Magical Talk: Mark Payne on Transformational Innovation

Failure appears to have a magical hold on the collective conscious today. The International Conference on Electrical Fuses and their Applications holds an annual event on engineering failure analysis; a few years ago advertising agency Wieden & Kennedy featured “Fail harder,” a directive more than six feet tall made of clear push pins at its main office in Portland, Oregon; and last weekend PS1 hosted “An Afternoon of Failure,” readings and performances celebrating the art of defeat. None of it has sat well with Mark Payne, head of idea development at innovation consultancy Fahrenheit 212, the company he founded with former Saatchi & Saatchi executives in 2002.

Speaking at Polytechnic Institute of NYU’s Investigatio lecture series on Wednesday, Payne admitted innovation to be a difficult undertaking but mused, “Why [has] innovation failure become so thoroughly accepted as normal and okay?” Part of the problem, he posited, was that other agencies focus on satisfying either the consumer or the company when asked to reinvigorate an existing product or brand; few aim to please both equally. The problem has been compounded by approaches that emphasize commercial strategies light on creativity — or the opposite of that approach: creative solutions that lack strategic commercial direction.

So, when establishing Fahrenheit 212, Payne explained that he and his cohorts opted for a nonhierarchical structure in which “the money” — staff with backgrounds in investment banking and financial services — occupied the same rung as “the magic,” employees with histories in creative fields, such as design and architecture. This “DNA,” as Payne called it, allows the firm to provide outcome-based solutions that include hard metrics by which the “money” department measures results, as well as the less quantifiable innovation that its “magic” team offers. Together, the “money and the magic” offer what Payne termed “transformational innovation.”

His audience — professionals in the media, design, advertising, and technology industries, as well as students and faculty from NYU-Poly and beyond — engaged the fast-talking, energetic lecturer in a Q&A session afterward, wondering if Fahrenheit 212 shares risk and rewards with its clients, such as intellectual property rights that may result from projects, and what it takes to become a part of the agency’s DNA. Admitting that the staff of 45 received 1,800 job applications last year, Payne answered that candidates’ background was less important. “They’ve got to show their creative chops in a series of exercises we give them,” he explained, citing the firm’s internal leitmotif: “Let’s amaze each other every day.”

That kind of mutual amazement continued at the reception held afterward by the NYU-Poly Graduate Center, which provided attendees with food and drinks. For more information about the next speaker of the Investigatio lecture series, please contact Professor Anne-Laure Fayard at the Department of Technology Management: alfayard@poly.edu.