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COVID-19 Can Inhibit Innovation Or Foster It: It’s Up To You

5 minute read | Kelly Abcarian, General Manager, Advanced Video Advertising, Nielsen | May 2020

If you think innovating can be hard normally, try doing it during a global pandemic. It can become downright defeating if you allow it. But if innovation were easy, everyone would do it. 

Over the last 20 years, two industries that have gone through tremendous change and had to embrace innovation have been the consumer packaged goods (CPG) and media industries. I’ve seen their transformations first hand. Throughout my career as a business and product leader in these fields, I’ve faced my fair share of challenges and crises. 

During the 2008 financial crisis, I was in the middle of creating a product to democratize market intelligence across CPG and retail. Our goal was to make all front line sales more successful by using better insights with lower friction. When I look back on that  innovation I see it as  an inflection point for many underlying technological changes, such as the rise of the iPhone and a shift from on-premise to cloud computing. A key lesson I took away as a leader from that experience was the need to build in resiliency for change.

In my current role as the general manager of Nielsen Advanced Video Advertising Group, we were in the early stages of our recently announced addressable TV beta program when the world went on lockdown due to novel coronavirus (COVID-19). My team and I had to go into crisis mode. I often say a big part of my role is crisis management with an eye toward innovation. But never did I expect that would involve me leading a global team from my dining room table with two new co-workers, my 8 and 13 year-old daughters. I also didn’t expect that I would be helping my team see the positive in a pandemic as we identify  innovative solutions (like a virtual beta lab) to keep our beta program going. But transformations like these are how we serve our clients as they seek much needed flexibility to navigate the uncertainties of the upfronts. Now, more than ever, I remind myself daily to be flexible, be nimble to adapt and to embrace the change.

Business leaders are navigating incredible  uncertainty. It is in these times that staring into the face of adversity is the best preparation to ensure future success. Here are a few ways I have tried to innovate through this crisis with my team: 

Inspire meaningful change

Don’t underestimate the importance of connecting to the heart before connecting to the mind. To move people, we have to tell a story that makes people feel something. When faced with a crisis, don’t forget that  teams and customers will prioritize what’s important. You have to continue to provide purpose to your team and to your customers. 

Focus on what you can control

No one can control the advertising market. No one can control the economy. Don’t fret over the things that you cannot influence. 

Instead, it’s better to focus on working through challenges, communicating effectively and overcoming problems quickly. And, most importantly, stay focused on having shared goals and celebrating small wins. Gratitude is such a powerful emotion, so make sure to say thank you daily and encourage your people in the moment so they continue to do great things. 

Be Adaptable

Adaptability is an everyday thing. What you think your business is today will be very different three years from now. You’ll only get there if you are willing to adapt based on learning and embracing change. You have to be willing to set aside your preconceived notions from prior to COVID-19 hitting. Remember: Do not be afraid to explore and learn the unknown. 

Relationships + passion = success 

Building solid relationships and having passion are keys to success. I never realized how important both of these were until the spread of COVID-19. While social distancing measures have limited how we can see others, strong relationships with friends, coworkers and clients ease the burden of our current reality. 

And if we are not passionate about what we are building, we’ll fail. Encourage your people to  feed their passions; it can lead to so many positive outcomes to accelerate an innovative environment. 

Refuse to Give Up 

Stop focusing on the end goal and concentrate on what’s next. This is a critical part of successful innovation, especially during a challenging climate. Don’t forget that teams are more motivated to keep going if leaders can give them hope and inspiration. In a time of crisis, don’t forget how much your team needs you to bring your optimism and energy every day – their own energy levels and motivation will reflect yours. 

Change itself requires the acceptance of turbulence, uncertainty and disorder. It is from uncertainty and the unknown that real innovation emerges. One thing we can all control during this crisis is how we continue to lead the innovation itself. 

As leaders, an important aspect of driving innovation is to lead with an insurgent mentality. At Nielsen, we know the importance of using data and facts, free from bias or fear to guide our decisions. Help your teams channel their energy and focus their priorities on what will be important to the business and will make a difference in a post COVID-19 world, and also help your clients drive growth and lean into the opportunities that arise from  a crisis.  During challenging times we must avoid being risk-averse, gun-shy and resistant to change. As the great Jack Welch said, “Face reality as it is, not as it was, or as you wish it to be.” 

Life after COVID-19 will certainly be filled with new realities. How do you wish them to be? 

A version of this article first appeared in AdExchanger’s Data-Driven Thinking Column on April 30, 2020. 

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