Lessons on adapting to change in the age of disruption

Disruption by Tsahi Levent Levi Flickr“The future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed”

That quote is from an unlikely source, a science fiction writer named William Gibson, but I think it aptly captures where we find ourselves today.

The never ending, furious pace of change and disruption that digital and technology has brought about is testing every corner of the marketing fraternity. Media agencies like my own pride themselves on adapting to a changing landscape; over the last decade launching and evolving capabilities in PPC, SEO, programmatic, data analytics, mobile and social to mention but a few.

Some got there quicker than others and indeed many of the largest groups, hindered by structure and silos, lost out to more nimble agency offerings and to specialists sprouting up. Accenture released a paper last week predicting that large enterprise organisations would be next to tackle digital disruption head on.

I’m not so sure it’s that easy despite many big brands having embarked on their own transformation journey. For sure, it is very much time for the role of digital, technology and customer service as key tenets of marketing and business to be the centerpiece in any transformation project, but let’s consider how challenging that might be.

In a recent blog of mine I discussed the importance of Purpose (with a capital P) and how the likes of Facebook and Google have succeeded by having a clear purpose at their core. Their success has undoubtedly also come through building a culture that promotes agility, risk-taking and fast decisions.

One of my personal favourite Facebook mottos which hangs proudly in both their (and now my) office is “Done is better than perfect.” If you can get to 90% in two days, why take two weeks to get to 95%? This phrase sets out a clear intent that not only speed and agility are the order of the day, but that perfection is overvalued and failure is both necessary and healthy.

Can large, legacy organisations capture this same energy and commit in the same way? Legacy structures and ways of working are always a barrier but I do genuinely believe people will change if they understand why they are changing and how it’s better for them. This requires top down leadership, clarity of vision and constant communication.

What I’ve learnt is that no matter how firm your ambitions are to do the above, people, P&L’s, projects and unfortunately politics get in the way. Even in an agency that prides itself on agility and entrepreneurialism, some change just simply requires the traditional barriers to be lifted so that a start-up culture can thrive.

Danielle Newnham, co-founder of We Make Play, shared a brilliant blog post on this topic last week and quotes a very poignant statement from Dave Harrison, ex creative director of Profero: “As agencies become more grounded, the financial agenda often suffocates the creativity”.

Risk-taking by definition means the commercials are not guaranteed from day one. So I wanted to share two disruption strategies from brands that stand out for me:

Firstly, Net -A-Porter. They have clearly established themselves as the leader in global luxury fashion beautifully blending commerce and content, something very few other brands have succeeded in. Their constant experimentation with user experience has seen their responsive website constantly adapt, be first to market in m-commerce, launch a social hub called Fashion Fix and house video inspiration under Net-A-Porter TV. Constant experimentation and evolution.

Another favourite of mine is from the publishing industry. In the wake of a constant decline in print circulation, The Guardian today has more digital users than newspaper readers.  TheGuardian.com received more than 102 million unique monthly visitors in March, and is live in both the US and Australia. They seamlessly integrated print and online using the same software for both and trained all journalists on video production. They embraced blogging and social media from the start and made the conversation an additive to the content; they have tested their own ad exchange model, their responsive mobile site is market-leading and a new range of mobile apps will soon allow users to personalise the content experience to their favoured journalists. Moving in harmony with changing news consumption habits.

I hope you’ll agree that these two examples do offer some learnings for how brands themselves can embrace disruption, rather than hide from it.

It’s about being very clear on your brand purpose from the beginning. Know what you stand for, communicate it widely and then you effortlessly create the rule book for your people.

Taking risks and being more open to experimentation is critical. Many have criticised Nike’s recent Fuelband strategy but for me it is a great example of course correction; Nike has realised the future is in software and not hardware and no doubt already has a smart build on their initial strategy that worked very well for a couple of years.

Longevity is no longer a certainty in today’s rapidly changing world so brands must move fast and be agile to exploit market opportunities while they exist. For example, social networks remain a hugely under exploited vehicle for organic communication while brands wait on a chunky collection of case studies before committing; it’s the trailblazing brands like Net-A-Porter and The Guardian who will win in the future by embracing change and turning it in to competitive advantage.

If you take nothing else away from reading this, I would encourage you to think about how you can encourage more innovation and experimentation in your business. To embrace change and make progress you need a culture that is willing to accept failure as a step forwards, not backwards. My view is that if you get the culture and purpose right, the rest will follow.

That way hopefully the future will be more evenly distributed and brands will increasingly view disruption as a rich vein of opportunity that should be seized with both hands.

Paul Frampton is chief executive of Havas Media