Platform Innovation in a Service business

By Benjamin Tan, CEO & Chief Digital Officer, Grey Digital, Southeast Asia

I was fortunate enough to be in a final year research team in University, tasked with figuring out commercial applications of a new thing called “the Internet”. We took the path of advertising and spent our hours figuring out how to make HTML pretty and how people could find these pretty pages. We aced the subject by building a simple “search engine” that yielded visual results called “banners” which led to “websites”. This was in 1994/5.

A similar innovation happened with a dude called Jerry Yang in Texas and we all know how that went. I couldn’t get funding, sold the codes to a nice German friend for USD 35K, and started a digital agency, because the only business model available to a young fellow with no money is a Service business. Twenty years later and I’ve spent most of my life selling innovations to clients as a service. In a business like ours, we will continue to come up with great ideas, which we will never own or monetize, simply because they are either sold to clients or never invested in because it’s just not a natural fit to an agency business.

How then do we give good innovation its deserved right to see life? Do we as a group have to lose talent and IP (to create their own start-ups) for these ideas to become a business on their own? Or do we really need to even think about this as an organisation because the platform innovation business is just not our thing?

But last year, an innovative idea for a new platform struck.

Social listening provides marketers insights on how their efforts are affecting their social presence, usually month to month. The same can be said for media and conversion analytics, in that it tells marketers post campaign, where it went well or wrong and provide learnings that can be used to improve future communication plans.

However, how much more amazing will social and media analytics be if they can firstly, be measured in real-time, so that we can know these insights the instant they happen? What if we can see the correlation and direct impact between social conversations and conversion directly? Most importantly, what if we can act on these insights in real time, in terms of social response and creative & media optimisation – all in tandem!

With these in mind, my team ideated and came up with an idea of having a Real-Time Marketing platform. We drew inspiration from the fact that we have already for years been handling in real time, social listening & engagement, media bidding and creative optimisation. So we wondered about the possibility of pulling all these capabilities into a single platform, stacking them up along the same timelines to see correlation, writing an algorithm to pick up possible min-phenoms and adding an Actionable side to the platform where we can act on what we learn.

Six months down the road, and we have gotten the tools together, built up a centre in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, hired some talent to operate it, and roped in technology and knowledge partners to help us build the software we need. We are now close to launching our very own Real-Time Marketing command centre – a true ace in the bag when it comes to differentiating ourselves in pitches, especially in Asia.

So how could this have happened in the midst of the Business-As-Usual workload? Here is my take on how one can actually pull this off:

1. Invest ahead in the idea – and I mean time, thinking, creating the business case.

- Stop dreaming it and griping about the lack of funds.
- Invest your weekends and plane-trips in fleshing out the idea, the business plan and then meet stakeholders to get buy-in, while still delivering on your day-job.
- You would be doing all that if you were an entrepreneur, so the same is expected here.

2. Everybody has time to hear a new idea – So use that.

- If you have a case and the work to show it, then show it. Most importantly, show it to clients.
- Minimally, you would have impressed upon them your pro-activeness and ability to innovate, which clients always welcome.
- Ideally, you would have signed up a list of clients willing to commit to a proof-of-concept.

3. Understand your constraints and help make decisions easy – I cannot over-stress the importance of this.

- Clients’ demand for such a product or offering and a solid business case – are the two magic potions you need in your pocket before talking to the boss.
- Of course having a boss who is visionary and trusting is also essential, and I have been fortunate on this count.
- Demonstrate an idea that will enable the organisation to leapfrog the competition and become a revenue stream. This will make your case much stronger.

4. Deliver – you absolutely have to deliver so that success can breed success.

- The problem here is that the reverse is also true.

There is of course one final question that comes to mind– why would anyone do any of this if the pay-off comes only after it’s a success and even then, that reward for all the risk is shared?

The only way to answer this comes back to a very fundamental thing – If it is in you, then you just need to do it because the usual norm does not get you there.

Innovation is like Pain. It demands to be felt.

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