Innovation Junkies Podcast

Brian Barthelt’s Casserole for Innovation

The Jeffs chat with Brian Barthelt, Managing Director at Global MarTech & McDonald’s Agency Services at The Marketing Store. They discuss: what components go into Brian’s “Almost-Guaranteed Casserole for Innovation”, how strategy, leadership & innovation are tied together, & how to make innovation painless or a less painful experience for an organization or a corporation.

Jeff Standridge: This is Jeff Standridge, and this is the Innovation Junkies podcast. If you want to drastically improve your business, learn proven growth strategy and generate sustained results for your organization. You’ve come to the right place. Over the next half hour we’re going to be sharing specific strategies, tactics, and tips that you can use to grow your business. No matter the size, no matter the industry and no matter the geography. Weekly, we’ll bring in a top mover and shaker, someone who’s done something unbelievable with his or her business and we’ll dig deep. We’ll uncover specific strategies, tactics, and tools that they’ve used to help you achieve your business goals. Welcome to the innovation junkies podcast.

Hey guys, if you’re looking to put your business on the fast track to achieving sustained strategic growth, this episode is sponsored by the team Innovation Junkie to learn more about our GrowthDX, go to innovationjunkie.com\growthdx. Now let’s get on with the show.

Jeff Standridge: Hi guys, Jeff Standridge here, and welcome to another episode of the Innovation Junkies podcast. How are you doing Jeff?

Jeff Amerine: I’m doing great. I’m glad to be here. I’m just feeling pretty darn innovative at the moment.

Jeff Standridge: Well, I’m feeling strategic, so we’re a pair. It’s great to see you.

Jeff Amerine: Who do we have coming on today?

Jeff Standridge: Yeah, we’ve got a great episode lined up here with Brian Bartelle. He’s the Managing Director of Global MarTech and the McDonald’s Agency services at The Marketing Store. Brian spent many, many years on the forefront of marketing technology, spent some time actually in the trenches as a research and development software engineer on a small skunkworks team at one of the very first interactive agencies called Giant Step, he has led numerous teams, tasked with developing new products, new services, and new approaches and on top of all that, he actually teaches marketing innovation at the university of Illinois. Brian, great to have you with us today.

Brian Barthelt: Oh, Jeff and Jeff. It’s really great to meet you guys. I’m a fan of your podcast. I really enjoy what you do. I feel you guys have a unique voice, and it stands out in what’s an increasingly crowded space of podcasts. I’m really delighted and humbled that you guys have invited me to be here.

Jeff Standridge: Well, we’re happy to hear it.

Jeff Amerine: And Jeff Standrige, what he means by that is you’re the only guy with a Southern accent that hosts podcasts.

Jeff Standridge: My unique voice up here in this thing called a podcast.

Jeff Amerine: But listen, on an even less serious note. One of the things we’d like to do is, is to kick off the podcast with sort of a random musing and in this one it’s really random and it’s to ask you what your favorite holiday is and why?

Brian Barthelt: I’d say that’s an easy one: 4th of July. And it’s because of what my family and I always do on the 4th. I’ve got family that lives in the upper peninsula of Michigan, the UP who call them “uppers.” That is a wonderful, wonderful place if you’ve ever been, and where they live is stunningly beautiful and largely undeveloped. And we have these campers that we keep up on my uncle’s farm up there. We haul all those campers out to a lake, and we do sort of a week or two family reunion vegging in the woods. There’s terrible cellular connectivity. No data service to speak of. And we really get to immerse ourselves and be present and be where we are. It’s such a stark contrast from the hustle and bustle of business, finding it recharged. Think of a lot of ideas for the year while I’m there. Get to spend time with family who I love a great deal and reconnect with people in a way because of the ability to be present there.

Jeff Amerine: That’s great. That’s great.

Jeff Standridge: Jeff, what about you?

Jeff Amerine: Well, I would have to say my favorite holiday is every holiday. You know, I’m a fan of every holiday because of the ability to, you know, my favorite thing to do is to spend time with my family. I have two grown daughters, a son-in-law, and of course my wife. We all like to spend time together, but I probably have to say the summertime holidays, Memorial Day to Labor Day, because we too spend a lot of time on the lake and in the woods. And we’re happy, so just spending time with family for holiday allows that it’s on my favorite list.

Jeff Standridge: Well, I like them all as well, but my favorite aspirational holiday is festivals.

Speaker 5: Yeah. That’s awesome. All right, let’s get serious, but yes,

Jeff Amerine: Brian let’s talk MarTech and research, development, and innovation in the marketing space. So tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to be at the marketing store and maybe a milestone or two along the way. Tell us about your journey.

Brian Barthelt: Yeah, sure. I’d say you covered a little bit of it at the intro, but I started off as a software engineer, just a nerdy coder in the petrochemical industry, which is a fascinating place to be at a company, led by engineers with an engineering mindset. I think that’s, it was incredibly formative for me. I left there after about four and a half years enjoying this interactive agency Giant Step. And there weren’t many, only a few interactive agencies at the time, it was fledgling. That was formative, because they were at the onset of digital marketing. I got to see the marketing industry grow up and become digitized. And one of the most important experiences there was being an R&D engineer. There were two of us who were sort of sequestered into a little mini skunk-works division, and we had a really effective leader who was a great dot connector who was out there scouring sort of the adjacent possible.

And we give us assignments to experiment and build prototypes on things. And I think it was wonderful, because I got to see many things we innovated come to life and actually then get spawned off into full lines of business with revenue. Much later in my career when I would see failed attempts of innovation, I reflect back on that because it was one I’d say, arguably, incredibly successful. You know, then the internet bubble blew up and everyone got laid off and the engineering team kept shrinking and shrinking, the R&D team was shut down just due to business aside from the city, and that is when they made me the head of the engineering team. And from there, I grew through mergers and acquisitions and eventually led software engineering for some four partners and then led digital delivery for Leo Burnett for many years, which was formative in an way of itself, because that was a very traditional agency, a wonderful agency with a storied history. But I got to be on the forefront of helping a traditional agency become digitally savvy.

After several years on the Arc Worldwide division of Leo Burnett, we were sort of pulled into the Leo side and called Leo Burnett Interactive, formed into a full studio. And along the way, again, we were one of the first agencies to have a creative technology department, which is very much like a close analog to a skunkworks type division in the MarTech space, where you have that blend of highly creative and highly technical people with people who are adept at both, you know, just getting to see that industry grow up and get digitized. The next major formative experiences, when I left Leo and joined DCI Art Forum in 2016, it was a great experience. They’re owned by the Marmon Group, which is part of Berkshire Hathaway. I got to lead a business for the first time, but lead a highly technical digital retail business.

One of the most formative things I’ve ever been through leading a business is very different from leading a department. And you’ve got to think about not just innovating around technical products, but innovating around business models. And then I was tempted to go to the marketing store. Wonderful place. I had great chemistry with the leaders here and ended up taking the job here, running the retail practice. And so far that has grown to lead McDonald’s Americas as well as MarTech. And now I’m globally leading McDonald’s agency services. And while also leading the MarTech division.

Jeff Amerine: Very good. So I have this belief that digital marketing technology is growing at a rate faster than, even some of the best agencies’ ability to understand and effectively deploy and leverage that. I’d love to hear your comments on that. Am I right? Am I wrong? Am I partially right? And what’s your experience in that regard?

Brian Barthelt: I think you’re spot on. They are incredible economic drivers in the marketing space that make it a real hotbed for innovation, and you have this like temp closure occurring right now as a collision of like incredibly powerful technologies. They collide in very interesting ways in the MarTech space. You know, things like the sharding that’s come with big data computing, in the analysis we can do the way AI Machine Learning has completely upended how we do experiments and algorithmically determine what consumers want and need, the advent of social networks and all the advertising that occurs in there knowing tremendous amounts about consumers and what their propensities may be. I think, yeah, I agree with you. I think innovation is accelerating an uncanny pace in marketing compared to many other domains.

Jeff Standridge: How are you guys leveraging innovation, and do you leverage a process for innovation at the marketing store specifically in the business unit you’re on?

Brian Barthelt: It’s several, you know, because one of the divisions we run on the McDonald’s side is the toy division, so we do have an innovation team that innovates in many ways around hybrid digital experiences, interesting new sustainable substrates. That’s one concern. And then on the MarTech side, one of the efforts that recently put into play was the formation of a small skunk-works division to try and accelerate the pace of not that sort of normal day-to-day incremental innovation that everyone’s responsible for in every craft, but really strive for those more radical and breakthrough innovations that can be injected, throughout the business.

And doing this skunkworks division is a culmination of a lot of experience with toying with ways to get innovation systematized. It’s a new effort here, but it’s already bearing a ton of fruit and I’ve got a whole sort of formula for how I go about that and if you want to go into the grand detail, it’s actually also part of the course that I teach at U of I jokingly called Brian’s Almost-Guaranteed Casserole for Innovation, kind of a tongue-in-cheek thing I do in the course I teach at U of I.

Jeff Amerine: Talk a little bit about how in the context of the practice that you run and in general, you see strategy and leadership and innovation tying together. Talk about how those pieces link.

Brian Barthelt: So strategy is to run off the back. You know, our strategists are brilliant at understanding the consumer and finding insights, behavioral insights. I think that ties very neatly to concepts like data science. We have some really interesting data science solutions here that allow us to allow those strategists to glean fascinating and interesting insights about the consumers, but then that has led to actual product development, technology, product development. So our analysis of the data in consumer strategies, so strategies manifest and actual technical products that we think really can set us apart in both in what we can achieve for a client, because we know more about their consumer and their consumer’s life and the consumer, either the occasions in which they interact with the brand and what they’re looking for in those and unique regional behaviors and things of that nature, so I think that they do go hand in hand and flow into one another really gracefully if you, if you execute it correctly.

Jeff Amerine: Hey folks, we’ll be right back with the episode. But first we want to tell you about a limited opportunity to take advantage of our GrowthDX. For a limited time, we’re offering a free strategy call to see whether our unique diagnostic tool is right for you. Go to innovationjunkie.com\growthdx to learn more.

Jeff Standridge: Tell us a little bit about your course at the University of Illinois Emerging Platforms and Disruptive Innovations. And you said Brian’s casserole. Talk a little bit about that.

Brian Barthelt: No, it’s one of the more fun things I get to do. It’s something I almost wish I had time to do more often. It started off as a speech I was asked to give in a small breakout session at a digital bootcamp that U of I sponsored. And that was very well received. This is a short 45-minute talk and then I was asked to keynote the following year, and it was a longer talk then. And then I was approached to say, “We have this digital certificate, and we think you could expand what you’ve done into this three-hour lecture, emerging channels, and disruptive innovations.” Wonderful. I’m so, so delighted and humbled that they asked me to do this. I really love it. It was a labor of love crafting the course and because of the nature of the course, I have to update it constantly.

The Digital Certificate program is no longer in play, but the university still works with private companies in their marketing departments to do custom curriculums. And this course is still a part of that. So it’s still honing it all the time. And in there, I kind of cover the nature of how new channels emerge in the marketing space and go over some of the historical challenges that, cause channels to emerge slowly vs. quickly, to fail vs. succeed. And the course sort of culminates in things I’ve learned over the years that I believe really can help systematize, consistent, successful innovation within a company. And I have a lot. I try to make the corresponding humorous, and I jokingly throw things in there that I claim to have trademarked like Brian’s Casserole for Almost-Guaranteed Innovation to try to sort of make people chuckle. But, you know, I do actually believe in the components of that casserole.

Jeff Standridge: What are some of those components? Tell us about the casserole. I love casseroles.

Brian Barthelt: So I’d say first and foremost, and I think this first component might be a bit polarizing. And then I do believe some people have to be separated. I don’t believe in only achieving innovation by separating some people into things like skunkworks divisions. I think it’s a crucial supplement though, especially when your company is geared toward scale and excellence, which is often the case in mature companies. All companies start off entrepreneurial, they go through sort of a middle phase of growth and they end up trying to achieve business maturity through scale and innovation lives well in those entrepreneurial phases, but it doesn’t live well in the scale side of things often. So sequestering some people to free them of the bureaucracy that comes with being a Six Sigma Black Belt type, which is a wonderful thing to do.

But you know, that is about excellence, not about necessarily innovation. So separating some people into the specific component of the casserole is separate some people into small teams of dot connectors and makers. The reason I say it is that you need those dot connectors. These are generalists, not specialists, Renaissance types who dabble in lots of things, and that dabbling is meant to give them maximum exposure to the adjacent possible they and exposure to the client’s problems and the competitive challenges. So they’ve got a hotbed of information to draw from. And then if you pair them up with makers, you have the components to be able to rapidly build meaningful prototypes. And I think that that’s the measure by which you — so that’s the first component — separate some people into small teams of dot connectors and makers. Next component is to increase the three initial horizons to science fiction proportions.

So asking them to take the major concerns that they’re trying to innovate around and project way out 20 years, and try and play the science fiction game, the Star Trek game of what would the world look like then? What would the consumer experience be in that future? Then trace how you would get there from where we are now to that fantastical science fiction future, playing that game really does stir the creativity of the mind. And it’s easier than I ever thought it would be. Once you’ve written your little Sci-fi story 20 years out, it becomes natural to say, well, to get from here to there, we would have progressed through these things, and you start to discover the incremental innovations along the way that would lead to that future. And then the third component is to systematically connect those people with the Six Sigma excellence types in a systematic way.

That is bi-directional, so that those innovation specialists are conveying what they’re up to while also hearing what the challenges of those people who are striving for scaling excellence are hearing you, I think the innovators ended up inspiring the people running the day to day to stretch their thinking. Whereas the people running the day to day really communicate what the problems are to the people who are sequestered to innovate. The next component, the next two components are actually about where to search for the problems. On one of your recent episodes, you pointed out that often someone is just given the directive to go innovate. I have seen that so many times. I’ve seen it manifest in rudderless directionless innovation. So the next two components of the casserole are around finding what to innovate around.

And the first is regarding business models and the comb component is focused on the stale. So comb your organization for every single place where the concerns have become institutionalized. Where are we saying that’s the reality of the way it is? That’s the way it has to be, and that’s not going to change. What is, what are the most stale methods being executed? Because often that is not only the place most at risk for disruption by a competitor, but most ripe for opportunity to innovate. Then the next component also for finding a place to innovate, is friction. The way I phrase it is focused on friction or name for delight. And there’s a formal method of friction analysis of taking a concern and breaking it down into a robust activity diagram and finding every friction point and analyzing, how could you soften remove that friction and replace it with something that delights the people who are experiencing that process or that consumer experience.

And then the last one, which I think is the most important, is give the innovators the ability to tinker, like the freedom to tinker, but time box them. So I think we can’t jam up their days with the tyranny of the urgent, especially if the tyranny urgent is going to likely put them in a world where hall monitors are telling them what they can and can’t do. So giving them that freedom to tinker, but giving them strict deadlines to produce the prototypes. I think difficult deadlines have a magical quality. I am convinced they alter our brain chemistry and that they, and they do so in a way that unlocks the kind of creativity we need. So you give him the ability to tinker, but don’t make it infinite, by giving them things like an executive presentation on what you’re up to on this date. And it’s a tight date. And suddenly you’ll see brilliance tends to come out of that kind of pressure.

Jeff Amerine: You know, I spent about 20 years with Axiom Corporation, also in the MarTech data and analytics space, and we became quite proficient at using the hundred-day plans to produce significant innovations. It’s like, there’s no way we could do that in three months. Okay. Well, I’ll give you a hundred days then.

Brian Barthelt: No, it’s so true. It’s like, Parkinson’s law is one of my favorites. It proves true all the time that work expands or contracts to fit in the time you allot for its completion. So if you give someone a hundred days, they’re going to do the best darn job they can do in a hundred days.

Jeff Amerine: That’s right.

Brian Barthelt: And that pressure is I think, more helpful than harmful.

Jeff Standridge: So do you have any examples for our listeners of where you’ve seen this produce real results, maybe an anecdote or two that you could share?

Brian Barthelt: Sure, sure. I’m going to jump back to the Leo Burnett days. It’s one of the favorite innovations we got to work on. It was Leo’s anniversary, and they always celebrated it a great deal. And we took an intern team and challenge them to try and find a way to celebrate the heritage. So we gave them a pretty loose brief of what we really wanted to achieve. We wanted them to choose something that would showcase our technologies that we had been incubating for digital retail experiences, but leverage it in a way where there was this grand event going on in the building.

And we wanted them to build an experience in the building that celebrated the heritage of Leo and the deadlines were incredibly tight. And what manifested was one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen occur and these are interns, a really impressive intern class, but they ended up finding all the archive footage of every single commercial that had ever been done since the beginning of advertising at Leo Burnett.

And they got that digitized. They turned a floor to ceiling glass wall into a laser-powered touch, hover interface. That looked a lot like the movie Minority Report. And people could stand in a cone of directional sound on two little footprints stickers on the floor, and they would be the only one that could hear it, but they could navigate by hovering and dragging and moving experiences and explore by brand by year, a bunch of historical things about the factual heritage of Leo Burnett as well as the actual creative work that had been done back then. And that’s one example that I think, and then manifesting a solution for a client where we built a portable trade show version of that for one of our clients and tell where they at a trade show used that technology that we called hover touch, where it turned a panel of glass, instead of just sort of a hover interface to take customers through experiences.

And then there’s another one here at TMS, and I’m incredibly proud of, we had the idea of using the concept of digital twins around restaurants and wanted to build a prototype using a bunch of third-party data, restaurant data, transaction data, to see if we could use digital twin techniques, AI machine learning techniques to glean understanding of the consumers in various restaurants around the country. So we had theories that there would be differences, clustered differences based on what we saw in various regions based on things like socioeconomic background, urbanicity, and all kinds of other factors. And we put a limited cap on the sprints and did a burst MVP prototype. That’s now turned into something that we’ve created a product around that we believe truly remarkable in what it can achieve.

Jeff Amerine: You know, building that culture of innovation that you clearly have been a principal leader in, it’s sometimes you think if it were Arnold Schwartzenegger driving innovation in a corporation, it’d be no pain, no gain, right? That he’s here to pump you up. But in reality, how do you make it a painless or a less painful experience for an organization or a corporation that wants to inject more innovative processes, more innovative thinking into their culture?

Brian Barthelt: I think there’s an easy answer there, and that innovation is exciting and the attitude that we project is everything. And when I think about the attitude around innovation, it’s exciting. It’s wondrous. It’s humble in the sense that it rekindles that sort of childlike sense of awe and that when you feel that way about innovation, it doesn’t feel hard. It feels exciting. 

And realizing that every single person can innovate regardless of the job function they serve if you look at it with sort of the eyes of a child and if you’re looking at what’s happening in your industry, not in a way that is sort of arrogant and I already know what’s going on, and I’m confident in what I know, but more like, “Wow, that’s interesting,” and remembering to keep that wonder alive and then apply what you see to the problems you face that is such a inspiring existence. 

I don’t like the oppressive view of innovation. Like we better innovate or we’re going to die. There’s a little bit of fear that is really healthy. I think that’s important to point out but not oppressive fear. I think we should all remember that if we don’t innovate like the shark that isn’t swimming, we’re at risk. We’re at risk of a new and nimble competitor coming and eating our lunch. And it’s healthy to have a little bit of that mindset, but dang is innovation fun. When you look at it with the right attitude.

Jeff Standridge: We’re talking with Brian Barthelt, Managing Director of Global MarTech and the McDonald’s Agency services at the Marketing Store. We’re talking about innovation and strategy and building a culture of innovation.

Have you come across situations and, and I’ve seen this with engineers, particularly where there’s a hyper-focus on a new idea or a new potential, but there’s not been a lot of work on assessing the size of the problem that we’re trying to solve and making sure that there’s a product market fit. What do you do, what are you doing in your organization to really try to drive that product market fit?

Brian Barthelt: Yeah. I know exactly what you’re talking about. There’s often someone with a solution looking for a problem, and that there’s a real folly in that. And I think you just have to be, you have to kindly terminate those notions quickly to say, unless there’s a real problem to solve, what is the real point? But that said, I think what we’re amongst festival, this concept of dock connection, there is a help that can be part of what we just said when someone has found a solution or a technology that they’re excited about from an engineering perspective. And they’re trying to find a way to wedge it in, if you can maximize their exposure to things like that and I like to think of the adjacent possible, right? Like to think of immersing people in adjacent possible technologies.

And that’s where they discover those little engineering type possibilities, like where there’s a potential technology out there. That seems maybe a bit silver bullet-ish. So, okay. But I think take, put, give that it’s commensurate amount of due respect and know more, but simultaneously they also need to be getting mass immersion to the day-to-day or like, my team works on McDonald’s, which is an amazing brand.

And I think that’s a specific concern you can dive into the world of quick serve restaurants, the highly competitive world with quick-serve restaurants, what are the real problems going on there? What are the evolutions in consumer behavior? How might a quick serve have weight? Like McDonald’s be potentially facing disruption and gaining the deepest, deepest understanding of those things. Because you have if you have a bunch of dots on that engineering side and a bunch of dots on the understanding side of what’s going on with the market and the consumer in the competitive landscape, you start to actually make meaningful connections, those engineering problems that you’re, that the engineers are so obsessed with, have a better likelihood of finding a home where it can make a meaningful contribution.

Jeff Standridge: Very good. Well, listeners, we’ve had Brian Barthelt here for the last few minutes, talking about a variety of topics, particularly Brian’s casserole for innovation, which you’ll certainly want to listen to again. Brian, it’s been a pleasure having you with us today. We appreciate you for taking the time to join us here on the innovation junkies podcast.

Brian Barthelt: No, thank you. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you.

Jeff Amerine: Yeah. It was very engaging, and I really enjoyed listening to the way you described the processes you’ve used. And I think our listeners will get a lot of value out of it. Thanks so much for coming on.

Brian Barthelt: Thanks again.

Jeff Standridge: This has been another episode of the Innovation Junkies podcast. Thank you for joining.

Jeff Amerine: Folks, this is Jeff Amerine. We want to thank you for tuning in. We sincerely appreciate your time. If you’re enjoying the innovation junkies podcast, please do us a huge favor. Click the subscribe button right now and please leave us a review. It would mean the world to both of us, and don’t forget to share us on social media.

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