Key takeaways

  • Hackathons – group collaborations to solve problems or conceive new ideas within tight timeframes – have moved well beyond their technology industry roots.
  • In July, the Australian Marketing Institute held its first hackathon in Melbourne, aimed at empowering professional marketers with new ways to innovate.
  • Reflecting on this event, Ellie Gurgiel argues that the right tools and mindsets can enable design-led innovation to be unleashed in any industry or workplace.

Last month, the Australian Marketing Institute (AMI) held its inaugural hackathon in the hip inner-Melbourne suburb of Prahran. Hosted at HardHat Digital with organisational assistance from PwC and Think Global, the single-day event aimed to provide professional marketers with a new set of digital skills and innovation methods.

Marketing might seem like an unusual profession for a hackathon. A blend of the words ‘hacking’ and ‘marathon’, hackathons are synonymous with the technology industry: coders and product designers coming together to brainstorm, develop and pitch technology products over a frantic timeframe high in energy but low in sleep.

With the ongoing integration of digital tools throughout most businesses and professions, hackathons are no longer the sole domain of the tech giants.

Examples of other companies holding hackathons include airline British Airways, environmental organisation Friends of the Earth, toymaker Hasbro and stock photo company Shutterstock. Last year, PwC’s Experience Centre held its own hackathon.

A marketing
match

Hackathons are potentially very effective for marketers, as they can help unlock potential through the teaching of new tools, behaviours and mindsets.

Marketing departments often straddle all other departments within an organisation, giving them great scope into how their business and industry operates. But while marketers might be able to conjure up great ideas from their access to business strategy, consumer insights and project pipelines, they don’t necessarily have the most effective tools to put these ideas into action.

An additional obstacle to marketing innovation are the common day-to-day responsibilities, such as conceiving and executing campaigns, organising events and tending to budgets – many of which are based around the ideas of others in the organisation.

Enter the hackathon. By providing a structured approach to idea creation and execution, the AMI Hackathon sought to open up the marketing industry for its professionals, empowering them to drive change and innovate within their team.

Lee Tonitto, CEO of the Australian Marketing Institute, said the inspiration for a hackathon “to provide cutting edge marketing theory and practice for marketers” came from meeting former Facebook director Randi Zuckerberg and listening to her passionate presentation at last year’s World Business Forum.

Holding
the hackathon

On hackathon day, participants were divided into teams then briefed on the problem. They had to conceive a digital solution to Australia’s forthcoming ‘AgeQuake’ – a projected reduction in workforce numbers brought about by population ageing.

Teams then underwent an accelerated process to innovate, which included tasks such as brainstorming, mapping ideas, and developing digital prototypes.

Structuring the challenge around Australia’s ageing population was a deliberate decision. Rather than present the teams with a purely marketing-focused problem, the abstract challenge of an ageing workforce in the future, and the conceiving of a digital solution to help solve it, allowed participants to think laterally and ambitiously, beyond the set grooves of marketing frameworks.

Accelerating
the sprint

The methodologies of the AMI Hackathon were a combination of design thinking – a form of product development that revolves around problem solving – and an accelerated version of Google Venture’s ‘Sprint’ method.

Normally structured as a five-day workshop, the Sprint method is a design process that circumvents the technically complicated build and test stages of developing a digital product. This shortcut allows teams to ‘sprint’ directly from the initial ideas and design phases to the learning and outcomes endpoint. Using this methodology, teams can quickly design and execute prototypes without having to write a single line of code, opening up the process to non-technical professions such as marketing.

Removing the barrier
to innovation

Like many hackathons, the energy on the day of this one was exceptional. Groups gelled quickly to become high-performing teams. The learning environment was also active and collaborative, with participants commenting that they were going to immediately adopt many of the new skills into their own roles.

Throughout the day, a sentiment echoed by many team members was that they struggled to have new ideas gain traction in their departments: the workplaces themselves were generally not well-geared for rapid innovation. For some, innovation was even stigmatised.

It was here where the hackathon’s new tools, techniques and, most importantly, ability to influence mindsets was especially effective. With a new perspective and new abilities, these artificial barriers to innovation could be dismantled, making way for an ‘anything is possible’ attitude, no matter the structure of the workplace.

The value
of failing fast

One of the most important lessons of the hackathon day was the value in failing fast. Participants learned that not every idea is going to necessarily knock it out of the park – and that’s OK. The trick is to quickly move forward with ideas, then pivot in a new direction as soon as it becomes apparent that an idea isn’t going to work.

Shortening the timeline in this way – failing fast – teaches teams the value of swift decision making. By deeming an idea nonviable much earlier in the design and prototyping process, new ideas can be focused on with minimal turnaround time. This avoids a common pitfall where multiple iterations on the same, ultimately unworkable idea drains both time and resources.

Can you
hack it?

The AMI Hackathon was about giving marketers additional resources to truly take advantage of their strategic positioning in their organisation.

By arming marketers with a new set of tools and a clear mindset on how to use them, teams of all backgrounds and experience levels can get stuck in and tackle a range of other challenges faced by their companies, unlocking their potential to add new dimensions of value.


Ellie Gurgiel is a Manager at PwC’s Experience Centre with a passion for CX and experience design. Ellie specialises in supporting clients to deliver impactful customer experiences through numerous functions, with a focus on digital as a core enabler.