Bessie Lee: ‘Agencies and marketers fear they’re not innovative enough’

by Lucy Aitken, WARC. 03 January 2018

Bessie Lee, founder and CEO of Withinlink, a China-based startup incubator and strategic venture fund, is judging the Effective Innovation category in this year’s WARC Awards. She talks to Lucy Aitken about the fear of agencies and marketers that they’re not innovative enough and why tech is the weakest link in marketing.

What prompted you to launch Withinlink?

In 2013, when I first took on the WPP job [CEO, WPP China] one of my responsibilities was to look for merger, acquisition and investment for B2B in China. I started building connections with the investment community so I observed that, while there are a lot of financial investors in China, there wasn’t a company that could help sustain startups. There was a market for a strategic resource that could help these companies grow.

Withinlink is a strategic angel investor with a boutique portfolio and an incubation model. We invest to help these companies steer their pitch to marketers and agencies to say how their solution can address pain-points. Because we know the market, we have insights into how it operates and what those pain-points are. We focus only on marketing and advertising technology because that’s the industry where we built our expertise and experience.

How do you define innovation?

Innovation is an overused term. Just like big data. Many years ago, big data was a hot topic but I’m not sure if most people know what big data actually means. Innovation is in a similar place. I haven’t actually got a term that I’m happy to replace it with, so I use ‘innovation’. My definition is that it can be original thinking but it can also be a combination of old elements applied in an original way.

Does innovation always have to involve tech?

Not necessarily. For us specifically to be happy to help grow companies, we would like the company to have a tech offering because our resource is centred around markets and agencies in this industry. We know that this tech-related area is the weakest link.

Why is it the weakest link in marketing and advertising?

There’s a combination of reasons. In the good old days, marketing didn’t require too much tech so it was not discussed. Media used to be simple: it was transmitted in a very traditional way so agencies did not have to hire any tech talent. But the situation started to change around five years ago when mobile took off. Consumers now have this little device that they spend a lot of time using and which travels everywhere with them. The engagement and relationship with that device has pushed a lot of the changes in the tech revolution as to how our device evolved. So ten years ago, when smartphones were introduced and when Apple launched the first touchscreen, customers could suddenly do much more with their devices.

That change happened so quickly and the implication for marketing was that it blurred the lines between creative/content/media and touchpoint. In the past, it’s been much more compartmentalised, so you have particular specialists in this or that because the line separating them used to be very clear and now it’s very blurry. Agencies and clients now need to realise that there are always some skills missing from what they can offer, and it took people a while to realise this.

Unfortunately, whether you’re an agency or a client, you’ll have a hard time attracting top quality tech people or programmers or engineers because their first priority has always been Google and Facebook. So that piece is still missing.

Do you think that, in the comms industry, there is a fear that marketers and agencies are not innovating quickly enough?

That fear is definitely there and it’s very real. I’ve seen marketers and agencies looking for quick solutions to tackle it but quick solutions aren’t going to solve the root cause to that fear. Agencies and marketers have that fear that they’re being left behind and are labelled as not innovative enough so everyone is suffering from this anxiety of not being innovative enough. That means they’re constantly looking for ways to engineer a very quick showcase or solution to prove to the world that they’re OK.

What would you like to see from the papers submitted to the Effective Innovation category?

I would like to see humble ideas that solve a major challenge. That could be a life challenge or it could be a major challenge faced by marketers. I like to see small ideas that have a great impact. I’d rather not see a very costly exercise trying to solve a small problem.

What advice would you like to give to entrants?

Try not to over-package. If your idea is simple and humble enough, if it solves an issue, articulate that clearly and the impact should come out very quickly. If you have to over-package, it means that something’s not good enough.