Horse’s Mouth: Christoph Drefers and Richard Lee

Pass The Idea, a cloud-based service that ‘helps everybody have more, better ideas’, has worked with local companies like DB, Frucor, Ara Wines and NZ Lotteries. It’s also got a few more big projects on the go, and, after receiving a grant from the Callaghan Innovation Fund, the two founders are planning on taking the upgraded platform to the world. 

On the beginning [Lee]:  “We both come from corporate backgrounds and have worked for multinationals in various parts of the world, mainly in marketing roles where innovation is a key component. And we always had a sense of frustration about the traditional ways of ideation. The classic corporate approach is ‘hey, we need a whole bunch of ideas, let’s get some execs in a room and start brainstorming.’ There’s a lot of research around creativity, and it demonstrates that this approach has a lot of constraints and drawbacks. In particular, the idea of groupthink. So in order to get a breakthrough you really need to have a mix of inside ideas colliding with outside ideas and that’s where this germ of an idea came from, where the ideal way of generating ideas is to actually ideate individually first and then come together with the outputs as a group.”

On how it works [Drefers]: “We talk about creating group genius and one of the keys is to have this diversity, so we make sure the brains are in the virtual room. That’s why we have a global network called Pass the Idea (PTI) Agents. These are senior marketers and senior executives, and there’s now 100 of them located around the world who can be brought into these challenges to provide a fresh perspective. You can get diversity from inside a company, particularly if it’s a large one. But PTI also allows us to mix other outside elements, like agency partners, lead users or brand advocates … As part of the process we provide a context to participants—about 250 words—that explains the challenge. But we don’t name the brand. Or the country … There is a small incentive. US$1,000 and US$500 for the best and second best idea respectively as voted by the client at the end of the challenge. But the people we have aren’t motivated by getting a thousand bucks. They like the competition and the bragging rights. We don’t disclose the winning agents’ identities to other agents. But we do go out and we say ‘here’s a challenge, here’s the winning idea and the agent came from the UK and they work in this industry and the money’s on the way, well done’. So everybody else sees it.” 

On the agents [Lee]: “It started with our own personal networks and it was then built on referrals after that. My background was North America and Australia and Christoph worked in the UK, Europe and South America. The whole development process was one of co-creation, so we did everything with this hardcore group of around 20 ‘foundation agents’. Whenever we didn’t know what to do, we just asked our network and we’re really strong on that. We still run a PTI on PTI on how we can improve. That’s the idea. And that’s the best product development you can do. We’ve now expanded the network to India, Singapore and working on going beyond that to other parts of Asia.” 

On fun and inspiration [Drefers]: “You don’t get good quality ideas from people who do it to get a hundred Fly Buys points. We had ongoing feedback on the actual PTI process from the agents. And we kept asking them ‘why do you keep participating?’ And it’s because it’s actually fun. It’s a great way of interacting and generating new ideas. And research shows fun is a lot better for creativity than deadlines and pressure … There’s a guy in France in our network who runs a billion dollar global baking soda business and so for him to jump out of that category and into something completely new sparks ideas that he can actually bring back into his business. It triggers something that they can apply back to their own domain. That’s the key …The way that we look at it, creativity’s like a muscle: you can make it stronger by practising.”

On serendipity [Lee]: “A lot of innovation tends to come from that combination or collision of intellectual property inside a company with stuff that’s going on outside. And the classic example is Gutenberg. He happened to live in the Rhine Valley and was exposed to wine growing and the wooden wine screw press. And it was actually combining that idea of a wooden wine press with an innovation around moveable type that led to the makings of the printing press. So the whole idea of diversity is actually really important.”

On a better approach to NPD [Drefers]: “In order to have really good stuff pop out the other end you need to have a lot of good quality ideas coming in the funnel at the beginning. Research shows companies that have a system to actually generate more and better ideas tend to be more successful in the market and financially …  We’re doing an innovation project at the moment for a major FMCG company, and they’re a classic example of the Stage-Gate process, which is basically project management; how to make it happen. The innovation happens before and one way you can always tell is that in many companies whatever goes into the Stage-Gate process will come out, so it’s not really a filtering mechanism. It’s a funnel not a tunnel! There’s usually no structure around the idea generation stage that precedes the Stage Gate. You ask companies ‘how do you come up with these ideas that go in?’ and it’ll be something like ‘marketing comes up with them’. But what about the rest of the organisation? They have ideas, too, but even in marketing, how do they come up with the ideas? They do some research and something pops up, but there’s no discipline to it, so we are quite hopeful that PTI can help at that point. It can also deliver against the task of driving the innovation culture of the company.”

On direction [Drefers]: “There are some systems around, which are like ‘if anybody has an idea, then put it in the box’. Then nothing happens. The box might be virtual or real or both, but we haven’t found any company that has a directed idea generation process that is built around a business challenge. This is really important with PTI. You need a frame of reference and that’s all we’re saying. The definition of ‘better’ is ideas that are actually relevant to the business because it’s easy to generate a thousand ideas but if it’s not relevant there’s no value in it and all they create is complexity that nobody needs.” 

On pre-loading: [Lee]: “We’ve all done it. We arrive at the conference on day one and if there’s an ideation session it’ll start from scratch and it takes a long time to get warmed up and into the subject. But the most efficient way of going about something like that is to use PTI to ideate individually for that event. The process spits out all the ideas but with the best idea at the top, so what actually happens face to face, when you’re at the conference, is you can immediately switch into figuring out how to make them happen. Shell’s global lubricants team out of the Hague commissioned PTI to run a challenge that included the marketers and the PTI agent network … We got feedback that it was a significant step up from the same conference the previous year which, for us, is a key metric. In the output, when you look at the top 20 ideas that came through, they were split 50/50 between Shell staff and agents, which was really interesting and gratifying. The assessment of all ideas was only done by Shell staff but they didn’t know whether the ideas had come from other Shell people or from the external group. And that’s a key part of the scheme. No-one knows who the idea is from, so it’s based on its merit.” 

On making it happen [Drefers]: “What gets done with the ideas is beyond what we do. It’s their territory … We’re not like a crowd-sourcing platform. This is not made for people to send out briefs and then get something back. This is a conceptual planning tool. We have lots of discussions with clients who want to be too specific around promotional ideas or something like that and we say ‘look, this is not actually what this is designed for’. The language throughout the process is always about thinking big, being positive, aiming for breakthrough etc. This goes back to the very beginning. We see a lot of incremental ideas. Every business has them but nobody needs more of them, so this is really a tool to create something that’s completely different.” 

On stealing agencies’ thunder [Drefers]: “We’ve talked to a few and, while agencies should be the easiest to convince, they’re hard nuts to crack because they see it as their area, they think that they own that. Quite early on in the conversation with one agency group the question was ‘are you here because you’re wanted by the clients or do you want to be part of our group?’ That was really encouraging. And that question showed the ambiguity around whether this is a competitive model or something that helps them … There’s a lot of debate about the advertising agency of the future. And agencies of the future will be creating products with clients, starting with idea generation and all the way through to popping something out at the end.  We encourage clients to use their advertising agencies. It’s always the same line from us, the more diverse the better. It’s really worth the effort because it adds so much value.” 

On cultural differences [Drefers]: “When we discuss challenges with clients, they might say ‘look, I’m really specific, I don’t really think anybody outside my industry, let alone outside this country, would be able to relate to that.’ We have those discussions all the time. Every client thinks their business is special and nobody is able to help them. But most client challenges are familiar across industries and markets. So we haven’t found any challenge that didn’t benefit from an outside perspective, as long as the challenge is clear and the participating crowd intelligent.”

On ranking ideas [Lee]: “At the outset we got all the ideas and we ranked them ourselves, manually making sense out of them and strategising the output. And that of course limits our ability to scale up. We thought there must be a better way, so we activated the wisdom of the participating crowd and invented another step called an ideas auction, where a list of around 30 to 40 ideas come back to all the participants and everybody gets assigned with a virtual investment fund of one million dollars. People put their money behind those ideas they think would really make a difference in terms of generating breakthrough solutions. And the system adds that up across all participants and that’s how it creates the prioritisation. It’s mimicking an actual business process: where are we going to allocate that resource for all these ideas we have? But they don’t get to look at their own ideas. That’s why it’s called Pass the Idea.” 

On the next stage [Drefers]: “Some of our development for stage two is around different cycle times. PTI’s projects have been run over a period of three weeks in the past [it costs between five and twenty thousand dollars to run a project], but with the upgraded platform we can actually run challenges very quickly, so if you want to run a challenge over 12 hours for a key account team that wants to turn around a promotional idea in a day, you can. And to get that diversity you could invite not just other key account managers, but you could invite field staff, or retailers, or consumers and brand advocates. For instance, if the marketing director has a monthly meeting and you just need a bit of a different impetus, you can now run PTI over four hours in the morning. The research tells us that’s a better way to create new solutions than to keep doing the same thing.” 

On working in the world [Lee]: “We’re going to stop selling exclusively face-to-face and set it up on a platform that is able to handle a large number of challenges at the same time so we can sell to the world as software-as-a-service. We’re also looking to license it for companies that like the system and want to set it up and run as many challenges as they want in any one year … We’ve also created a select community of what we will call something like ‘super agents’, the really engaged participants who have proven themselves through the normal challenges. This is an opportunity to take that smaller group of people into a different participation model, more as consultants, where you get something every time you participate as opposed to the wider pool where you might win something.”

  • This story originally appeared in the July/August edition of NZ Marketing. 

About Author

Comments are closed.