What does ‘innovation’ mean anyway?

“Innovation” is one of those words that’s been used so often it has been completely stripped of its meaning. What does it mean to be an innovative brand in 2015? What are agencies really talking about when they talk about “innovating?” Asked point blank, they probably couldn’t answer.

That is, unless they were truly … innovative. Some of the brightest minds in digital marketing are gathered in Vail, Colorado, this week for the Digiday Agency Innovation Camp (see? Not even Digiday is immune to the jargon). So we asked a few of them how they put more meaning back into a word that has come to mean so little. In a nutshell: It’s about process, but it’s also about passion. It’s about getting creative with less, and it’s about taking risks. Their answers, edited for space and clarity:

David Slayden, founder and executive director, BDW
Innovation is not a theory. It’s a practice, and it happens in the doing. It also seems to happen best when you have limitations. That’s really hard to build into your business model and your practices. Business wants to be steady state. Innovation is not steady state. Innovation is change and disruptions and problems. It’s hard to get that balance between steady state and innovation. Also innovation happens through mistakes. It’s a game: What can we do with what we have? And it’s really driven by not an idea, but that you know this can be better. It’s a practice. It’s a mindset.

Nicole Estebanell, svp and group media director, Digitas LBi
Recently, I’ve been thinking about innovation as a new way of thinking, new way of operating, new way of collaborating. We start to think about people operating in hybrid roles where historically you’ve got planners and buyers, you’ve got your analytics people, your programmatic. It’s in silos. If you have people that can dovetail and operate across multiple lanes, you become more efficient, and then you develop a talent pool that’s more well-rounded. It gives freedom to think about things differently. It can be a new approach, a new operating model. That can be innovative. What works on one client doesn’t work on another client.

Brett Steiger, head of brand marketing, Travelocity
It really comes back to what I think is our biggest tool: authenticity. It’s being authentic to yourself as a company and being authentic to who your customers are and what they care about. A lot of times when we say “innovate,” what actually we’re doing is creating something that is great for us to generate revenue but not necessarily truly innovative in terms of pushing the boundaries or really helping with a consumer problem. The companies that have proven to be successful know who they are and they tie everything they do to who they are and what they want to provide for their customers. It doesn’t have to be the next Facebook or the next Twitter to be innovative. It just has to be something that really resonates with who you are as a company and who you’re targeting as a customer.

Greg Fass, head of PR & influencer marketing, MeUndies
We were forced to be creative with what we’ve had — otherwise we never would have been able to compete with the big guys. It’s just by doing. The only time I talk about us being innovative is when I’m on stage and I have to say something about it. If you’re out there and you’re doing new things and you’re not afraid to take risks, that’s what innovation is — knowing that not everything is going to work. Go out there do something new and risky and untested. There’s no reason to say you’re innovative. People will know.

Vicky Land, senior manager of PR, SoulCycle
You can’t force it. Julia [Rice] and Elizabeth [Cutler], our founders, had an idea: They saw a hole in the marketplace for a new product. And so they completely turned something on its head that now everyone else has followed. But they went with their instincts. They didn’t do a whole ton of market research.

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