Well, this has to be my favourite ‘Day in the Life’ interview yet, with author and head of strategic innovation at Starcom, Amy Kean.
Never has innovation sounded more practical and fun. Let’s hear from Amy about what it means to have such an intimidating job title…
Econsultancy: Please describe your job: What do you do?
Amy Kean: I’m head of strategic innovation for the Starcom global team. The role is only ever as good as my imagination as it focuses on what innovation looks like for Starcom: how we work creatively with our partners and instil a culture of entrepreneurialism and openness across the agency.
I describe my job as a mixture of consultancy and jazz hands, depending on the client – I think it’s good to offer both: the long-term (unsexy) innovation that changes a business behind the scenes, and/or the cool creative stuff that knocks everyone’s socks off.
E: Whereabouts do you sit within the organisation? Who do you report to?
AK: I sit in the global team and work across all brands, reporting to the CEO of UK and Global Clients, Jodie Stranger. Our Global chief strategy officer, Kathy Kline, is based in Chicago – I have a dotted line into her and she’s a real inspiration, leading the creation and implementation of our ‘human experience’ planning process, which is the most unique I’ve seen during my time agency-side.
It’s brilliant to be part of such a strong community of strategists and digital specialists across the world.
E: What kind of skills do you need to be effective in your role?
AK: You need to be a (polite) pain in the arse, relentless, and try not to take things too personally. Around 30% of the time my colleagues look at me like I’ve gone mad, but that’s OK. It’s important to be positive, have a good energy, and make innovation accessible. It’ll never work if the ‘innovation person’ sits in the corner of the office on their own with headphones on, playing with a Raspberry Pi.
I studied sociology and psychology at university and it really helps me in this job. I love studying people, what sparks social movements and what it is about brands that (sometimes!) makes people feel good.
Being able to listen is a completely underrated skill. One of my heroes is Richard Thieme – a former priest who became a commentator on technology and culture – and he reckons if you’re sitting in a room and someone blurts out an idea that everyone immediately agrees with then it’s a bad idea, because it’s too safe. I always remind people of this as it gives me a buffer when I’m proposing something left-field!
It’s important to remember that the most confident, articulate person in the room isn’t always the one with the best ideas, because they’ve probably shared the idea a hundred times before!
E: Tell us about a typical working day…
AK: So… many… meetings! I’ve always been quite anti-meetings but at the moment we’re completely reinventing how we work with partners to inspire the agency and that requires a lot of attention. On average I’ll have about three working sessions a day with media owners or tech partners, whether it’s to arrange a client creative hack, plan some joint research or run through their content for one of our internal ‘Punch’ sessions. Our planners are too busy for generic creds or sales pitches, so I’m super strict with how our partners present to us.
No doubt there’ll be a pitch meeting because I’m always on a pitch. I get pulled in for a variety of different things – sometimes it’s working out how to research and understand the audience in a new, interesting way, other times I get asked for ‘disruptive ideas,’ which is vague, but fun!
I make sure I spend some daily time with one of the other amazing strategists here, like Ailsa Mackenzie, Mark Holden or Zara Bryson to plot and scheme and plan various creative initiatives to challenge the agency’s thinking, including something coming up soon with some graffiti artists… I try to catch up with our wider Publicis colleagues as much as possible, too – like NextTECHNow, our start-up specialists or one of the amazing folk at Digitas.
I meet with Lorena – our leadership team PA – most days, to chat about what agency sessions we’ve got coming up and what media owners want to sign up to our partnership programme. Lorena’s one of the best people I’ve ever worked with, but she calls me Mariah. I like to think it’s because I’m ageing well.
And it’s obviously important to spend time out of the office! We always say we should, but so often other stuff gets in the way. A few of us in the office are about to go to Bombas and Parr’s new ice cream exhibition, described as ‘celebratory sensory immersion’! To be fair, it sounds a little Nathan Barley, but we shouldn’t claim to think differently unless we’re seeking out fresh perspectives.
E: What do you love about your job? What sucks?
AK: I love the constant unchartered territory. It takes a while (in my experience) to stop feeling nervous and start feeling excited about things that have never been done before; you need to encounter all the typical pitfalls and issues, but once you get used to that then anything tried and tested becomes utterly unappealing.
What sucks? I wish everyone was as brave as the ones who work in innovation! This industry is notoriously slow and risk-averse.
E: What kind of goals do you have? What are the most useful metrics and KPIs for measuring success?
AK: A combination of commercial and cultural is essential for this role. New business needs to be won and projects need to make money, so as fun as thought-leadership is there’s a real pressure to convert pitches and get new, exciting campaigns off the ground. I’m also KPI’d on case studies, awards, hiring new innovative and diverse talent, and the slightly more subjective measure of ‘making a difference’ to how the agency works and feels.
E: What are your favourite tools to help you to get the job done?
AK: This job is all about collaboration and I can’t do it on my own, so I love a cheeky Google Doc. I rely a lot on the amazingness of the Foresight Factory – they’re pretty much the best in the business when it comes to spotting trends and sharing robust cultural insights.
Bit of a weird one but because I work in new tech I have to sign a lot of NDAs with partners who don’t want me sharing all their trade secrets, so the Tiny Scanner app is bloody handy. And not a tool, but the Publicis design team make everything we do look amazing (even internal docs if you ask them really nicely) and good-looking, creative communications make a massive difference to how you’re perceived.
E: How did you land in this role, and where might you go from here?
AK: Previous roles have been either focused on strategy or innovation. Starcom suggested to combine the two and so when they offered me this job – even though I wasn’t necessarily looking – I couldn’t refuse. I’d only come in for a few chats to begin with, but when I met Jodie Stranger I was totally won over by her vision and management style. I’ve never encountered a business leader who’s more universally loved and respected.
I only work four days a week – I’m a writer and have a book coming out later this year so spend Fridays doing various literary bits and bobs! Innovation is all about creativity and problem-solving, but the plan is to move more into production. I’ve just finished writing my second book (a novel about voluntourism in Africa!) and after that, want to write a TV show. I’d love to combine my day job and ‘side hustle’ to a greater extent, so we’ll see how that goes!
E: Who are the most innovative brands at the moment?
AK: There’s three brands I admire in totally different ways. The first is Burger King – I love how cheeky and competitive they are, and when it comes to embracing new technology they definitely don’t wait around for someone else to get there first. They’ve got a real f*ck-it mentality to innovation and while not every brand can, thank heavens for those who lead the way, and good on Burger King for being one of the first to mess around with Voice tech.
The work adidas is doing in innovation of product, making trainers out of ocean plastic waste, is beautiful, necessary and totally taps into their goal to make a positive impact on culture, worldwide.
And finally Lush have been impressively innovative in message. Their ‘anti-spy cops’ campaign ruffled some feathers but at least they have the confidence and integrity to stand up for what they believe in, and creatively that really pushed the boundaries in terms of what brands can and cannot say.
E: Do you have advice for anybody who wants to work in your field?
AK: Be yourself and embrace your weirdness. Never, ever, ever stop learning.
The Festival of Marketing 2018 agenda includes speakers from some of the most creative and innovative brands. See the lineup and book tickets.