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Visionary CEOs Chat About Leading Innovation

by Muriel Vega

“There are two types of innovation present here tonight: disruptive innovation, which is what Buzzfeed has been in the media business, but also innovation in a sustained institution — whether it’s Home Depot or Coca-Cola,” said Walter Isaacson, the host of Georgia Tech’s Leading Innovation panel. “Both are important.”

That certainly is true. We’ve seen Home Depot build a multi-billion e-commerce empire in the last few years, but we’ve also seen Buzzfeed innovate in an industry that often refused to adapt to the changing times.

Greg Coleman, President of Buzzfeed; Muhtar Kent, CEO of the Coca-Cola Company; Craig Menear, CEO of The Home Depot; and Jonah Peretti, CEO of Buzzfeed came together for a panel at the Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business to chat about what triggers innovation within their companies.

“You don’t decide, the consumer decides,” says Kent. After 3,500+ products, Coca-Cola has created incubators for ideation in Israel, in India, in Tokyo and in Mexico. They cover every from innovation in marketing to new products, packaging and processes. While brainstorming about sustainability issues, the Coke bottle made from plants came out of an incubator out of India, according to Kent. “You have to dream a little bit,” says the Coke CEO.

That’s exactly what Jonah Peretti did. Previously to Buzzfeed, Peretti was a teacher with accidental viral videos on the Internet. “It felt weird and different that you could reach this massive audience without any of the broadcast infrastructure that you’re used to,” he said. And now, he has a viral content company that is one of the most widely sites on the web.

The Internet offers archive of content, constant publishing, insights into your audience’s interests, but most importantly — connections. “There’s no way any media company will be as close to a person as that person is to the people they care about.” Those connections is what makes Buzzfeed so successful, says Peretti. He saw opportunity on viral content while at the Huffington Post and launched Buzzfeed in 2006.

_tab0266-x3Coleman, also at Buzzfeed, understands that pivotal moment more than anyone as he experienced it while at Reader’s Digest. With more than 60 million readers, the publication missed on the chance to innovate once they went public. “To have the chance to watch that and be frustrated, I knew I wasn’t an innovator. What I can do is find people who are.” That’s how Peretti and Coleman connected. “Muhtar [Kent] likes to find people and incubators to grow stuff. I like to find CEOs that know their stuff and to go work with them.”

That statement prompted an important question from the moderator: “How do you put together a team that can innovate vs. just a person?”

“When you find a strong executive that acts like an innovator and a disruptor, but it’s not, it will create more damage within the organization,” said Home Depot’s Menear. “You’ll have people spinning wheels, running around. I’ve seen it, and I’ve lived it, and I’ve watched it. Boards of Directors need to pay close attention to who is running their company to make sure that the right people are in the right place.”

Everyone agreed, “You can’t be it all. Not everybody should try to be disruptive.”

“You don’t have to be a disruptor,” says Kent. “It’s about having the courage to create an ecosystem around you.”

That ecosystem’s main player is the customer. “If your focus is on driving the business only for quarterly results then in the long run, you’re not gonna survive. You have to be building and pushing for where the customer is going and being able to fulfill those needs. It’s a pretty short term vision,” says Menear.

On the publishing side is the same, says Peretti. “Ask people what they want. They’ll say, I want the serious news about Congress and then they’ll click the Justin Bieber story. You have to serve the whole human — all the different parts.”

Kent agrees, “it starts and ends with the consumer. The reality of today is that we’re moving from a world of mass marketing to mass personalization. It’s happening in retails, technology, news, consumer products. It’s technology enabled as well. You need to make sure you’re nimble enough to do that.”

“The main thing with disruption is that you don’t know what’s it gonna be,” says Peretti. “If you knew, then it would be easy.”

Photos provided by Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business.

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