Director of innovation at MullenLowe US speaks to LBB’s Addison Capper about the benefits of a beginner’s mentality, his podcast Innovation Crush, and why he’s really into breaking good habits right now
Chris Denson is the first ever director of innovation at MullenLowe US, where he has held the role since November 2020. He is also, to quote his bio, "an award-winning innovation advocate, marketer, host, content creator, and recovering comedian". He is the author of an Amazon #1 bestselling book, 'Crushing the Box: 10 Essential Rules for Breaking Essential Rules', which is a series of personal and professional examinations of what it takes to thrive in today's innovation economy.
At MullenLowe US, Chris is responsible for exploring and applying emerging innovations across its clients, popular culture and new practices within the agency itself. He also serves as innovator-in-residence at Pipelines, a new platform designed to introduce talented BIPOC Gen Z and young millennials to career opportunities in the creative, technology and entertainment industries. His podcast, InnovationCrush, has amassed over 750,000 subscribers and has hosted personalities such as Steve Wozniak, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Jean Case, Matt Barnes, Daymond John, Felicia Day, and Sugar Ray Leonard, as well as leaders from the likes of Spotify, Adidas, WeWork, L'Oreal, Sonos, NASA and more.
If it wasn't yet clear, there's a lot that we could talk to him about. LBB's Addison Capper got the opportunity.
LBB> Tell me about your first encounters with technology / innovation. Where does that interest come from? And did it manifest at an early age?
Chris> Ironically, I was an analogue kid. Bike riding and swim team filled up a lot of my free time. But I do remember getting an Atari and hooking it up to the TV with that bulky, boxy adapter, and turning on Pong for the first time and thinking, ‘well, this is different’. Aside from that, I was always doing something with people… I was in our high school marching band. I was a caddy. I took roller skating lessons, and whether I knew it at the time or not, was really learning to explore and participate in culture.
Professionally, my first deep dive into tech and innovation when I was part of the team that ran the American Film Institute’s Digital Content Lab. At the time, our job as a think tank was to try to look three to 10 years out into the future on how we’d engage with the world. We did a lot of work in partnership with companies like IBM, Playstation, Disney/ABC, Adobe, etc. and recruited volunteer mentors from all over the world who to this day, are some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. When you’re around super smart people, you can’t help but pick up a thing or two.
At the end of the day, it’s all about possibility and curiosity. What’s possible, even when someone tells you it’s impossible? As human beings we’re naturally problem solvers, and endorphins get released when we have a Eureka! moment. The innovation economy is filled with Eureka! moments. Meanwhile, curiosity is the thing that gets you to tinker around and connect dots most people don’t think can be connected.
LBB> And what was your pathway to working in tech and advertising? Was it something you did purposefully or more a happy accident?
Chris> Definitely a series of happy accidents. I began my career in the entertainment industry as a stand-up comic and writer. In that industry, you sometimes never know when your next gig is gonna happen, so in between jobs I would do all sorts of freelance work – music videos, art exhibitions, producing conferences. I even ran for neighbourhood council… and won! Along the way, I worked on a lot of small teams making big products, so I got to wear a lot of different hats. I found that I had a knack for marketing – and eventually learned that good marketing involves creating unique ways to tell stories and allow audiences to experience your brand / message in ways that cut through the clutter. So somewhat by nature, and somewhat by curiosity, somewhat by necessity, I was getting in the practice of learning what it takes to make innovation happen.
That’s not to say that it was all roses. I think when you’re a misfit toy and have a bunch of different types of jobs and interests, people don't necessarily know what to do with you. And even worse, you sometimes don’t know what to do with yourself – especially if your career / life was not working out the way you envisioned. Fast forward through a lot of soul searching and exploration, I’ve learned that being a misfit toy can actually be a superpower. I know enough about a few different industries to have intelligent conversations with the experts, but also still naïve enough about those industries to question whatever rules and constructs they’ve set up over years of practice.
LBB> You're the director of innovation at MullenLowe US, which is a new role for the agency. Define that role for us. What keeps you busy?
Chris> I’ve really been thinking a lot lately about the idea of ‘breaking good habits’. MullenLowe US holds records for their award-winning work over a 50-year span. So obviously the company knows how to do amazing things extremely well. At the same time, we’re all creatures of habit. We know how to do the things we know how to do better than most. It's why the greatest athletes in the world show up early and leave late for practice, well into being at the top of their game. Couple that with a quote that I love: ‘What got you here, won’t get you there.’ So, setting and accomplishing goals often means abandoning some old habits – even ones that have proven themselves time and time again – and exchanging them for some experimentation in the unfamiliar and involving clients in that experimentation.
When you’re merging into a culture that already does dope, my job becomes more about shifting some of the cultural DNA, rather than overhauling systems. From a practical standpoint, this means I’m slowly introducing new resources, tactics, and relationships - and hopefully some good energy - into operationalising innovation. This is also the unsexy part of the gig that doesn’t often get discussed. Most times, we hear about and celebrate the end result. But the real magic is in developing new approaches and routines that get you there, time and time again – always to new levels. Kinda like revolving and evolving at the same time.
LBB> Spying your LinkedIn, I think this is your first role inside a creative agency like this? You've been in and around the industry forever but this feels like a new proposition. Is that right? What tempted you about the opportunity at MullenLowe?
Chris> I had a warmup, co-running the award-winning innovation practice at OMD for a few years. While there are lots of operational similarities in the role that innovation plays, the products and people and cultures and clients are very different. For me, innovation potential begins with a collective mindset that’s rooted in a beginner’s mentality. Beginners are sponges. They are relentless in the pursuit of getting better. They ask all the questions. They are often awkward in form and shape until mastery. And even in mastery, they know that there is a lot to learn. A beginner is constantly thinking ‘how can I get better?’ When answering, they also might try it their own unique way as they learn. My very first conversation with MullenLowe US was with our CEO, Lee Newman, who was very honest about the things the agency was trying to figure out and very open to different. And like I said before, human beings are all about creative problem solving. Luckily, I’m a human being (sometimes). Then I met others inside the organisation, who were super smart and also relentlessly honest. It’s a perfect set of conditions for growth.
The new proposition part of your question is also exciting for me. Learning new terminology and methods, getting to know the different personalities that make up the cultural DNA, getting familiar with the personal and professional journeys that are contributing to the vision of how MullenLowe US sees the future in its own unique way – and me figuring out how can I be additive to that journey.
LBB> You sit across multiple departments, which is an interesting part of your role. How does that work? And how do you ensure your influence is felt across them? Why is that something that's interesting for you?
Chris> While working across many different parts of the company across our Los Angeles, Boston and New York offices is both a gift and a curse for my schedule – it’s definitely more the curse than the gift! Mainly because I’m still a beginner in the organisation, so it really is a lot of learning and leaning into as many projects and teams as possible. It’s an important part of the process because it also gives me a really unique vantage point for where dormant opportunities for innovation might be. Whether discovering untapped talent or potential in team members, seeing how other offices and departments go about sharing ideas and insights, observing the emotional climates within groups across the country, or having brainstorms on technology and tools that might guide us toward more operational efficiency. The error in innovation is often found in thinking it only refers to a creative output of some sort, when really there are so many links in the chain before you even get to an idea that can make or break how successful we can be in the things we pursue.
LBB> The word technology is extremely broad, and I think that it can maybe be a bit intimidating to some people. So, how important is it for you and how much of your role is actually ensuring that your clients AND creatives are clued up enough to make the most of what is at hand to them and making sure that they're educated as to what they can do?
Chris> My whole day is filled with two-way exchanges of the phrases ‘have you heard of…?’ and ‘ok, well lemme tell you…’ and ‘…what if we…?’ It’s a natural progression from discovery to application. I’ve learned to do this in baby steps, rather than waltz in beating the loud drum of the near future. That would be annoying. Most of the people we interact with are up to their turtlenecks in just normal day-to-day stuff. Putting out fires. Unexpected meetings. Additional projects. Too many emails. Short-staffed. Not to mention our personal lives and terrifying social-political climates. So for me, it’s about rapport. Can I keep showing up as a valuable resource? Can I be a person who shows empathy for where people are in their needs? And more practically from a business standpoint, how can I keep a constant flow of interaction with various teams. Trust is built over time, with tons of micro-moments. An introduction here. An explanation there. A small win on this process. An excitable idea for a client. A shift in perspective. It all takes a lot of patience – especially for me – because like most of us, I want the big shiny thing now. But after enough of these micro-moments, trust sets in as you’ve built a track record with the person or groups you’re interacting with the most. They start to come to you more often, and if you’re smart, you’ve already custom built a few different products and services to now roll out both proactively and in times of need.
LBB> What are the trends and innovative practices that you're discussing most with the teams at MullenLowe right now? What is exciting you?
Chris> It’s a moving target. But that’s what you have to love about this type of role. You’re never actually done because the world moves at a tremendous pace. Every day it changes. MullenLowe US has an internal tool we first piloted with Burger King called Speedbag that lets us listen to a ton of subcultures all across the social sphere and informs us on how we can better create inventive moments. S,o both as it relates to Speedbag, as well as just general Zoom chatter, we’ve discussed everything from the evolving ecosystem of the music industry and how brands can empower artistry, to the NFT bubble and its impending maturity, to Minecraft and gaming communities, to how the political landscape is shaping both internal morale and brand acts. Because it moves so fast, our application of said trend has to serve two purposes: 1) immediately cut through the clutter with a hugely creative wow factor; 2) have a strong point of view on some area of culture.
LBB> With the start-up culture that's thriving today, how do you spot a worthwhile piece of innovation over one that might be more of a gimmick / fad? Is that something that even crosses your mind?
Chris> Vetting is so important. Who are the founders? What are they like? What similar products are out there? Which organisations support them financially? Operationally? How long have they been in business? What’s their plan for the near and distant future? Are they focused? Spread too thin? The list goes on. Luckily over the years, I’ve served as an advisor to several start-ups and related programs like Google Launchpad, Mass Challenge, Chipotle Alumninaries, WeWork Emerge, the Global Entrepreneurship Summit and several more. Having relationships like this makes sourcing and vetting of start-ups a lot easier. There will always be that outlier that comes across your desk and you’re like ‘wow, this is dope!’ And through practice, you know what kinds of things to look for in a more blind-vetting situation.
LBB> How do you actually stay abreast of new technologies and innovation to keep yourself informed for your role?
Chris> There’s no way you can catch it all! That’s where amazingly curious teams come into the picture. Not only am I doing a lot of research on my own or getting interesting things in my mailbox on a daily basis, I’m constantly asking people what they’ve seen out in the world that they find interesting. Some of those relationships grow to just constant exchanges of information and ideas. We end up educating each other all the time. It’s just that it’s part of my specific job to figure out how and what to apply at the right times. In the agency world, there’s no shortage of goals our clients want to achieve so we’re naturally in the business of seeing what’s out there in effort to do things differently and meaningfully. And lastly, I think getting hands on with as much of it as possible makes a huge difference in understanding how these technologies are advancing. I’ve been turned into a 3D-printed statue. I’ve had my brain turned into a piece of candy. I’ve been turned into an animated augmented reality avatar. I’ve had AI compare my psychography to presidential candidates. I’ve had cameras measure my emotions through galvanic skin responses. I’ve even killed Storm Troopers in mixed reality experiences. Having a tactile experience with tech is far more impactful on your ability to digest it than constantly reading headlines and tweets.
LBB> Aside from MullenLowe you've had such a fascinating and interesting career. There's your time at Omnicom MediaGroup but also the podcast Innovation Crush, writing a book, a whole host of speaking activities, the list is quite long. Where does that passion to do so much and be a true advocate for the space that you work in come from?
LBB> A huge part of the innovator’s toolbox is an ability to ask questions. Lots of them. An annoyingly, exceedingly less-than-comfortable-for-most-people amount of questions. That’s not only how we learn, but it’s also how the people you’re asking these questions get better at what they do. It’s usually a symbiotic exchange. And in my case, I’ve also managed to do that as a storyteller so that others can learn the ins and outs of how amazing ideas come to life. In addition to my book and Innovation Crush, I’ve hosted a Cannes Lions live television broadcast, moderated at tons of events and conferences, and currently have my own video series on Fast Company. Through it all, I believe that evolution is the universal thing we all pursue. We all want to evolve in one way or another – personally, creatively, professionally, etc. – even a job promotion is an evolution. And evolution requires new ways of looking at things, unlocking new skill sets, and applying new learnings to the people and things we interact with on a day-to-day basis. I’m lucky to get a front row seat to some of the best thinkers and doers in the world on a regular basis.
LBB> Forgetting about work all together, what is one piece of technology that you've been particularly nerding out over recently?
Chris> I've been thinking about biometrics a lot in the past year or so. So many tools out there can read our physiology whether it be galvanic skin responses, the emotionality in our voices, our movement within a space, and of course things like heart rate and body temperature. In some connected homes we can already see the home auto-responding to the individual or collective biology with everything from changing the temperature, to adjusting the colour and intensity of lighting, or even selecting music to fit or enhance your mood. I'd love to see more of this incorporated into virtual meetings (in a non-creepy way), or brand trials / testing, experiential environments, customer service solutions, or even data on how surgeons are dealing with fatigue and focus during procedures. From telemedicine to at-home workouts to meal delivery, this past year had us connecting with technology more than ever, and with that comes a little more comfort in giving up our data for enhanced or highly customised experiences.
LBB> Outside of work and writing and presenting and everything else, what keeps you busy and happy?
Chris> Busy is one thing. Happy is another. I’m trying to shed the former as much as possible. Even if it’s just stealing back a few moments each day. I meditate and pray every single morning. I’ve been practicing martial arts since I was 17, I live in a four-person household, I’m the best dad-joke teller I know, I love watching anything comedy, and just got a new puppy named Fiona. As a Midwest kid who now lives in LA, it’s good to take my mind and my energy away from the grind and get back to what’s simple and tangible and real.