible; failing that, to at least be led by someone who can bulldoze aside barriers and make shit happen fast. The CIO’s role is to instil a culture of innovation within the agency; as Steve Wax says, to draw attention to the essentials of truly innovative work and then create programs and initiatives that get the agency producing that kind of work as quickly as possible. At the Creative Lab we are guided by a simple mantra: ‘Know the User, Know the Magic, Connect the Two’ (coined by Andy Berndt, who founded the CL). Simply put, this could well be the remit of the CIO: to be responsible for understanding how people are behaving with technology, media and communications, to be at the forefront of understanding how current and emerging technology can deliver magic for users, and to connect the two (all, of course, through the lens of that agency’s current or desired client base).

3. If Everyone’s Responsible, No One is Responsible: Yes, in a perfect world everyone in an agency would be responsible for both constant internal change and fighting for breakthrough work. In practice, everyone can’t be. So someone probably needs to be, even if they are merely the lightning conductor of action for a far wider group (if everyone in your company is, congratulations, you can stop reading now).

4. Innovation Does NOT Equal ‘Digital’: While much of a CIO’s role inside an agency will be focused on removing outdated machinery, people and processes and installing the necessary talent, mind-set and systems from which digital ideas can grow, it’s wrong to see the role as *only* about that. It’s as much about integration as interactive, as much about people as product, as much about the basics as the experimental. Right resources, right processes, right values, right culture, right partners, right clients – all of these (the ‘operating system of the business’) are, at least partly, the responsibility of the CIO to get right.

5. Hold Both Maps AND Bayonets: It’s impossible to be an effective CIO if you’re simply directing others in their work. Strong CIOs will be deeply involved in projects that are pioneering new platforms or processes, or working with new partners. Ideally they will be co-leading them, getting their hands dirty with real, grubby, work. It is impossible to learn and iterate quickly enough to be useful unless you are on the front line. If your CIO is not on the front line, they may well be a fraud. If their currency is PowerPoint, they’re definitely a fraud. Remember, ‘Making, Not Models’.

6. Be A Revenue Center, Not a Cost Center: It might be unrealistic to expect a newly-minted CIO to be delivering bags of gold to the CEO on Day One. But it is not unfair to expect revenues to flow – directly – from CIO-inspired projects and pitches. If a CIO tries to tell you their role is ‘external profile-building’, ‘speaking at conferences’ or ‘building the network’ then you should be suspicious. It *might* include these, but they are the easy bit, trust me. People in CIO-type roles should be bringing in new business, new talent and new partners to the agency, and directly touching and influencing the best work the agency’s doing.

7. CIOs Are Not the Same As CEOs: I fully agree with the point made by Mel Exon (of BBH Labs). Of course, we discussed this many times when we persuaded BBH to allow us to set up BBH Labs in 2008 (our first post, fittingly on April 1st 2009, is here: no tweets, no likes, one comment). Most people would agree that final responsibility for the financial performance of a business rests with the CEO, yet most businesses have a CFO (or similar). If the CEO can drive his or her supertanker of a business as fast as a speedboat then that’s awesome work; if they can’t then it’s super useful to have one (or more) speedboats out in front of the supertanker scouting into the future.

8. Not All CIOs are Created Equal: Just like CEOs or CCOs, not all CIOs will be successful, will know what they’re doing, or even should be in the role. Don’t be put off by people you may have come across who execute this type of role in the guise of buzzword-wielding buffoons or charlatans, or who attempt to reduce it to a focus on social media or digital. There are so few people to learn from (the five people I mentioned in my original post are a good start, plus Mel Exon), it’s better just to focus on what you think is right in your situation, for your business. Ignore anyone who says they’re an expert.

9. A CIOs job is Never Done: Unless you think the pace of change is going to settle down any time soon (are you planning a trip to Albania?), it’s inconceivable that the role of better equipping agencies to thrive around emerging platforms, processes and partners will ever come to an end. Yes, if successful, others in the agency (including the CEO, CFO and CCO) will become partners-in-crime. But there is always room for the new; indeed, that is at least part of our currency in creative businesses. I disagree with those who suggest the role of the CIO becomes redundant if successful; I believe the opposite to be true.

10. Everything Changes, So Just Start: Don’t spend too long plotting out a masterplan for how a CIO (or whatever title or anti-title you deem appropriate) might work in your agency. Because while you’re busy PowerPointing together an awesome thesis on why the role matters and what it might look like if and when you navigate the 37 layers of approval to get buy-in, you’re simply a gigantic cost. If you’re not putting someone’s nose out of joint by getting going early, you’re probably doing something wrong. If people inside your agency wriggle uncomfortably when you describe what you’re planning, you’re almost certainly on the right track.

Being ‘the pirate within’ is by no means always comfortable. The road won’t be smooth. Many will want you to fail. It can be lonely. Speedboats can easily become swamped by supertankers. As Machiavelli once noted, there is ‘nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things’. Despite all this, I believe it’s the best job you can have in an agency; it’s certainly one of the most important.

As ever, comments, disagreements, builds, questions are all more than welcome.

Grateful thanks to the following for their responses to this post, and general inspiration around this area: Mel Exon, Saneel Radia, Faris Yakob, David Armano, Rishad Tobbacowala, Tej Desai, Justin Whitaker, Dave Allen, Tim Brunelle, Gareth Kay, Kunal Muzumdar, Robert Mooney, Brad M, Edward Boches, Keith Ford, Andrew Allsop, Undershirt Guy, Larry Corwin, Melia Widjaja, Pedro Sorrentino, Rick Liebling, Francoise Fassin, Mark Shillum, Steve Wax, Dan Weingrod, Rich Nadworny, Atom McCree, Tom Le Bree, Ty Montague, Michael Lebowitz, John Winsor, Richard Schatzberger, Maria Popova, Simon Mainwaring, Pats McDonald, Adam Glickman, Gwyn Jones, Nigel Bogle, Greg Andersen, Emma Cookson, Tim Malbon.

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30 thoughts on “Ten Things I’ve Found To Be True about ‘Chief Innovation Officers’ In Agencies

  1. Ben, as always your insight and questions bring out the best of people. You began with Gareth’s response "To survive, let alone thrive, agencies must effectively become innovation companies." This to me is the key for the remaining 9 points. If the culture doesn’t adapt or allow for this person to lead this area, then everything else will ultimately fail. I’m also not convinced that the CIO role or model can be retrofitted into a culture. I believe that peoples reluctance to accept or embrace change is incredibly difficult, especially within agencies. All of those mentioned and contributed to this debate are leaders or advocates within environments that promotes and thrive on innovation. For me personally, this reinforces how we all need to think and act as each of us now have the responsibility to become our own "CIO".Cheers Ben, and as always thanks again for the added perspective.

  2. > As Machiavelli once noted, there is ‘nothing more difficult > to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain> in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of > a new order of things’."Truer words have never been spoken.> Despite all this, I believe it’s the best job you can have in > an agency; it’s certainly one of the most important.This too.

  3. Great recap Ben – I’m glad the community is discussing this topic in such and open and honest way. The key to a CIO, or anyone within the organization looking to push the limits, is investment from the top. The CIO needs the power to make change, and be insulated from the negativity you correctly speak to. The role needs to be much more than the title; my concern now is companies installing "experts" more for show vs. action. I fully agree with it being a hands-on role; part of the CIO’s task is to spread passion for innovation, and that’s tough if you’re not down in the trenches. This makes me a bit wary of those who are in conferences half the time and not involved at a deep level in what’s going on around them. I really hope the CIO role is scrutinized more than any other role so some of the frauds can be weeded out. That will help larger acceptance and help elevate those doing all these tasks to a rightful place in their organizations.

  4. great post ben. curious about how this is playing out on the client side? do you see similar roles emerging at clients?also, assuming you are a successful cio, my sense is you will be bringing in new capabilities in the form of partner organizations – should CIOs be taking on the role of making these partnerships work, too? once outside organizations are involved, this feels like a new biz dev role, so does this make biz dev natural allies for cios?

  5. Also would love to see this as more of a series – since the CIO role tends to be wrought with difficulties, perhaps the initial group can speak on how they overcame internal obstacles and sold their leadership on the value of their roles?

  6. Great post Ben, this and the previous one. It’s been interesting reading.As a question, do agencies therefore now have a distinctive ‘Chief Innovation Officer’ and a ‘Chief Strategy Officer’?Some very interesting stuff, I’d just add that we should remember that all actions and acts of creation, whether by deeper design or dumb luck, are prescriptive to people and to the broader culture, and are continuously building an informal ‘map’ of what the brand is.So it should be the role of the CIO and the CSO to innovate ahead of the curve — to partner clients in developing platforms or solutions that ‘prescribe’ an approach to their brand, not merely ‘react’ to need-gap analyses and the like. (I really liked the bit about ‘know the user, know the magic’) — I also agreed with Mel’s comment on the earlier post — needing the agency as a whole to buy in to the process.As a relatively younger strategist, there’s nothing more frustrating than to see "creators" and their partners reacting to need-gaps and the buzz (i.e. the present), rather than designing the future.Also Ted Levitt’s paper on Marketing Myopia from a long time ago, and a galaxy far far away. Just because technology can take us places, doesn’t mean we have to go to all of them. How can people use it to enrich their lives, what does it do for society, for the environment (at a higher level, not immediate/temporary impact) are the questions we constantly need to answer.

  7. Excellent post and I very much like the Machiavelli quote, there is ‘nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things’.Those of us with these roles within agencies will find so much to grab onto in your words – I fear sometimes that our biggest challenge is getting everyone else to understand – education and communication remains at the heart of what we do.

  8. What a great, pleasantly opinioned moderator you are Ben! I say the most important point above is #5: "It’s impossible to be an effective CIO if you’re simply directing others in their work. Strong CIOs will be deeply involved in projects that are pioneering new platforms or processes, or working with new partners."And I believe the effectiveness of a CIO is inversely proportional to the number of their conference appearances. Unfortunately most conferences are not about case studies & learning from new work, but instead about hustling new business.

  9. Really valuable, excellent stuff here, thanks Ben.As a CIO, all of the good and the bad about it rings true from experience. I needn’t really add much more, save that Aditya’s mention of Levitt’s Marketing Myopia is a reminder that everyone should read said paper, if they haven’t already (it’s a short HBR piece from 1975):http://www.casadogalo.com/marketingmyopia.pdfMy favourite excerpt from it is one of the frames of reference I use for the CIO role in a media agency:"To survive, they themselves will have to plot the obsolescence of what now produces their livelihood"

  10. Really guys?Let’s lift our collective heads out of the bubble for a few minutes here and take a look at how the rest of the world views the CIO position."Oh look, Agency X hired well-known Social Media Guru Y and didn’t know what to do with him, so they invented the title "Chief Innovation Officer" so they can trot him out in front of clients to show how innovative they are and when he speaks at conferences he can pimp for their new business team."Or did you all forget about this: http://vimeo.com/16400941 ?(Not sure if Posterous takes embed code, but if it does, the video should show up below, otherwise you’ll see a few lines of code- apologies if that’s the case)

    <p><a href="http://vimeo.com/16400941">digital ninja</a> from <a href="http://vimeo.com/user5113302">moon stuff</a> on <a href="http://vimeo.com">Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>Now granted some people with the title may actually work on real projects and help with introduce new ideas into the agencies culture. But the perception is that it’s a show title, a way for the agency to grab onto the coattails of someone with digital fame and not the other way around. Sort of like when a TV show brings in a guest star to boost ratings.And that’s not a bad thing: having someone in the role does make an agency, particularly a traditional agency, seem somewhat "hipper" than its peers and there actually is a lot of business to be gleaned from those conferences.But back to reality: if the CIOs role is to <i>encourage</i> innovation, what does that make the other people at the agency? Innovation suppressors?I knew I liked Mike Lebowitz from Big Spaceship the first he told me that he never referred to any of his people as "creatives" or a "creative department" because that implied that no one else at the agency was creative.Or innovative, as the case may be.

  11. Alan, harsh but fair. The role title itself implies that others in the Agency lack the ability to innovate and thus need a ‘Guru’ to lead their feeble minds, and totally agree same with ‘Creative’. At one of my previous agencies the Creative Department genuinely believed thos without the title could not possibly think creative. I do know some excellent CIOs (No Names) however it does imply that ‘innovation’ comes only from one corner of the office, and as a role benefits the ‘traditional’ agencies rather than the newer boutique (dare I say digital) agencies…

  12. This is an excellent discussion, and credit to Ben for starting it. I’m excited by this new development, but I’d like to add a few questions that came up as I was following the conversation:•
    "To survive, let alone thrive, agencies must effectively become innovation companies"–This is true for every company, from banks to bookstores. "Innovate or die" is the mantra of every successful organization, not just communications. And it’s true for art, too. The books, music and films that get buzz and get bought (whether the artist cares about sales or not) are the ones that innovate. So it begs the question–isn’t ‘innovation’ just glorified R&D for non-scientists? Or, in Ben’s words: “it’s super useful to have one (or more) speedboats out in front of the supertanker scouting into the future.” Sounds like R&D to me. Plodding behemoths like P&G have had product innovation in their DNA for decades, but “creative” communication shops don’t? Either we in the business are somehow very ahead of the times or very, very behind. What is it about our structure, or our culture, or our people that we need an Innovation Officer to innovate?
    That said, I find it interesting that advertising has elevated innovation to such a lofty position. In many ways it seems reminiscent of the age-old silo problem with traditional agencies: Creatives are the only ones allowed/expected to be “creative,” Planners are the only ones who can think strategically, etc. The industry has spent years trying to get over this hurdle, and now we’re making one person in charge of innovation? I hope this doesn’t come back to haunt us, but that precedent is there. And we all know how hard it is to overcome a precedent once it’s been institutionalized.•
    Ben’s most important point is #2: “Not every agency needs a CIO, but every agency needs what a CIO does to be done.” Show me (or the client, or the consumer) something you’ve made that’s innovative, and we’ll get it. We don’t care what titles or departments you had to create to get it done. If you need a lab or a chief behind the scenes, that’s fine. If you hired fearless, collaborative, innovative thinkers from the start, that’s probably even better.
    However, I have an issue with the last bit, which explains the duty of the CIO: “to be responsible for understanding how people are behaving with technology, media and communications, to be at the forefront of understanding how current and emerging technology can deliver magic for users, and to connect the two (all, of course, through the lens of that agency’s current or desired client base).” I’m a planner, and this is my job description. Am I doing someone else’s work?
    If we aren’t very careful, we could turn this whole “innovation” movement into a self-indulgent hiring spree. It’s impossible to believe the CIO will “make” all the innovation himself, and he’s also not going to spend all day walking around to existing departments, poking people with a stick and asking, ‘Are you innovating today?’ The most likely way this will pan out is that a new innovation department/team/farm will be created. So I could see this leading to the CIO hiring a lot of new “innovators” to do what planners thought they were doing all along. Searching for quality talent is a full-time job, and the last thing you want to do is turn your CIO into a specialized HR rep. •
    The bottom line: innovation is essential, and we need more of it. But let’s make sure we structure it right so we aren’t running in circles. We’ve seen plenty of cautionary tales of what can happen with new titles. Sometimes they lead to better work, sometimes not.
    Brand planners—comms planners—connection planners—digital planners—propagation planners . . . innovation planners? Look familiar?
    Anyway, I’m off to innovate. Who’s with me?

  13. Hey Alan Wolk "Trotting out" the chief innovation officer "like a trick pony" is what many shops are doing today. I liken the use of this new title to use of the acronym ROI. Those who talk about ROI all the time aren’t getting it.

  14. Hey Alan Wolk "Trotting out" the chief innovation officer "like a trick pony" is what many shops are doing today. I liken the use of this new title to use of the acronym ROI. Those who talk about ROI all the time aren’t getting it.

  15. <html><body bgcolor="#FFFFFF"><div><span class="Apple-style-span" style="font-family: normal, ‘Helvetica Neue’, Helvetica, sans-serif; -webkit-tap-highlight-color: rgba(26, 26, 26, 0.296875); -webkit-composition-fill-color: rgba(175, 192, 227, 0.230469); -webkit-composition-frame-color: rgba(77, 128, 180, 0.230469); font-size: 16px; "><span class="Apple-style-span" style="font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 18px; line-height: 24px; ">"Oh look, Agency X hired well-known Social Media Guru Y and didn’t know what to do with him, so they invented the title "Chief Innovation Officer" so they can trot him out in front of clients to show how innovative they are"</span></span></div><div><span class="Apple-style-span" style="font-family: normal, ‘Helvetica Neue’, Helvetica, sans-serif; -webkit-tap-highlight-color: rgba(26, 26, 26, 0.296875); -webkit-composition-fill-color: rgba(175, 192, 227, 0.230469); -webkit-composition-frame-color: rgba(77, 128, 180, 0.230469); font-size: 16px; "><br></span></div><div><span class="Apple-style-span" style="font-family: normal, ‘Helvetica Neue’, Helvetica, sans-serif; -webkit-tap-highlight-color: rgba(26, 26, 26, 0.296875); -webkit-composition-fill-color: rgba(175, 192, 227, 0.230469); -webkit-composition-frame-color: rgba(77, 128, 180, 0.230469); font-size: 16px; ">One might suggest that as you’re&nbsp;</span><span class="Apple-style-span" style="-webkit-tap-highlight-color: rgba(26, 26, 26, 0.292969); -webkit-composition-fill-color: rgba(175, 192, 227, 0.230469); -webkit-composition-frame-color: rgba(77, 128, 180, 0.230469); font-size: 16px; font-family: normal, ‘Helvetica Neue’, Helvetica, sans-serif; ">"Managing Director, Social Media Strategy", it’s the only logical next career move, Alan… :)</span></div><div><span class="Apple-style-span" style="-webkit-tap-highlight-color: rgba(26, 26, 26, 0.292969); -webkit-composition-fill-color: rgba(175, 192, 227, 0.230469); -webkit-composition-frame-color: rgba(77, 128, 180, 0.230469); font-size: 16px; font-family: normal, ‘Helvetica Neue’, Helvetica, sans-serif; "><br></span></div><div><span class="Apple-style-span" style="-webkit-tap-highlight-color: rgba(26, 26, 26, 0.292969); -webkit-composition-fill-color: rgba(175, 192, 227, 0.230469); -webkit-composition-frame-color: rgba(77, 128, 180, 0.230469); font-size: 16px; font-family: normal, ‘Helvetica Neue’, Helvetica, sans-serif; ">Seriously though, I agree with you in spirit. &nbsp;For better or worse, "innovation" is agency title du jour. &nbsp;And it’s so broad, you’ve a lot of generalists from different spheres gravitating towards it… Some are drafted in as you describe, some develop the role from within.</span></div><div><span class="Apple-style-span" style="-webkit-tap-highlight-color: rgba(26, 26, 26, 0.292969); -webkit-composition-fill-color: rgba(175, 192, 227, 0.230469); -webkit-composition-frame-color: rgba(77, 128, 180, 0.230469); font-size: 16px; font-family: normal, ‘Helvetica Neue’, Helvetica, sans-serif; "><br></span></div><div><span class="Apple-style-span" style="-webkit-tap-highlight-color: rgba(26, 26, 26, 0.292969); -webkit-composition-fill-color: rgba(175, 192, 227, 0.230469); -webkit-composition-frame-color: rgba(77, 128, 180, 0.230469); font-size: 16px; font-family: normal, ‘Helvetica Neue’, Helvetica, sans-serif; ">What’s clear from my perspective is that traditional agencies need it not because everyone else is an "innovation blocker", but because the industry is in a difficult place; sustain an easy legacy business that’s on its way out but which still makes money, with some harder-to-implement, untried experimental work which is much harder to sell in to clients, implement, and measure effectiveness of.</span></div><div><span class="Apple-style-span" style="-webkit-tap-highlight-color: rgba(26, 26, 26, 0.292969); -webkit-composition-fill-color: rgba(175, 192, 227, 0.230469); -webkit-composition-frame-color: rgba(77, 128, 180, 0.230469); font-size: 16px; font-family: normal, ‘Helvetica Neue’, Helvetica, sans-serif; "><br></span></div><div><span class="Apple-style-span" style="-webkit-tap-highlight-color: rgba(26, 26, 26, 0.292969); -webkit-composition-fill-color: rgba(175, 192, 227, 0.230469); -webkit-composition-frame-color: rgba(77, 128, 180, 0.230469); font-size: 16px; font-family: normal, ‘Helvetica Neue’, Helvetica, sans-serif; ">But ultimately, it’s the stuff I believe will be more valuable for clients in the long term, because innovation should look at every step of the business, the people, the products, the services, and design ways to deliver more value through everything the company and its community does, which can be turned into better, more relevant stories to tell through marketing &amp; advertising.</span></div><div><span class="Apple-style-span" style="-webkit-tap-highlight-color: rgba(26, 26, 26, 0.292969); -webkit-composition-fill-color: rgba(175, 192, 227, 0.230469); -webkit-composition-frame-color: rgba(77, 128, 180, 0.230469); font-size: 16px; font-family: normal, ‘Helvetica Neue’, Helvetica, sans-serif; "><br></span></div><div><span class="Apple-style-span" style="-webkit-tap-highlight-color: rgba(26, 26, 26, 0.292969); -webkit-composition-fill-color: rgba(175, 192, 227, 0.230469); -webkit-composition-frame-color: rgba(77, 128, 180, 0.230469); font-size: 16px; font-family: normal, ‘Helvetica Neue’, Helvetica, sans-serif; ">To state that innovation is only about social media is like suggesting marketing is only about television ads.</span></div><div><span class="Apple-style-span" style="-webkit-tap-highlight-color: rgba(26, 26, 26, 0.292969); -webkit-composition-fill-color: rgba(175, 192, 227, 0.230469); -webkit-composition-frame-color: rgba(77, 128, 180, 0.230469); font-size: 16px; font-family: normal, ‘Helvetica Neue’, Helvetica, sans-serif; "><br></span></div><div><span class="Apple-style-span" style="-webkit-tap-highlight-color: rgba(26, 26, 26, 0.292969); -webkit-composition-fill-color: rgba(175, 192, 227, 0.230469); -webkit-composition-frame-color: rgba(77, 128, 180, 0.230469); font-size: 16px; 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  16. I agree with Alan Wolk that from the client’s POV that a Chief Innovation Officer will be seen by smart clients as a bolted-on chrome bumper. Here’s a heretical idea: that’s exactly what they should be.Idealistically, all clients should be doing bleeding-edge, holy-crap-where-did-that-come-from work every day. And idealistically, every person in the agency should be innovating all the time.But In reality, that ain’t how the client/agency world works.Very few clients can — or should — be out there on the bleeding-edge. Clients need stuff that is proven and works well. I drove to my client-side job today. The basics of my car’s engine go back to an innovation by Al-Jazari of Mesopotamia in 1206. Old-school? Yes. But it gets me where I’m going.Also, in reality, the whole agency simply CAN’T be innovative. The agency business is about billable hours. As many people as possible must be working on projects that generate billings right NOW.A good CIO is a signal to a prospective client that someone at the agency is scouting the path ahead looking for threats and opportunities. That’s something most clients can’t do on their own, so it adds value.A good CIO is also an internal spur to keep the agency from relying entirely on what pays the bills today. Innovation is a process and not an event, so having somebody in charge of constantly stoking that fire is a good thing.The real challenge for a CIO is to be more than a curator and promoter of newfangled oddities. He or she must find practical innovations that (like Al-Jazari’s piston pump) become quotidian ways that business works.Easier said than done.

  17. Ben – Really provocative topic. Thanks for taking the time to define it and guide the conversation. We’re fortunate to work with a wide array of agencies, both large and small. We’ve seen agencies without CIO’s be extraordinarily innovative, and those with CIO’s remain stuck in the status quo.There are, I believe three reference points that determine the need for and probable impact of a CIO at an agency.1. The organization’s structure. Companies built to collaborate almost always innovate organically. This is much easier for a horizontal organization than the traditional vertical agency model. If the agency is still built vertically (physical delineation between departments is one sure sign) they will need a CIO to lead the initiative. And the CIO will struggle to create sustainable change until the have addressed the structural issues.2. The organization’s Change philosophy. There’s a lot of conversation about the willingness to fail. I think this is an impossible criteria to instill in today’s business environment, particularly in publicly traded companies. The key, instead, is to develop a willingness to try. Companies that have successfully done so are typically managed by executives who support multiple simultaneous initiatives. Some of them hire a CIO to manage the day to day aspects and encourage more exploration – but not always. In those cases, a good CIO will usually accelerate and deepen the level of change, and a weak CIO will not be tolerated by the CEO.3. The organization’s recognition that any kind of new thinking only endures when it is supported at three levels: the individual; the group and the organization. Without the authority to guide and influence all three, even the best CIO’s will fail to make a notable and long-lasting difference.

  18. Fantastic debate. I think there’s a general theme here about specialisms in agencies. Or rather, the provision of diversified services above and beyond why many of our clients use us. Agencies should always be more progressive, more advanced than their clients. Crudely speaking, that’s our job. Whether that’s in terms of the latest behavioural insight, the newest tech, the most innovative ways of reaching and engaging people, or just pushing the clients we know well in just the right way at just the right time, in a way that engenders trust and not hostility. We need to go beyond mere ‘servicing’, and do great work.But it’s not always the case, especially in bigger agencies, that the people the client trusts are the same guys as those who are charged with making the agency more progressive and more innovative than their clients. But they should be. Whether it’s innovation, creativity, ‘social’, strategy – these should not be departments but skillsets. They should be diffused throughout the agency. Everyone brought up to the level of those who are best at it.And yet, they’re specialisms. You need people to fly the flag. To embed new thinking in the first place so it can be diffused. To help the generalists get better at more things. To help clients buy more and better work.On balance, I reckon figureheads are definitely worth having. Because the right people can be brilliant change agents within organisations – both clients’ and our own. But either they, or the stuff they celebrate and cascade, should have a shelf-life. The threat of built-in obsolescence should hang over them. That’s how I feel about it today at least.

  19. I’m a Technical Director heading up R&D at Odopod. I’m fortunate that the leadership team (and the entire agency) is driven to do new things and take measured chances. It makes my job much easier.I’ve found that what’s needed most is someone organizing our R&D efforts so that technologies (most new, but some old) can be explored and their potential for innovation can be uncovered. Everyone at our agency is on the R&D team. We are continually building prototypes and proofs of concept pieces as part of billable and non-billable work. These points have been made by others already, but they really resonate with me.The aspect of the role that I don’t think has gotten enough emphasis yet is that of sharing out the learnings. It is absolutely key that the lessons learned on one project are used by others and I consider it my responsibility to make sure that happens. Knowledge sharing drives further development within a given technology and it also motivates people to look for new opportunities within other technologies. Sharing innovations drives innovations. Oh, and I love the ninja video. Somehow I missed it before now.

  20. I don’t know any CIO’s by title, and I’m not discounting their ability or experience, but I agree with most of what Alan and David are saying. It cuts through the BS. I’ve worked with CIO’s my entire career. Except they were called CD’s, CEO’s, MD’s – even interns. They got that title only because their colleagues conferred it on them. Those people led the way by doing – not by talking, not by using buzzwords or pointing to what other people are doing right.That’s the only way innovation can happen in a large organization – through inspired leadership all around you, above and below. By entrepreneurial minds that are as interested in working together to build something as they are in competing to respectfully one-up each other. That’s what lights a fire under your ass to make something better, faster or what’s considered more ‘innovative.’ Otherwise, we all become curators and theorists spending more time hypothesizing how to get there, instead of just failing enough times and getting dirty enough to make something happen. And when you make enough amazing things happen – boom. You’re suddenly the CIO.

  21. Jim Russell here. We have been consumed with innovation here at McKinney, and I think it all boils down to two principles:– Leading Ideas Faster, and More of Them– Actions, not WordsPretty simple to say, but it requires the proper culture, people, tools, etc. Like any organization.

  22. Good lord. For a couple of years now, planners have been notable for one thing – their favorite thing to talk about at length is their own value. Want to know how important a planner is to your agency? Just ask one. It won’t clear things up for you, but they’ll get really excited.Now, I can comfortable say that CIOs rank just behind planners in this unfortunate category. Just read through all this back and forth – so much debate about value, nary a shred of evidence that CIOs have any impact whatsoever.

  23. It’s about time agencies began waking up to and dealing with innovation as something broader than effective communications!After my first 20 year career in advertising, I’ve spent the last 19 years as an innovation management consultant: http://www.creativerealities.com/about-us/people/jay-terwilliger/. With a client list I would have killed for when in advertising — Pepsi, Colgate-Palmolive, Bacardi, Intuit, Merck, Eastman, USG to name a few. I’ve been trying to convince agency friends of the role innovation could play in their value proposition since 1999. So I’m reading this thread with a lot of interest and hope that someone will actually understand the value and role of innovation for agencies.If you are going to have a serious conversation about this, I have a few thoughts to offer. First, let’s get clear about what innovation is. Innovation is the process of envisioning, and successfully implementing, new ways of doing anything that creates value for an enterprise and its stakeholders. For some other useful definitions, see http://www.creativerealities.com/innovationist-blog/bid/54504/Create-a-common-language-for-innovation. It may sound stupid, but until everyone agrees on terms, we aren’t really communicating.Much as I love the advertising industry, it’s about time for two things. First, think a bit more broadly about this CIO role, and the role of innovation at the agency. Think more broadly about what you do and your value in the business world. As I read these comments, I was reminded of the late 80’s, early 90’s. Agencies in a rush to embrace new media, new methods of communication to protect themselves from competitive disruption. Suddenly the agency had to have an advertising arm, a strategic planning arm, a direct response arm, then it was a website/internet arm. etc., etc. etc. And most agencies suffered from not figuring out the business model. They all wanted to be at the cutting edge, selling a complete package, yet the various arms were competitive silos. Not talking together, not supporting each other, not creating any real new value. And too many clients saw it as a weak package. Preferring to hire the best in class of each. Let’s not let innovation be more of the same.The business model is broken. Just like when we lost the old 15% commission standard back in the 80’s. Creativity is 2.0. It’s a community where "open innovation" — the ability to get what you need from a wide range of potential sources on a project by project basis, the explosion of social media and more have made it hard for you to sustain a unique value proposition. Maybe it’s time to think bigger — to turn yourselves from advertising or marketing communications agencies to innovation agencies.It’s time to think of the "CIO" role as more than a person who seeks to keep the agency in the forefront of communications related value propositions, but to be the instigator of innovation for their clients — communications, sure. But new products, new services, new business models, new ways of doing ANYTHING that adds value to their client and/or their customers.Second, recognize that your clients are wrestling with the issue of change, it’s pace and the role of innovation too. Take a look at Vijay Govindarajan’s book "The Other Side of Innovation." I’d suggest two key points of interest from this book. One is in the preface, and frankly I think it is key to the opportunity. It’s about strategy (not agency strategic planning — business strategy). In summary, he says that it wasn’t until the 70’s that "strategy" became a key business management role. And for decades it was about managing, protecting and safely growing the existing business. A defensive posture. In the 90’s that changed. Now it became offensive — about change and about innovation. And the world of business leaders is still trying to catch up. Instilling innovation at an agency will suffer the same problem, and unless the world has changed dramatically, you will suffer from one extra difficulty — creative arrogance. Creativity has been key to your value proposition forever. And agencies have attracted and nurtured creativity and creative people forever. The creative ego is a fragile but wonderful thing. And creativity is not innovation. It’s only part of it. And creative communicators are not necessarily creative innovators. So it’s likely you will have people who are threatened by innovation and it’s impact on the role of creativity at the agency. That’s something we don’t deal with in the client world. They inherently believe that they aren’t creative, so they are ready to accept and embrace new tools, new frameworks, etc. that enhance their creativity as part of the job of innovation.So you want to figure out the role of CIO, maybe you should learn from some of us who have been helping companies become more innovative for a long time. We know the critical success factors, the keys to the roles, the problems that you will face, etc. There’s a parallel universe out there where companies like mine are working with clients like yours to create new value through innovation. And there are lessons you can learn from that.

  24. One more thought. If you plan to get into this innovation game, plan to fail some. If you’re not failing, you’re not stretching enough. This past month, the HBR blog has been on the subject of failure. Here are two I wrote that look at failure from the perspective of innovation, in case you are interested. http://blogs.hbr.org/govindarajan/2011/04/what-drives-you-nuts-about-fai.html. http://blogs.hbr.org/govindarajan/2011/03/todays-innovative-idea-can-ris.html

  25. In traditional agencies you have tv & print production dept – so who understands & knows the best in field among social gaming, gaming consoles,mobile gaming, mobile picture recognition, mobile geo location, mobile social, digital out of home, iptv,social media, branded entertainment, long form content, 3d, ARG’s, augmented reality,streaming, holograms, digital signage instore, digital music, 3d mapping projection, 3d autostereoscopic, 360 degree screens, multi touch surface, iAds, digital publishing, interactive floor projections & so much more – and if you’re busy being REactive to clients requests, after a 4 hour client mtg with 12 people, then a 2 hour train journey to & from the mtg, then a war & peace contact report, then 150 emails to get through – then how on earth are you able to be PROactive, when you just dont know what you dont know…this is OUR day job, we dont fit into a silo of planner,a/c dir, creative, traffic, we can be all of these if we need to be – we duck & dive & make things up as we go along, coz it feels right, we hand hold the traditional teams to learn about all of these things for our clients – and we dont give up or let go or leave ideas in the bottom drawer – we make those ideas happen, because we know the exciting innovative areas & specialists around the edges, we have the BLACK BOOK – we have built partnerships, we collaborate, we share, there is a value exchange, we treat partners with respect, we dont say we want, we say how can we all get something out of this. building these partnerships has taken years of trust & its all just beginning to get exciting – and whats more, this isnt going away – this is now everyones day job, in the future everyone will know about these areas, as well as they do to make a tv ad – this is just new territory & we, the disruptors, CIO’s or whateve you call us, are making it easier to initially navigate – for us all to keep our agency of the future relevant to our clients by offering more than just the traditional. which means, its actually not about the technology, its about people, its about business & its about what is the problem – and if you dont have an understanding of this ever changing landscape, how are you able to solve the problem & give our creatives, clients the right solution……..but then, what the hell do i know!

  26. btw, i have the wonderful ‘machiavelli’ framed quote from The Prince, above my desk, which was given to me by my father – ‘Machiavelli once noted, there is ‘nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things’ – each monday, i spend 45 minutes with all new joiners, and i insist they read this quote. it is at these inductions that i’m able to spot the hunters from the farmers……..

  27. My view is that the innovation role is more important than ever. This is for two reasons. Firstly, in my experience, agencies are, on the whole (and this is going to be the most appropriate use of the phrase ‘present company excepted’ ever), present company excepted, static, conservative, risk-averse places, where real change is tough to achieve. Let’s face it, Don Draper (or even Jon Hamm, for that matter), would hardly blink if transported into many of today’s agencies. Case in point, I’ve seen first-hand how agencies are slow to adopt essential new disciplines – for example, my own: business development (for my sins). This is often seen as synonymous with lead generation, which is of course only part of the role. This is in contrast to the more enlightened agencies, who for decades have realised that, along with the xmas party, the newbiz pitch is the only time the whole company gets together, so the best newbiz practitioners (better ones than me) are often the most visible evidence of the agency’s vision and beliefs, not to mention playing a key role in positioning, defining the client list and therefore setting a course for the ultimate culture and reputation of the agency. Interestingly, my current role involves selling technology ‘solutions’ (yeesh, sorry) INTO agencies, often addressing issues that aren’t yet fully appreciated, and that resistance to change is even more in evidence. Change is hard, technology is scary, new ways of working are threatening, new business models sometimes hurt before they change the game, and so it goes on. CEOs routinely tell us that new technologies feel like dozens of balls falling around them, and they have no clue which one(s) to catch. Another reason for innovation needing to be operationalised (hate that word, but often use it), measured and led, is that the business is changing. We all know the arguments around the death of old charging / business models, so no need to bang on, but as long as client procurers understandably prefer to pay agencies for game-changing thinking, rather than its implementation, then the over-supplied, hyper competitive agency market has no choice but to innovate. So against that backdrop of ingrained conservatism, lack of technological leadership from (many) CEOs and an acute, industry-wide necessity to embrace and deploy new thinking, frankly, we’re all a bit buggered without a chief of innovation. So more power to your elbows. (incidentally, another hurdle to innovation – showing the client something game-changing, unique and new… and being asked “can you show me where you’ve done this before?”)

  28. Yet again just enormous thanks for all the fantastic comments here, both supporting what I am suggesting and also challenging it. Yet again, the comments were 10x more enlightening than the post: exactly how it should be. Thank you.

  29. Brilliant post :) I’ve just been made Innovation Director at our agency and although there’s a lot of negative connotation around the title, I’m feeling pretty excited about the challenges ahead and hopefully we’ll help change a few perceptions along the way. So many comments against the role are mirrored in the agency, so even understanding where those thoughts stem from has been a great insight.

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