Innovation in action: 5 lessons from Monty’s Magical Toy Machine

Innovation in action:  5 lessons from Monty’s Magical Toy Machine

montys magical toy machine

If you work in marketing you’ll have seen the word “innovation” a lot recently. It’s the word that’s on everyone’s lips, and in everyone’s creative briefs. There’s now even a festival for it in Cannes.

New tech is where it’s at – whether a media first, an experiential wow factor, or a digital service layer to “Uber-ify” a brand. But the thing about “the new” is that by definition it’s never been done before. Innovation requires you to take a leap, a risk. But this makes clients nervous, just how do you deliver this crazy new idea? As social business guru Gary Vaynerchuck says:

“all your ideas may be solid or even good…but you have to actually EXECUTE on them for them to matter.” 

So when we were asked to speak at the first ever Martech Europe event in London on 22 October we thought we’d tackle this issue head on (Martech is America’s number one conference for marketing technology). We wanted to show innovation in action, and share with Martech attendees the things we’ve learnt – our “5 Steps To Innovation Success”. We used a high profile project to make our case.

See the world through a child’s eyes

Our company Techdept acts as an innovation lab for many brands, and one of our proudest achievements was working with Microsoft Advertising in late 2014 on the iconic John Lewis campaign “Monty The Penguin”.

The creative brief given to Microsoft Advertising was to get people to ‘see the world through a child’s eyes’. Their answer – Monty’s Magical Toy Machine – let kids bring THEIR OWN toys into store, and turn them into interactive 3D animations. The concept was simple, emotional, and fiendishly technically complex.

Kids would hand their toys to a Monty helper, where it would be placed in Monty’s Magical Toy Machine, shot by cameras, and turned into a 3D animation on a giant screen. Kids would interact with their toy using Kinect technology.

1. Clear Vision

The first thing to do when making a successful piece of tech innovation is to forget about the tech. Get a clear vision, one based on the benefit to the customer, that compresses the idea so that anyone can understand it. For us it was to make a child’s toy come to life.

This was the destination, not the journey. A simple truth we could all focus on without getting lost in the weeds of the technical stuff that would inevitably follow. A good sign you’re on to a winner is if the idea is simple enough to write on a post-it note.
This was really important for us when working on Monty, for three reasons.

Firstly, we had a complex & demanding customer. Could a 5 year old understand it? Because they needed to, immediately. In addition could the hundreds of people walking past the environment “get it” quickly?

Secondly, we faced a complex technical challenge – and not just for us, but for many collaborative parties, several overseas. This was brand new technology with no documentation, did any proposed technical solution help or hinder taking us towards our vision?

Thirdly, we had multiple collaborative partners – not only within and between Techdept and Microsoft, but at adam&eveDDB, Manning Gotlieb OMD and John Lewis themselves. There were also many partners like Gorilla who made the rig, or contractors working on specific technical challenges. A clear vision meant that everyone could be sure that they were working in the same direction.

The key moment of truth came when we tested an early prototype of the concept with Microsoft Creative Director Ben Richard’s son’s toy – Gerry The Giraffe. Would his son “get” it?

If you didn’t catch the audio at the end of the video, he asks “Are toys really alive…?”, to which Ben replies “What do you think?”. And in a heartbeat the answer, “YES!”. We knew at that point our vision was clear.

2. No Walls

The traditional agency model – with a chain of communication between multiple partners – can be too slow, particularly when you are trying to find a new solution under tight time pressures. There’s no time for chasing emails or “Chinese whispers”.

With Monty we were forced to employ a more transparent and organic approach, with continuous open communication, shared dialog, and transparent decision making. If any team member needed something it was up to them to ask.

We achieved “Management By Walking About” virtually on Skype, with calls lasting indefinitely as we hooked people in and out when they were needed. This meant rapid conversations and decisions with little formality, everyone mucking in, ego out the window. If it worked it went in – whoever came up with the idea. Meetings happened immediately.

This created a sense that we were “all in this together” building real empathy between the team. This was perhaps best epitomised by John Lewis’s John Vary, who supported the vision early on as ‘the client’, fighting for more budget for equipment – yet by the end he was acting as ‘the runner’, fetching cables at 3am.

3. Success Needs Failure

We wouldn’t have got the glory without some grit, and failure is always a key part of innovation success.

You should treat failure as a scientist would, trying out new experiments rapidly, failing fast and capturing lessons – data – from things that didn’t work out. By focusing what you can learn from your failures you can innovate by doing, getting your hands dirty, try things out rapidly. We always say you should avoid “drilling through rocks” – in other words getting absorbed in a problem which you can walk around to get to the same destination in half the time

There were many parts of the process that required this approach, including the capturing of the 3D image of the child’s toy. In the video below you can see the result of a range of techniques we tried – led by Techdept CTO Rick Grundy – from a Kinect, to a hand scanner, before we settled on the process of photogrammetry.

Photogrammetry actually came from an unexpected source: satellite imaging technology. We discovered it after much trial and error, and realised that its ability to realistically capture surface textures was going to give us what we needed, a realistic 3D image of a fluffy child’s toy, which we could then animate and make interactive.

4. Buckle Up

Like any unexplored new territory, the ride to innovation can be bumpy. So buckle up, get ready for those bumps in the road. This requires a brave client, and a transparent two way street.

One example of where our buckle up principle was used was, in the inside of Monty’s Magical Toy Machine, the image below shows Arthur Tindsley from Microsoft in the inside of the Machine.

montys magical toy machine

But this interior – the area where the images of the kid’s toys would be captured – was never meant to be this beautiful. It only ended up looking this way due to a last minute ‘bump’.

When we were finalising the rig, we thought we’d finish the job properly and paint the MDF interior of the rig as we wanted it to look ‘finished’ on site. Only we hadn’t factored into our last minute paint job was that photogrammetry requires fixed visual points against which to create the 3D image. Our gloss white paint had covered up all the points!

A quick phone call to the awesome Cave Ellson at adam&eveDDB and a pragmatic conversation was had – with Cave sending down the illustrator of the Monty illustration book to work their magic. Within an afternoon the interior had been transformed into a visual wonderland, fixing an unforeseen problem with style.

5. Open Your Mind

Doing new things requires new ways of thinking. Imagining an innovative tech idea is only part of the problem, you need to not only question your assumptions about what’s possible (the innovation) but you have to question HOW you achieve it.

New working methods, open and transparent, encourage genuine empathy and meaningful collaboration. The roles within the process should be able to be fluid, and you should be open to work with unexpected partners, and be open to new sources of creative ideas. The future belongs to those that can mix art & science, creativity & code, marketing & technology. Genuinely new ideas never come from doing a better version of what you did last week. You should learn to challenge yourself to think laterally

As one of the 20th Century’s greatest innovators said:

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”  – Henry Ford

So take a step into the unknown, but one guided by these 5 principles. Good luck!

Find this interesting?