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.