Start With Consumer Behavior And Three Other Ways To Bring Scale To Innovation

Audacious innovation requires audacious plans—and an unwavering commitment to follow the money.


“Follow the money,” said Deep Throat to reporters . That was good advice. It led the two on a journey that exposed corruption and resulted in the downfall of a US President. Deep Throat’s advice doesn’t just apply to persistent reporters and government scandals. When it comes to finding answers to many (if not most) problems, his words hold up—follow the money.


I’ve previously written how marketing and communications professionals (in-house and agency) can affect innovation—every day —in simple and digestible ways.

Innovation doesn’t always have to take the form of big or audacious objects (campaigns, ads, technology). It can, quite elegantly and effectively, be incremental improvements to an existing process or way of doing things. If you think of it as creative problem solving, rather than the more traditional definition of creative, it can empower anyone in an organization to improve on the way business is done.

But sometimes our task is to be audacious. To make objects never before seen. In those cases how does a creative agency (like my employer, Ogilvy & Mather) take innovation to the next level? And maybe most importantly, how do we scale innovation to:

  • Test a hypothesis against a substantial sample size
  • Measure the efficacy of an innovation in a significant way
  • Establish a first-to-market position against competitors
  • Achieve some sort of recognition for the effort

Follow the money.

If we can’t do that exactly, we should at least recognize the tremendous value and creative input the money side of our business brings to the table.

In our business, the money—the really big money, that is—sits in media budgets. While certainly not a prerequisite, money can help drive innovation. And it can most certainly help drive scale.


The most innovative idea in the world needs distribution. It needs to be seeded with the right people and enough penetration to drive the desired action to justify the investment. Remember, there’s really no such thing as a purely viral video (I use viral video as a proxy for innovation in this case). It might feel that way by the time it reaches you, but chances are there was media driving initial uptake.

If you’re buying what I’m selling, the logical question is this: how do creative and media shops craft closer alliances to drive big innovation? A purposeful and coordinated effort between creative and media yields more meaningful results than either camp on its own. The collaborative process might follow four steps:

  1. Start with consumer behavior. Identifying changes in the way consumers make decisions is at the heart of innovative thinking. Without evidence of behavioral shifts, there’s no there there. Both creative and media shops have insightful planners who are on the bleeding edge of understanding what motivates people to take action (buy, vote, review, like, etc.). Marrying the more ethnographic approach of creative shops with the data-driven approach of media can produce far more powerful and actionable insights than either on their own.

  2. It’s still all about the big idea. We’re all in the ideas business. Some ideas manifest themselves as billboards, others as products, TV shows, press events, and so on. And no single entity totally owns ideas. Yes, creative shops specialize in ideas (as traditionally defined them in this business), but publishers and media companies and even tech startups are committing massive resources towards creative capabilities—particularly in the area of innovation. I believe a collaborative approach where creative and media, publishers and tech partners tackling a brief together will ultimately result in better-rounded, bigger and more effective innovation.

  3. Coffee is for closers. As I’ve said before, if an innovation never makes it to execution, did it ever exist? I think this is an area where the media shop can really shine. In an era of data- and dollar-obsessed CMOs there’s no one better poised than the media agency to sell the client on the value of innovation as a financial investment. But of course without a great idea, no amount of selling will work.

  4. Execute to excellence. You’ve got your insight, your killer idea and have sold it in to the client. Now you have to make it happen. This is not about creative handing off to media. It’s about creative and media working together—and with partners and publishers—to co-execute and consistently optimize the most effective program. This is innovation—by definition NO ONE has all the answers (otherwise it wouldn’t be innovative).

Sometimes, there is tension between creative and media shops. Frankly, most sane and talented people in our industry find that tension silly, unfounded and unproductive for our clients. Speaking only from personal experience, I can tell you that some of our most enjoyable and successful campaigns are planned, sold and executed side-by-side with a media agency partner.

By putting that tension aside and realizing the power of collaboration, we—the entire agency ecosystem—can be far more effective at conceiving, selling and executing innovative programs that scale, get our clients their moment in the sun, and contribute to both our clients’ and our own our top-line.

Ian Sohn is Executive Vice President of Emerging Digital Platforms and Partnerships for Ogilvy & Mather