Play with blocks to come up with ideas

A Look Beyond the Obvious: Shaping the Future of Innovation Through Play-Based Learning

An Exclusive Interview with Alan Parker, Chief Innovation Officer at Energy BBDO, an award winning marketing and advertising agency headquartered in Chicago. Mr. Parker asserts the value of play, specifically his video-gaming background, as a solid foundation for executive function and executive skills.

At Energy BBDO, Mr. Parker seeks candidates, not on a specific skill set, but rather with the proper attitudinal mindset. Those characteristics include:

  • People willing to (and wanting to) embrace change
  • Employees/Teams comfortable working in the “gray” area
  • People that DO NOT follow the “This is how we’ve always done it” mantra

Mr. Parker seeks and encourages candidates that look at new and innovative ways to communicate a brand’s message. Ideas and messages that sit OUTSIDE the traditional construct of advertising, and that embrace the strategic perspective of looking at challenges NET NEW.

Parker believes the driving force behind curiosity is distilling down a challenge, to a pure statement, which lies beyond the obvious solution.

Ludolo does exactly that. Through game design and technology, Ludolo creates collaborative real time experiences to train emotional and social intelligence. We equip organizations with the tools to scale and measure play’s effectiveness on innovation, and the emotional well-being of employees.

In this interview, you’ll discover:

  • How Play is one of the biggest drivers of executive skills and executive functions
  • The importance of building a culture that welcomes change, and which thrives in the “gray”
  • The importance of creating a culture where failure IS an option; one that enhances greater exploration
  • Why obvious solutions are detrimental to the innovative mindset

Listen in above, or read below the transcript of our interview with Alan Parker.

Roger Manix: Hey, everyone, I’m Roger Manix, Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer at Ludolo. We are a play-based learning company that sparks innovation, strengthens culture, and fosters human connection, all while developing emotional and social intelligence, and we are a fast company, world changing idea in education as well.

We’re doing a series of interviews with organizational leaders to help better understand and shape the future of learning and development initiatives. So today, we have the pleasure of speaking with you, Alan Parker, the Chief Innovation Officer at Energy BBDO, an award winning marketing and advertising agency headquartered in Chicago.

Alan is a proven international marketeer and business leader with extensive experience across digital social media, PR, and traditional advertising. He’s worked in Europe and Asia at the highest level, establishing successful and highly profitable businesses for Ogilvy, Golin, and MullenLowe. Throughout his career, he’s had the chance to work for some of the world’s most respected international brands, including Unilever, Burger King, Heineken, X-Box, Ford, Sega, Vodafone and Lenovo. So, thanks for being with us, Alan.

Alan Parker: Thank you.

Roger: Yeah, you got it. So, we’re going to jump right in here. We didn’t send you this question on purpose, because I want it to be improvisatory. What did you play as a kid? What was your go-to as a kid? Was there a favorite game?

Alan Parker: So many. My generation is one of the first that gaming, video gaming especially, came to the fore. One of the first computers I had was a BBC Micro, which you probably don’t have in America, but it was one of the old sort of cassette-led video games. And then right after it would’ve been one of the original Ataris, with the cowboy shoot-em-up game. And then going into things like the Amiga. So, playing role play games like James Pond, Shadow of the Beast. I remember spending an inordinate amount of time playing that game. And then really got into it. I was a Sega guy, actually, so it was fun to end up working for them at one point. Tons and tons of Sonic the Hedgehog.

Roger Manix: Sonic. Sonic changed all of our lives, man.

Alan Parker: Yeah. And I remember playing that on one of the first portable gaming devices, which was the Sega Game Gear. Then very quickly after that getting into Mortal Kombat. But then I kind of continued that through my adult life, sort of dipping in and out of gaming, but definitely as a kid I played a lot of video games.

Roger Manix: And what about today? Do you play still today, and what does that look like, if so?

Alan Parker: Do you know what? I don’t play anywhere near as much video games as I should now, but throughout my career I’ve worked for gaming companies like Sega, Activision, X-Box, their proprietary label. So, back in the day… I say back in the day, it would probably be about maybe 10 to five years ago, playing things like Halo. I was lucky enough to actually help launch Halo 3 in Australia.

Roger Manix: So cool.

Alan Parker: Tons of sport sims like Football Manager. Flight Simulator, I also really liked as well. I think there’s something… It’s slightly real. And then stuff that I could play with my kids later on. So, Guitar Hero, some of the dance sims as well. I remember buying the Xbox 360 with the camera. I forget what the camera was called. You could actually interact with the game with your entire body. I’ve kind of always been like that, a bit of a tech geek as well, wanting to play purely for entertainment, and then with my kids, stuff that I could do with them.

Roger Manix: And how old are your kids?

Alan Parker: They’re 13 and 10 now, two girls. It’s actually interesting watching them play now. They play a lot of Roblox. In fact, one of the biggest things in our household right now is that, and the beautiful thing about that is… We live in America now, but they have cousins in France, in Sweden, and in Amsterdam, and it’s beautiful to watch them all come together over one game. It’s quite often in our house we’ll have an iPad on or two that is FaceTiming their cousins in France and Amsterdam, whilst they’re all on their devices coordinating the gameplay that’s going on.

Roger Manix: So it brings them together for a community as well, huh?

Alan Parker: Yes.

Roger Manix: Yeah, that’s nice. So, we get that every organization is different. I’d love to hear a little bit more about what’s your role as the Chief Innovation Officer at Energy BBDO, and then tell us a little bit about the teams that you lead.

Alan Parker: Sure. My role as Chief Innovation Officer, it’s really three things. We’re obviously a storied advertising agency, one of the most awarded in the world. At any given time, we’re number one or number two. We get storytelling, we know how to do it, and we know how to grow brands.

One of the things that we, like most agencies, have had to work hard at is really ensuring that we deliver against digital best practice. The entry point for my job is ensuring that I am working with the agency, whether it’s strategists or creatives, to make sure that we are delivering the best possible product on any given platform. Today, a lot of that means are we doing short-form properly? Are we doing social content properly?

We just had the team from TikTok in here and talking to us about how they structure content on their platform, how creatives operate there. But equally, what about a web-based experience? How do we do that correctly, and how does that fit in with the bigger structure of what we’re trying to do for brands? Task one is ensuring that as an agency we are delivering best in practice digital for our clients today.

And then moving up from that, really, it’s how do we look at new and innovative ways to communicate a brand’s message that doesn’t sit within the traditional construct of advertising, whether that be TV, print, or even certain more well-trodden digital areas like banner advertising and, to extent, some social with some of the networks like, say, a Facebook that have been around for a long time. So, working with teams to figure out different ways of doing that. That could be anything from, we’re going to develop a physical product to provide a new use or a new interpretation of some of our clients’ products here. We’re working on something right now that is a physical product that we’re going to put in customers’ hands that provides a new utility for an existing product.

And then the last one really is looking at stuff net new. So, here we have an innovation team, pretty core team of around about six, seven people, and that consists of Head of Technology, Head of User Experience, Head of Digital Design, somebody that can actually build out physical infrastructure, and a hardcore development software engineer. So, we could look at something and say, we would like to produce an X, whatever that X is. It could be a game that we’re developing for maybe a children’s scheme of a product that we’re looking to develop for a client. Equally, it could be a voice utility for an Alexa or a Google Assistant that we’d look to build out for a client. Or it could be something that’s educational. Maybe it’s an educational product or utility that’s going to help, say, prompt a kid to take medication, such as allergy medication.

Roger Manix: And is that team of those six or seven people, did you assemble that team? And does that team work pretty closely with each other on an ongoing basis?

Alan Parker: Yeah. Well, they were already here, or some of them were already here, but I brought them together as a group and said this is what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it. They work extensively together. Our Head of Technology really will work with the two engineers, but we’ll also bring in the UX head as well. They all sit in the same area, the innovation area, and we’ll work together on a project. One of the things we’re doing right now is we’re building a chat bot for one of our clients. That will involve the developers, but obviously the UX lead is looking at what the experience is going to look like for that chat bot.

Roger Manix: Sure, yeah. When you’re assembling this team, tell me if you had to choose, so, top level three qualities, what are you looking for in terms of collaborators in your team for skills?

Alan Parker: Look, that is a great question, and I think that a lot of people would probably answer that in a very skillset based way. I don’t. For me, it’s completely attitudinal. My biggest thing is I need people that are willing, want to, and have an appetite for change and embrace it, and that are comfortable what I call working in the gray together, that we may not know the answer, but we know the direction we want to go in, and we’re going to work together, collaborate. We’re going to make the mistakes, we’re going to learn from it, and we’re going to get to an end solution. Really, it’s people that embrace change. They’re not people that follow “this is how we’ve always done it” thinking. They’re not afraid to try something, even though they know it may fail, to find the right way to do something. And they are very used to, very comfortable with, and have a desire to work in very nebulous gray situations that’s just going to require them to let go of any preconceived idea, structure, or process in order to find a solution.

Roger Manix: Yeah, I love hearing that. You’re talking so much about resilience, right, and so much about ambiguity and uncertainty are inherent in any creative project. It’s going to happen no matter what, so we’d like to have the kind of people around us who can navigate themselves instead of getting gripped by the fear of having to know something that day, but to explore the unknown.

And you also talked about something about attitude in the beginning. A recent study came out that 89% of new hire failure is because of attitude and a lack of emotional intelligence. Only 11% of people fail who are new hires because of their actual skills, let’s say. So, I agree. And for us, play is so great at that because play brings people together to explore the unknown. You have no idea what’s going to happen next, and to see where that’s going to go.

Now, this goes hand in hand when you talk about exploring the gray area with curiosity. For me, I always say the antidote to fear is curiosity. Curiosity is a core element of creativity, and of course creativity fuels innovation. So, how do you currently drive curiosity and creativity within your team, or teams, or the organization as a whole?

Alan Parker: In terms of driving that curiosity, really what we’re trying to do and what we want from people is distilling down a challenge to a pure statement. I find if you hand something to somebody and you’re too prescriptive with the challenge, then you’re going to get the answers back… that… set around it, that’s the answer that you’re going to get. So, if you go in and you say, “Brand X wants to increase sales of this product by this much here. Here are some examples of some great TVCs that have worked this way” or “Here are some formats that you might consider.”

Roger Manix: Sure. You have a prescriptive answer already baked into your question-

Alan Parker: Yeah, because you told me you wanted to-

Roger Manix: Yeah.

Alan Parker: That’s right.

Roger Manix: So why are you going to the people that you trust in order to actually innovate?

Alan Parker: Yeah, whereas if you go in and you distill the product challenge down, so it’s “We need to increase sales by X,” that might be the business objective, okay, so how are you going to do that, right? What do you think you need to do? And you may say it’s a reconsideration, or I need to increase frequency. So, then, if you say frequency, you say, “Okay, it’s frequency of usage.” Then the challenge may become, “Our customers use our products this way. Give me 10 examples of other ways that they could use the product.” That’s a very different way of framing the question than “We’ve got to increase sales by this and that, so we need to increase frequency. How do we get people to clean their houses more?” if you’ve got a cleaning product.

Roger Manix: I love hearing that.

Alan Parker: Yeah. I try and distill it down and say, “That’s the challenge. Go, come back, and tell me what you think the answer to that challenge is.”

Roger Manix: Actually, you’re meeting people where they are, because if you have these creatives who are working alongside you, you know as well as I do we want to use our imagination. So, when you’re saying to them, “Hey, what else could this possibly be or do,” you’re giving them… It’s the difference between managing and leading. Managing, you’re having the prescriptive nature to it. But leading, you’re lifting people up in order to find the mystery inherent in the problem.

I think as well it’s often the problem definition that’s provided to people isn’t actually the problem people are trying to solve.

Roger Manix: Never.

Alan Parker: It’s not a problem if half the solution that people are providing. One of the best examples I’ve ever heard was… It was an insurance company in the UK, and they had an issue that certain flood prone areas, the premiums and the payouts were coming so high that they decided to do regional based advertising campaigns to get people to understand that they were in a flood prone area, they needed to take these precautions, and duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, because the payout on the claims was getting such that it was becoming cost-prohibitive for the company.

They went to the agency and said, “We want an advertising campaign in these regional areas that are flood prone, and we want you to tell people that they live in a flood prone area and that these are things that they could do.” And they said, “Well, what’s the problem actually?” And they dialed it back to it was becoming too expensive to cover these areas, and there was certain legislation that said they had to cover the areas that were flood prone. And they said, “So, what you’re trying to do is reduce the amount of claims and the net value of those claims?” “Yeah.”

So the agency went away and came back with a damp-based sensor that got plugged in at the lowest point of the house, right? It alerted the homeowner and the insurance company to a flood or a potential flood. Then what happened was the people in the houses, their properties, and the insurance company would get alerted. “Look, we’ve seen this, we’ve found this. There could be a flood in your area.” So people started to move their furniture away from the flood prone area. So even though claims maybe were coming in, they weren’t as high as the claims were before. Rather than doing a big advertising campaign, they looked at a way of solving the problem in a completely different way-

Roger Manix: I love that.

Alan Parker: … which takes us back to the definition.

Roger Manix: You’re talking about something that we believe with play that develops is divergent thinking, which is coming up with many different solutions to what a problem could be.

I know I want to be mindful of your time sharing us because I feel like I can talk to you endlessly about this stuff. I want to go back to the initial question when you shared so much about playing and gaming as a kid. What skills did that game, or playing those games, develop in you then that have been useful throughout your career and even in your position today, that the gaming and playing set you up for success?

Alan Parker: Yeah, it’s so interesting. Having worked in the industry, and obviously played as a kid, one of the things that I’m a big advocate of is that gaming is a good thing. Whereas, I’ve had lots of fellow parents say, “Oh, the kids sitting in front of their consoles with devices playing, it’s terrible.” I don’t believe that at all. In fact, I believe that gaming is one of the biggest drivers of executive functions and executive skills that you could possibly have. You start thinking about independence. The child is in front of that game, or you’re in front of that game, playing it. You are playing that game. There’s no instructions, there’s nobody telling you what to do. There’s nobody that bags decision-making off, so you are making your decision making yourself.

It teaches you resilience as well. When you’re playing this thing, you may fail, but you’ve got to go back and try again. If you want to complete that level, you want to complete the game, you need to go back and try again. So independence, resilience, the tenacity to keep going as well, driving inquisitive thinking. “I wonder what’s around here? I wonder what happens if I do this?” You’re actively rewarded for that type of thinking when you’re gaming, so you stop and think about how you will unlock certain levels. You don’t unlock certain levels because you just go from point A to point B. You have to figure out where you’re going to go. Where is the key to that next level? Where is that secret door?

And if you want even greater elements of fulfillment, then you start thinking about entrepreneurialism and you start thinking about things like Easter eggs, for example. If you want to achieve more than just completing the game, you want to achieve the game with the highest score and unlock all of the additional skins or the Easter eggs, then you’ve really got to have an entrepreneurial spirit. So, if you stop and think about those executive functions that gaming actually drives, I would challenge you to point to, other than maybe sports, another activity that does as much to develop executive functions than gaming does, and play.

Roger Manix: You remind me, when I was a kid, I’m a little older than you, we had The Legends of Zelda. It was this huge thing, and I remember I was stuck on this one level forever. Then I went to go throw a bow and arrow that was on fire at the villain because I’m being attacked, and I missed the villain, and I accidentally hit a tree. The tree wound up burning to the ground, and underneath it was a stairway to a cave. And I was like, “What? That’s what I’ve been waiting for?” But if it wasn’t for serendipity, chance, making a mistake, staying with it, all of that wouldn’t have been shown.

Alan Parker: Yeah. That also taught you, though, that sometimes looking at things and looking for the obvious answer, you’re not going to get the answer. But if you look around you and you figure out, well, could there be other ways? Could there be other things? Then you might find it.

Roger Manix: Totally.

Alan Parker: That is a skill, right? Looking at things differently. Again, it teaches you that, doesn’t it?

Roger Manix: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We have so many fun games. What’s That? is a game we play, This is Not a Stick, that works on that very stuff.

Well, I want to be mindful of time. It’s been great connecting with you this afternoon. Thank you so much for sharing your playful memories with us from Sega to Energy BBDO. We appreciate you talking about play and the trajectory of your career, and we will for sure continue this conversation part two.

Alan Parker: Fantastic. Thanks so much.

Roger Manix: Yeah, you got it. Thank you very much. Have a great day out there in Chicago, okay, Alan?

Alan Parker: You too. Thanks.

Roger Manix: Okay, ciao.

Alan Parker: Bye. Bye.