Think with Innovators: James Harris, Global Chief Digital Officer, Carat

October 2016

In ‘Think with Innovators’ we ask some of digital media’s most creative minds to share their knowledge and experience. In this installment, James Harris, Global Chief Digital Officer at Carat, gives us the lowdown on the all-important distinction between ideas and execution, and explains why SEO is just like origami.

James Harris entered the world of digital media by an unusual route. “I was a musician who didn’t make the big time,” he explains, before going on to describe how he began working in traditional media, before setting up shop for himself in the early days of the internet. “When I began working in traditional media, it was very much the same every day. You would come in and do a press plan, or come in and do a television plan, and it didn’t really change much from month to month and year to year.” Ultimately, it was the protean nature of digital that appealed, something that still drives James to this day. “Digital changes so quickly, and I think that’s super exciting.”

“I have a brain that can deal with the technical side of digital, but I also have a brain which deals with the creative and ideas side,” says James, reflecting on the qualities that have helped him most over the course of two decades in the industry. "Innovation for me is about looking at what you're doing, and asking - could I change that?" In a world defined by innovation and disruption, failure to question existing processes and strategies can be fatal for even the biggest companies, and James now sees a key part of his role as encouraging clients to be brave in examining these aspects of their business.

"The most powerful thing with innovation is changing the word to 'why' — 'Why can't we? Why not? Why would I do this?'"

- James Harris, Global Chief Digital Officer at Carat

In his recent book, ‘Think More Analogue, Be More Digital’, James explores methods for stripping back the complexity of online behaviour to reveal the unchanging drives and desires beneath. “One of my great obsessions is simplicity. We live in the world of technology and digital, and that can seem very complex, but our whole focus at Carat is really around audiences and people.”

To show how this works in practice, James gives the example of an SEO pitch that took the form of an origami lesson. “Origami is a great way to look at digital because you have to have creativity and a vision of what you want to get to, but then you have to have the skills and expertise to get there.” The pitch strategy was ultimately a success, with the clients feeling both engaged and informed by the session. “The reaction of the client was incredibly positive - they were having fun but they were also understanding what we were doing with the story. It was a good way of saying, actually, digital isn’t that complicated - you can learn this.”

“My big driver at the moment is helping other people to make sense of all this complexity,” James says, summing up how his role has evolved over the years. From using data to uncover the ways in which television influences search, to helping businesses think locally in a global digital economy, James’s work is all about turning good ideas into reality, and about finding ways to cut through complexity. "I think an idea is an extremely powerful thing, but an idea is only useful if you can actually do something with it. Just having ideas is not enough."

Think with Innovators: Hannah Mirza, Global Head Media Partnerships, MediaCom