Are We “Innovating”?

Nick Escobar
Visual Designer

“As a culture, we’ve become so obsessed with “innovation” that we imbue it with an intrinsic value all its own. We act as if a new idea is good just because it’s new. But what if we were forced to stop and ask ourselves: “Why do we need that?”

Microphone press conference
That excerpt, from the book Make Your Mark, attempts to define and understand innovation by asking ‘why’. Why is your company making this? Why are you trying to innovate? Does this innovation solve a current problem? It would be easy to disregard the answer as a semantic question, yet it’s worth discussing the intent behind the authors statement. We’ve become so obsessed with trying to reinvent the wheel in recent years that we’ve stopped trying to improve it. We need to move away from innovating everything and work towards being comfortable with improvement.

This is also the way we should talk about innovation to our clients and partners. We should strive to improve the systems and deliverables we already work on, not strive to create new problems for ourselves or tackle issues that only exist at esoteric levels. We should continue to be unhappy with the limitations that are imposed upon us. Only by pushing our current boundaries through improvement can we even attempt to approach innovation. And only from there can we better our clients and customers experiences. The term “innovation” has been the buzzword of note in creative industries for sometime. It serves the role of a catchall for anything techy and new. It is the descriptor marketers use to sell old ideas as new. Tech blogs, design talks and business magazines, to name a few outlets, are all obsessed in finding the next big thing. You can’t really blame them. Everyone wants to be seen as the company with best new ideas, the best insights and the new product that everyone must

Misses Shot
But while we all race to be the innovator’s innovator, we do a disservice to the real problems and challenges we face as marketers and creative people by ignoring what is in front of us for theoretical problems that don’t really exist. We are continuing the trend of moving closer to the original definition of the word*: creating things for the purpose of novelty, not improvement. (*For more on the history of innovation and it’s rise in our popular culture read Jill Lepore’s New Yorker Article, “The Disruption Machine.”) Here at eROI, when we talk about innovation in regards to email, we deal with a double-edged sword. We can propose almost anything we can imagine. Video? Why not! Fancy CSS3 effects? Let’s do it!
Different content depending on what time you open the email? Done! However, after we return from innovation wonderland, we are then faced with the reality that current email service providers (ESPs) won’t allow us to do half of the things we’ve dreamed up due to the limitations they’ve imposed on their services. That presents two options: One, we can hope for the ESPs to improve their systems on their own, or (the stronger option) would be to continue to push the limitations of email, which forces the growth of current technologies, improves the viewer/customer experience and allows us to to tell deeper, more relevant, and engaging stories.
Andrew Garfield

It’s not innovative to put video into an email (though it may seem so because we see it so rarely). Video exists on the internet. It should work in email. We expect to see it. It only seems like a large leap because email operates in such a narrow box. The improvement to creating richer emails that look better, perform better, and tell a better story lie within expanding the box, not trying to convince one client in a vacuum to reinvent the email process altogether. Like our Development Lead Matthew Grantski pointed out in his blog post about the Apple Watch, we aren’t really innovating when it comes to email. We’re trying not to get left behind. True innovation will always be lacking if it continues to play with the same set of rules we were using before we became “innovators.” How can you be expected to be innovative while working a traditional 40 hour work week (A schedule that was created for factory workers in the 19th century)? How can you dream up the next big thing when the client is worried more about the budget than the content? You can’t. But you can work to understand the process and how to better it. Those results are tangible and benefit everyone involved. What most “innovators” are really doing is playing catchup to the latest shiny new thing. They end up trying to innovate that next big thing in an attempt to imitate the success of others instead of trying to improve the deficiencies in their actual work. This leads to innovation only for noterities sake, which is not innovation but imitation. It’s not true innovation, in the way we define it today, if it’s the next logical step. We already expect WiFi to be everywhere, it was only a matter of time until they put it in our cars. Turning cars into mobile hotspots is an improvement that should be celebrated. It’s not an “innovation.” We need to work on being ok with being improvers over being innovators. Otherwise we fall prey to making mistakes like this:

Nick Escobar
Nick Escobar, Visual Designer at eROI.