Our Chief Strategy Officer on Turner Innovation

The pace of change in our business is accelerating and our need for innovation is constant. We recently chatted with Doug Shapiro, executive vice president and chief strategy officer to get his thoughts about innovation at Turner.

Shapiro, who previously led Time Warner’s Investor Relations group and, prior to that was a widely-respected Wall Street analyst, works with executive team members to identify business models and strategies that contribute to the continued growth of the company. Shapiro also oversees our domestic research and data sciences teams.

Q: Tell us about innovation at Turner.
A: The good news is that innovation is in Turner’s DNA. It started with Ted and that spirit continues today. And we have a very strong Turner culture – our people really care about the company and we want, and expect, to win. 

The challenge is that it’s hard for all big companies to innovate. While every company was started by an innovator, at some point in almost all companies’ maturation cycles, their processes, incentives and culture start to shift from a focus on innovation to a focus on execution. Frankly, it’s very hard to get someone to do one thing when you are paying them to do something else. 

Think of it this way: If you were a launching a startup and driving up and down Sand Hill Road asking venture capitalists for money, you’d just need one VC to say “yes” to get it off the ground. If you have a startup idea within a big company, you just need one influential person to say “no” to kill it. Those are tough odds.

Q:  So how do we fix that?
A:  We have to be very concerted to put the right processes and incentives in place to foster and support innovation. Those kinds of changes, and the necessary cultural shifts and mindset shifts - all that is going to take some time. But, as I mentioned, what we do have is an incredible entrepreneurial spirit. People are driven here. We've got a lot of great ideas and people really care, and I think that's a huge leg up.

One of my goals is to tap into our employees’ innovative ideas. We recently announced a company-wide employee innovation contest to encourage the development of revenue-generating ideas, with the opportunity to present in front of Turner leadership including John Martin. I think it’s a great opportunity and I’m really looking forward to seeing what our people come up with.

Q: Why is innovation suddenly so important?
A: I don’t know if it’s sudden, but I agree that innovation is more important than ever.  As the media industry and consumer habits evolve at what feels like an accelerating pace, we must not only stay ahead of our competitors, we also have to find significant new sources of revenue. Ideas that really move the needle. If you look at all of the innovation activity across the company, there are a ton of things going on. We recently did an inventory of all the discrete, revenue-generating innovations underway at the company, and there are about 70 at Turner. But if you categorize those into three types of innovation – core, adjacent and really transformative – you see that most are in the core and adjacent buckets. That’s natural and expected. When our brands create new businesses, naturally they will focus relatively close to our core.  It’s what they know and where there’s less risk. And no one has said “go out and think up billion-dollar, transformative things,” so no one has been told that’s their job. But we need to challenge ourselves to think more expansively about who our customers are and what big problems we are uniquely positioned to solve. 

Q: Moving forward, what is key to Turner’s innovative success?
A: There are a few key pieces. As I alluded to before, first and foremost we need to put the right processes and incentives in place. As one example of a change in process, companies with successful internal innovation efforts tend to think like venture capitalists. They start out with a lot of ideas, but then they only fund each idea as it achieves certain milestones. That enables them to weed out unsuccessful ideas inexpensively early-on, pivot ideas as they learn more and then throw a lot of weight behind the most promising ideas when they are ready to take them to market. By contrast, at Turner sometimes in the past we’ve thrown too much money at an early-stage idea, so we built up overhead and got locked into a business model too early.  That reduces our flexibility to pivot and can be very expensive when we’re wrong.  Second, as I also mentioned, we need to challenge ourselves to tackle really big problems, where there’s a really big payoff if we succeed. Third, we have to re-orient our thinking about what it means to fail. 

Q: What do you mean by that?
A: Not everything is going to be a success, so we have to redefine what failure means. It's not a failure if you learn something and then apply what you learned to the next thing you do. That’s the whole “fail fast” thing you hear about all the time. Getting more comfortable with that kind of thinking will take time, but is important.

Q: In your opinion, what has been the most transformative innovation at Turner since you’ve been here? Or at least, what is your favorite?
A: There are a lot of great things going on, so I will cop out and mention a few. I’ve been really impressed by the work being done by the Ignite team in developing advanced advertising products, Launchpad, etc. It’s also really impressive to see businesses like GBS and E-League created from scratch. And Superdeluxe is doing some groundbreaking stuff really re-thinking the model around talent and content development and monetization, which I think isn’t widely understood. I’m also eager to see what happens with Gloud, our new cloud-based gaming service in Latam. 

Q: While you are extremely focused on our evolution, what Turner shows (old or new) are your favorite?
A: I got the opportunity to see the pilot of Search Party and thought “where are we going to schedule such a dark comedy with no relatable characters?” But that’s why I’m not in development and I ended up getting hooked. I guess it also says something about my personality, but Rick and Morty is inspired, and I’ve found myself laughing like an idiot at some Impratical Jokers bits. And Those Who Can’t was underrated.