Nikki Wicks
Apr 8, 2015

Microsoft's global head of innovation on defining what it means to be innovative

When you type the word 'innovation' into Google one of the top results (just below 'innovation quotes') is 'innovation definition'. While it’s undoubtedly a favourite buzzword among marketers, do we really know what we’re talking about when we talk about innovation?

Jonathan Oliver: startups can bring new energy to large corporations, but must be handled with care
Jonathan Oliver: startups can bring new energy to large corporations, but must be handled with care

In an interview about his latest bookThe Innovators, Steve Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson said the word has “been drained of much of its meaning” because it’s been so overused.

So what does innovation actually mean for marketers?

According to Microsoft’s newly appointed global head of innovation, Jonathan Oliver, it all depends on who you’re talking to. Oliver wouldn’t disagree with Isaacson's view on innovation: it is a buzzword, he says, and for brands and agencies it can be difficult to define. But that’s largely because it's so subjective.

“One man's innovation is another man's traditional marketing,” he says.

In his role at Microsoft, Oliver works with many of the world’s top brands on creating new marketing initiatives and encouraging innovation. While technology will often play a role, an important part is establishing what innovation means to each individual client. Microsoft’s most ambitious project in years, for example—it’s much anticipated holographic computer HoloLens—would be a leap too far for some brands, Oliver explains.

“It’s about determining where people are on the innovation spectrum,” he says. “If you talk to Brand A, their level of innovation may be some type of rich media display ad. If you go and talk to Brand B, they may think innovation is a new product that they want to partner with. It's all innovation, but two ends of the spectrum. It’s about defining what it is, and the KPI that you can attach to that just needs to be set at the top,” Oliver says.


Coming soon: Microsoft's holographic computing platform, HoloLens

Fundamentally, Oliver believes that for companies to be truly innovative and transform their business, innovation needs to span all pillars of an organization.

“When you look at marketing plans, you go to any company now, one of the pillars is content, data, mobile, video, innovation. What does innovation mean? Innovation should be across all of those pillars and embedded and inherent in all of them,” he says.

Recently, Microsoft worked with Virgin Atlantic to create a virtual Christmas experience onboard the airline’s new 787 Dreamliner. The smells and sounds of Christmas, combined with the projection of live images on the ceiling of the aircraft, gave the impression that Santa Claus was landing on the aircraft with his reindeer.

When we talk about innovation, it’s easy to immediately think about technology, but Oliver says that “innovative thinking” is what really drives businesses forward. For Virgin, having Santa “land” on its aircraft was an innovative brand experience, but as Oliver points out, the innovation wasn’t in the technology itself, but more in the thinking and creative process.

Microsoft worked with Virgin Atlantic on an innovative festive flight onboard its new aircraft

Creating unique brand experiences is a great way for brands to innovate, but more importantly, these experiences often kick-start larger campaigns.

“When you look the stuff we did with Virgin, that was a one-off experience that had 280 people experiencing something first-hand, but you use that as the super conductor to drive people back into the brand. So, the innovation becomes the marketing in itself. Then you can build out more traditional campaigns and find other ways of innovating.”

So how can marketers encourage innovation within their business?

Microsoft is pushing its own innovation strategy, and that means collaboration and absorbing “new energy” into the company culture.

“For innovation to occur you have to drive energy,” Oliver says. “Now, trying to get energy into a company, into a big corporation, can be difficult. Microsoft has become a much more open company in the last year or so and it’s opened up its doors in terms of partnering and collaboration,” he says.

“We’re always looking to transfer more energy and start-ups are a great way of doing that. If a start-up doesn't have any energy, then they're dead in the water before they've even begun. But you can't just clash them together. You have to try and take that energy and absorb it into the right way.”

When it comes to investment in innovation, Oliver is quick to point out that it’s not about how much money you invest; it’s about how much “energy” and innovative thinking you bring to the table.

“It's not all about investment budget,” he says. “We're working on something at the moment in the UK which is, I would term, high end innovation but is a very small investment level.

But the idea itself, and the concept that this particular brand has, lends itself well to doing something really innovative.”

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