This piece first appeared as an interview in an LBB article
The founders of M&C Saatchi Group’s new digital consultancy tell LBB’s Alex Reeves how their experiences in business have been spun together into a new material for building digital products, services and ventures
Last month’s launch of innovation consultancy Thread represents an expansion for the M&C Saatchi Group that fulfils a desire many in the marcomms space feel deeply - for an opportunity to help businesses innovate in their products and services themselves, not just how they package and talk about them.
As founder Lilian Tse puts it: “Thread will be going up the value chain to before marketing even happens. How can we help clients innovate to really add more value to their business?” Or, in slightly more inspirational terms, “helping impatient larger organisations reinvent their businesses.”
The digital-focused innovation studio is fuelled by a global network of over 70 innovation specialists from the world’s most innovative markets. By combining the commercial rigour of strategy consulting and the creativity of design studios with the pace and experimentation of startup teams, Thread’s mission is to develop and build high-growth digital products, services and ventures for clients.
Both founders, Lilian and Michaeljon (MJ) Alexander-Scott come from an innovation background, previously at Fjord/Accenture Interactive, with Lilian’s expertise mainly in designing and launching products and MJ’s experience on the behavioural science, strategy and branding side. Between the two, their experience encompasses major consultancies and agencies including Gartner, McKinsey, Isobar and The&Partnership.
Thread will see the founders apply this previous experience end to end with clients, from identifying opportunities to developing them, validating them, to actually building and launching products and then – very importantly, MJ and Lilian stress – to keep iterating after launch.
The pair attribute their departure from a big consultancy to three major frustrations. Firstly, they found that there was “too much innovation theatre,” says Lilian. Teams would parade into a client wearing jeans and T-shirts, “put up a few Post-Its” and would often leave wondering “did we change anything?”
Secondly, the pair began to get a sense that consultancies want to foster dependence from their clients. Rather than equipping these businesses with the know-how to use the shiniest new innovation fishing rods, the consultancies would deliver an impressive crate full of innovation fish and leave their clients wanting more when the freezer ran empty. Thread began out of a desire to leave clients better equipped than before the consultancy process.
Thirdly, Lilian and MJ had been encountering increasing complacency in what consulting means. “‘Let's just be the next Uber or Amazon’ and that's innovation?” questions Lilian. Having worked around the world, in markets including some of the most vibrant in South America, Asia and Africa, the Thread founders want to apply lessons not just from the obvious sources, but from those who are genuinely changing business in the most novel ways around the world.
90% of corporations look to Silicon Valley, but over half of innovation money is going outside of the US. “It's a huge disconnect,” says Lilian. “And this is dangerous because it means a lot of corporations have huge blind spots about what the next opportunity is, who the next competitors are. And this lag is sort of definitely something that we're seeing and no one is addressing.”
There’s so much to inspire in the innovation space that Thread is keen to draw on, whether that’s China’s position as the world’s largest e-commerce sector, Rwanda having the world’s first instant delivery drone airport, Nigeria’s billions-of-dollars fintech space or the world’s largest edtech company founded in and run from India.
These perspectives have led the two Thread founders to devise three core principles - the sort that deserve capital letters and maybe even being printed on an office wall somewhere in a bold font: Diversity of Thought is a commitment that Thread shares with the M&C Saatchi Group more broadly. But for Lilian and MJ, it’s a tangible and actionable concept.
“It's not enough to have diversity of people,” says Lilian. “We could hire an Indian, a Chinese person, we can all be in the same room and think that's diverse. But it isn't because we all own an iPhone, we all hate Brexit – we all think the same way. So just because we hired 'different' people doesn't mean that we really embrace diversity of thought. We want to break through that.”
That’s why Thread built a global innovation network of over 70 specialists and innovators - from Shenzhen and Seoul to Nairobi and NYC – to provide fresh perspectives, expert insights, and examples of how categories are being reimagined in the world’s fastest growing markets. Assembling these diverse viewpoints around a brief and throughout a project is designed to combat organisational biases and blindspots and help client’s reframe what is possible.
Another principle is what Thread calls Commercial Pragmatism. This is another example of the founders railing against the tiresome aspects of the consultancy world, which they feel too often focuses on the innovations that seem sexy that month. “A lot of times we lose sight of actual commercial outcomes,” says Lilian. Thread is a digital business innovation consultancy, but they’re not even entirely comfortable with the ‘I word’ as it’s used these days. “The word ‘innovation’ is one we’re really tired of,” says Lilian.
MJ prefers to redefine the term along the lines of what’s actually useful to businesses: “What we’re really talking about is reinvention – new propositions, new business models, and new ways of thinking about the market you’re really in. But despite the bold and disruptive aim, it has to build on the core business in some way, it can’t just be blue-sky post-it ideas completely divorced from today’s business.
“That’s why we combine the global insights and evidence with a deep understanding of the client’s business, to really understand the unique assets, competitive advantages and cultural superpowers that weave their way through the organisation. These assets and advantages are often technological (in the case of Silicon Valley tech companies we’ve worked with) but they can also be distribution channels, relationships with suppliers, brand and increasingly, customer data.”
The imperative to ‘fail faster’ is guaranteed to provoke cringes across the board, but Thread’s principle of Accelerated Decision Making is a more nuanced, thoughtful version of that philosophy beloved of startups. Safety still too often paralyses. As MJ heard from a client the other week, ‘it's so much easier just to put in another meeting than make a decision.’ One thing Lilian’s noticed working in consultancies is that “corporations get caught up being scared of making decisions, even scared to launch.” Time and again though, she’s seen that “you only learn things once you launch quickly.” Thread’s response to this will be encouraging better decision making through experimentation, prototyping and iterating.
“We’ve seen brilliant ideas get caught in corporate quicksand: endless meetings and death by committee,” says MJ. “This isn’t malice on the part of clients, they’re in a difficult position and just lack the confidence and evidence to make the decision, so the idea is turned into something more familiar or suffocated by lack of resource. It’s on consultancies and agencies to give them that confidence – that’s why we’ve developed an experiment-driven approach to get these ideas out of PowerPoint and into the real world. The best way to solve an internal debate is with real market data so that’s what we do: rigorously stress test the biggest assumptions and risks behind each idea – e.g. pricing, tech, data, proposition - and provide the evidence, and the stakeholder facilitation, to make key decisions and ensure initiatives pass through internal stage-gates and investment hurdles.”
Influencing the culture and capability of a client’s business and taking a long-term view of an organisation’s growth seem like goals any consultancy would be keen to meet. But MJ notes that it’s only being able to build a new model for Thread from the ground up that’s allowed these ideas to guide their process so deeply. “It's really exciting because we’re able to redesign an innovation consulting model from first principles,” he says. “When you try to change your culture, social legacy and baggage and pot luck make it really difficult. The actual ability to address some of these flaws is really hard from the inside out, but much easier when you're setting up something new.”
On top of that freshness, launching as part of M&C Saatchi Group is perfect for Thread’s approach. Having seen the worst of the consulting model, where “everyone's interchangeable and everyone can sort of do a bit of everything,” says MJ, truly embracing specialism feels like something previously out of reach for that consulting model. “The [traditional] idea is, if a client needs 30 people that can do the specialist skill X, they’ll sort of wing it by getting 30 smart young analysts, giving them a few decks and a day to get up to speed and say, ‘these are your ‘fintech go-to-market experts’ or whatever it is that they ask. And the specialists that move into these big consultancies and get acquired get really frustrated and end up leaving because they're seeing projects that they should be doing being done by analysts that are less qualified than them, because it’s a more profitable model for the consultancy.”
M&C Saatchi Group doesn’t have this cookie-cutter culture. And as MJ says, Thread feels at home amongst its various specialist businesses: “M&C Saatchi is more of a flotilla of specialists rather than a big cruise liner of generalists. It gives space for specialist agencies like Thread or Fluency to plug into that broader ecosystem.” Thread looks like one of the most interesting vessels in that M&C Saatchi flotilla right now. It’ll be worth watching in the coming months.