Four Lessons from Mullen’s Chief Innovation Officer

June 16, 2013

Back in June 2009, Edward Boches became the first Chief Innovation Officer at Mullen, a Boston-based ad agency that works with household names like JetBlue, Adidas, Google, and Zappos. Immediately, like every new CINO, he set about figuring out how he could have the most impact. (Worth a read is his post on that topic, “What does it mean to be a chief innovation officer?“)

We asked Boches to distill a few of the lessons he learned; he’d previously been the agency’s Chief Creative Officer, reporting to CEO. When he shifted over to the CINO role, he still reported to the CEO, Joe Grimaldi.

Cajole & inspire

“My initial objective was to get the company to pull its head out of its ass with regard to digital and social media, encouraging people to use Twitter, and trying to inspire people to get inventive with new platforms. We needed to make sure we had a leadership perspective on what these things could do for our clients.” His team created Brand Bowl, a way to capture the public opinion expressed on Twitter about Super Bowl ads. He circulated experiments like the music video that Google made with the band Arcade Fire, to get the agency’s creatives to “understand what was possible with these new technologies.”

Engage the Young Ones

Boches looked for ways to give younger employees a louder voice and higher profile within the agency, since they tended to be the most enthusiastic adopter of new social and mobile technologies. He created a public site called The Next Great Generation, edited by a twenty-something Mullen employee and focused on the interests and concerns of the Millennials. All of its textual and video content was crowdsourced from a network for college students and young bloggers. A 2011 philanthropic project, Good Belly, was conceived almost entirely by the agency’s twenty-somethings. The project invited diners at participating restaurants to snap a photo of their meal using the Instagram mobile app, and mention where they were eating it. Every time they did that, the restaurant would donate $1 to Unicef’s famine relief efforts in East Africa. “When you put the 25-year olds in a room, and don’t let their senior managers in, there’s much more experimentation and courage and collaboration,” he says. “They were fearless.”

Acknowledge Reality

“At every company, you are going to have people who are afraid, or who are actively obstructionist. And that’s because in every business, your self worth is defined by being an authority, the size of your office, your title, and knowing more about what you do than anyone else.” So introducing new social media tools and technologies, Boches says, involved plenty of one-on-one coaching — “making it un-intimidating, showing them how to log in, how to use a hash tag.”

Generate Business

“There were really no metrics that we adopted” to illustrate whether Mullen’s innovation initiatives were bearing fruit. “It was more about changing the culture and mindset.” But Boches helped create new materials that spotlighted the agency’s growing digital capabilities when its partners went out to pitch new business. “We ended up winning seven or eight new clients as a result of that,” he says. “Our social media activities were one of the reasons we were on JetBlue’s radar, and my own blogging and tweeting helped us get in the door with Google.”

As in every business, it never hurts to show that the innovation team can move the needle on revenue.

But Boches also says that an equally important accomplishment in a totally talent-driven business like advertising is leveraging innovation to get people to stick around. “One thing we ask a lot is how do you find ways to encourage and enable people to work on things they’re really excited about,” he says. “They might be bored with client work at a particular moment, and it helps that they have something else that feels less like work and more like you’re inventing something.”

By 2011, when Fast Company put together its list of the top 10 ad agencies, Mullen made it into the top five. The agency got kudos “for coming back to win progressive social-media clients.”