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Published June 13th 2016

Interview: The Democratization of Innovation at We Are Social

We spoke to award-winning agency We Are Social's Innovation Director, Tom Ollerton, about how they create fresh campaigns for the world's biggest brands.

We Are Social is a global agency, made up of more than 550 people in 11 offices around the world, from Milan to Munich and Sydney to San Francisco.

The agency delivers world-class creative campaigns and strategies based on social insights, working with global brands such as Adidas, Audi, Google and Netflix.

We Are Social’s work has been recognised by Cannes Lions, Webbys, Lovies, Creative Circle and many more.

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The agency’s core mission is to put social thinking at the centre of marketing, and with social innovation at the heart of the business we took the opportunity to speak with Tom Ollerton, Innovation Director at We Are Social, for our most recent blog interview.

Integrating social for the world’s biggest brands

Tom has been based at the agency’s London HQ for four years. In that time he’s seen the digital landscape change dramatically.

Starting out at We Are Social in a sales and marketing function, Tom spent the majority of his time responding to requests from clients asking him to ‘do something on social’ for their latest activity or campaign.


Social was an afterthought; it wasn’t integrated into the wider campaigns.

‘Social was that thing that you did after TV, after you bought the media, after you built the website, after you built the mobile site. Social was viewed as an add-on.’ says Tom.

Soon the more progressive clients such as HSBC, Netflix and Google started to become interested in integrating social into the mix. Tom started to see social as part of the original briefs for campaigns.

‘Social was there at the table, above the line with digital as part of the mix.’ explains Tom.

We Are Social are now working with its clients on socially led campaigns, where social thinking starts on the inside.

This involves understanding how and why people communicate with each other in an independent way, and using those insights as a driver and inspiration.

‘If you understand the DNA of the conversation, and what’s driving people to talk about stuff in social, then why shouldn’t that inform the content on the website?

Why shouldn’t that inform what goes in the email? Why shouldn’t that inform what happens in the TV ad? If you’re understanding people on a social level, then I think that can inform.’ explains Tom.

Pushing innovation

Tom’s current role as Innovation Director sees him responsible for delivering a program of innovative thoughts, content, events, and actions for the business.

‘We’ve always been an innovative business, but I’m here to get the telescope out, look even further into the future, and just protect ourselves and our clients from changes that are coming up.’

As one of the world’s leading, global agencies, what does innovation mean? Tom explains.

‘Innovation for us at We Are Social means original thoughts or original technology, but ideally the combination of them both.’

Tom and his team produce ‘the curiosity stop’, a monthly roundup of the month’s best social innovations.

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The team also run innovative events such as the Social Media Smackdown, Think Forward and the 101 event series where the business looks at outlying marketing disciplines and topics and then hosts events around key themes.

These innovative activities are a great beacon for We Are Social to tell staff, clients and potential clients that the agency is right on the money with every innovation in social.

A large part of Tom’s role involves uncovering and actioning new ways of thinking.

‘I try to think differently about how can I get the agency to operate in a different, more progressive manner that makes us feel a bit uncomfortable, because it’s invariably where you feel a bit uncomfortable, a bit weird, where you learn new things about yourself.’

Improv comedy techniques have proved to be a fantastic way for the agency to generate new ideas.

The improv training has helped generate ideas, and doesn’t only involve team members with ‘innovation’ or ‘creative’ in their job title. It has involved a wide range of disciplines from across the business.

‘We’re trying to kind of democratize innovation, and make it something that everyone can do’ explains Tom.

How it works at We Are Social

Democratizing innovation is a key theme at the agency.

The agency has an internal communications platform, used by all 11 offices, which is used as a knowledge sharing communication tool.

Tom and his team use this tool to analyze the trends and themes that are posted, topics that are discussed, subjects its clients are caring about and then plan innovative content around these areas.


Working this way with content is very reactive. Does being innovative mean planning is hard? How prepared can you be when working with trending topics and themes?

Tom and his team plan on a quarter by quarter basis. The team run an event every few weeks and a ‘lunch and learn’ every other week, the content is always future focused.

‘We have to pedal quite hard to get all that out of the door and retain a certain quality as well.’ says Tom.

How can you measure innovation? What does success look like to an innovation director?

For Tom it is about taking the agencies clients on a journey, over a few years or eighteen month period with innovation. Tom’s aim is to take clients on a journey from box ticking to actually doing more future focused work.

Some brands are of course naturally a lot more innovative.

Adidas is a longstanding client of the agency and are incredibly innovative, Tom has less of a job to do there.

However, Tom is measured on how he can work with brands, and take them on a path from thinking ‘social is a thing’, to actually being innovative, with social integrated into all areas of marketing.

‘The nature of innovation is that most of it won’t work. The difficulty is that clients want that incredible innovation hastily, that just comes out of the blue.

But the reality is that in order to get that innovation, you have to constantly iterate, try and fail quickly, to keep on turning that over until eventually you get that thing that lands.’ says Tom.

The reality is that a lot of the time innovation doesn’t work, therefore it can be harder to get people to invest.

A struggle is how to convince people that it’s worth the risk, and that only comes over time, built out of trust, and achieving a shared vision, which is exactly what We Are Social are so successful at doing.

It is why they’ll continue to be focused on creating ideas powered by people, not platforms – a formula that’s proven very successful over the last seven years.

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