Q&A: This Agency Head of Innovation Doesn’t Think Much of Most Innovation Labs

Zenith's Tom Goodwin on what the word means and what it doesn't

Goodwin is head of innovation for Zenith Media.
Zenith Media

Tom Goodwin doesn’t believe in most innovation labs, especially agency innovation labs. Which is a bit of a weird point of view for the head of innovation for Zenith Media. Goodwin believes he can understand technology—and people—better by visiting a random city in China to see how folks pay with WeChat or by meeting technology zealots in the Israeli startup community.

“Agency labs can work,” he said, “but they have to be done brilliantly, not the standard 3D printer, collection of old phones gathering dust and a fitbit in a box.”

He recently wrote a book, Digital Darwinism, which according to his site, “lights a fire under complacency and offers a challenging new perspective on not only how to think about change—but how to actually do something about it.”

Adweek visited Goodwin in his oddly barren office in lower Manhattan to talk about innovation and where the rubber meets the road.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Adweek: Brands/publishers/agencies take every opportunity they can to crow about the new greatest thing they’re doing. How do you temper that with clients when they’re paying you basically to fluff them up?
Tom Goodwin: Our industry collectively hasn’t been particularly quick to embrace change. I think there’s a kind of virtue signaling to the advertising industry and into the awards community to be like, “Look, I understand blockchain because I just used it in a presentation. Look, I understand 3-D printing because you’ve just done something with one of our biggest clients.” When you really understand something, that’s what gives you the confidence and the soul of enlightenment to decide not to do stuff.

“Real innovation is actually barging into a client’s office and telling them that they’re wrong.”
Tom Goodwin

Do you have an example of talking to a client where you they were like, “Oh, we must do this,” and you’re like, “Hold on a second”?
I think it’s less that I’m trying do bold statements like that and more that I’m trying to create a culture where the briefs that come our way are not briefs that revolve around technology, and if they are, then we try to reframe it, because it’s a much better question to say, “How do we serve our customers better [now] given this tool kit that we have” than it is to say, “Hey, my boss read about a chatbot in a magazine on a flight.” I try to create a culture where in a way, I don’t even get to that point where it has to be me to say that.

You’ve got a client who sees an article about chatbots. And all of a sudden, they think, “Oh, we should do this.”
I actually think it’s our job for these clients to focus on things that are really important. Most clients don’t have roles like head of innovation. Most clients have chief media officers, and they have been trying to get people to subscribe to new accounts or buy the latest phone. And I see very rarely are the shiny things particularly helpful.

And there are some things that I find most interesting, developments that have the greatest delta between how much people are talking about them and how excited people are and actually what they can mean for their business. So my key goal is to find technologies which are actually usable that people are not talking about.

So what are those things that people are not talking about that you think are useful?
I think everything within the world of automation, and often these things are beyond the realm of media. So we are often talking to the CMO or maybe even the CEO rather than the media team. And then that allows you to have a more holistic conversation about the different strengths, because often, real innovation isn’t necessarily done within the context of media. You know it might be a new product they make or a new pricing strategy or a new business model, might be working with retailers in different ways. As an agency, we’re trying to be less about a focus on media as being everything we do and more about moving upstream to being a consultant.