“Innovation is a team sport,” says Kate MacNevin, global chief executive officer of MRM, a customer relationship marketing agency that is part of the Interpublic Group and the McCann Worldgroup network. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced MRM to embrace virtual forms of communication, the company found new ways for its employees and partners to connect—one of the reasons it landed a spot on Fast Company‘s list of 100 Best Workplaces for Innovators in 2021. In the following conversation, MacNevin discusses how MRM’s culture of innovation has thrived in a virtual setting.
Your Lab13 innovation consultancy brings together clients, outside experts, and MRM employees. Can you describe Lab13’s transition to becoming a fully virtual system?
Kate MacNevin: MRM has always been a borderless organization. Over the past five years in particular, a lot of our success can be attributed to the fact that we have this broad network that allows us to innovate in a very agile way. So when the pandemic arrived in March of 2020, we were able to pivot really quickly and successfully to working more remotely. For Lab13, virtual was already an established way of working, which made it a natural evolution of the connectivity to everyone at MRM.
What challenges did MRM face in bringing innovation consultancy into the virtual world?
Innovation is a team sport that relies on micromoments of connectivity and culture—those little moments of building on someone else’s invention. Some of that was definitely lost during the early stages of the move to virtual. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of trial and error, but within a matter of weeks we hit on a process that worked. We’d start by bringing the entire team together, but pretty quickly we’d break into small work groups where each group could use design thinking methods in a particular area. Then we’d bring all the teams back together into a collective meeting, break up into new work groups to generate fresh ideas, and turn thoughts into things through fast iteration. We found that this process allowed us to replicate some of those micromoments from in-person meetings. And we involved clients and external experts to be a part of it.
Has this virtual transition opened up any opportunities for the company?
We’ve been able to mix the talent for idea generation in ways that we wouldn’t necessarily have tried before. The core of Lab13 has always been bringing multidisciplinary teams together, and the pandemic has allowed us to open up to a broader group of people than ever before.
How do partnerships with other companies help expand the culture of innovation at MRM?
Our partnerships span three broad categories: We partner with VC [venture capital] and PE [private equity] companies; we invest in startup incubators; and we mine startups from across the globe, with a particular focus right now on Israel, China, and the West Coast of the U.S. Our approach is unique here in that we are not invested in any specific company or startup. We want to be completely unbiased. Our focus is to bring the right partner to our clients to help them achieve what they need to transform their businesses by identifying new opportunities of growth and design purposeful experiences with people.
How does MRM empower its employees to tackle difficult problems with innovative solutions?
Our belief across the board is that innovation at MRM is everyone’s job. So, we have platforms that empower employees to come forward with new ideas. For example, we have something called the Purple Brief, whose purpose is to crowdsource ideas from everyone in the company to solve some of our clients’ biggest problems. We’ve found that when you’re sourcing ideas from everybody, there’s a sense that we’re all in this together. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a creative department or on the tech team—everyone in our company is a creator, and every idea is listened to.