Sally O’Dowd has written for many blogs including MSLGROUP and Social Media Week. In this 2011 post, she interviews MSLGROUP’s Andy Tannen about Steve Jobs’ legacy. The interview was originally published here


Sally: Andy, earlier this year, we wrote a couple blog posts about Fortune’s list of the most admired companies. You mentioned that financial performance was critical to getting on the list. Do you think Steve Jobs’ legacy will change the way we define “admirable”? Will people start to consider innovation more seriously as it relates to business reputation?

Andy: Innovation has always been considered a key component of corporate reputation. In Fortune’s survey, innovation is one of the eight measured components. Innovation has also been cited by New York University accounting professor Baruch Lev as one of the key “intangible assets” of companies in terms of driving share price—that is, assets where you cannot quantify the value on a balance sheet.

That said, Steve Jobs’ legacy will have a big effect on CEOs and other executives in the C-suite (marketing, operations, finance), resulting in greater emphasis on innovation as a driver of corporate reputation. After all, he left behind the most valuable technology company in the world, having brought it back from the brink of disaster by developing and marketing a series of highly innovative products. The emphasis on innovation has already started to happen via the torrent of books, articles, commentary by consulting firms, interviews with colleagues, and so on.

Sally: In our conversations you’ve also emphasized that innovation needs to lead to new and sellable products or services. Can you elaborate on that?

Andy: Jobs’ amazing streak of revolutionary products, most of which were not only successful but in many cases changed the dynamics of long-established industries (e.g., iPod and recorded music, Pixar and animation, iPhone and mobile phones) is due to his innovative thinking. At his death, he has been compared to Thomas Edison, who “invented” modern electricity (and other pundits have compared him to Einstein). So he will be studied at every management level, from MBA programs to C-suite discussions.

Moreover, he had an ingenious knack for commercializing his innovations, and that is really hard to do. Plenty of other companies have developed innovative products but haven’t been able to move beyond that stage. For example, Xerox developed the PC’s “human interface”, which included the mouse and pull-down screens, among other features, but could not bring it to the market. Jobs bought the technology from Xerox PARC in Palo Alto and incorporated it into the Mac. The rest is history.

Another differentiator is that Jobs did not cut back on product development during a recession, yet one more idea worth considering. Apple, with Jobs at the helm, has won on both innovation and commercial fronts with amazing consistency since 2001, when the iPod came out in the middle of a downturn.

But I think the most amazing thing I’ve heard about him is that he was completely against market research; he developed products that he loved and believed the general public would as well. In our world, that practice flies in the face of modern marketing practices. He did pretty well with it.

Sally: Innovation is often linked to R&D and to the “scientists” at a company. But it really is, or should be, more broad than that–expanding to marketing and customer service—as Steve Jobs no doubt taught all of us. Can you comment on innovation as it relates to how a company engages with customers?

Andy: Innovation can and should touch every function of a company, and not be limited to product development. Great companies have been innovators in customer service, for example. None is more revolutionary than Dell in that respect, which has changed how PCs are purchased, by moving the entire process to the Web, taking it away from the limits of physical retail stores.

Today, companies and organizations are pulling in customers more closely through the rise of apps (another Jobs innovation). The New Jersey Turnpike Authority, a nonprofit, has created an app to let drivers know when the highways are completely jammed so they can select an alternate route; food trucks now have apps alerting people about their arrival at lunch time. And of course, practically all Web-based businesses, such as Yelp, are offering apps to make their services more timely and relevant to customers.

There is no department within a company that cannot be improved by more innovative approaches. Innovation can be applied to HR: Online 360 reviews fit into this category. Think about, which revolutionized how companies organize their sales organizations.

Sally: With Jobs’ passing, are clients becoming more interested in the topic of innovation and how it could affect their business ?

Andy: It is early in the post-Jobs era, but every client I have talked to has been mentioning his impact.  These ideas, expressed in informal conversation, will start to crystalize as more studies emerge about how he led Apple to such success. I have already seen the “Steve Jobs method of giving presentations” which emerged at least a year before he died (it was packaged by a presentation training company).

Sally: The Innovator’s DNA lists five skills of disruptive innovators:

—Associating, drawing connections
—Questioning, challenging common wisdom
—Observing, identifying new ways of doing things
—Networking, incorporating new perspectives
—Experimenting, constructing interactive experiences

Would you care to comment on the above five traits in the context of the communications profession?

Andy: From my perspective, the industry’s greatest sea change has come from the rise of social media, and the development of PR programs that market products and services (i.e., reach customers) through social media channels. The use of social media in communications does indeed incorporate the five traits of innovative disruption, in particular observation, reaching out to a variety of people and stakeholders, and the construction of interactive experiences. And social media put people in control, which certainly challenged the common wisdom of one-way, “push” advertising, which is now morphing into two-way dialogue between companies and people.

I believe the consumer marketing segment of our business is way ahead of b2b and corporate reputation segments in using social media, but the latter will catch up gradually. By that time, social media will probably have morphed into something completely different–again, through listening, observation, experimentation and sheer ingenuity.

Sally: How can communications professionals help corporate decision-makers think more clearly and realistically about innovation?

Andy: Communications professionals are perfectly positioned to help CEOs and their executive teams understand the impact of innovation on a company’s reputation. Now would be a good time to have such conversations, with Steve Jobs fresh in our minds, if they aren’t underway already.

The next step is to conduct an audit that identifies the assets (products, research & development, business processes) that are truly innovative and will interest media, investors, and customers. This process should then be incorporated into a communications plan. Studies show that companies receive a “dividend” from investors for innovation (a greater share price valuation).

Moreover, innovation is a tremendous opportunity for employee communications professionals, who can develop programs to motivate and reward employees who come up with innovative new products and services. The best program I’ve heard of was developed by accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers. The company created a program called Power Pitch, which is loosely based on the TV show, American Idol, where teams go through a round robin process to present their idea to senior managers and the CEO. The winning team receives $100,000 to implement it.

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