Think with innovators: Stefan Bardega, Chief Digital Officer, Zenith

August 2016

In ‘Think with Innovators’, we ask some of marketing’s most original voices to explain how they stay ahead of the creative curve. This week, Stefan Bardega, Chief Digital Officer of Zenith, gives us an insight into how he found his way into the world of digital media, how he fosters original thinking within his team, and why he believes acceptance of ‘constructive failure’ is one of the keys to successful innovation.

Stefan Bardega began his career in Television, though unlike some of his peers, his first job was in research rather than advertising. “There are two things that really drive me, and that’s understanding what makes people tick, and then understanding how you can communicate with those people,” he says, thinking back to the interests that shaped the start of his career. “That’s the reason I fell into advertising actually, because I had a real love of research and getting under the skin of people.”

After two years working in Television, Stefan made a decision that changed the course of his professional life. “About the year 2000 I left my research job and took a job in a digital start-up. It looked really exciting and it was what I thought I might want to do for the rest of my career. Two months after I arrived the dot com bubble popped and everyone was made redundant, but I was utterly convinced that digital was the future of all communications and all business interaction.”

From this early setback, Stefan drew an important lesson: “If you fail fast and if you learn from it, almost all failure is good, because it will progress your thinking and your development.” This insight has gone on to inform Stefan’s understanding of innovation and leadership, with fearlessness in the face of failure being a key characteristic he tries to instill in his management team at Zenith. “I'm always inspired in my personal life by leaders who appear to have no fear and who continuously innovate.

“No one person can know it all so you have to build a team of diverse expertise and knowledge around you in order to build a real business today.”

Stefan Bardega, Chief Digital Officer, Zenith

Having risen to a senior position within a global media and communications network, Stefan’s understanding of how innovation happens at scale has developed. “The old thinking around innovation was that it was creative mad genius, but if you look at the companies and individuals that are successful today, it's much more about an innovation process that leads to a big disruptive idea.” To foster and manage these processes, Stefan’s approach involves “surrounding myself with people who are far smarter than me, and who have skills in areas that I don't have,” adding that “I never assume that I have the right answer.”

At the heart of his management style is an acceptance of ‘constructive failure’, whereby team members are encouraged to innovate, safe in the knowledge that the organisational culture is one that values creativity, and doesn’t punish failure as long as lessons are learned. Speaking about the qualities he looks for in his team, Stefan says that a willingness to question the brief, and an ability to look far and wide for inspiration are key. “I don't think innovators today are the kind of people who just lock themselves in a dark room with a pad and paper,” he says. “I think what they're really good at is looking across their network, both virtual and physical, and identifying the things that are really super innovative and then scaling them out.”

Looking to the future, Stefan sees this fearlessness around innovation and creativity becoming the norm. “I think the younger generation definitely have the start-up mentality. One of the amazing things for people coming out of university or college or school today is that they come out with a sense that failure is a really positive and constructive thing.” It’s this promise of new perspectives and new ideas that ultimately inspires Stefan, in both his personal and professional lives: “I think what drives me, is the knowledge that there is always something out there that can make what you're doing today better.”

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