Marketing and brand specialist Jan Kelley on Wednesday launched its Idea Incubator, an innovation LeanLab based at the Communitech Hub that’s tasked with transforming the way the company operates in a digital era. Jan Kelley is a Burlington, Ont.-based firm with 80-plus employees and a legacy that reaches back more than 100 years. We sat down with company President Chantel Broten and CEO Jim Letwin for their thoughts about the company’s objectives and the future they hope to create in their lab space.

(interview edited for clarity and brevity)


Q – Why establish an outpost at Communitech? Talk about the process that brought you here.

CB – I was first introduced to Communitech a little more than a year ago through a peer CEO forum I participate in. I was very intrigued by what was happening [here]. It seemed like a place we should be. Our business, not unlike [others], is transforming very rapidly. It’s being disrupted from all angles. So we need to challenge ourselves to do things differently. So, No. 1, the aim is to really challenge ourselves to do different things, to bring new solutions and services to clients. And the second reason is we felt there was an opportunity to bring some of this lean startup methodology, this agile thinking — The Nimble Hippo, so to speak — to our clients, to apply that thinking more broadly with them and help them become more nimble and more agile by challenging the way we work with them.

Q – How big is the lab and what will it be tasked with doing?

CB – We’re in startup mode right now. We have a couple of co-op students and two full-time employees here. Our goal in the short term is to identify opportunities and organize. We’re working with our clients to undertake workshops, to proactively identify problems and then look to prototype solutions.

Q – So it seems the goal is relatively open-ended. That you’ll adjust and shift depending on what you discover …

JL – I think it’s exactly that. I think we’re here primarily to learn. And we’re not afraid to make sure we’re open-minded. We’re prepared to modify what we believe will come out of this [experience] based on what we learn. There are 1,000 digital startups in this area. Once we identify client problems, opportunities, our ability to engage members of this community, to bring their thinking and their approaches to bear on those matters, is really quite an opportunity for us and our clients. We’re drinking the Kool-Aid about the fact that [in today’s marketplace] the fast eat the slow; [it’s] not the big eating the small, anymore. We see [in our work with] large organizations that they have barriers to overcome. We have barriers to overcome, [too].

Q – What kind of barriers do you face?

CB – The big challenge for us is to change the culture and the interaction that client and agency have. [In the past we would] identify a solution and plan, plan, plan, build, build, build, then launch and see what happens and hope it’s perfect. We want to change that mindset. To say, ‘We’re not going to try and solve 100 per cent of this challenge. We’re going to pick one piece of it, develop a solution, get it into market, test, iterate, pivot, iterate.’

Q – So your work here won’t be about algorithms, per se, but about ways of shifting the way you work, and shifting attitudes …

JL – Well, it’s going to start with attitude. But it’s going to end in algorithms. As I think everything eventually will. We’re going to learn, and out of our new approaches are going to come new ways to solve problems. There’s a lot of science in what we do. We need things that produce data. And if there are existing channels that will give us that data, then we’ll use them. If we need to create new ways to generate data, we’ll help find those. I don’t think everything has been invented that needs to be invented. So it’s a bit Gandhi-like. You want to change the world? You have to change yourself. We talk about building brands from the inside out, and we’re taking our own medicine. We can’t possibly represent what we believe until we’ve experienced it. Sometimes that’s not easy to do.

CB – It’s a bit of leap of faith. We don’t exactly have clarity on exactly what the outcomes and deliverables are, but that’s OK. I think our team is inspired by the process.

JL – It’s the old saying: To know something and not do it is not to know it. We’re going to learn as we do, and we’re going to do as we learn. This is a long-term commitment. We’re not going to learn everything we need to know in 12 weeks in one year. This is something we’ll be doing well into the foreseeable future. The energy that comes out of this kind of environment, and the access to new thinking, is what excites us.

CB – We want to create the opportunity for those collisions of ideas.

JL – Yes. We want to bring out the best in each other, as well as our clients. What we find is, we get involved in environments like this and it brings out the best in us. It challenges us to know that others are doing things we’re not doing yet, that people are thinking differently than a lot of the world is thinking. That’s exciting, stimulating, and calls to us to say, ‘How might we take some of this thinking and incorporate it into the work we’re already doing and that we’re about to do?’


About The Author

Craig Daniels
Senior Journalist

Craig Daniels is a veteran reporter, columnist and editor who has joined Communitech’s editorial team as senior journalist. He worked most recently at Postmedia in Hamilton, where he led the team that produced the National Post, and before that at the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Sun, Financial Post, the Montreal Daily News and the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John, N.B. He has an abiding interest in the transformational power and promise of tech and startup ecosystems, is a commercially licensed pilot, and has a debilitating wrist-watch fetish.