An interview with Lippincott’s new CXO and Head of Innovation, Chris Colborn, by Forbes’ Bruce Rogers
Bruce Rogers: Why the move to Lippincott and what do you hope to accomplish there?
Chris Colborn: I spent the last 20 years at R/GA and had a good opportunity to advance that organization, specifically around the notions of customer service, design thinking, and user experience. But I have come to recognize that some of the most significant shifts that happen in terms of creating new kinds of experiences, ones that yield meaningful business results, come from a combination of consumer-led understanding, mirrored and matched stride-for-stride with a purpose-led focus. Ultimately, taking a brand filter and understanding what a company stands for, and how that belief translates into the empowerment of its customers.
I moved to Lippincott to continue that pursuit, but to also step it up a lot more in terms of strategic rigor. There’s a partnership that Lippincott has with our parent company, Oliver Wyman (OW), a much larger business consulting firm, that can affect change in a more substantial way than a lot of the agencies are capable of today.
I do think Lippincott is very well positioned for the next phase—of how to take consumer insights, combined with purpose-driven thinking, to create experiences and impact that really make a difference in the world.
Rogers: R/GA founder Bob Greenberg is universally acclaimed as one of the great innovators and creative people in the world today, so what was it like working with him?
Colborn: Working with Bob was great. I came on board in 1998 when the company was still a production company. They really reinvented commercial production. I was free to develop a bunch of capabilities and practices; I opened up new offices. It was a very entrepreneurial company and what Bob did was to relentlessly drive that pioneering spirit. He was always looking for a new edge. That relentless focus on innovation is critical and in fact, that’s a lot of what we’re doing right now at Lippincott, too, in partnership with OW. The market is different now. There’s more opportunity to create change through innovation, as a way to help businesses that are facing lots of disruption around shifting consumer behavior.
A leader in purpose-led innovation instills a culture that pushes agility, while truly understanding where the brand comes from.
Rogers: How do you take brand purpose and generate business results out of it?
Colborn: Good question. You have to have a bit of faith in the value of that purpose. Otherwise, it becomes challenging for a business, living quarter by quarter, to try and get past short term business metrics as a measure. There is so much data that shows companies how to provide value to their end consumer, and then measure that value to understand their behavior with more nuance. Brands must learn how to use that data to inform how they work with the customer, and then motivate the type of behavior that’s meaningful, to see amazing results.
Rogers: What are some of the challenges you see in helping companies rediscover their purpose?
Colborn: I think one of the biggest challenges for companies today is that when you talk to them about their business, they talk about the product they sell. They talk about their category, quantified in the economics of that product. But for example, Nike is not a shoe company, it’s a performance company. McCormick isn’t a spice company, which by definition is a commodity, they’re a flavor company.
It isn’t hard to remind companies of where they came from, what they stood for, and what they could stand for going forward. What is hard is changing the incentive structures within a company away from more pedestrian business metrics to give them the freedom to take risks designed to enlighten them and to act boldly in the marketplace. That does take a great leader at some level. It doesn’t have to be a founder, but somebody who really, from the top down, comes in and instills a culture that pushes agility, while understanding where the brand comes from.
Rogers: I couldn’t agree more. It’s a way of taking friction out of decision making.
Colborn: Part of that is the consumer perception of businesses has changed because of so much more transparency. You can’t say one thing and act in a different way. So there’s more demand to act according to the belief at the core of the brand purpose than there has been in the past. This is something that has always driven creatives, and it’s exciting to see clients’ growing appreciation for it.
I think that the trick is that the larger organizational changes require operational thinking. They require capital investment. They require a lot of analysis. They are harder to pull off from an agency perspective. They are much more likely to be pulled off in partnership with a consulting team that has a differentiated skill set that guides them through a transformation, which will bring that purpose to life in a much more meaningful way.
Rogers: What are your hopes and dreams of what you can accomplish in this role at Lippincott?
Colborn: I believe at the very core of my being that it’s important to be consumer-led and be cognizant of the key changes that are happening in consumer expectations and behaviors. I equally feel that driving change from a purpose perspective is critical.
There are a lot of categories where businesses need help to act in smarter ways. That’s my vision at Lippincott. That our teams will not only be able to recognize those opportunities, but we’ll be able to help businesses enact those changes.
Rogers: Tell us about your personal journey to this transformational role. Where’d you grow up?
Colborn: I grew up in San Diego, where I started in electrical engineering. I changed course to design, creative writing, film making, wood working and architecture, but actually have a degree in International Relations, World Trade and Development. I did a lot of study abroad – I got a position at a consulting firm helping international scientists. I moved to New York when my wife got a job there, then joined a book packaging company that developed the graphic novel format, which I was a fan of. I helped them launch something called “Virtual Comics” with a bunch of Marvel and DC folks, and did some early AOL, MSN and web work.
I had a couple of great years really learning from the ground up to code, design, strategize and help figure out what the business plan was. When I came over to R/GA, it was a great opportunity to work with a small, growing company to help scale their business. As we continued to expand, I helped build their innovation and consulting practices.
Rogers: I love the idea that you started life thinking that you would become an electrical engineer, and it turned into this intersection of being a creator and a builder.
Colborn: Early visions are often kind of abstract. I also thought I would actually create physical robots. That was my hope entering college.
Rogers: Maybe that’s still in your future.
Colborn: Possibly. One of my big focuses right now is AI and the impact that it has on creating actionable data for consumers. How do we use augmented intelligence to really enhance people’s ability to make day-to-day decisions and have a better experience? It’s clear that businesses that really grapple with how they’ll deploy AI in a meaningful way into their offering will exceed the growth of the ones that don’t.
Interview conducted by Bruce Rogers and originally published on Forbes on July 25, 2018.