“We saw a significant uptick of users engaging with video, e-commerce, and gaming due to COVID-19, so we’ve spent the summer prioritizing developments within these three areas to allow advertisers to make the most of them. While the digital advertising industry has always been fast-paced, 2020 has demonstrated the importance of ingenuity in all sectors.” – says Cecile Blanc, Senior Director, Global Solutions and Innovation, Xaxis, in an exclusive interview with Talk CMO.

TCMO Bureau: In times of uncertainty, why should businesses still focus on innovation?

Cecile Blanc: “Innovation” is one of these concepts that can mean anything and everything. Throughout my career, I have noticed that it is almost synonymous with distraction for some people – something you look into without specific targets, that sits outside the core business, and is more a nice-to-have than a must-have. In fact, innovation should be very much linked to the core revenue structure and considered as a significant growth driver to future proof the business.

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The Greek etymology of “crisis” means “the act of making a decision”. At the end of the day, innovation is all about decision making and having the right mechanisms in place to act quickly without needing to reinvent the wheel. We saw a significant uptick of users engaging with video, e-commerce, and gaming due to COVID-19, so we’ve spent the summer prioritizing developments within these three areas to allow advertisers to make the most of them.

While the digital advertising industry has always been fast-paced, 2020 has demonstrated the importance of ingenuity in all sectors. For instance, restaurants such as Patty&Bun and Dishoom rolled out DIY meal kits during the UK’s lockdown to counteract the impact on the hospitality sector. These brands exemplify how innovation is necessary in uncertain times, as they onboard emerging consumer trends, adapt their special offerings, and make them accessible to their customer bases. By adopting a creative approach to their tools, processes, and offerings, companies can optimize established assets and pivot to meet current priorities.

TCMO Bureau: How can innovation help foster a positive company culture?

Cecile Blanc: Innovation can make or break a company culture, depending on how it is structured. If innovation only belongs to a handful of people within research and development teams removed from the core business, it can generate more frustration than growth. However, if everybody in the company is made to feel like they can contribute their ideas and that they will be heard, it promotes a sense of mutual belonging: that they are valued and that the company, to a certain extent, belongs to them. Ultimately innovation is not a goal, but a process, so creating the right environment for it, in turn, builds a continuously rewarding, productive work culture. In doing this, companies will naturally foster inclusivity, providing a space that appreciates diverse minds and backgrounds.

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Companies must also be willing to take chances and be disruptive to help progress the decisions that produce tangible business results. Particularly in fast-paced industries, honing innovation is the best way to exceed client and customer expectations persistently. This means investing in new solutions, processes, or products and committing to adaptability rather than maintain the status quo. By uniting agility focusing on nurturing talent, businesses can future-proof their success and company culture, no matter how the market changes.

TCMO Bureau: Can you give an example of how innovation helps keep Xaxis balanced in the digital advertising industry?

Cecile Blanc: We are determined to maintain the unique culture that drives our innovation and fuels our rapid growth. Our annual innovation competition, Xcellerate, is pivotal in this. The competition allows all employees to enter an elevator pitch for a product idea, with the submissions being shortlisted by company-wide votes and the Executive Committee selecting the final winner. Each year, we allocate significant investment to incubate the competition’s most acclaimed concepts into commercial assets.

Once deployed, these products have delivered valuable business outcomes, with both the winners of the 2017 and 2019 competitions now generating significant revenue. The 2017 winner now enhances our AI-powered Copilot technology for performance-based bidding, while the 2019 champion introduces the ability to understand, engage, and track online and offline audiences throughout the complete purchase journey. The 2020 winners have developed an enhanced creative optimization and measurement tool for our existing creative studio service. It will offer the full package of integrated creative optimization during an advertising campaign, measurement, and reporting post-campaign and creative insights to plan future outreach.

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Ultimately such an event feeds our innovation pipeline, allowing us to identify growth opportunities and drive growth initiatives. Since its launch, it has been a joy every year to see how engaged and creative our people are, even in a disruptive year like 2020. Talent is our primary asset – we are continually looking to empower our people, encourage new ideas, and, perhaps most importantly, put the best of these ideas into practice.

Cecile leads the Global Solutions and Innovation team at Xaxis, the programmatic advertising arm of GroupM / WPP. She works within the organisation to deliver innovation programmes – including the annual Xcellerate competition – to future proof the Xaxis offering