If you already work in marketing and unless you work in cutting edge tech, you probably feel like you’re never doing enough that’s ‘new’.  You agonize over how your consumer base is evolving in how it learns or even receives information yet you know you’re just not keeping pace.  Budget levels are under pressure, which already leaves you feeling like you are under-funding key areas such as general advertising and retail marketing and promotion.  Sound familiar?

barriers innovationIn a sea of articles and discussions about the challenges to innovate, I’d like to zero in on the little island of ‘new’ marketing models. For the purpose of this piece, let’s call ‘new marketing’ anything that is digital, social or mobile (or all three!).  We’re not doing them enough. We just know that.  To help jump-start our progress in adapting to more contemporary ways of reaching consumers, I will identify here the core factors that inhibit us. More importantly, I’ll go one step further by providing some suggestions on how to manage through these barriers.

It’s not important (enough).

Many articles on leadership are now appropriately calling out executives who can articulate a vision but can’t produce a roadmap to the destination. A passion for execution is now a key buzzphrase in the world of management.

The principal applies here, too.  Lip service to creativity and innovation is abundant, typically, however the building blocks to fostering this type of behavior rarely are.

Solution: Start with the basics.

The fundamentals are simple and can begin in the systems for rewards and performance measurement.  At J&J, I received a corporate wide award for an integrated internet marketing program with Travelocity (this was the early 2000’s when internet marketing was just heating up). The award cited innovation in the approach and considered many success metrics that went beyond pure ROI.  Performance reviews rewarded results first but there was still a lot of room to drive your grade by how you went about your job; how you took risks, tried new things, exercised your curiosity.  The system understood that the right fundamental approaches to your work would ultimately lead to success, which is harder to achieve in the early stages of innovation.

The source of funds for the programming.

Back in the day, I was lucky enough to work on brands that had ‘mad money’.  Yup, a few mil to play with.  Ok, it wasn’t as free-wheeling as all that, but I worked in the OTC drug business at a time where the execs set aside money to incubate new models.  We uploaded CRM programs (which I helped lead), explored internet marketing and poured money into new product development.  The best part about this environment was that we had to merely make sensible recommendations for spending; we never had to compare programming to that of more comfortable, traditional models.  We got to spend, and the results would either be a business lift or at least some great learning.  We’d adapt and spend again.

Nowadays we only have two people working for our company: Peter and Paul, if you get me.  In order to spend money on social media, we have to pull away from retail marketing or general market advertising.  The process to do that and the arguments that ensue are painful, and often stop us from bothering.

Solution: Establish a discipline of funding for new ideas such as ‘Test and Learn’.

Take control by making ‘new marketing’ an integral part of your strategy.  Instead of repeatedly beating your head against the wall to allocate funding program by program as opportunities come up, ensure that in your cyclical budgeting process you establish a test and learn program. Sell up the idea that your brand needs ongoing funding to test new markets on an ongoing basis to find more efficient and contemporary programming.  Allocate the funds one time from any budget including market research since it’s a form of this.  You are spending to learn.  You will have a much easier time gaining acceptance of innovation as a core brand strategy earlier on versus jamming it in mid-cycle, when your existing programs suffer the pain of funding reallocation.

Ensure you maintain the discipline to execute the plan and share learning to sustain your funding; it can quickly be taken away.

Conservative management.

I often read articles or listen to debates about to what extent managers are risk takers or not.  I would offer that most are risk averse, particularly if you work in a mature company or industry where a 2% annual gain or loss can impact your career.  One tell-tale sign of a strong marketer is someone who knows when and how to use analysis as a guide and when to summon the wisdom of the gut. Marketing is both art and science and the best leaders are able to forge new territory through their innate understanding of the consumer and how to reach and communicate with them.

Solution #1: Go find a boss like this and work for him/her.  If that’s not feasible…

Solution #2: Rewire their brain.

If I sense that I work for someone who fancies themself a pioneer but gravitates to what’s already known, I find opportunities to appeal to the ego before I even get into discussions about programming.

Find the right time in a collegial atmosphere to have a fireside chat.  Discuss casually each of your visions for the brand and where you’d like to see it go.  Ask them point blank if they like to break ground and work on getting them comfortable with uncertainty. Appeal to the ego by suggesting the brand be leaders and not followers.  It’s less fun (and probably not competitively advisable) to jump into something once the model is perfected. Work on getting them thinking the right way ahead of time without the pressure of an immediate programming decision.  You can recall this conversation when the time comes.

Solution #3: Do what you can with the numbers.  See below.

Unpredictable results.

And, of course, the centerpoint of why leaders are conservative is they like certainty.  I have sat in many-a-meeting and chuckled to myself when my management or peers challenge agencies to predict ROI of a new type of program.  The real answer – when you’re trying something new – is that nobody really knows for sure. That’s just the evil byproduct of creativity.

Solution: Make the gray area more black and white.

There are many ways to fidget with the numbers to make the left-brained decision makers more comfortable. Try one or all three of these:

  1. Breakeven analysis. Sometimes, analysis can be a great way to filter out bad decisions, if they can’t predict outcomes. Check what kind of lift you would need to make a program pay out; this will go a long way to creating (dis)comfort about recommending an initiative.
  2. Use the “if we could only…” trick. Marketers love to say things like “if we could only get each Walmart shopper to buy 0.3 more units of our product a year we’d hit our target”. Framing numbers in this way make programs seem achievable. What we all choose to ignore is the challenge to get a shopper to make even the slightest change in behavior. But, we’re trying to get an approval here, so…
  3. Make it up. Yes, I just said that. Agencies do that all the time. Often they draw on a range of past programming performance. They will take the most successful ones and quote a short term lift within that subset. That usually does the trick.  Besides, on the off chance anyone challenges the forecast after the fact, they can shrug it off to learning or excuse away the miss.  At least they got the business!  In general, though, find and grab onto any angle of numbers that make sense to you. A wise person once told me that forecasting is less about analysis and accuracy and more about the ability to sell in a number you believe in.

Lack of Scope.

These last two are related but not exactly the same.  I am coming across a lot of startups that have great fundamental business models, mostly in the mobile marketing space.  App and GPS-based marketing opens up a whole new world by effectively creating the marketing ankle bracelet that we have all coveted so that we can understand to a person how we behave, shop and buy.

The challenge here is chicken and egg.  These agencies and suppliers are usually early in their lifecycle so they do not have enough subscribers to move the needle on your business, particularly if you represent a power brand. Still, the passion the owners have for their app or program keeps them coming to the big brand fish in the hopes that a partnership will drive membership for them at a pace that’s ahead of the curve.

Solution: tread carefully, but if you engage, exercise your leverage.

Don’t spend too much time with these guys unless you understand clearly how many active and unique subscribers they have in their model and what their marketing plans are to drive membership.  Insist on that info first before you even take a meeting. Sadly, these apps will never grow in scope on their bootstraps – too slow. They need seed or VC money to get serious about what they are doing.  Also, best to push them to smaller more emerging brands that will have a similar maverick approach to growth.  In short, in the marketing world, the big fish tend to swim with the big fish.

Still, if you like what they are offering, you can consider making the program a part of an active test and learn plan, if you have one.  Remember that you are doing more for them than vice versa, so you shouldn’t be paying much if anything above hard costs of running the program.

If you feel the service is on the cusp of something great, you should negotiate engagement with big discounts.  Consider a longer term pricing deal that provides free services such as reporting.  Companies that supply tech programming often look at the program itself as a loss leader while they hope to make the money on the data they collect.  Ask for insights and reporting for free, as fantastic value-add.

Poor ROI on time.

I saved the best for last, so I hope you read this far. This is the one nobody talks about but admits to be true after some careful thought.

In relation to the lack of scope above is the issue that – dollar for dollar — new marketing executions are insanely time intensive versus traditional ones.  A $10 million spend on TV and print advertising definitely takes work, but you are only creating a few ad units while you look at one streamlined buying program from your media agency.  Digital, social and mobile programs for the same money require multiple bursts, key word search targets, a host of different creative executions because nothing is standardized, plus much more work mining data for both reporting and target selection.

So that’s the watchout.  Segmenting and customization is great, but the cost is hefty. Even a $1 million program on the same type of brand can explode into 30 side projects…and all the emails, meetings, feedback, edits and approvals that go with it.  Your time will quickly start to feel like it’s being wasted, and you’ll likely go running back to tried and true, just for the sanity.

Solution: manage the work creep (‘creep’ meaning ‘phenomenon’, not any one person!)

It’s ok to be a little less targeted in the beginning for the sake of reaching a critical mass of eyeballs with each unit of creative.  Think ‘fewer, bigger, better’ as a general orientation toward building programming. Here are a few more tips to contain the workload and ensure program efficiency:

  • Require your agency to write copy for promoted posts and newsletters (sadly, agencies often give this work to interns, so the copywriting can be consistently below par and must be edited)
  • Ensure your agency is well-versed in privacy laws and engages their own legal counsel for same and for contest rules, if applicable.
  • Specify a budget for what we call “non-working” dollars (fees, cost of building creative, admin, etc) to no more than 25% of the total program budget. Might be more if total budget is really small.
  • Or, specify a maximum number of creative units you’d like created, particularly for internet or mobile marketing programs


As always, exercise good judgment when deploying some of these recommendations. To be an effective marketer you must create habits of experimentation by how you work with all key stakeholders.  Set expectations, be mindful of resources and always be transparent and constructive. And to top it off, if you praise and reward the right behaviors, you will develop the necessary momentum that makes you and your team an innovation machine.

And a final thought.

Be careful about getting caught in the trap of thinking that innovation is mostly a bottoms-up phenomenon. Management and executive levels play important roles.  First they need to be better at the innovation game than the junior staffers; if they don’t get it, then how can they shape the raw creative talent below them? They need to be able to nurture the ability to think creatively but constructively and they need to know how to evaluate innovation to make it feasible in business.  Without guidance from above, innovation will be undisciplined and become stagnant.

Second and finally, the leaders in an organization have to be shining examples of career success through innovation. Associates need to see for themselves that career progression happens for the risk-taking passionate entrepreneurs more than for the smooth talkers who don’t make mistakes. The less experienced on your team will have a bias toward adopting the success-driving organizational behaviors, so be ultra-sensitive to what you reward and promote.


Why Creativity is Rejected