Red Thread Thinking with Debra Kaye

Red Thread Thinking with Debra KayeDebra Kaye is an innovation and trends expert specializing in culture strategy and innovation for consumer brands. As such, she’s has helped define new areas of opportunity for a wide range of multi-nationals, including Colgate, Mars, McDonald’s, American Express, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oreal, and Groupe Danone.

Following an extensive career in Europe, Debra is a founding partner and CEO at innovation consultancy Lucule in New York. BDDP/Mancebo•Kaye, the marketing services company she founded, was named #1 in Spain for strategic thinking and #3 for creativity by Ballester research while Debra was named “Female Entrepreneur of the Year” by Spain’s Tribuna Económica. As CEO of TBWA/Italy, Debra oversaw significant client engagements for Apple, Pernod Ricard, Bieirsdorf, and Nissan.

A featured commentator on American Public Radio’s “Marketplace”, and frequent contributor to Fast Company, Debra’s a sought after speaker at events such as South by Southwest. She is also a board member of Count Me In, an organization dedicated to helping women-owned businesses grow and prosper. Debra’s new book, Red Thread Thinking (McGraw Hill, March, 2013, Ed.), appears this month.

Debra holds very strong opinions about what does and doesn’t work in innovation based on her years of experience around the world. For starters, she believes everyone can innovate, as in her view, it’s a skill that can be learned, and indeed, honed with practice. She speaks passionately about how and where each of us can source the new ideas that lead to insights that ultimately lead to meaningful innovation. Debra also has a well-informed ad structured approach to the study of consumer behavior; particularly the cultural underpinnings of why we all do what we do – whether we know it or not.

I joined Debra on a cold January morning in the midtown Manhattan offices of her publicist in between preparations for the launch of her book.

Lou Killeffer: Debra, good morning. My first question because there’s so much back and forth on it, is what’s your definition of innovation?

Debra Kaye: For me, innovation is something new and valuable to consumers. It’s also something that generates profitable growth and improves competitive advantage for a company.

LK: That’s succinct. Why do you suppose everyone else struggles with defining it?

DK: (Smiles) I think that’s because there’s a great deal of confusion between innovation and creativity.  In my new book Red Thread Thinking: Weaving Together Connections for Brilliant Ideas and Profitable Innovation, I spend a fair amount of time describing the difference. I believe that you really need talent to be creative. And I believe to be an innovator you don’t need talent, you need practice.

LK: That’s a remarkable distinction, tell me more.

DK: Well, I can give you an example…I elected to have a co-writer on my book because while I know a lot about innovation, I’m not a fantastic writer.  My co-writer knew nothing about innovation and she says that helping me write the book was the most difficult assignment she’s ever had because of what she had to learn about the discipline and practice of innovation, all of which was quite new to her.

Now, at the end of the process, she’s come to me with three amazing innovative new product ideas that we hope to take to market together. But conversely, at the end of this process, I have not turned into a great writer: because writing is really is an innate talent but innovation is something that can be learned.

LK: So writing is a talent, but innovation is a…

DK:…skill that can be learned.

LK: Okay.

DK: So that’s the first separation to help people understand that innovation, and talent, and creativity are different. My definition also says the only way we know something is truly innovative is when someone says, “Wow”, that’s quite something, that’s a game changer.  And, in the end, something’s a game changer because someone has seen value in it and is willing to pay for it.

LK: Yes, creativity can exist for its own sake but innovation has to create some result in people’s lives. If something doesn’t change, if there’s no new or modified behavior as a result, there’s no innovation. Right?

DK: Exactly. And the behavior change must have a monetized event attached to it! (Smiles)

LK: Why do you suppose your co-author found it so challenging? Was it getting up to speed on current trends in innovation or was it the subject itself?

DK: I think it’s because of what I set out to do with the book…

The problem with all the books on innovation is that they’re very instructive on how to work through an insight when you have one; how to test your thinking; how to improve an insight and make it better; how to take that insight and bring it to market and so on.  But no book has ever told me where the hell to find or how to create an insight!

LK: And Debra, what, for you, is an insight?

DK: An insight is the reconfiguration of knowledge in a way that no one’s ever thought of before; that results in a new way of looking at things. It’s a new idea but it’s most often based on connecting existing thoughts and ideas in a new way.

My business is white space innovation, which means that a client will come to us and say, I need to grow my business, help me find me the next new thing.

LK: Who are some of your clients?

DK: Mars Petcare, Mars Chocolate, American Express, Colgate, L’Oreal…

LK: Multi-national, fast-moving consumer packaged goods corporations looking fornew products and services.

DK: Yes and so, we’ve developed a process for how to figure out where ideas come from and that’s what’s shared in the book.  Because no innovation book has really ever told me what to do when I have a problem and an empty head. Where do you start; what do you do? In the book I cover a subject that I knew nothing about and I simply started with the dictionary definition, nothing more, and I show how to innovate from the dictionary’s definition.

You don’t need any special tools you just need your own existing knowledge. The book is about how to create a new idea in your head.

LK: So if creativity is a unique talent but innovation is a discipline that can be learned,are you teaching American Express how to innovate or are you hired to do it for them and bring them along as part of their journey?

DK: We do it together, although we’re obviously leading.

The process itself is simple, but what we’re really teaching our minds is how to search and make new connections; and that takes practice.  Doing one project doesn’t make you good at it. I happen to enjoy it because I’ve been at it for twenty years. I’m used to observing things and being able to see connections that perhaps no one else has seen before because I’ve been doing it for so long.

LK: Right. Whenever I’ve made a hire and the recruiter asks for the brief I’ve always said we need someone who can connect the dots; who can see and sort the current issues and connect the dots to solve the problem.

DK: Find the red thread. (Smiles)

LK: Yes, indeed, so your red thread is the connective tissue between the dots?

DK: Yes, that’s exactly what it is, and the reason it’s a red thread is because it’s not about all the dots; and that’s another thing that makes innovation so hard – prioritizing.

LK: All dots are not created equal?

DK: No, they’re not. (Smiles.) How could they be?

Often we’re hired because other firms have been engaged and while they’ve made 1,000 discreet observations and identified 500 facts, they don’t know the difference between a fact, an observation, and an insight. Even when you know or have all these things at your fingertips not everyone knows how to determine which are primary and which aren’t.

LK: Right.

DK: That’s why it’s the connective tissue, that’s so well said, or the red thread, that’s so important. That’s where people so often stumble. You know, the young people working with me have so much information in front of them but they don’t know how to find that lead thread. That’s what makes innovation so difficult, when you’ve amassed so much information, how do you figure out which are the really important connections.

LK: Less in fact is often more isn’t it?

DK: Yes, it is, exactly.

LK: I love the metaphor of the red thread. Does it come from the ancient Chinese?

DK: Yes, its origins are ancient and it’s actually found in many Asian cultures. I’ve always said, “Find the read thread.” much the same way you say “Connect the dots”, but I never knew why I said it and when I started the book, my ex-partner in Spain said, write the book the way you talk.  He said, what do you always say?  And I said, “find the red thread”.  He said, that’s what you must talk about in the book.  I said, okay but I’ve no idea where that came from.  And so then we went back and we found there really was a legend…

LK: It’s wonderful. Do you have any idea how it originally popped into your head?

DK: No, none. (Smiles)

LK: How do you pursue the red thread effectively to create insights that lead to innovations?

DK: That’s a really good question.  You have to look at how you cut through everything.  There’s so much information out there and you need to look at all the past client research and find the pattern that’s emerging, more than the absolute facts.  You’ve got to get to the patterns.

I really take exception with a lot of ad agency presentations I’ve sat through on what they call ethnographies.  They’ll say, see Lisa, Lisa does this and Lisa does that, and then see Martha who does these things.  And it’s just these individual data points and they’re not really looking at the patterns among them.

You also have to go back through history; it could be personal history or it could be an anthropological history but if don’t have the resources to hire an anthropologist, you need to assess what the cultural patterns are and where they’ve come from. How we live now and how we have always lived, and why to the degree you can discern it.

When we did the cat project we studied how people cohabit with their cats. For example, you don’t actually play with a cat like you play with a dog. You watch a cat out of the corner of your eye more than you actually go up and have a constant interaction…

LK: Yes, so tell me, what’s the cat project?

DK: We did several cat projects and one of the things that we found was that cat manufacturers were selling cat food like they were selling dog food. It’s revealing because it’s all about the relationship. Are you a dog or a cat lover?

LK: I can admit to being both but my wife comes from a family of dog lovers and cat haters.  Together we’ve had both cats and dogs quite successfully but my wife ignoredthe cat because the cat ignored her, and, as a dog lover she was outraged.  So I said, the cat’s job is to ignore you, that’s what cats do.

DK: That’s exactly it! But my client’s cat food commercials showed that when you put down the food, the cat came running.

LK: That never happens.

DK: It never happens. So there’s no affinity there, how can that brand expect to have an affinity with the buyer of the product when they’re showing they don’t know what the cat relationship is about?

LK: That speaks to one of my beliefs, that innovation must acknowledge current behavior, and if you don’t deeply understand current behavior you’ve no hope whatsoever of interceding with something new. Inertia’s far too strong.

DK: Yes, you need to understand current behavior but you also need to understand the why of current behavior.

LK: Yes, of course.

DK: I love the example of stuffing.

LK: Turkey stuffing?

DK: Turkey stuffing.

LK: Thanksgiving stuffing?

DK: Yes. Stuffing is festive. It’s served at holidays and we all love it, right?  So the brands that make stuffing think, well, if we all love stuffing, then all we’ve got to do is get people to substitute stuffing for potatoes once a week.  Makes sense, right? Sounds simple and straightforward. But it’s never going to happen. You can do all the advertising and promotion you want, it’s never going to happen, because stuffing is surrounded by a host of emotions. It’s about celebration, it’s about family, and it’s about time – and you can’t break through these no matter how much you argue it’s a worthy substitute for some other starch.

LK: Right, you’ll never get stuffing off its pedestal.

DK: Exactly.

LK: That’s an interesting observation with an accompanying insight on top. What happens next? In the book you’ve an intriguing subhead “no more right brain, left brain thinking”, what do you mean by that?

DK: It’s a really interesting time to be doing what we do because we’ve learned more about the brain in the last twenty years than we’ve learned about it since man has existed.  And we’ve found that we do not actually have – I always get confused with which side is which – one side of the brain rationale and the other side of the brain creative.

What we’ve found is that one is more detail oriented and the other is more conceptually oriented and they actually work in concert together.  That’s one of the major findings.  And we’ve also found that our brain is very smart and tricks us.  So that if there’s something that doesn’t really interest us as much as we think, it will just throw out things, fast things that don’t allow us to go into depth because our brain doesn’t want to.

LK: OK. You also say, “stop brainstorming and take a shower”; why? Aren’t there whole

categories of companies that sell brainstorming as a solution?

DK: I’ve never seen it work.

LK: You’ve never seen brainstorming work?

DK: Never.

LK: Why do you supposed that is?

DK: Because I think ideation is individual. I think there’s emotional pressure in a group, and I think if you look at all the studies ideas come out of the bell shape curve, right. You’re just going to get the same kind of ideas from a group.

I have done brainstorming sessions; I have to okay?  It’s part of my job because clients want to participate.  So what we do for brainstorming sessions, but we don’t call them that obviously, is we create a brief before hand with what I call our outside ideators who have nothing to do with the business, and come from many different categories, and then we go to the client with a workbook of maybe a hundred new ideas.

And we do a session with them where before we get to the workbooks they have a chance to come up with ideas.  And then we have little tests and games where we breakthrough the normal brainstorming issues then we throw in our workbook of ideas as well. And what invariably happens is we work through both our workbook ideas plus the ideas developed during the session to improve them, which is not brainstorming, right?

LK: Right.

DK: Because we’re improving them and then at the end of the day we put up everything that came out of that room and people go around the room and star which ideas they like best.  And invariably –it’s the ideas that came from our workbook that get the most stars because they didn’t come from the brainstorming session; they came from people who ideated alone beforehand. The reason brainstorming doesn’t work is nobody is really capable of having an idea on the spot.  It needs to percolate a little bit, it really does.  Where do you get your best ideas? I get mine in the shower or when I’m walking.

LK: I just spoke with one of the leaders of frog design and he acknowledges that there

is a return these days to increasing homage to the idea of Bell Labs with individuals

sorting through their own issues.  I believe structured brainstorming serves many

purposes, as a process for team building, to break the ice with the client, but it

fundamentally it isn’t going to solve the problem.

DK: No.

LK: It serves a different agenda.

DK: Right, but it’s great once you have an idea. To discuss what’s wrong with the idea?  What can improve it?  Then it’s great.

LK: Yes, that’s precisely the point. The moment an idea is shared, by definition,

everything just changed. And hopefully can be improved…

DK: Yes.

LK: Tell me about your outside ideators.  Do you have a classical pianist that you call

and ask about serving cat food?

DK: No, it’s a bit more focused than that.  Over the last twenty years I’ve built up a list of about 500 people; everything from Ph.Ds. to –to chefs, across every category, and when we have a brief we build it out on a platform because we don’t believe in one-off ideas we believe in building a chassis which can have many ideas attached to it so you can build and actually create something enduring for the brand.

So we’ll have a brief for the project with several platforms that can give one a broad direction. And we’ll ask them to come up with a concept and be as off the wall as they can possibly because we know how to refine it to make it durable; that’s our job, the commercial side of the job.

Then on any given project we’ll use between ten to twenty ideators beyond our own staff and they’ll come back to us with between ten to twenty fresh, new ideas.  Then we collate them and screen them down and that will be part of our workbook that we provide our clients because we believe it’s really important to have outside ideas.  We don’t believe in the crowd sourcing open agenda that many people are thinking about today. We think the process needs to be curated and directed a great deal more than that to truly succeed.

LK: So take me through a typical assignment.  The red thread is the connecting of the

dots, so you get an assignment from American Express or Mars let’s say, and what do

you do first, write the brief?

DK: Oh no way, the brief comes much later. You’re way ahead.  The first thing we do is look at five years of their research, okay, and we look for patterns.  We look for what’s there, what’s not there, what’s been missed, what hasn’t been missed, what do we really know and understand about their consumers?

The second thing we typically do is we look at all the concepts that they threw away to see why they threw them away, right?

LK: Yes.

DK: Right because a lot of times, a concept gets thrown away not because it was a bad concept but because there were a few words in it that didn’t test well and they just threw the baby out with the bath water. Or sometimes they threw a concept away because there was a change in management.  I mean that’s happened to me, we had a great idea and management changed and the idea fell, you know, through the cracks.

LK: So you’re looking for and solving for two kinds of patterns, in consumer behavior and the client’s own behavior…

DK: That’s right.

Then we’ll go on a tour of the factory and see what’s going on there to learn what they do and don’t produce, understand what their machinery is capable of. Then we look at what’s profitable and what’s not and why.  In the case of Mars Cat Food we actually had them take a brand off the American market, Sheba, their most innovative brand globally. After our analysis, we said, this is the biggest money loser you’re ever going to have in the US and there’s nothing you can do in its current wet format to make money it.

And, you know, that was the single biggest money making outcome from our innovation project for them.  We simply stopped them from pouring more good money after bad.

LK: Right.

DK: So we look at all those things first.  Then we look at current trends and compare them to the trends we’re seeing three and five years out and what are the ways you might change your company to take maximum advantage? That’s where ideation really starts.  And then we look at the consumer and we see what’s really going on with the consumer. We do deep ethnographies with them to really understand the underlying culture significance of their behaviors.

LK: How do you conduct successful ethnographies?

DK: We hire Ph.D. anthropologists who specialize in the observation of people.


DK: The reason we do that is two fold.  First, they observe in ways that normal marketing people can’t. The second reason and the most important reason is because they are familiar with the cultural theories of societies past and present and they can observe and understand how people are behaving against those theories So for example we all know that the kitchen is the center of what’s happening in the home, with everything all over the refrigerator and where many people meet as a family and take their meals. And they can interpret that in terms of emotional significance and how to pull that emotional significance out even further.

And so that’s where you start to get really some meaning out of the whole thing.  That’s why we use them. They are really clinically trained observers and that’s really, really, important.  But that doesn’t mean that anyone can’t become a much better observer of society and that’s a great place to start.

And so then we gather all this information together with what we know a company can and cannot do.  For example, one of my clients will never do any outsourcing.  So then I know that I have to work with the equipment that they already have or we have to build in the cost to acquire a new machinery; and I also know they will never do that.  So I’m not going to present to them an idea that they can’t make with their current assets, because it’s never going to happen.

LK: So you don’t view the commercialization of the idea as a second phase, you

Incorporate that thinking throughout the whole process?

DK: Exactly. Look there are several places along the way where innovation fails. The first are big ideas that can never be commercialized. What’s the point of bringing them to clients?

LK: Right.

DK: The second place it fails, and here there’s a little bit of art involved, you can have a great idea but you can write a lousy concept.

LK: Amen.

DK: So if you don’t write a good clear concept – and a clear concept is not an advertising concept.

LK: Agreed.

DK: A lot of companies don’t understand that but you’ve got to get rid of the advertising words when you write a concept. It’s got to be really clear and simple. What does the consumer need and here’s what it does. And this is what the product looks like. I think we’re really good at all of these steps in the process.

LK: What makes an effective employee in this kind of environment? What do you look

for in people?  What must they be able to do?

DK: They have to have a natural curiosity. They can’t be easily frustrated because innovation is all about trial and error.  They have to be smart, there’s no question about that.  And they have to be enthusiastic because we’re outsiders and the client company looks to us to lead the team. You know clients tell me one of the reasons their top managers will follow a new idea is because we get them excited. That’s also a critically important part of it.  Those are the most important qualifications – and a willingness to learn.

LK: What conversely makes a good client and what makes a bad client?  What makes a

company succeed when working with someone like yourself and what might lead to


DK: Well, good clients ask tough questions and challenge us.  When they challenge us we say it’s a real drag but we don’t really mean it, because we want to be challenged.  Bad clients I think…I have to tell you in advertising I had “bad” clients. In innovation, I’ve never really experienced “bad” clients because I think there’s a different level of respect.

LK: Yes.

DK: I guess I would say that a bad innovation client is someone who is trying to get to the details too soon. But I’ve never really experienced that.

LK: Separate from your efforts, as an observer isn’t it true that something north of 60%

of all new products fail within six months of being launched?

DK: Oh absolutely, unfortunately I would say more than that.

LK: Why? Given there are lots of smart, focused people trying their damnedest, are

the results so persistently bad? What’s wrong?

DK: Well, there are a lot of answers to that. But a client of mine that I had a really great relationship with gave me the best answer I’ve ever heard one day.  We were looking at this thing that they’d bought to market, an abject failure that made no sense whatsoever, and I simply said, “Why?”  And he said to me, “You know, Debra here’s what happens. You sell an idea to management and management loves it. Then along the way you see the idea isn’t quite working according to plan, so you do some little fixes but you can’t tell them because you’ve already sold it all the way up the ladder. But the fixes don’t really address the underlying issue; they’re just little surface fixes, and that’s what you go to market with.”  And he said, “that’s why these things get to market.”  And I think that’s a really good answer.

LK: That’s a very insightful answer. And of course it’s easy for me to say, sitting here,

but what you just described smacks a bit like cowardice. A lack of confidence in each

other and a break down in the corporate culture; and therein lies wasted time, wasted

energy and a great deal of money.

DK: Yes…You know, early in my career, when I was very young, I was working at an ad agency, and I’m the only person that I’ve ever met who told the client to put $100 million back in their pocket and not spend it on a product. I almost got fired over it, but I didn’t.  But once you’ve driven your top management to start spending on something how do you suddenly say, sorry, we need to pull up now, we’ve wasted this money…It’s hard.

LK: It is hard. You began your career in the ad agency world how long have you been

practicing innovation?

DK: It’s interesting. I think I’ve always been in innovation because in the agency world we did a lot of new product work and that was always the juice I loved the most. When I had my own agency in Spain we did a lot of innovation there and created a lot of new global products.  So I’ve been doing innovation work about for about twenty years.

LK: Some people say that what advertising was to marketing back in the 60’s and 70’s, with the Ogilvies and Doyle Danes, innovation is today. That advertising has lost its impact and the smartest, most creative people have migrated into innovation. Do you buy that; does it make sense?

DK: Well, I hate to say it, but when you put it that way, I hate to say it, but yes. I mean advertising has lost its edge there’s no question about it. I don’t know where the people have gone specifically but it’s definitely lost its edge and it’s its own fault unfortunately…

LK: Is there a single project you’re most proud of?

DK: Yes. I’m most proud of the role I played in developing one of the largest selling shampoos in the world – but as an innovation expert clients ask you to keep these things confidential so don’t ask me which!

LK: Naturally. You’ll have to tell me later. Is there a client or a project, a social issue that you’d love to address?

DK: Part of my focus with all new products is to get clients to be more socially oriented. It’s smart and it’s good for all of us. For example if you’re going to develop a new cat food in a can, just by reducing the lid on the can, just by reducing the lip of the lid, you can reduce energy emissions, you can reduce metal use, and you can save yourself a lot of money.

LK: Right.

DK: Those are the kinds of things that I want clients to start thinking about and be interested in.  What I don’t like is when clients try to latch on to a social issue that they don’t really feel in their hearts; that they’re just doing from a marketing standpoint. I think we all need to start thinking more about global issues in our businesses but it has to be real.

LK: Absolutely. Debra, looks like we’re running up against your deadline thank you very much for your time this morning.

DK: You’re welcome, Lou. I enjoyed it.

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How Companies Pursue GreatnessLou Killeffer is a Principal with Five Mile River Marketing. A versatile marketing strategist, Lou’s passion for communications and innovation has made him a trusted advisor to some of the world’s most enduring businesses and brands, from AT&T to UPS, where he helps enterprises embrace change, look ahead, and focus on sustaining success.

Lou Killeffer




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