Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Amy Kean: You say disruption. I say, dis…traction?

Amy Kean, NDA’s new columnist, is Head of Strategic Innovation, Global Clients for Starcom and author of  The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks.

“What do we want?”


“When do we want it?”

“Eugggghhhh, well HR’s implementing a new timesheet system in Q3, then Susan’s off for two weeks and after that it’s Christmas but the sales team have already got Christmas signed-off and actually procurement should be involved…” (and so on and so forth until the sun swallows the earth and our universe implodes).  

Disruption is the biggest cliché in our industry right now. It might even be the biggest cliché in business right now. It’s the word on everybody’s lips. Well, in everybody’s bio. 10,381 people on LinkedIn have the word ‘disruptor’ in their descriptor, used in and amongst phrases like ‘connector’, ‘change agent’ ‘creativist’ and, my favourite: ‘perpetually in beta’.

(Interestingly I’ve discovered that a lot of people who describe themselves as disruptors also sell CBD oil…) There are also positive disruptors, industry disruptors, chief disruptors and aside from an assumption that each of them is probably a pain in the ass (nothing wrong with that, necessarily!) we have little clarification as to what they actually do.

Disruption is a bigger deal than innovation. If asked to describe the latter I’d argue it’s a decent jump in methodology, message, production or distribution. Innovation is supposed to make stuff better; either for you, or the end user, but it can be a single act of improvement.

According to American scholar Clayton M. Christensen who’s widely believed to have started this agonising conversation back in 1995, disruption is “an innovation that creates a new market and value network and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network, displacing established market-leading firms, products, and alliances.” 

It fucks shit up. It must be meaningful, and it must be mass.

As an innovator (yep, I’m just as bad) I hear the word ‘disruption’ a lot, mostly when brands ask me for it. “But are you SURE you want disruption?” I say. “Because, you know, the bubonic plague was disruptive. Communism was disruptive. Steps as a pop entity were disruptive.”

Most often it’s for reputation reasons; to be seen as disruptive, which means to be seen as brave, modern and cool. It’s a common brief; but the word is a distraction from what our industry — and every industry – needs to focus on which is: being brilliant. Giving people what they want and/or need so they don’t look elsewhere.

The reason new entrant disruptors successfully disrupt (Uber as a great example) is because the existing players weren’t good enough. They got lazy, complacent, cocky, expensive. It’s been different in every category.

Retail was too slow, so Amazon and fast fashion emerged. Beauty sampling sucked so subscription gained traction. Finance brands prioritized themselves over customers, so transparent newcomers are thriving. People hate talking on the phone with every fibre of their antisocial being, especially when hungover, so mobile apps became the best thing to happen to the restaurant industry since sliced bread.

The best disruption can be so seamless you hardly notice it’s happened. My favourite of the last five years is non-dairy (‘alternative’) milk. Described by the Guardian as ‘white gold’ (wtf) UK plant-based milk sales have risen by 30% since 2015 and at least 1000 dairy farms closed as a result. The process of introducing alternative milks into the consumption habits of British city-dwellers has impacted retail, user experience, category messaging and norms to such an extent that these days we all sound like idiots ordering a latte in Cafe Nero.

The disruption of non-dairy milk is a benchmark for us all: solve a problem, convince people they have the problem, shout about it and make access easy; play the long game. The Oatly founders didn’t just wake up one day and think, let’s annoy the world’s farmers next week with our own version of Pokémon Go.

Like the most aloof contestants on Love Island, disruption is a hard graft. It takes time, investment, advocacy and experimentation; the likes of which can’t normally occur within a four to six-week ad campaign, a one-hour brainstorm or via an adtech start-up. So when it comes to comms, ensure the basics are in place before you start getting revolutionary.

A great product with positive reviews helps, rather than an Alexa Skill case study. Of course, a marketing stunt can disrupt someone’s day and a new brand positioning can disrupt a category, but our obsession with ‘new disruptive formats’ often shakes up the user experience badly. Many businesses spend so long trying to be disruptive they neglect the basics.

Seriously. The internet looks like someone binged on advertising like it was a pack of strawberry laces and then threw it back up onto a laptop screen. Let’s fix that, first?

As a client, if you want to truly ‘disrupt’, weave it into excellent planning and allow longer than two weeks for a response-to-brief. At Christmas last year Visa worked with their Publicis One team (Saatchi & Saatchi, Digitas and Starcom) to disrupt the dominant shopping model at Christmas, handing over their media to local merchants (TV ads, OOH, paid social) to increase high street sales (with Mariah Carey in the background).

It redefined their stakeholder relationships and delivered mass advertising to retailers who’d never used it before, disrupting their businesses in the best way. Visa identified a problem (declining high street sales), humanised that problem (support your local high street), shouted about it everywhere and made access to the solution easy. It was a gargantuan effort from all involved.

If you think you want the ‘Big D’, think about whether you really want it, because the Big D takes time, investment, probably money, exceptional stakeholder management, a few iterations and a bloody positive attitude. If you want to be seen as brave, modern and cool, just say so. Park the jargon and make your briefs clear.

If your CMO is telling you they want disruption, ask for a definition and push for priorities. But leave the hyperbole to the 10,000 pains in the ass on LinkedIn.