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IA-logoInnovation has always been one of Econsultancy’s core brand values and we celebrate this every year with our Innovation Awards, shining a light on those companies and individuals who’ve helped to advance the digital marketing landscape over the past twelve months. 

But what do we mean when we talk about innovation? It’s a deceptively simple word with a million interpretations. For some it can be about simple changes; incremental decisions and refinements that give big results.

For others it could be a radical overhaul of the entire company structure.  Some businesses seem to naturally burst with ideas, while others require specific challenges to inspire them. 

In the run up to this year’s awards we thought we’d ask those who’ve reached our awards shortlist to tell us what innovation means to them.

We’ll be publishing a series of posts throughout February, covering everything from building innovative companies to exploiting new technologies.

We hope they’ll give you an insight into how some of the market leaders work and help you develop your own innovative ideas (and dare we suggest, enter them for an award in 2013). 

First of all though, we need to define our terms, so we’ve decided to start with a deceptively simple question:

What makes something innovative?

For many, innovation comes from a genuine desire to constantly improve the customer experience and distinguish themselves from their competition: 

Tina Judic, Managing Director at Found:

Innovation is borne out of a passion to deliver something different, unique and something that also awakens others' inspiration and interest. From a business perspective, it is anything that can add a new dimension to a company or its commercial landscape – from improving processes to the launch of whole new services or products.

Rob Shaw, Managing Director at Epiphany:

We understand innovation as a new or better way of doing things. That means that innovation can be big or small, from revolutionising a company or re-strategising a client’s account through to streamlining an internal process or creating a new piece of code. Innovation is often about progressive adaptation, accurately forecasting what’s going to happen in the future and changing to make sure you’re prepared for it.

Ken Leung CTO at Euclid Elements:

Innovation, at its most basic, is finding a different and better way to solve problems. Something innovative does not necessarily need to solve a previously unsolvable problem; an innovative idea often solves an existing problem in a cheaper or better manner.

One trend that stood out was the need to avoid blue-sky thinking. Innovation needed to have concrete, practical results:

Aaron Michie, Interactive Concepts Director at BMF

When it represents a genuinely new way of looking at things that will have an actual, positive impact on people.

Per Larsen, CEO and Co-founder at Movellas.com:

Improvement of anything. Could be the accountant that comes up with a better way to do the quarterly report or the office cleaner who finds a way to reduce the use of harmful chemicals. Innovations are not the exclusive area of software engineers but what they do is typically more visible and sexy!

Despite this, measuring results can be difficult. Many thought that innovation was inherently esoteric, only becoming apparent after the fact.

As Francesca Underhill from Naked Wines puts it: 

Something that evokes the following response time and time again:  “Damn it! That’s such a blindingly simple idea, I wish I’d thought of it first."

Jake Lingwood of Ebury Publishing/Random House has a similarly straightforward take on things: 

You know it when you see it. As a punter, you find yourself saying ‘oh, that’s good’.

Gareth Williams of flight comparison site Skyscanner puts this more implicitly:

Innovation can be immeasurable at the start. What makes innovation different from quality or value is that it only really becomes obvious to others retrospectively. You could say it is the quality component, plus the Aha! or eureka moment.

A large number of you put emphasis on finding something totally new.

David-Joseph Brown from Ve Interactive software and services told us:

Innovation has to be original and authentic. Modifying the use of something does not constitute innovation. New methods, techniques that were not previously available and achieving new goals validates innovation.

A view echoed by Ignition One’s Chris Evans: 

Innovation is about taking an approach that hasn’t been taken before; having the vision to see things differently and putting that vision into action.

While miiCard CEO James Varga has this to say:

Although a very subjective topic innovation is all about step change. There is a big difference between ‘improvement’ or evolution and ‘innovation’. For innovation to occur it has to be something new – a new approach, design, concept or product.

Convergence can definitely play a part in this but evolution just isn’t enough. It is through innovation that we take the big leaps forward but these leaps need to be supported by the benefit. Innovation without a positive improvement/benefit is without substance.

The increasing speed of change played a significant role, with first mover advantage firmly in mind when experimenting. 

Alan K. Paterson Marketing Director, Europe at Farnell element14:

A product or an idea becomes innovative when it stands out from the rest and truly makes the customers’ lives easier. A successful change that can convert knowledge and ideas into benefit – in the form of new or improved products / services is capable of being innovative. Matched with so many of our customer’s drive and needs, we believe in being first to market. Being first, it is what ultimately makes it innovative.

Real innovation is something that is literally “out of the box”- a completely new way of thinking, solving a problem, or taking something that is existing to the next level.” - Megan Bradley Global Account Director at Covario

There were still a number who believe that evolution beats revolution when it comes to creating innovative products and practices: 

William Smyth Head of Digital at OMD UK:

A new way of doing something that hasn’t been tried before and based on real insight of a problem. Sometimes this means taking existing things and fusing them together, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.

Chris Delahunty, Director at MMK Media:

It's a different way of approaching something. It doesn't have to be ground breaking, but a solution that gives a different perspective and opens everyone's eyes. At its best, an innovation is incredibly simple to see and deliver, and powerful in execution.

The need to be efficient was a powerful driver.

Charlie Rowan of Whishin:

To me, innovation means a different approach to achieve an objective in a more efficient way to that currently used. The objective could be improving a product or creating a better process. To do it in a more efficient manner the innovation would either be easier to use, save time or money.

Overall then, innovation is difficult to pin down.

Often, simple suggestions from unexpected sources combine to create extraordinary changes, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be instituted on a large, ongoing basis.

In the next post, we’ll look more closely at ways to foster innovation in a variety of industries, but for now let’s sum up with a quote from Dr Mark K. Smith. Mark is CEO at ipadio, and has a straightforward definition, and one of our favourite reasons for wanting to innovate: 

A new or sometimes simpler way of doing something. Innovation for the sake of innovation can be tiresome, making life simpler is lovely.

Econsultancy's Innovation Awards takes place in London on February 23rd. You can view the entire shortlist here, and book your table for the event here. For further information, see our regularly updated Innovation Report

Matt Owen

Published 7 February, 2012 by Matt Owen

Matt Owen was formerly Head of Social at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or hook up on LinkedIn.

203 more posts from this author

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