The Innovation Paradox

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eliiportnoyddtData-Driven Thinking" is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Eli Portnoy, general manager at Thinknear.

Job listings always include requirements, such as a minimum level of experience, a degree in a related field, fluency in certain languages or residence in a certain geographic region.

I’m sure that I’ve written my share of similar listings, but I’ve also considered candidates who applied without meeting all the musts because they brought something to the table that we didn’t want but had the potential to be something we needed.

I know of companies with 20-year-old lead programmers, 25-year-old marketing directors, even 28-year-old CEOs. If those people had only looked at the musts when applying for their jobs, or if their employers had ruled out the candidates because they didn’t meet enough prerequisites, where would those companies be?

I’ve found the ad tech industry to be remarkably flexible in its hiring practices. We are an industry of, by and for creativity, so it makes sense that we think a little outside the box when it comes to filling out our companies.

If only our customers could be so flexible.

The ‘Musts,’ ‘Whats’ And ‘Hows’

When it comes to innovation, ad tech and customers seem to be at an impasse.  Potential clients want innovative technology — something new and different that can be easily personalized to fit a campaign’s needs — but they’ll often run scared when learning that the technology is being developed by a 10-person startup. Alternatively, they’ll seek the reliability and reputation of an established company with a big staff and a reputation for success, but find they can’t run the sort of customized and innovative campaigns they envisioned. These potential clients are so hung up on the musts that they ignore all potential.

As ad tech professionals, we need to help steer prospects away from the musts and get them to focus instead on the “whats” and “hows.” What can we do for them? Can we deliver more precise targeting? More engaging and relevant content? A bigger ROI? How do we do it? How will we do it? Multi-channel retargeting? Best-in-class analytics? Reliable third-party data sources?

All of this hinges on a company’s ability to quickly develop innovative technology that can be customized to a client’s needs. And if the best provider for the job has 10 employees, so what? It’s 10 employees who care deeply about the success of your campaign. Size doesn’t matter nearly as much as the potential for innovation.

The Innovation Paradox

I’ve experienced this firsthand. In 2012, I was the CEO of a startup with 10 employees, most of whom were engineers. We built something innovative that had never existed before. We knew it and prospective clients knew it. But I vividly remember a prospect who told me, “We love what you’re doing, but you’re just too small.” The opportunity our technology presented simply wasn’t obvious to this company when weighed against our size.

Another time, a prospective client was put off not by our size but by our lack of case studies. Since we were so new to the market, we, like nearly every new company, didn’t yet have a Rolodex full of happy clients willing to go to bat for us.

These are examples of what I call the “innovation paradox.” Media buyers want innovation, but they also want the safety of a big company and a tried-and-true product.  To be fair, there are large companies that are able to provide the same kind of innovation that these smaller startups promise. I myself no longer head a startup. Our 2012 acquisition took us from that 10-person company to part of a publicly traded organization with several times the number of staff. But I’ve worked hard to ensure our team continues to operate in many ways as an always-innovating startup.

The key to the innovation paradox is, therefore, not to rule anyone out — whether the company checks all of your musts or not. Look at how performance measures up to promise, rather than how many people work for an organization or how old it is. You’re bound to find the right fit for you: a company that can offer some of what you want and some of what you need.

Follow Eli Portnoy (@eportnoy), Thinknear (@Thinknear) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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