MBPT Spotlight: A Case for More Ugly Ducklings in a World Chasing Unicorns

Considering how many inspirational business leaders applaud their colleagues for making mistakes before finding success, it’s amazing how much emphasis our work culture places on perfection. There is no room for mistakes anymore. We are judged on our ability to get everything right the first time around. In this culture, every idea goes through rounds and rounds of concept testing, “collaborative” feedback loops, internal meetings and the constant task of managing the Hippo (Highest-paid person). These systems were developed to create unicorns: rare but perfect launches of new campaigns, new services or new ideas within the larger corporate system.

 A symptom of this habit is in how we leverage case studies. Let’s say that I (the Hippo) would like to launch a first-of-its-kind innovation (a unicorn). But before we start, I would like for you to show me case studies that prove the definitive success of this innovation. The task seems counterintuitive, but this is a common request for agencies. If we create a truly original idea, how can there possibly be a case already touting its past success?

 This is not a case for unicorns, but a case for more ugly ducklings. An ugly duckling is an imperfect idea launched in beta. Unlike a unicorn, it can be fast to launch, and in greater numbers. It just needs nurturing and time to grow. Once launched, you can observe which ugly ducklings require more or less investment, with the ability to make real-time adjustments. In this context, your propensity to raise an ugly duckling into a swan is much greater.

Many tech companies have applied this psychology to the development of new products and services. Amazon’s hardware products are a great example. Some, like the Fire phone, are notable duds, whereas the Kindle has seen iterations year after year. With the new Echo voice recognition system launching in beta this month, Amazon’s focus on ugly ducklings continues. An untested voice recognition platform could be Amazon’s first foray into controlling your smart-home—or another idea on the cutting room floor.

So how do we launch more ugly ducklings?

Operate like a startup. In corporate America, there is often a need to build the entire solution upfront. But there is an art and science to creating an experience on which you can iterate with the consumer. You have to ask yourself what will be the fastest way to deliver an engaging experience. What will get your vision across, even if it isn’t completely finished? What elements of the overall vision are necessary, and which elements are luxuries? Prioritize the features and assets that will allow you to engage with consumers faster so you can see if the value translates in the hands of the user.

Stay small and nimble. Collaboration is often touted as a cornerstone of greatness in many corporations, but it can be taken too far. When a system gets bloated, its sole purpose becomes consensus, not creation. For example, last year, MRY worked with clients to launch Sumday, a site where any consumer can set up an investment account starting off with as little as a dollar. When we collaborated with the 230-year-old bank, we worked in an agile fashion with an elite team. The key stakeholders shared a common space, with the client and agency sitting at a table together throughout development. This eliminated the rounds of approvals that often take place in the creative process. In this environment, we were able to launch a new proposition in real time that was more focused on the consumer experience than on internal politics.

Remember that testing begins when you launch. The launch of a new campaign or service is not the final outcome. In this social, two-way world, a launch should not be seen as an end point but as a starting point. We are now able to obtain real-time feedback from consumers. Do they connect with the campaign? Do they see the vision of our service? Do they find the site to be usable? Creating the best experience on day 1 is a noble goal, but once a product is launched there is so much that we can learn from our users’ experiences. Consider a shift in how you weight your project investments. When developing a new platform, create a space where the initial idea has legs and plan for multiple iterations.

We call that perfect idea a “unicorn” for a reason: it’s just a myth. Understanding the value of an ugly duckling is what enables us to turn a good idea into something great. The world is changing too quickly to obsess over perfection. Platforms are constantly shifting and consumer behavior is adapting in real time. A slow development process means being left behind. In today’s world, fast is the new perfect, and that means it’s time to change the way we work.

Ian Chee is the chief strategy officer at MRY where he leads the agency’s Strategy and Analytics teams and oversees all planning and strategic output across its global offices. MRY, part of Starcom MediaVest Group, works with marketers such as Visa and Coca-Cola, specializing in blending creativity and technology with media to make brands remarkable.