Innovation Teams: 3 Companies Leading the Way

By Nancy Lane, Local Media Association 

“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” This is the phrase that Rick Thornton, Chief Transformation Officer, BH Media Group, and his team have adopted. Although many of us were exposed to this sentence during a visit to Facebook (it’s one of their many signs that communicate their core values), Rick first saw it at his church many years ago and it has resonated with him ever since.

Thornton took on the role of Chief Transformation Officer in January of this year. He is charged with building a small team at BH Media’s Omaha headquarters that will help their local properties (31 daily newspapers in 10 states) with their innovation and transformation strategies.

The transformation team is currently being assembled. When complete, it will include a project manager, designer UX specialist, data analyst, product role/manager and consumer revenue specialist. “We publish an inter-company blog to keep everyone informed and engaged,” says Thornton, “Transparency is very important.”

At the heart of their strategy is putting the customer first and creating an outstanding user experience. Top areas of focus include: building a data warehouse, consumer UX and virtual assistant.

User First
Putting the user first is also at the heart of another media company’s transformation efforts: Gannett.

During our Innovation Mission visit in May, many of their team members talked about user experience and the need for immediate improvement. Gannett is experimenting with a giant feed that will feature native ads that users will find more useful. “Native rescued us from the right rail and banner ads,” said Jason Jedlinski, VP Product Management.

VP of Advertising Innovations, Jeff Burkett, shared the results of their research that analyzed 23,000 digital ad orders to learn more about ad effectiveness. “Static ads outperformed animated by as much as 4X,” said Burkett. These same ineffective ads slow down load times and annoy readers.

Kevin Poortinga, VP of Gannett’s Innovation Lab, shared some of the great work that is in progress. The Lab is heavily focused on intrapreneurism. They host internal innovation challenges and put finalists through bootcamps at an accelerator that is focused on design thinking and lean startup principles. The finalists get in front of the G.E.T. tank (Gannett’s version of Shark Tank).

Design Matters
Design thinking is at the heart of McClatchy’s innovation strategy as well. Jeremy Gockel, Head of Innovation, spearheads the coordination and delivery of Design Thinking boot camps and their Ignite accelerator program. These internal programs provide employees at all levels of the organization a meaningful hands-on experience with the design thinking process and related methodologies.

He also advises fledgling entrepreneurial teams as part of McClatchy’s external investment in Matter VC, a twenty week bi-costal accelerator designed to the shape the future of media by building a more informed, connected, and empowered society.

“I concentrate on culture change, team development and intrapreneurship,” said Gockle, “We publish an internal blog and podcast to keep everyone in the company up to date on our efforts.”

These three companies are committed to transformation. Setting up an innovation team (whether it’s a lab or transformation team, etc.) certainly sends the right message to everyone in the company.

Common Themes
After talking to executives from all three companies, some common themes evolved:

  • Internal communication about the work of the innovation team is extremely important; use blogs, podcasts and face-to-face meetings to accomplish this goal
  • User-first mentality is needed to drive true transformation
  • Intrapreneurship is key to success; hire people with the attributes of an entrepreneur
  • Design thinking is the real deal. Invest in this concept. Check out Matter for more information:

Setting Up Innovation Teams
Are you interested in a setting up an Innovation division at your company? Or expanding what you already have in place? If so, please join us in Chicago on August 16 during Media Transformation for a 90-minute workshop on how to set up innovation teams at your company.

Our faculty will be Rick Thorton, BH Media and Jeremy Gockle, McClatchy. We’ll take a deep dive into how to set up an innovation arm at your company, no matter how large or small. This will be a very interactive and hands-on learning experience. For more information visit:

If you have an innovation team or lab set up at your company, we’d love to hear about it! Reach me at