Last week, as part of London Tech Week, WP Engine sponsored Risk & Reward, a talk by The Lovie Awards, delivered by European Marketing Director Gianfranco Chicco, who examined how creativity can turn risk into digital success.

Lovie Talks
WP Engine CMO Mary Ellen Dugan gives opening remarks

The Lovie Awards, the sister of The Webbys, honors the best of the European internet across websites, online advertising, internet video, mobile sites, apps, podcasts, and social (entries for this season are open through Friday, July 28). In his talk, Chicco shared the risks associated with digital creativity, highlighting examples and key considerations to minimize risk and maximize rewards.

Risky Business

From online shopping and banking to social media, to the birth of the internet itself, risk has always been inherent to being online. “In the early 1990s, people actually feared the internet,” said Chicco, adding that people perceived it to be “unsafe.” But despite that perception, and through each cycle of change, human beings have managed to embrace the risks associated with the internet, adapt, and reap benefits as a result.

The same cycle of risk and rewards extends to brands, Chicco said. Often, it’s the brands that experiment and take risks early on who are able to reap the rewards.

Take The Subservient Chicken, a program created by Crispin Porter + Bogusky for Burger King.

The Subservient Chicken
Image by davemc500hats via Flickr

Launched in 2004, before the era of social media, Subservient Chicken was a website where users could give the chicken any command and it would do it. The campaign went viral.

“This was very risky for Burger King because they didn’t know how the public would react,” Chicco said. “In fact, it was so risky they decided not to include any branding.”

Nevertheless, the campaign was such a success that they released an updated version just a few years later. This time, it was in super HD and included Burger King branding. Since Burger King took that initial risk and knew the campaign was going to be a success, they were able to proceed with confidence.

Today’s Perfect Storm

In a way, the internet today is riskier and the stakes are higher than ever. Forty percent of the global population is online: That’s more than 3.4 billion internet users, and this number is increasing year-over-year. This ubiquity has created a perfect storm—reaction time, increase in digital spend, and information overload—in which brands need to take the risk to stand out, while also thinking ahead to mitigate pitfalls.

Speed & Zeitgeist

In an increasingly connected world, social platforms have made us all news sources. This heightens the risk for brands, as one online misstep can spread like wildfire across the internet.

Take Pepsi’s recent ad featuring reality star Kendall Jenner giving a police officer a Pepsi to calm a protest. The backlash to the campaign was almost instantaneous: Pepsi was perceived to be exploiting the powerful Black Lives Matter and Women’s March campaigns to sell soda. Pepsi pulled the ad within 24 hours and issued an apology.

The public shaming was instant: “The internet doesn’t forget,” Chicco emphasized. “[Pepsi] couldn’t hide or make any excuses, they just had to apologize.”

Digital Spend

In today’s digital-first world, brands are spending more and more online. The digital spend for the next two to three years is an estimated $205 billion, Chicco said. “With more money comes less room to fail,” he emphasized. As brands begin to invest more of their budgets into campaigns, the pressure to succeed becomes increasingly higher.

Information Overload

Not surprisingly, with more people online than ever, the internet is suffering from information overload. Brands and individuals need to be more strategic to stand out.

Back in 2004, when Burger King launched Subservient Chicken, there were 700 million people online. That number has more than quadrupled, so every time you put something out on the web, you have to cut through a lot of noise to have an impact.

Although this may seem like an impossible situation for success, the opposite is actually true. “There are more people online than ever, you can attract them in real-time, and there’s so much more money being spent on digital,” Chicco said. “In some ways, it’s riskier than ever before, but in other ways, there’s more opportunity than ever before.”

Categories of Risk

Chicco identified three main categories of risk when it comes to digital: financial, cultural, and technological. Understanding these risks can help you better mitigate them and maximize rewards.

Financial – Spend with the intent to get something in return. “Don’t put money into something just to throw away,” Chicco said. “Expect a return on your investment.”

The small (but successful) business known for its toilet accessory product, Squatty Potty, took a huge financial risk in one of its campaigns. Despite resistance from the brand’s investors, the company spent its entire marketing budget on a single video campaign.

Squatty Potty - Lovie Awards
Image Source: YouTube

“They put out a brief and the pitch was won by creative agency, The Harmon Brothers,” Chicco said. The video starred a mystical pooping unicorn and his smarmy prince handler, who explains the science of our bowels in an entertaining way.

This was a huge financial risk because it was a major investment. It was also a creative risk because the topic was potentially off-putting.

But it wasn’t blind risk: Harmon Brothers planned ahead. They were able to demonstrate a step-by-step plan for tying sales back to video analytics. This reassured Squatty Potty to go ahead. It was the right move; the campaign went viral and Squatty Potty gained national recognition. The company also saw a huge payoff in sales with a 600 percent increase online and 200 percent in stores.

Cultural – “When you want to make a difference in a culture, you either need to be part of that culture or you need to consult that culture,” Chicco advised. In the case of Pepsi, their recent misstep may have been avoided if they took this advice.

For an example of a cultural risk that was well executed and paid off, Chicco talked about Re:Shakespeare, an app that came out of a partnership between Samsung, Cheil, Royal Shakespeare Company, and Unit 9. The app was intended to reintroduce Shakespeare’s works in a more relatable, modern way to students aged 11-18.

Re:Shakespeare - Lovie Awards
Image via Samsung

The cultural risk was that they were tampering with 400-year old, world-renowned classic works. “Shakespeare has a lot of history and heritage and isn’t something that you can easily rework without the risk of upsetting users,” Chicco said.

It was important for them to stay true to the original work but to also create something that kids would actually use. “The agency behind the project was very much aware of the risks, so they decided to bring in third-party experts, Royal Shakespeare Company, to help mitigate risk,” he said.

By having Royal Shakespeare Company on board, they could make informed decisions which helped the app retain authenticity. “A key observation was that Shakespeare’s work was made to be performed, not read,” Chicco said. Hence the creation of an app that uses a 360-degree immersive experience to teach students Shakespeare. Today the app has become a mandatory part of the curriculum in Britain.

The key takeaway: Samsung reduced the cultural risk by consulting the culture it was trying to target.

Technological – Leveraging new technology or modifying existing forms can be risky. But to reap rewards, all companies should consider how they can experiment and innovate.

Take Philips, which maintains a strong focus on the healthcare space, and specifically on ultrasound equipment. Innovating on their own product, Philips engineers envisioned a way to invent portable ultrasound equipment, in order to make the technology more accessible for healthcare providers and available to patients.

Image via Philips

The risk was high because they were investing a product that would effectively compete with their traditional ultrasound system: a huge cash cow for Philips. “Or, even worse, someone else could do it,” Chicco said. “They had to invest all of this money into something that they didn’t even know was possible.”

Philips realized the challenges of working within a big organization were not compatible with the way they needed to work to build this new technology, so they created a startup within Philips called Philips Ultra Mobile. This allowed them to operate autonomously from the rest of the company, and move faster.

“To do work that is very different from what they usually do, Philips had to change the rules to reach a better chance of success,” Chicco said.

The healthcare space embraced Lumify, but success wouldn’t have been possible if Philips didn’t step outside of its comfort zone and take the risk.

With Great Risk Comes Great Reward

Risk has always been associated with the internet, but it’s the companies that make bold choices that will ultimately reap the benefits. To mitigate risk, bear in mind today’s digital climate. With the perfect storm of information overload, increased digital spend, and speed, there’s more opportunity than ever, but with that comes a greater risk for failure.

Successful risk-taking requires patience, creativity, and knowing when to partner for expertise. Weighing and understanding the main types of risk—cultural, financial, and technological—can help you mitigate those risks, maximize rewards, and truly reap the benefits of having your work stand out.