Nicole Yershon I’m always interested in talking to other labs leaders. It’s a relatively small, but highly-visible community of experts worldwide, and we can learn a tremendous amount from each other about things like innovation strategy, best practices and team management. When I heard that Nicole Yershon, Ogilvy UK’s Director of Innovative Solutions, would be visiting our London office, I put together some questions and asked Jacob Salamon to sit down with her for an interview. Nicole has been featured as a top UK influencer in The Wired 100, and describes herself as “an irresistible force against immovable objects.”  If you’re at all interested in the business of innovation, this is a must-read.

Let’s start off by talking about the role of the Digital Innovation Lab at Ogilvy… what is the mission of your group?

The role of the Labs, particularly in London, is to inspire creativity in using technology and finding alternative revenue streams.

As the director of the Labs team, how do you measure your success?

I think there are so many different facets to the Lab in London, but it’s measured in all manner of different ways. It’s measured in money coming in to the lab for R&D, measured in creative awards for using technology in ways that have never been done before, measured in how many people it inspires and educates in order to do something a little bit different—lots of different measurements of success.

How do you get inspiration for new ideas at Ogilvy for the Innovation Labs to work on and how do you prioritize those ideas?

Innovation comes from the Semester of Learning, where it’s very detailed deep-dives in particular areas—for instance, now the focus is on music—but I usually get briefs that outline a problem, and I’m tasked with finding the right solution. We’ll then work out whether that solution involves social media, or using mobile, etc. That’s normally how it pans out; it’s not just, “come up with a weird idea and sell it.”

What are your Semesters of Learning? How long do they last, and which ones have you done in the past?

Semesters of Learning last for a term, so usually three a year, depending on how much work needs to go into them. We’ve covered in the past gaming, mobile, IPTV, social networking, branded utility, streaming—many, many different things so we have an understanding of all of those spaces.

As an agency, how do you balance customer led versus internal innovation?

Customer-led innovation will obviously increase revenues, so most things are very much customer-led. Otherwise, if it’s internal, it needs to show some kind of cost and time efficiency saving. The focus of our internal innovation is looking for different revenue streams to get money in and do things in different ways. To go back to the Semesters of Learning music example, it’s about understanding music in totality and building those partnerships with that whole ecosystem, so when anyone comes up with a music-related idea, there’s that collaboration to do something that’s never been done before.

Your twitter bio mentions “as director innovations at ogilvy london, i get shit done.” What’s the right balance between thinking and making?  How do you get people on board?

I always go on about “hunters and farmers,” and I think to make something happen you have to have another hunter, because their mentality is naturally curious and they will want to see it happen, to see it finished. You align yourself with those likeminded individuals, and there has to be a reason as to why you’re doing it. I look to work with people that are entrepreneurial, collaborative, curious, open. Everything I do, I normally get buy-in from the C-level, and it’s normally to do with the bottom line and money. Our projects have to make financial sense; they can’t be random or unfocused.

How do you test to see if an innovation is having the expected results?  How do you know when to pull the plug on a project or take a different tact?

You need to understand very early on that anything you’re doing which has not been done before can’t be, and won’t be, measured in the same way you might measure a TV commercial hitting X amount of eyeballs. That’s why we normally do this 80-20 split, so that you carry on spending 80% on your tried-and-tested media, but you take 20% away to do something that’s a little more innovative, and maybe you measure it in a different way.

What’s the most effective way you’ve found that you get your organization to rally around a new innovation?

You have to prove by doing. You have to have a few case studies behind you, then build fame, then build peer pressure, then maybe get awards, for people to think, “Maybe I should be looking at doing something in that space.”

How do you balance innovation managed by your team vs. supporting the whole organization to continue to innovate? (i.e., how do you keep innovation from being something that “the labs group does”)?

This is why I use Lab Rats. Within Ogilvy, there are two or three people in each group company (there are ten group companies) that have a day job like business developer, or Flash director, or creative, and they do Labs-style work on top of their day job. That helps to cross-pollinate all the different ideas across the group companies, helps them get to know each other, helps them to sell different parts of the organization, and it also helps them to understand what we’re doing with the Labs, so they can share it with their peers and their clients.

Customer Intelligence

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