Industry Leaders Talk Technology and Business Innovation — and When It’s Better to Be a Fast Follower

The “Breakthrough Tech – Media Trendsetters” panel at Variety’s Entertainment and Technology Summit brought together industry leaders Vibol Hou, EVP and chief technology officer of Paramount Streaming; Shalini Govil-Pai, VP at Google TV; Erin Oremland, GM of AgilLink at City National Bank; Soumya Sriraman, president of streaming at Qurate Retail Group; and Will Cady, global brand ambassador at Reddit to talk about innovation in media technology. The conversation was moderated by Variety digital editor Todd Spangler.

Oremland said City National Bank’s AgiLink embraces innovation in the ways it partners with clients, which includes family offices, business managers, sports professional firms and the like. “We make sure they can get the best ecosystem platform there to integrate their software with AgiLink,” she said.

In the case of Paramount Streaming, according to Hou, it’s also important to approach innovation through a lens that takes into account the needs of users. “We want to be customer forward. They did not want buffering; they did not want pauses after ads or before,” said Hou.

But for a company like Reddit, innovation sometimes comes at them in a different way. Rather than innovating to solve consumer problems, the company responds to consumer innovations, Cady said. Back in the spring when subreddits across the platform began experimenting with generative AI technology, it was one image of the Pope in a puffer jacket that took off across the internet. Cady explained that this was an example of a platform harnessing innovation, even if you don’t create it. “This is what’s missed when it comes to innovation,” he said. “After the hype cycle dies down these communities that are the most passionate about these technologies are still digging into this stuff.”

Govil-Pai, prior to her role at Google TV, led a team at YouTube, where user innovation was also key to growing the platform that — in its earliest days — was just starting to gain traction for its cat videos and epic fail compilations. “Having a very creative community coming in and saying, ‘This is how I’m going to embrace the platform’” helped move YouTube forward, she said. Govil-Pai and her team then realized they had to innovate internally in order to keep up. “How do we make sure the platform has the right technology base that supports them to get distributed and discovered?” she asked. This also means catering content to users who aren’t necessarily creators, giving them tailored videos based on prior streaming habits.

One key question raised during the discussion was the extent to which companies should communicate the innovations powering their products or services. What’s the balance between giving out too much information about what’s happening behind the screen, versus providing optimal transparency?

“I don’t think they should know what’s happening,” said Sriraman, whose team runs the digital platforms for QVC and HSN. “But it’s super important that they don’t feel disenfranchised in the process.”

At the same time, Govil-Pai said, “You don’t want such automatic experiences that creep you out. So that’s always the other side of the coin, people should know what’s going on in the background if they are curious.”

Oremland said tech companies have an “ethical obligation” to be transparent of the methods they use in the process of innovation, whether it’s tracking data with cookies for advertising or suggested content. “It’s incumbent on us to put that in a way that is consumable to everyone in a way they understand,” she said.

Variety‘s Spangler also posed the question to the panelists about when it’s better to be a fast follower versus being an early adopter.

Sriraman said that you need to have “the gumption and the pocketbook” to lead innovation. Without both, it might be a safer bet to follow the trends. For Reddit’s Cady, he waits to see if a community will form around something, considering it a “litmus test” for a promising trend.

“But,” Cady added, “when you have something great in your back pocket, you don’t have to follow anybody. You can actually plan when it’s time to make everybody follow you. I think that’s what we all really want.”

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