The Innovation Myth: How Did It Get So Easy to Avoid Doing Anything Hard?

If Your Vendors Tell You What You're Going to Do Is Right, There's a Good Chance It's Wrong

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It's easy to innovate these days if you're a CMO. All you have to do is follow the shockingly unanimous advice coming from your agency, social technology owners, industry analysts, reporters, and a torrent of tweets and blog posts. If you do what the Conventional Wisdom advises, you risk nothing more than getting credit for a failed but noble experiment, with an upside that you might win a marketing award. Either way, it's more than likely your next campaign will be well within the norms of creativity and expectation, no matter how many vendors tell you it's radical.

There's a generic template for achieving this innovation that our peers encourage and then recognize: Discard your old ideas of what information goes into your marketing, along with your proven measures for its efficacy; replace it with something called "content" that has nothing to do with selling anything; partner with a social technology platform du jour; then shoot for getting as many eyeballs, clicks, and forwards as possible. It'll all make sense sometime later. For now, follow the recipe, and you're an innovator!

Want to break the rules? There's an app for that. At best, you're being used, and worst, you're stupid. When did innovating get to be so mainstream?

It's the creation of the management consulting world, which needed a successor for the efficiency pitch that drove its profits last century. Its presumptions are that you can systematize a phenomena that has more to do with strikes of lightening and demonic possession than any sense of order. Your fellow C-suiters have spent years and tons of money chasing the structures and operational processes that purport to predict the unpredictable, or to generically re-create unique acts of creation. It's silly and doomed, of course, but there's good money in selling worthy dreams and plausible deniability to them. "I did what the experts told me to do" is the unspoken value proposition of every management consulting pitch (or HBR blather).

You're not immune to a version of this innovation scam, only for marketers it's a well-integrated combination of vendors who own the creative ideation, delivery technologies and reporting mechanisms to qualify your next campaign. Equal parts echo chamber and endless well, it rewards leaders who sing its praises (you know the type -- your CEO always seems to notice some CMO talking about turning a toothpaste brand into a publisher, or something), while regularly insulting anybody who doesn't. If you don't think there's some serious group-thinking going on here, just ask yourself, when was the last time you read about a marketing leader who did exactly what the experts thought was wrong? Yeah, crickets. Now think about the articles about shifting money into social, or how a new campaign draws on the last one. Ad Age (which I love, thank you) could host a drinking game counting the appearances of all the marketing buzz words, like engagement, participation and innovation.

True innovation is opportunistic, unpredictable and generally frowned upon. Most real innovators are never appreciated as quickly as they might deserve, and their innovations are resoundingly hated or ignored until the rank-and-file figure out their genius. Innovation isn't a process or platform for collaborative sharing in a real-time environment, but rather a new, perhaps contrarian, and certainly different way of solving a problem or addressing a need. That Greek chorus of people who laud you at the same time they're selling you the same things they're selling to your competition? They won't tell you that you just can't copy innovation, so what your competition is doing should be your guide to what not to do, not what to emulate. Think less variation on a theme, and more entirely new art form.

Innovation is supposed to be hard, and implementing the same sort of marketing "experiments" that everyone else is implementing is just too easy. If your vendors are telling you that what you're going to do is right, this should be your warning sign that there's a good chance it's wrong. What makes money for them doesn't necessarily make money for you. Dare to be an innovator for real.

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, author and speaker. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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