NEWS15 March 2016

Startups versus insight: which is the future of innovation?

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UK — A session at the MRS annual conference, Impact 2016, saw panel members argue the relative benefits of insight teams and start-ups for driving innovation. 

Innovation crop

Startup incubators, accelerators and other forms of corporate and startup partnerships are on the rise, session attendees heard. The panel debated whether these are the best route to bringing new ideas to market, and whether this signals the end for consumer-led innovation. 

The panel, chaired by Caroline Plumb, CEO of FreshMinds, comprised of Colin Duff, digital innovation lead at Argos, Hilary Ingleton, head of market research at EE, and Louisa Livingston, group insight and innovation development director at Hachette. 

Duff’s role in digital innovation and his need to constantly leverage new technology means that he works constantly with startups, he said. He claims they offer agility and speed that large corporates can't deliver and ideas that consumers wouldn't be able to generate – whether they be large projects such as a recent global one generating 3D printed jewellery, or a small scale project adding ‘buying nudges’ to the Argos website, prompting users to buy items that are close to running out of stock. Within startups, he said, innovation can be tech-led, giving the example of an Argos project where technology was developed to be able to compare the relative sizes of products on the site. That could only have come about through its work with software engineers, not strategists or marketers, he said. 

Ingleton said that EE had always been an innovative brand, and that it has had many successes using consumer-led innovation, so the company is always keen to keep that at its centre. "The importance of insight for filtering and refining ideas means that it will always have a strong role to play in idea generation," she said. She also underlined the importance of leadership for driving innovation – there needs to be someone senior championing it or it won't happen to any meaningful degree. 

Livingston explained that her job title had only gained the ‘innovation’ element in the last year, because of how many ideas the insight work she was doing had generated. She believed that innovation requires both collaboration with startups and consumer insight: "You can't come down on one side or another – you'd have to be crazy," she said.

While startups can come up with ideas, Livingston said, you have to use insight to validate them, refine them, and bring them to life. She believes the power of insight to illustrate consumer reactions to new ideas – for example using vox pops – is unparalleled. "You need that [insight] to convince people that an idea is worth the risk. As hard as they try, a tech-y person can't offer that with just the facts."

Livingston also pointed out that the insight process can actually form the beginning of an audience for a new product or idea. She talked about a community forum that Hachette had used to test out and develop a new idea and how the individuals in that forum were now becoming influencers through talking on social media about their involvement.

"You can generate an audience just through doing research."