April 21, 2020

"Your wider organisation is looking for guidance from people like you"

Grace Francis, chief experience officer at Droga5, says innovation teams who are already used to working with change are crucial to companies right now.

Kimberly Eynon

5 min read

It was a big coup when Droga5 hired Grace Francis from Grey London to be the company's first chief experience officer. It was Droga5 London's first C-suite hire.

On day one of a new challenge anything other than building a time machine should be considered possible.

The New York-based agency is known for its advertising work behind Google Android’s “Friends Furever” Campaign and HBO's #ForTheThrone campaign, released ahead of the final season of Game of Thrones. But under Francis's lead they are also expanding into experience design and brand consultancy. Last year, the company was acquired by Accenture Interactive, the largest acquisition the group had made, whether you measured by price, revenue or headcount.

Now, Francis finds herself helping companies to rapidly reposition themselves amid the Covid-19 crisis. This is what she told Sifted about the role innovation teams can play at this time:

How do you define ‘innovation’ and how do you best describe your job?

Innovation is any radical step-change brought about by those brave enough to attempt it. That bravery can come from interesting places — the optimism of youth, the pressure of necessity, the lateral thinking that occurs when you sit a pragmatist and a dreamer in a room together.

As the chief experience officer at Droga5 London, a creative agency, I’m spending increasingly more time applying the bold and sometimes rule-breaking thinking we provide across a client’s brand experience to corporate innovation challenges that look to protect, grow or transform a business.

The freedom of thought that is such a central part of the creative agency landscape often leads to bold, culturally relevant solutions that might not have come from a more traditional innovation space. Great innovation shifts the boundaries of how we explore any given challenge, stepping away from the permissible and toward the possible — on day one of a new challenge anything other than building a time machine should be considered possible.

What do you think will be the biggest change in your industry in the post-Coivd-19 world?
Under Covid-19, corporations need to take on new responsibilities to support the wellbeing of their customers.

Before Covid-19, we were working with clients to explore the new definition of corporations, as they evolve from the singular focus of serving shareholders towards pursuing a wider purpose to exist beyond profit and take their role as emergent leaders on the world stage.

Adapting to life under Covid asks even more of corporations, not just to be agents of change within society, but to redefine their customer experience and for some, take on new and very real responsibilities to support and sustain the wellbeing of their customers. Many are doing so with an incredibly short runway. That emotional investment and tenacity must be applauded.

Post-Covid, I hope our industry will champion corporations to build on that sense of urgency and responsibility, leaning toward genuinely powerful and difficult issues within culture, and prove out their brand purpose with acts — not just ads.

What is your best communication or corporate storytelling tool when trying to convince someone of you, or your team’s new ideas?
I like to create a space where anyone can contribute, regardless of title, discipline, role or experience.

Collaboration remains the best tool to bring others along with you. Whether you are making the discoveries together or asking another party to challenge and validate your ideas, collaboration is about creating a space for shared intellectual and emotional investment.

That requires working in a partnership model, where all parties share a mutual respect. I like to go further and create a space where anyone and everyone can contribute, regardless of title, discipline, role or experience. This results in better and stronger work, and solutions from unexpected places —ideas for revenue models from creative directors, for example, but also a collective buy-in from everyone in the room, not just the core stakeholders.

How do you challenge yourself and your team to ‘think outside the box’?

We take a culture-first approach, exploring every challenge through the lens of current culture. This extends to how we cast our working groups, building a diverse yet inclusive team of people; considering how they identify, specialisms and disciplines, backgrounds and cultures, as well as the way they think or approach a problem. When we do this well, we create a collaborative space to question anything and everything. This allows us to reframe challenges and explore or expand the scope of the problem.

What is currently not working in corporate innovation?

I still walk into rooms where the expectation is that corporate innovation is only a space for third-horizon ventures and emergent tech, better suited to science fiction than business solutions. We know with the right engagement, corporate innovation can protect, grow or transform a business. In these first few weeks of Covid-19, I’ve seen and supported organisations as they shift their entire business model to stay afloat or support their customers and community. This is corporate innovation.

What advice would you give to a corporate head of innovation during Covid-19?
The tools you apply every day are suddenly more essential than ever.

Your role is built around dismantling wicked problems and creating tangible, purposeful solutions. The tools that you apply in your everyday working life are suddenly more essential than ever and your wider organisation will be looking for guidance and support from people like you, who are accustomed to working with changing and challenging situations.

Be generous with your time and your ideas. Lend others your tenacity, your creativity and your courage. Strengthen relationships with your key stakeholders and then present all your solutions as if you were the chief executive. Your contribution is of great value right now, do everything you can to make a difference.

What book has been most helpful to you in thinking about corporate innovation?

Over twenty years after its first publication, I find myself bringing Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma into conversations with corporate clients. I keep spare copies of Larry Keeley’s Ten Types of Innovation to give to anyone starting out in this space.

Beyond industry reads, David Henry Thoreau’s 1854 text Walden continues to provide inspiration. Whether you see his two years, two months and two days alone in the woods as social experiment or self-discovery, his purposeful innovation is present in every chapter. The book takes on a new dimension as we collectively remain at home, often in isolation, during Covid-19.