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Nicky Unsworth's Report: IPA Trip to Silicon Valley

Having returned from a study tour conducted by the IPA of the creative companies in Silicon Valley as part of a 14 agency envoy, Nicky Unsworth, managing director of BJL, discusses the experience and relays some of the findings from meeting with companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Disney.

I was lucky enough to be part of the IPA West Coast Interactive Mission in November. The trip arose as a result of the current IPA President – Nicola Mendelsohn – setting her agenda this year of ‘better connections, fresh talent and better skills’. The IPA picked up this challenge and, as only they can do, constructed a visit to the US which led to an unrivaled insiders’ view of the industry, with meetings at the most senior level and no holds barred conversations – sometimes under NDA’s – where senior teams (often founding partners / board members) shared their inspirations, aspirations, trials, tribulations, successes, failures, hopes and dreams – a revelation in many instances. Among those we visited were Facebook, Google, Linkedin, Twitter, Adobe, Zynga, Yelp, Disney, Fox, Time Warner, IDEO and Stanford University.

During the 18 meetings in 4 days (we were busy!) some trends and uniting factors emerged. We witnessed an overwhelming focus on innovation and creativity, and above all else saw the speed at which this happens and learned of the willingness to ‘try and fail’ rather than to not try at all. There was a strong emphasis on the need to have filters for the ever-increasing amounts of information we are faced with, and an expectation of social media to play an increasing role in this process.

And while much of our focus was on young tech companies, our visit to more established organisations showed you don’t need to be a young tech company to be ahead of the curve: Disney were as inspiring as Zynga (Farmville), Twitter and Facebook; Adobe and showed insightful NPD in response to a changing market; and organisations such as Media X at Stanford University showed how they provide stimulus and inspiration for many of these companies.

Some highlights:

Facebook talked about how life is increasingly about the small rather than the large things, and referenced the Facebook mission ‘to help people share’. With 800 million users they are focused on the increasing opportunities for brands.

Ellen Levy has been with Linkedin since the start and gave us a sense of how they see Linkedin as a chance for people to manage their own personal brand and the importance of that moving forward. They produced individual maps for the team visiting – plotting our connections and links – which gave interesting insight into the spread and depth of our network. They are working hard to maintain the start-up culture which has seen them grow to 1800 employees and two new members per second are now joining the network.

Google definitely has a culture where ‘to try and fail is better than not to try at all’. Alberto Savoia talked to us about Prototyping – getting ideas into testing and approximating the end product rather than long drawn out old fashioned NPD programmes which take years, involve millions of dollars and often miss the mark, but get commitment because of the time and money spent so far.

Twitter engaged us with talk of VIT’s (Very Important Tweeters), the 2,400 paying advertisers on Twitter and case histories of brands such as Burberry, VW Beetle, Magnum and Virgin who have used Twitter as a core platform for campaigns, as well as the opportunity for Twitter and TV to collaborate for brands.

Without doubt Zynga had the best offices! We felt as if we were walking into a computer game: basket ball competitions, chill out areas and neon lights all helped create a vibrant atmosphere. They are obviously at an interesting stage in their life cycle and have brought in experienced practitioners from other games companies to help deliver the next phase of growth. There was lots of talk about the trend for games to be ‘social’, with graphics becoming less important – certainly true of the games in the social network sphere. One to watch in the near future...

At Disney we met with two Brits – Andy Bird (from Warrington) and MT Carney (Glasgow) – and were exposed to inspiring, forward thinking people and a team who seemed open to the idea of change. A simple example of their evolved approach is that historically Disney would have responded to people using their content with a letter from the lawyers prohibiting use. But as a sign of the changing times, when DJ Pogo began posting remixed Disney classics online, Disney’s marketing team opted to share their content directly with him to leverage top quality videos that are sure to go viral – take a look

Media X at Stanford University shone a light on the culture of innovation and helped to show how it starts at grass roots levels within universities. An inspiring presentation from Martha G Russell – Executive Director at Media X – showed the type of forward thinking which anticipates business' future needs years in advance, supporting innovation and creativity in Silicon Valley. With their strategic partners (businesses such as Cisco, Boeing, Sun Microsystems) Media X aims to pose big questions for the future, then focuses on conducting relevant research to help answer them (at any one point they have three major initiatives in place). This is a great way for companies to outsource some of the thinking in high risk areas, use the combined brain power of the Stanford University Thought Leaders and benefit from the intelligent and disruptive creativity so loved by Silicon Valley.

It was an altogether inspiring, thought provoking trip and it was great to be exposed to the challenges and ideas of Silicon Valley while with industry colleagues. The conversations and debates around what it might mean for us were as interesting as some of the direct learnings. There are many things we will start to do differently at BJL: one example a simple thought about how we might adapt our creative briefs with the addition of: ‘Why will the target audience engage with the idea’ and ‘Why will they share the idea?’ will make sure we maximise the opportunity to galvanise the power of social media.

The trip ended on the final night with a heated debate chaired by the IPA Director General, Paul Bainsfair, around a hypothetical investment fund set up among the delegation to invest in the company most likely to deliver the best return on investment for us. The outcome remains a well kept secret until we can prove we were right!

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