Innovation Marathon

Cass Business School holds an annual weekend "innovathon" where student teams address corporate challenges. 
Innovation Marathon

HOW CAN BUSINESS schools give their students opportunities to apply classroom learning to real-life problems? At the Cass Business School of City, University of London, we launched the Cass Marketing Innovathon, an annual extracurricular event where students address a corporate challenge over one marathon weekend. We held our first Innovathon in 2016, and at press time we were organizing our fourth. From the beginning, the Innovathon has had three corporate partners: consumer products company Colgate-Palmolive; British grocery and retail chain Tesco; and data science company Dunnhumby. For the February 2018 Innovathon, these sponsors challenged students to develop a campaign to improve the oral health of children in the U.K.

The 65 participants in the 2018 event signed up individually and were divided into eight teams. They came from not only our MSc in marketing, strategy, and innovation program, but also our programs in management, finance, and entrepreneurship. Each team included both graduate and undergraduate students from a range of disciplines.

A week before the Innovathon, we emailed the students a brief of the task at hand and a detailed schedule. The event itself took place during five hours on a Friday afternoon and all day the following Saturday. It kicked off with representatives of Colgate-Palmolive, Tesco, and Dunnhumby giving presentations about their companies and brands, past campaigns, and issues revolving around child oral health care.

Next, students gathered in their teams to brainstorm ideas for marketing campaigns that would increase awareness among U.K. citizens of the benefits of improving children’s oral health. With the help of flip charts, Post-it notes, highlighters, and a seemingly constant flow of chocolate and coffee, they experimented with various brainstorming approaches.

During this process, students were supported by 30 mentors—industry professionals from all three companies who could answer technical questions, moderate team discussions, and make sure all team members contributed equally. Two “core mentors” were assigned to each team, while “floating mentors” moved between teams. Two faculty members from the Cass Business School also served as floating mentors. Additionally, Cass faculty liaised with industry partners and took care of all student-related administrative aspects of the Innovathon.

By the end of the first day, the teams had created preliminary drafts of their ideas, and they continued developing their campaigns the following morning. After lunch on Saturday, team members delivered short milestone pitches to a small group of company representatives to make sure they were on the right track.

After many presentation drafts, students outlined their final campaign ideas in ten-minute pitches to a judging panel, and then participated in short Q&As. Many students were especially creative in their presentations. Some dressed up as tooth fairies; others performed songs, earning the enthusiastic applause of their mentors.

The judging panel consisted of one member from each corporate sponsor and a representative from Cass Business School. Judges evaluated each presentation on criteria such as the clarity, creativity, and feasibility of the campaign. After the winning team was selected and presented to the crowd, the Innovathon closed with a small after-party, where attendees had a final opportunity to network and exchange ideas.

In the days that followed, members of the winning team were invited to visit Colgate-Palmolive’s headquarters and pitch their idea to brand executives, who will consider rolling the idea out in a real campaign. The team and its mentors also won a sightseeing tour of London.

Our 2019 Innovathon will take place later this year. Depending on the challenge that our sponsors devise for future events, the format might change in the coming years, but its interactive and innovative character will stay the same. We believe that events like this help blur the boundaries between organizations and universities—and provide dynamic learning experiences for all parties.

Sabrina Gottschalk is a lecturer in marketing at the Faculty of Management at Cass Business School, part of City, University of London.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's May/June 2019 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].

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