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Why 'ownership' is so yesterday

26 May 2014  |  Dominic Mills 
Why 'ownership' is so yesterday

In today's connected world good ideas can come from anybody, anywhere - so it's time big companies took some risks and relinquished control of new product development to outsiders, argues Dominic Mills.

If you were smart enough to attend Media Playground last week, you will have seen the wonderful Alex Dunsdon, co-founder of The Bakery, talking in the final session about open innovation.

For those who don't know, The Bakery, is an offshoot of Tech City, and its function is to bridge the gap between start-up techies and the marketing community.

Spend any time with Dunsdon, or at The Bakery, and you soon realise that there is a plethora of smart kids (and they are sooo young) dreaming up technology that someone, somewhere in the marketing community, might have a use for. And they're entrepreneurial with it.

Even Dunsdon says he struggles to keep up with all the bright marketing-linked technology ideas out there: augmented reality, artificial intelligence, face-recognition software, emotion-tracking gizmos, apps for this, gaming ideas, wearable tech, apps for that...you name it, someone's working on it.

One of Dunsdon's themes is open innovation: in a nutshell, he believes, today's connected world means good ideas can come from anybody, anywhere. Neither age nor distance is a barrier. People who operate in this world are naturally collaborative, and they don't like to be tied down by structure or corporate tradition (not till they're ready to sell up, anyway, in which case it's all different).

Big companies, however, are uncomfortable with this. They like, says Dunsdon, to 'own' stuff. And they like to own it 100%. Especially technology and innovation. They like to develop it themselves, which means they own every aspect of it.

But it's slow, difficult in a risk-averse culture, and the chances of success are low. Better by far to go outside, where it's faster, the chances are someone's already half-way there, and the risks are lower. The only drawback is that you can't exert complete control.

By nature, therefore, these corporations are unsuited to this new environment, the new rules and, bizarrely for such proponents of the market economy, they find it hard to deal with entrepreneurs. In short, these companies are anally-retentive control freaks and they always play their cards close to their chest.

This means that the very people they think they need to own won't play ball. The result, if you run a large corporation that is not the product of the digital era, is that your entity is always behind the action in today's tech world.

Occasionally though, one gets a flash of light. Last week, it was Unilever, which launched The Foundry in a bid to get in to bed early with marketing tech start-ups.

In the future, I may choose to apply the European Court of Justice's 'right to be forgotten' ruling to some of my work, especially the stuff I get spectacularly wrong. But not yet. I had an inkling something like this might happen a couple of months ago.

Unilever's Foundry offers techies three things: one, the opportunity to work with seasoned Unilever marketers to see first-hand how big brands work (actually, it's a two-way thing since our Unilever marketers benefit from being exposed to new ideas and ways of working); two, they get to work on real projects in areas where Unilever or its brands want action; and three, they get cash - £50,000.

You can already see how working in this area is changing Unilever. Go to The Foundry website and you will see a list of the areas where Unilever is looking for technology-led innovation: the smart kitchen; consumer-oriented sustainable living ideas; the quantified self/Internet of Things technology - hmm, I bet this takes Unilever even more into personal health or care areas; and better retail technology, whether physical or digital.

In the old days, of course, you'd have to torture a Unilever executive to get them to cough about their new product development interests. These days, they put it out there for all the world to see. So what if one of its big rivals, Procter & Gamble, Reckitt Benckiser or Johnson and Johnson, clocks it?

The other big change is that the Unilevers of this world won't necessarily own the technology they help bring to market. They might get the chance to buy the company, but the more entrepreneurial developers will prefer the licence model.

In a way, you could call this crowd-sourcing, which in its own way challenges the concept of 'ownership', particularly when it comes to creative work, where agencies don't just like the ideas of ownership, they hug it tightly to their chest.

I've always been sceptical about crowd-sourcing creative work. I thought it was a PR ploy, with the added advantage of getting something for virtually nothing. But, as the sharing economy takes hold, so I'm coming round to the idea.

Recently I saw a presentation from John Winsor, the co-founder of Victors and Spoils, which claims to be the world's first creative agency built on crowd-sourcing principles.

Winsor's point, which I agree with, is that technology lowers the once-unbridgeable gap between the professional and the amateur. If you look at some of the films on YouTube, made by so-called amateurs, they're as clever and well-shot as stuff by professionals.

So why should professionals, or why should ad agencies, 'own' creativity? It can come from anywhere. And Victors and Spoils sets out to find it.

Mind you, and you may choose to call me a cynic, I still struggle with the Victors and Spoils business model. Is its proposition that the client will get a better ad? Or that it will get a cheaper one? I also note that Havas has a majority stake in the agency, which suggests that to some people, 'ownership' still matters.

And while I'm in a cynical mood, let me note that while Unilever may be unlearning some of the rules of corporate life, its executives still speak a language alien to the real world. Here's Marc Mathieu, senior vice president of marketing: "we continue the Crafting Brands for Life [his upper cases, not mine] journey to make our brands more human and more purposeful, while also empowering our marketers to pioneer the future."

I admire what he and his colleagues are doing, but this man has consumed too much from the Well of Corporate Cliché (my upper cases). If he wants to make his brands more human, he could start by making his language more human.


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