November 21, 2022

The Plight of a ‘Chief Innovation Officer’

Ben James


At 90 days into my time as GALE’s first ever Chief Innovation Officer, it’s officially the sink or swim moment. Swimming with this title isn’t as easy as I thought it would be. The collective eye roll seems to wait for me in every meeting as people expect me to talk about the metaverse and NFTs and other “innovations.” Is that the job of a Chief Innovation Officer?

Innovation has become a misused and misunderstood term. True innovation is moving beyond buzz-whistle marketing and heading into complex problems — in an attempt to explore all creative means of solving them. To innovate might mean to go where the laws are changing and people aren’t sure what their rights are anymore, and for us to show a client how to be part of that change. As a former CCO, innovation to me is an ability to be creative in your approach. We may apply creative thinking to the way we use media, to what we make, to how we communicate with people -- all of that changes the approach and constitutes innovation.

There doesn’t seem to be any time for new approaches anymore. Our industry is moving so fast to get work done that often we’re not even in the conversation about innovation. This speed, this franticness that we’re all caught up in is very harmful for the responsibility we have in working with the brands and businesses that we do — which is to be incredibly thoughtful and considered.

How can we do this when we’re at war with thoughts? Thoughts are where we can go to discover an idea — and though typically not fully formed, an idea can be shaped into a solution. That process requires two things: being comfortable with ambiguity and time — two things our industry is very short on these days.

When space and time are present, we get to results-based innovation solutions — I promise! At GALE, our entry point for innovation is first-party data — using it not only for efficiency and reach, but also insight and breakthrough. It’s what led us to an amazing community marketing strategy via New York City Marathoners for MilkPEP and to our loyalty rewards work with Chipotle. And, it’s what enables us to innovate — smartly, effectively, ostensibly — for clients daily without the eye-rolling. Your entry point for innovation might be something different than ours, but you won’t get there without taking a deep breath, slowing down and pushing past what our industry’s pundits are calling “innovations” today.