What the advertising industry can teach Google about innovation

Autumn 2015

Marketing is a battle of perceptions, not facts. - Ries and Trout

Last week, at the Sydney Firestarters event, Google's head of strategic planning, Abigail Posner, proudly proclaimed "We're a maker culture... Words are cheap, you have to codify it, have a name for it, turn it into something real, something tangible."

The message mirrored Al Varian's call to the US Newspaper Industry back in 2010. Be like us: Experiment, Experiment, Experiment.

But take a closer look at Google's innovation radar and you'll soon discover most of the best known products and services developed during its first decade of existance didn't emerge from Google's fabled innovation culture - they were acquired or licenced (e.g. Adwords).

YouTube, Feedburner, DoubleClick, Blogger, Orkut and AdMob are all acquisitions but so too are the foundation technologies behind the benchmark products like Analytics, Android, Picasa, Docs and Maps. More recently there have been the Robotics acquisitions

The only high profile product launches to emerge from the endlessly experimental in-house innovation culture that have been migrated into the core revenue model appear to be GMail, Apps, Translate, News, Google+ and Chrome. All of which fall into the category of "late to market".

Which probably explains why, a decade after its IPO and countless R&D initiatives, Google's business model remains heavily reliant on advertising revenues (i.e. 90%).

"Experiment, Experiment, Experiment" may be fun but clearly it is more effective to "Acquire, Acquire, Acquire".

i.e. It is easier to acquire and assimilate the disruptor early in the cycle than to compete with it later on.

But what about Google Glass and Driverless Cars I hear you say?

Surely they are testament to Google's ongoing commitment to innovation?

Good question, and here's where we pivot the discussion. Innovation is a game played in two parts. Yes there is invention. Creative play. But there is also execution. The ability to commercialise those inventions and turn those brilliant, creative ideas into profitable new revenue streams.

You see great products fail everyday simply because they fail to spark the imagination of the crowd. Or, when they do, it's not the kind of reaction the developers were expecting.

So let's play a thought experiment. Let's ask the question, given a decade of failed experimentation in discovering a profitable business model beyond putting ads on the menu, what can the Advertising Industry teach Google about innovation?

We'll use Google's Glass as a case study or rather as a window into a forgotten insight.

Glass was originally launched as the next generation Go-Pro. Less a heads up display and more a hands free camera phone. Urban HeroWear. The opportunity for the man or women of action to record every exciting moment of his day.

The message was "You focus on being the hero. Glass will take care of the memories".

The break out moment, was after all, a high risk performance piece played out at a developer conference. The mobile savvy developer reimagined as an urban guerrilla flying into to save the future. If you followed the Glass story you will recall it wasn't the breakout product Google imagined it to be.

The big fail here was the engineering team assumed the world was ready for a hands free Go-Pro with mobile smarts. They failed to identify the tribes, and ultimately the tribal leaders, who could not only champion the product as the next generation of HeroWear but also position it as something more than urban NerdWear.

They failed to identify the social proof and in its absence the wisdom of the crowd was left to shape its own proof.

So here in resides the lesson to be learnt from the "Glasshole" experience.

The reason most tech fails to ignite the imagination is because the purveyors of the technology have failed to identify the social proof. The raison d'Ítre for the technology to exist within the social setting. They spend their days thinking as engineers and not potential customers. That's why they are endlessly surprised with what users do with their technology when it is set free into the wild.

And yet this is the business of marketing or more accurately advertising.

In our rush to embrace the big data and all thing digital we have forgotten who are the true "#firestormstarters" in the world of business.

So here is what advertising can teach Google about innovation: It's not all about you. It's all about what the customer thinks about you.

And the secret to success in advertising is all about getting inside the customer's head to discover the answer to one simple question: Why would you want one? Not tomorrow. Not the next day, but now. And then delivering that compelling message back to the customer.

It is all about igniting the collective imagination of the tribe with signs, symbols and stories. Stimulating the market with social signals. Or, for the uninitiated, weaving stories that permeate and influence the zeitgeist.

It is all about the development of the social proof. Identifying the social habits that make the product indispensable to the customer and then developing the ignition narrative that invites curiosity, hooks the interest, and ultimately binds the consumer to the experience... and, yes, encourages them to share the experience with others.

All of which is to say, when it comes to making a successful product launch, the challenge is cultural. Not technological.

You could say getting engineers to act on impulse is the easy bit. The rocket science is getting the customer to act on impulse.

Copyright 2015 Digital Partners Pty Limited. All Rights Reserved.