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If only 10-20% of innovation projects succeed, what’s the secret? We speak to global innovation agency Happen to find out.

Set up in 2007, Happen sets out to enable ambitious brands to stand out in highly crowded and competitive markets such as retail. They’ve developed a series of innovation techniques and proprietary IP to create successful campaigns for a variety of companies, including household names like M&S, Ministry of Sound and Revlon. Living with the constant challenge to be innovative and implement revenue growing ideas, we decided to catch up Happen’s UK Commercial Director, Will Smith, to hear his views on innovation, the future of the high street and where good ideas come from.


Q: Tell us about Happen, what drives you?

Will: It’s all in the name: Happen! Everyone here gets turned on by the same thing: seeing products and services they’ve worked on launch into market and then stay there. We help businesses in crowded consumer markets, like food, drink and household products, consistently beat the odds of innovation success. The problem is, that’s actually a really tough journey, only 10-20% innovation projects succeed. A large part of how we design projects is based on our experience of what we know works, or doesn’t, for particular categories and for particular types of client business. This focus on improving innovation success rates has helped deliver over $4.2bn incremental revenue for our clients since we started Happen ten years ago.

Q: What led you to Happen?

Will: My background is architecture and running a video art gallery. What I loved about this world was seeing something you’d worked on getting brought to life on site. The only downside was that I realised working somewhere with more commercial drive, like Happen, would actually mean that more of that creativity got to see the light of day.

Q: Tell us about some of the projects you’ve worked on.

Will: I’ve helped Lady Gaga sell more tickets to south Korean k-pop junkies; I’ve helped Arla Foods shape a launch which is going to have a huge beneficial impact on nutrition in sub-Saharan Africa; and I’ve worked with ECCO shoes over the last two years to help merge the rigour of FMCG marketing practices with the passionate creativity of a design-led business. One of the first successes ECCO have had is using shopper insight to reveal the challenges of trying to serve so many target audiences through a single store experience. They’re already re-segmenting that experience in Denmark and you should see the results rolled out in the UK later this year. 

Q: What’s the favourite thing you’ve been a part of at Happen?

Will: Lurpak Cook’s Range, a range of new butter types and formats for people passionate about results in the kitchen, including spray butter, liquid butter, perfect baking and clarified butter. This has been an emotional roller coaster of a journey that has taught me the most during my time at Happen, and the story isn’t done yet! It was one of the first projects I worked on at Happen, and it launched in the UK with big bang in 2014, then sadly delisted by the end of 2015, it then launched in Sweden in 2016 with a revised activation plan and it’s now flying off the shelves, chefs are buying it in 24 packs, the re-launch in the UK is currently being discussed. It could have been ahead of its time and we also have better ideas now for how to activate the launch in store…ask me again in 2018 how I’m feeling about this one...

Q: Like Lurpak or ECCO Shoes, you have a lot of clients in the retail space, what do you think the future of retail looks like?

Will: I just moved from London Fields to Clapton, and the biggest news so far for me is my new local supermarket, restaurant and bar concept Eat 17, wow! It’s essentially a Spar with a pimped product range, a mix of curated delicacies from local stores and the Eat 17 team’s own products, set in a beautiful building and mixed with a florist, restaurant and bar. There’s a very interesting balance at the core of this where global big brand meets local craft, niche. This combination seems to be working too, they’ve been there a few years and there are still long queues. London benefits from some amazing local grocery stores who are so much faster and more flexible than the big chains, Co-op Old Street still doesn’t have a proper craft beer selection when they are within five miles of so many breweries and corner shops are packed full of craft but they still lack some things like good meat and bread. We worked with M&S in 2015 to increase their flexibility through consumer insight backed up by the revenue potential demonstrated by flexible operators like Pret. We helped them to build a business case that got a £300m investment in their stores signed off, this is why you can now get coffee in-store and you’ll see the food-on-the-move product shelves changing their offering for different times of day. These might seem like two simple things but they were tough to implement and have driven growth, including 115% in breakfast sales. M&S and independent convenience stories feel very distant, which is why I’m excited to see Eat 17 creating a new middle ground. There are many supply chain and affordability questions to answer before a concept like Eat 17 could scale, but there is definitely something potent at the heart of it.

Q: So for you the high street and retail are anchored in physical spaces?

Will: Bricks and mortar will find competing with the price and convenience of online more and more competitive. We’re currently working on two projects in this really congested space. But with change comes opportunity and so far it seems that the ability to uncover the right insights will be the key to winning. We worked for Odense Zoo two years ago to help them attract families who were going for a day out at the beach or Ikea instead. This highlighted the value of shared family activity which is never going to become replaced by online shopping. Maybe high streets will become more like fun parks for consumers to genuinely enjoy building relationships with brands. Selling should become like the gift shop at the end of an amazing experience, and perhaps floorspace will be repurposed away from this. So many of us love cities, the idea of barren high streets is too sad to imagine, I just hope traditional retailers can quickly find the business model that allows whole shops to be considered as shop window displays.

Q: Tell us about where you think good ideas come from.

Will: Good business ideas come from asking brilliant questions, and they come from genuinely fresh insight into consumer motivations. Coming up with ideas is always seen as the sexy bit, but you only know if they’re any good if they’re answering the right question and solving a consumer frustration. Getting to the question can take ages. The idea often just flows from there.

Q: What do you think the right environment for innovation looks like?

Will: For me, it’s the shower in the morning when I’m still half asleep. But everyone’s different. It’s important to try and give your team opportunities to create in the style that suits them, however many creative exercises you run in a workshop, sometimes the answer just isn’t going to come from there.

Q: What do you think the future of the work looks like?

A: If you extrapolate the business model of most of the recent mega startups, who are all about taking permanent employees off the books and hiding them as self-employed or gig workers, then you end up with a hugely flexible work world. Here, permanent companies don’t exist and workers connect together around finite projects, before going their separate ways onto different projects. However, I struggle to see this world of freelancers working for the early stages of careers where learning, development and feedback are so important, and valued so highly by the millennials entering the workforce. At Happen, we’re trying to create a value-based culture which really fits the nature of our work rather than being a rigid structure that feels at odds with the day to day activity. For example, our reviews are increasingly project based and not just annual. Sounds simple, but this fit of structure to the needs of the work being done could be seen as (very) toned down or adapted version of the Uber effect.

Q: Is there anything in the pipeline at Happen we should look out for in the coming months?

A: Yes. It’s called Asset-Out innovation. Twenty years ago, the big news in marketing was ‘insight-led innovation’. That’s a hygiene factor now for most FMCG businesses, everyone is searching for under-met consumer needs to ignite innovation. When you uncover one of these under-met needs, people tend to go into blue-sky thinking mode to generate ideas. These exciting ideas are rarely friends with your existing (very expensive) production assets, and suddenly your innovation journey starts to involve more increasingly nervous investment discussions and slows accordingly. We’re working with four brands right now to replace that ‘blue sky mode’ with previously unseen possibilities within their production capabilities. These brands are getting products to market in about half the time of their competition for minimal investment. Even if the initial launch isn’t perfect, they’re able to refine the execution based on real world learning. This is helping to improve innovation success rates and making more things Happen!

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