Tech Directors and Innovators session with neu and Add Jam - what we learnt

23 Sep 2019

Posted by Anna Doyle

BIMA’s first Tech Directors and Innovators session led by Grant MacLennan of neu, and Michael Hayes of Add Jam on 10 September in Glasgow, garnered an interesting cross section of attendees from agency heads, tech leads, design directors to creative technologists. As you can imagine the conversation spanned a range of challenges and opportunities in the sector.

Grant opened the session by exploring the significance of the 20% rule. Why is there such a focus on the 80/20 relationship? Fascinatingly it straddles industries, communities and centuries. Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian engineer, sociologist, economist, political scientist and philosopher (1848 to 1923) created the Pareto principle based on his observation that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. Joseph Juran, a Romanian-born American engineer and consultant (1904 to 2008) invoked the Pareto principle regarding his observations on wealth distribution, noting that 20% at the top were getting 80% of the money. 

With several other fascinating examples aside, Grant went to apply the Pareto principle to innovation, splitting digital projects into 20% innovation 80% non-innovation. Breaking down innovation itself, Grant shared the formula:

Innovation = 20% idea + 80% execution

But how do you create the 20% time to innovate? Does it make sense to ring fence it in a time frame or can you make it more fluid? Where do we have our best ideas? Grant shared his insights with the room but I suspect we are all different. Of course, there is the business challenge of investing financially in the 20%. Can you take those costs to your clients or are they necessary overheads? It was noted among the group you have to innovate to survive – it is a crucial part of business. Furthermore, if you innovate at the front end you need to carry that through all business functions to be impactful and successful.

With Michael at the helm, the discussion shifted to a deeper look at the technologies used and how they can help or hinder innovation. Questions and theories focused on three areas:

Language & Framework

– how do you keep up with changing technologies?

- focusing on the expertise within your team and capitalising on it

- how do you manage your source and branching strategy?

- if the process is the fastest way to get the job done, everyone will follow the process. So get the process right

- oh yes, and stay away from Forums

Code Review

Everyone agreed this could be a difficult area as it appears a universal truth that no one likes to critique or to be critiqued. Avoiding a “master and servant” approach is essential and many favoured a peer to peer approach to counteract this and encourage collaboration. A couple of key points were agreed upon:

- be as dispassionate as you can. Set up the ground rules and measure against previously agreed design principles to be objective

- intent is important. Be clear a review is about making it better not pulling someone’s work apart


Discussion had already confirmed that innovation cannot happen in a silo so collaboration is key. Lunch and learn sessions are popular where a mutually interesting topic is addressed and it also helps develop team presentation skills. Another approach was making sure that team members shared their learnings from courses or conferences they had signed up to.

Innovation needs to operate within design principles and what you can technically achieve so how do you reach the best possible outcome with these parameters in place? On a project everyone wants to be “agile” but some level of “waterfall” approach is still required too. Of course, collaboration cannot happen without effective communication and some time was given to discussing the best tools and techniques for achieving this.

This led to final part of the session focusing on how you innovate as a business, with a few questions rising to the surface:

How do you find the time?

How do you pay for it? Are you happy for no immediate commercial return on innovation investment?

How do you integrate innovation across all your teams?

Clients are not always as brave as you would like them to be but it is their brand and money after all so they need to fully trust you and be happy with a certain level of risk. One approach is to test new ideas on your own brand first, if it works it has paid off for you and you have proof of pudding for your clients. The ubiquity of the use of the word digital has made it almost meaningless and the phrase “creative technology” and the role of a “creative technologist” are coming in favour.

Frequently raised is the need to understand your client (and their clients) well enough to be able to see their problems before they do and here is a space and opportunity to innovate by creating solutions for them. And as creative agencies start to become product companies who owns the IP, can the risk/product model transfer into the service model (where most agencies are still perceived to be)?

The session closed on a quick cautionary look at adopting new technology to innovate:

- What are you actually going to use?

- What is going to be valuable?

- What is going to still exist, what will disappear?

Security mains of tantamount importance and creates the ongoing challenge of locking doors while enabling the corridors and passageways of creative thinking and innovation to flourish.

A huge thank you to Grant and Michael for leading the session and the many practitioners in the room for candidly sharing their views and experiences. 

Anna Doyle
Posted by Anna Doyle

A member of the BIMA Team since 2012, Anna‘s time is focused on the day-to-day operations of BIMA, building BIMA communities across regions and disciplines and, best of all, spending time with BIMA members to learn more about their business challenges and aspirations. Based in Glasgow, Anna is also responsible for delivering member services and support for BIMA Scotland. Everyday offers a new insight. Previous experience includes 4 years in the BBC Arabic Service newsroom, heading up a pan-BBC World Service change management programme, and working in a diverse range of industries from financial derivatives trading, petroleum engineering and spring manufacturing.

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