In 2014, City University of London professor Paolo Aversa and his pit crew of data geeks published a report tracing every innovation in Formula One over a 30-year period.
What the report found was that innovation in Formula One technology didn’t always result in success on the racetrack. On the contrary, in certain circumstances, the less innovative cars performed far better than the spruced-up vehicles of their opponents. An anecdote Aversa recently told the Harvard
Business Review recounts the 2009 season when Jenson Button, who had finished 18th the previous year, ended up winning the Drivers’ Championship in a basic, albeit solid, Mercedes-brawn car. Racing against a field of innovative hybrid speedsters, Button’s modest single-person-mover whizzed past the competition all season long.
Only a year later, by which time the tech had been tested on all his competitors, did team owner Ross Brawn invest in it and, unsurprisingly, won the championship again.
Aversa’s study showed that time and time again, teams that held back on innovation or innovated more cautiously ended up being more successful. The reason being that changing even a few features of a highly technical Formula One car introduces variables that could lead to failure. What’s more is that this principle can be applied to virtually any technical product.
Of course, we love to mythologise certain companies as being supremely innovative and pushing their industries to the brink of madness. Apple, for instance, is often thrown around as the exemplar of innovation, changing the world with its stunningly designed contraptions. But think of when Apple released the iphone 7. The general consensus was, ‘Okay, so they removed the earphone jack and introduced a pressure-sensitive home button’. Pretty meh, right?
This might be the case, but it didn’t stop people all over the world from queuing for hours and lodging pre-orders to get their hands on one. The point here is that Apple understands that small changes designed to enhance the customer experience are vastly superior to major redesigns that render the product a glitch-ridden disaster.
But can this slow-burn method be applied to the media industry, particularly at a time of enormous change when innovation is listed as a prerequisite for survival?
One need only look at Procter & Gamble chief brand officer Marc Pritchard’s confession earlier this year that his team had erred in trying to be a “first mover on all the latest shiny objects” to see the importance of adopting a more strategic approach to innovating in marketing and advertising.
The obvious counter-argument to this is that advertising is a messy creative process that can’t be measured against the technical specifications of a racecar or a mobile phone. I’m not denying that. But this hasn’t stopped other creative industries from generating enormous success from a more measured approach to innovation.
A classic example is Hollywood’s remake and sequel strategy, which shows that subtle creative changes to work that already exists can often generate something popular and enormously lucrative—both of which are, after all, the primary objectives of advertising.
Also, it isn’t only cinematic creativity that has a penchant for innovating bit by bit. In April this year, Justin Bieber collaborated with Luis Fonsi to create the first Spanish-language number one hit in the US since the Macarena in 1996.
What’s interesting is that the original version of the song was released in January to a relatively mediocre US reception. However, rather than canning the song and starting anew, Fonsi worked with what he saw as a good core, writing a few English lines and through what can only be imagined as some superhuman form of persistence, recorded the song with Bieber singing in Spanish. At the end of it all, it was a touch of slow, patient innovation that lifted what was a good track to something that will go down in history. Isn’t it fitting, then, that the name of the song,
Despacito, translates to ‘slowly’ in English?