Why we’re bucking the trend and investing in innovation

By Mark Gair, Managing Director, CDS.

There’s no getting away from the fact that the past year has forced decision-makers to embrace the opportunity to tackle things in a way they might never have done previously. While we all had to dig deep in the ‘resilience reserves’, there were many who innovated on a scale we’ve not seen before – and it’s important this attitude doesn’t fall by the wayside as we enter the ‘recovery phase’.

I’m conscious that it may seem insensitive to talk about multi-million-pound investments while so many of our respected peers are still reeling from the events of 2020, but we have a duty to our clients, staff, and supply chain to grow and continue to make a positive difference.

That’s why our company has continued to invest in people, property, and acquisition during the pandemic. It was always part of the 2020 plan prior to COVID-19, and we stuck to it.

As a business, we have a truly clear long-term strategy which we revisit on a regular basis. This agility has proven important because – since CDS was formed in 1995 – we have witnessed all-manner of changes in our industry, from a shift from printed communications to digital, through to the internet revolution and recent focus on AI and machine learning. In short, we’ve always had to adapt, global pandemic or not.

With change comes opportunity too. The past 26 years has seen the birth of Google, launch of Facebook, and invention of the iPhone – all advancements which people perhaps initially viewed with mild suspicion, but ones which we could not now imagine life without. And, seeing the potential of similar opportunities – albeit on a more organisationally-focused scale – could pay dividends for those looking to recover from the pandemic.

Knowing when to invest in innovation

For many firms – particularly those without the luxury of healthy cash reserves – the changing tide has meant that at points in time, over the past 12 months, the priority has been to merely remain afloat. For others, non-essential spend was temporarily shelved as organisations took the time to step back and take stock.

We paused some notable investments as soon as the pandemic took hold, for instance  halting work on the £750,000 overhaul of our new Leeds HQ, and putting the brakes on due diligence work ahead of the SimpleUsability acquisition, while we ensured our ‘house was in order’ – both of  which are now complete.

Of course, the pace with which it’s possible to look outwardly once more can vary significantly from firm to firm. CDS is in the fortunate position of having a robust management structure and strong cash reserves, so it would be wrong of me to suggest we can all start purchasing properties and buying businesses at the earliest opportunity.

But innovation doesn’t always require deep pockets. There has been no getting away from the notion of ‘pivoting’, for example, and I think it’s important to explore what opportunities are out there. Then, if it’s sensible to do so, grab them with both hands.

CDS is currently in the final year of its current three-year-plan, which had included budget for further such investments. Naturally, as we begin to formulate the next phase of our strategy, it will be sympathetic to the current climate, but it’s important that we don’t lose sight of our purpose – the next iteration of the strategy will have a significant focus to fuel innovation and drive positive change.

Innovate in areas which truly make a difference whilst changing the culture

There is no point in simply ‘innovating for innovating’s sake’. Likewise, we shouldn’t be quick to follow the masses either. Rushing to turn off print and switch all your communications to digital channels because that’s what everyone else is doing, for example, isn’t innovation.

Asking what matters to your stakeholders right now, taking time to understand customers, challenging what ‘you’ve always done’, showing empathy and thinking about how you can make a difference to the communities you live and work in, alongside tailoring your product or service to reflect the evolving needs of your audience, is what the world needs.

Demand for insight, content, digital transformation, print and process automation solutions has grown exponentially in recent years – and allowed us to look at what tools were needed to support longer-term ambitions.

Alongside our widely-reported investments, we’ve also earmarked £1.1m to grow our headcount – at all levels – as well as having invested a six-figure sum for access to tools and tech such as Gartner and YouGov, which will further bolster the service proposition we offer to the end-user.

As part of our approach to changing the culture of innovation at CDS, we introduced an internal ‘innovation grant’ at the start of 2021. This fund empowers the entire workforce to request investment in new services, technology, or processes that benefit the agency, our clients, and society.

Remember what you stand for

Everything I’ve described reflects CDS’ entire vision. Because yes, we adapt to reflect to leverage external opportunities and mitigate risk. But the decisions we make are underpinned by our long-term strategy. They’re authentic. So, for leaders developing a newfound appetite for innovation, I’d say that above all, it’s vital that organisations truly ‘live’ their values. Almost 12 months ago to the day, someone told me ‘the way businesses act during this period is how they will be remembered’ and that sentiment applies to our customers, colleagues, and the general public.

While slight upheaval is to be tolerated – we are living through a moment in history, after all – it’s important not to lose sight of who you are, and what attracted people to work with you in the first place.

CDS strives to make a positive difference while protecting the health, wealth, and safety of UK citizens – and would never compromise our purpose or values to chase a quick win. While there could have been ample opportunity to stray from ‘the path’ in 2020, we never did.

We strive to work alongside those who share the same motivation to get out of bed in a morning to do some good in the world, rather than simply doing what needs to be done in a bid to balance the books.

The pace of change, particularly in our industry, and the acceleration of digital transformation has forced brands to strive to ‘do better’ – and quickly. There’s no time to look at what trailblazers are doing and give yourselves three to five years to get there. Seeing the curve change before rivals, being able to react, and having the foresight to adapt, is key.

Of course, while emptying the cash reserves is undoubtedly not the way to go, it really is important to seek out ways to invest in people, processes and technology in order to thrive, not simply survive.

Mark Gair is Managing Director of CDS, a Leeds-based strategic communications agency.

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