You Can Learn To Innovate, Or Fall Far Far Behind

PORTLAND–Webtrends maintains offices on the top floor of a 16-story building in the heart of Portland’s business core. The analytics firm has kindly opened its conference room today to Portland Ad Fed, which is hosting a Pop Art-sponsored luncheon with Renny Gleeson, Wieden + Kennedy’s Global Director of Interactive Strategy.

There are two kinds of salad and three kinds of lasagna for lunch. I say hi to Andy Askren of Grady Britton, grab a Pomegranate-flavored Izze and find a seat next to Carmen Hill of Babcock & Jenkins. Gleeson’s talk is about innovation and the path he and the brand teams at W+K navigate to pursue innovation at client companies like Coca-Cola, P&G and Nokia.

Gleeson says the current challenge in innovation is institutional. He says it’s necessary to find the right audience at the client and to always speak the client’s language, explaining in simple terms how innovative (a.k.a. risky) new ideas will impact their business. Gleeson also says the ideas need to scale or the clients aren’t interested.

Pointing to the Happiness Machine project that an Atlanta PR shop put together, Gleeson says it got the attention of all the marketing people at Coke, but the two million plus YouTube views are still perceived as small change by executives at the company. Gleeson notes that Coca-Cola serves 1.4 billion units a day, and that fact creates and perpetuates a “manufacturing mindset.”

Gleeson mentions another innovation coming from outside the Coke organization and Wieden’s–, the not-for-profit startup that wants the beverage giant to open up its distribution channels (which are amazing in developing countries) to carry social products, like as oral rehydration salts, to the people who need them desperately.

“Necessity drives incremental innovation,” Gleeson says.

Without naming names, Gleeson tells us he periodically receives some stiff client rebuff, and that it’s important to speak from a place of credibility and to be clear about what you don’t do, so as not to over-promise.

To keep himself and W+K on task, Gleeson uses the following three operating principles: 1) Collaborate Fast; 2) Network, Network, Network; and 3) Fail Cheap/Scale Wins. He adds that it’s best to innovate on the agency’s dime, not the client’s, and that W+K’s record label in their Tokyo office and the Portland Incubator Experiment are examples of W+K’s own investment in becoming better innovators.

Gleeson says you can sometimes do everything right and the client still won’t buy off on the ideas, “because you didn’t make it right for them.” I like how he wants to own his mistakes, and he says they’ve coined a term at W+K in his honor. “A Renny” means to say something (of a technical nature) and not get your point across. “It doesn’t matter if it’s not in their language.”

I ask Gleeson why he’s so intent on innovation, when his clients, and clients in general, are so resistant. He says it’s the right thing to do. That the internet represents a fundamental shift in society and that we need to find new ways to relate to one another.

Another persons asks about the genesis of today’s best ideas and Gleeson admits that “the most interesting stuff isn’t coming from marketing.” Marketing is the “fast follower,” he says, “but sometimes it’s not fast enough.”

Gleeson has a ton of energy and passion for what he’s doing. And while marketing may be a “fast follower,” a lot of people in marketing would love to keep pace with Gleeson and W+K. Here are two examples of digital innovation that W+K successfully sold in:

Gleeson says with some of their recent successes, W+K has earned its way back to the digital table and that brands increasingly do want their traditional agency involved in developing digital campaigns.

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