How to innovate

The Digital Media Innovation Conference 2014, organised by the SIIA’s Information Industry Network took place on 8 April at One Wimpole Street, London. The theme of the day was innovation and a range of excellent speakers looked at the importance of innovation and how media companies could themselves become more innovative. James Evelegh was there.

By James Evelegh

Outsell’s Simon Alterman asked the assembled delegates for a show of hands. How many people thought that innovation was very important? Lots of hands. Then, how many people currently thought their companies were doing innovation well. Not many hands. There is clearly a gap to fill.

The underlying assumption of the day was that innovation was of crucial importance to media companies’ future success, because as David Foster said, “innovation drives growth and value” and as David Gilbertson said, companies with no growth, stagnate, become less rewarding places to work and are subject to steady and terminal decline.


“Innovation”, continued Gilbertson, “was not a sideshow; it should be a core part of every company’s operation. It needs plugging in and it needs enabling. All companies say they are innovative, but, in practice, most businesses don’t do innovation.”

One bit of advice he gave to his soon-to-graduate daughter was to challenge each prospective employer: “Tell me how you encourage innovation and how you implement it.”

In Gilbertson’s experience, the most innovative companies were those that saw themselves as being on a journey. Generally, companies that feel they have “arrived” don’t innovate.

The big cheese

The critical success factor, above all others, which determines how innovative a company is, is the boss. “Innovation is fundamentally a leadership question, as all employees take their cue from the CEO. A truly innovative company starts at the top,” says Alterman.

Crucially, it’s not so much down to what the boss says, but what the boss does – “those daily decisions which indicate where the priorities lie.”

There was general unanimity on this point although a couple of speakers also highlighted the role of middle management and how they needed to be fully on board to spread the word, but then I suppose that really dynamic bosses spot intransigent and backward looking middle managers and either get them to change double-quick or clear them out…

Getting the culture right

Without strong and forward looking leadership, it is almost impossible for a company to make the cultural and structural changes necessary to foster innovation, but one thing great leaders do, is create an open, flat and collaborative culture where employees are unafraid of risk. A culture where, said Colin Morrison, “challenging and contrarian views” are encouraged and the workplace is full of the “cognitive dissonance that is the magic of really good companies.” The kind of places where, according to Simon Alterman, “the word ‘disruptive’ is the highest compliment you can pay an employee.”

To allow innovation and creativity to flourish, a company needs to get its structure and processes right so as to channel the creativity and give it the time and space to flower. This includes flexible budgeting systems which allow funds to be allocated at short notice, imaginative metrics that can accurately measure yet not kill off promising projects prematurely (‘profit’ is probably not the right year one measure) and a degree of separation between existing business operations and new projects; new ideas are never going to get off the ground if the person driving it is also expected to do his usual day job at the same time. There needs to be some slack in the system. If you are running an incredibly tight ship, then no one will have the time or inclination to either come up with the ideas in the first place or run with them. “When did galley slaves ever volunteer to mop the deck?” asked Gilbertson.

Cost control is, of course, vital but you need to give the necessary people time and you also need to employ good people. Indeed, the fifth of Colin Morrison’s list of obsessions to keep you awake at night was: “People, People, People – probably fewer than in the past, but better.” Good people cost good money and also expect to be included. To encourage innovation, companies need to shed their secretive nature and their only-on-a-need-to-know-basis mentality and open up – how, asks Gilbertson, can you expect employees to get involved if you don’t share information with them. Communicate and celebrate - share information about company goals, initiatives, successes, and failures, yes – failures too.

Indeed a company’s attitude to ‘failure’ is one of the best indicators of a healthy innovative culture. It’s been said at probably every media conference over the past five years, but is always worth repeating because the message hasn’t got through.

“How many people here”, asked Simon Alterman, “have been congratulated on a project that went wrong?”


“A safety-first attitude is still prevalent at many companies, but that attitude will not produce the big leaps forward.”

Simon quoted one innovative CEO as saying that he likes 70% of his company’s projects to fail. If not, then he thinks his teams are not trying hard enough!

David Gilbertson quoted another as saying, “I’ve learnt so much from my mistakes, I’m thinking of making a few more.”

It’s worth reminding ourselves why failure is so important to the success of a company.

A key route to growth for any company is through the launch of new products and services. It’s a fact of life that most launches fail, so by the law of averages, you have to launch a lot of new products / services to find one successful one. So, the fewer the failures, the fewer the launches and the fewer the launches, the less chance of success.

Companies must fail regularly in order to grow.

This is probably the right moment to chuck in a couple of caveats. Failure is good, but only if it is done well! Assess risks, but don’t ignore them; then fail quickly, fail often and fail intelligently. Analyse and document the reasons for the failure, and don’t whatever you do, make the same mistake twice. Repeat fails are just plain incompetent.

Speed to market

Central to any innovative media company’s operations is speed. We’ve already seen that growth relies on successful launches and to achieve one successful launch, you need lots of unsuccessful launches. In short, to grow, you need to launch stuff, quickly.


One of Euromoney CTO Ben Jones’ primary objectives when he started at the company was to “shorten the product life cycle down from eighteen months”. One of the reasons the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) implemented a new content management system a couple of years back, said David Leeming, was to expedite the launch of new products. David Foster spoke of the importance of “decreasing your time to first revenues”, because risk is substantially reduced if the launch cycle can be measured in weeks rather than months.

Speaker after speaker spoke of the importance of developing MVPs (Minimum Viable Products) and “getting it out there”. Don’t spend time and resource perfecting it, because that increases the risk and the moment passes – launch with the most basic representation possible, then develop it further (or not) depending on feedback. The need for nimble and agile development recurred throughout the day.

IT infrastructure

Speed to market is fine in theory, but unless you have the right IT infrastructure, you’re going to struggle in practice. Specifically, a unified content management system (CMS) and a single customer view CRM (customer relationship management) system across your publishing operation.

Only by combining your content in a unified platform can you ever hope to realise its true potential. By aggregating properly tagged content sets, a publisher is able to rapidly create new products and services. By digitising their vast archive and bringing all their content onto one publishing platform, the RSC is now able to bring three to four new journals to market each year.

Ben Jones was faced with such a situation at Euromoney. “How do I monetise the large but isolated repositories of content around the group?” His answer was a complete CMS overhaul with three aims: to bring all content across the group into one place, to repurpose existing content to enable greater discoverability and to put in place a digital first strategy.

Having all your content, properly tagged, on a single platform is the first prerequisite for innovative publishing. The second, and even more important one, is knowing who your customers are and how they behave. David Foster said it was essential to have the proper “marketing / CRM technology – 100% of fast growth companies have integrated CRM systems.” It’s not rocket science – if you know how your customers and prospective customers behave, where they live, where they work, what they buy and when they buy it, then you are in an incredibly powerful position to construct successful commercial propositions. If you don’t, then you’re reliant on gut instinct, hearsay and whatever market knowledge and experience you and your team carry around in your heads; good luck with that approach.

Customer insight

A well-managed CRM system will provide you with a mass of essential quantitative data, with which you can highlight trends, identify behavior patterns and spot opportunities, but it is the qualitative insight which you only get from going out into the market and talking to your clients which will help unearth the real gold.

Asset International’s Jim Casella says that “AI’s product development starts with the trusted relationships it has with clients around the world.” Their development process focuses on the client and AI invests a lot of time in researching client requirements, through focus groups and surveys, with the aim of “understanding the client’s daily needs and workflow”.

Hearing from the client at first-hand about they want and need provides AI with invaluable insight and allows them to develop deep level and highly valuable products which AI is then able to embed into the client workflows. Indeed the new trend toward contributory products (such as Emap’s new HSJ Intelligence service, which was spoken about at the conference and is also the subject of Meg Carter’s interview with Andy Baker on page 24 of this issue), new high-value subscription services based on big data sets, often relies on clients providing data and insight, and this is only possible with deep and trusting relationships between publisher and client.

In Jim’s experience, too many companies, especially the large ones, spend inordinate amounts of time talking to themselves rather than talking to clients and, he says, the worst ideas always come from inside a company, and are developed in isolation without properly consulting with prospective clients.


So, to recap, the key components for innovation are: an inspirational boss who lives and breathes innovation, an open, flat and collaborative culture, loads of new product development (a healthy number of which fail) a unified CMS, a single view CRM and an outward looking client facing approach to new product development. It really is as simple as that.