Nicole Yershon gives us her side of the story on Ogilvy Labs and the future of innovation

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Steve Jobs once said, “Innovation is the only way to win.”. It was only a few weeks ago that one of London’s top agencies, Ogilvy & Mather closed the doors to it’s dedicated innovation department, Ogilvy Labs, headed up by Nicole Yershon and her team of four. Ogilvy has given a number of reasons why it has closed the Labs over the past few weeks. Paul O’Donnell, EMEA Chairmen, has said the outcome of Brexit will have some impacts on new decisions. Annette King, ‎CEO, has stated this innovative thinking is now embedded into each of the agencies, but now the teams must be “be better and faster at making work”.

Nicole has been with Ogilvy for 16 years, where she started one of the first innovation teams inside the agency model, and has no doubt left a lasting impression on not only the agency’s culture, but the whole industry. We had the chance to catch up with Nicole to hear her story, why she believes the closure happened and what is the future for her and for innovation. 


  • We’ve heard you thought the continuation of the labs was ‘looming’, but why do you think this happened right now?

"The job made me incredibly intuitive and it was a 6th sense that I picked up over the last 6 months. Once I saw this trend it made it difficult to experiment and work in our usual ‘Intrapreneurial’ way. So it wasn't expected at all, but management are all different as to what they value most, it's just business and the difficulties of being a cost centre and understanding true value I guess. I think it was a shock to everyone as shown by the outpouring of emotion on on social media and email which myself and the Lab team have received. Everyone who 'got' it and worked closely with us really miss it. There are many people inside Ogilvy who could give you a point of view about that, I'm conscious of not looking back but continually moving forward."

In the last week alone, we've had almost a million impressions and hundreds talking about us. Some of the most influential names in tech and advertising, such as Mike Butcher MBE and Dave Trott are sharing the news and we've had over 70% positive sentiment around the work we have done since it's closure."


  • What inspires you about innovation?

"I get hugely inspired by affecting change that is relevant and makes life easier for people - it's not an easy thing for most people to see at first and it's not easy when it isn't defined on a PowerPoint deck - it's more an intuitive feeling - but when you get that feeling - you can't help but be extremely passionate and excited about it. Seeing something from being spoken about to being tangible."

"An example of which would have been for instance looking at digital delivery of TV commercials and content 10 or 12 years ago and moving away from tapes and couriers - I just knew it was the way to go and went through lots of pain when people screamed at me for not sending a tape and then were going to make them miss their airdate. I'd simply say go to your post house to pull it down, it sounds so ridiculously easy now, but at the time they needed a tape in their hand. Having that vision and working with the right partners, BEAM which was part of The Mill - and buy in at CEO level - made sure that this happened and content went down the copper pipes for the first time."


  • How has the model of innovation changed over the last decade or so?

"The model has changed considerably, just the word used to mean to me something different. I saw innovation as 'the next cancer drug or electric cars', not innovation in mobile or VR or many of the platforms for tech we use now. It I guess just means something that has changed how we live and hopefully makes it bigger, better, stronger, or faster, it’s certainly not just about tech for tech sake. 


  • How do you see innovation fitting into the agency model?

"It is key for any model - so much is happening in an ever changing digital world, technology has disrupted every walk of how we now live our lives. We cannot know everything, but a dedicated unit is able to build bridges as to what is happening on the outside world and bring it back in a relevant way to solve problems that brands may have. We don't know what we don't know. We need to be in spaces that have nothing to do with advertising and comms, where we know nothing and no one. It can feel uncomfortable and is not in our comfort zones, but we can build those relationships and make those hyper connections relevant Rory Sutherland used to refer to Labs as conductors, we know who to pull in to make new music, and those who are not the usual contenders."


  • What are the most exciting areas of innovation at the moment?

"For me the most exciting areas are AI, there is a great YouTube film 'Humans Need Not Apply' and it shows it is happening now. It's the world we now inhabit, the other interesting space is social enterprise, for brands and start ups to make money by doing good. This isn't about corporate social responsibility, or an NGO, or a charity, but it is about making money by doing good, then a brand communicating it. We saw that a lot in the judging of this year’s Lions Innovation Awards in Cannes, that's what got me excited about brands in this space. They are able to leverage their power to do good but still make money, Sir Ronald Cohen speaks a lot about social commerce, it's an interesting space along with behavior change. Rory Sutherland covers this brilliantly with Ogilvy Change, Labs used to work closely with those guys."


  • You’ve talked about the success of collaborating with start-ups, which companies are drawing your interest?

"I'm always drawn to so many start ups when I used to run the Labs ‘Semesters of learning’, so if I was looking at future travel and tourism then I'd get excited by everyone I was seeing in that space - across all areas of tech - not just one specific. I'm looking potentially to cover future health and wellbeing, which spans from everything to, bio hacking, to 3D printed hospitals & body parts, to virtual reality operations, or even data hacking our own bodies to being your own doctor. This could be commercialised by brands understanding how the learning impacts their business, and which start-ups they could possibly invest in. "


  • One of the big questions right now is about how Brexit is going to affect the industry. What effects do you think it will have? Do you think it will impact our advancements in the technology sector?

"Of course there will be an enormous impact for start ups and their funding - but I believe the great ones will still make it regardless. It will put heat on large corporates to get their act together with procurement process and paying invoices from these start ups even quicker, or they will have huge cash flow issues if large companies can't come to an arrangement with working with them... I know Jeremy Bassett is working hard within Unilever to try and make it easier to work with start ups."


  • What’s next for you?

"It's a scary and an exciting time, I am working out #1 Do I go at it alone, #2 Do I go back to salaried employee, or #3 Do I set up Labs in another company. The wonderful thing is that it doesn't rely on just being relevant to the advertising industry - all industries and businesses are experiencing the same levels of disruption, and for me the black book of contacts will be key in effecting change and working with the right companies to keep moving forward and not looking back. The world keeps changing at a rapid rate and someone needs to keep up. The ability to not just have an idea but be able to make it happen by knowing the right companies, will be key. It’s like having a doing arm not just a thinking arm."


  • Do you have any advice for creatives interested in pursuing a path in innovation? 

"If it was easy everyone would do it. Innovation is difficult because it hasn't been done yet. It's not like changing ‘and’ to ‘the’ on some copy. That's why it's innovative, so small teams with same goal is the way forward, along with a healthy collaborative attitude. It takes a team not just an art director or copywriter to make it happen."


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