On behalf of the Knowledge Transfer Network, I’m currently doing research around cross-innovation, asking: how does collaboration between different sectors and disciplines drive innovation? And more specifically, how can Creative Industry practice provide innovation in non-CI arenas? I’ve been talking to a range of practitioners in the field, and over the next few weeks will be showing how artists, creative strategists and digital technologists are working in fields as disparate as health, transport, policing… and on and on.

This is the second of those interviews, with Dan Simmons discussing the fascinating Ovation approach to innovation. It was a pretty discursive chat and I’ve tried to preserve that spirit here. In part 1 Dan talks about the founding of his agency Propelia; in Pt 2 he discusses his work with “practical philosopher” Robert Rowland Smith and the creation of the Ovation. Here then, is part 1. Take it away, Dan.

The sui generis Marilyn Manson

It starts with Marilyn Manson, as every story should. While I was really still a kid I did loads of work experience at record labels and eventually blagged my way into a really good gig at MCA/Universal – and specifically Interscope. I got given the rock repertoire to market internationally as their artists were emerging in the States; like I say, a great gig for a 21/22 year old kid.

These days everyone talks about being a brand, but back then – ‘96/’97 – it wasn’t so common. Now on meeting Manson it was immediately apparent that this was a very smart guy who knew exactly what he was doing. I was there when the Columbine thing happened; the media and the authorities alike wanted to pin it on him. If he’d inflated it they would have really gone for him, but he handled himself superbly. Anyway I was there as his shows grew from small venues to stadiums and I saw his art grow and grow.

I also got to work a little bit with Tony Wilson, a guy who carried his history with him, of course. But whatever worked for him the first time round wasn’t going to work the second. It was quite sad because people really wanted it to work; this was Tony Wilson after all. Interscope paid a fortune for his label (the Factory reboot “Factory Too”) so they were invested, but it ultimately it wasn’t worth it.

So I began to mull over this idea that there are some groups that cannot do it again: look at McCartney. But for a while, these stars burn really brightly. This is when I hit upon the notion for a record label for ideas. What would happen if you took the alchemy of a record company and applied it to ideas? What kind of magic would emerge? But for while, this remained just an idea.

Moving on from the record industry… and into digital

This was also the time the web was starting to happen and is was obviously an interesting place. I spoke to a small number of people at Universal to put some budget towards as this was the future. I spent a year doing that but struggled to get traction so then moved on. I helped set up an early music search system (remember, this was before iTunes). But what really fascinated me was how you could open up new market spaces and how a small group of people could create really big things. Again: it might not last long, but if you get it right you can have a massive impact.

On Blue Ocean Strategy

I worked with just two others to set up an email service. Our whole thing was: “why aren’t emails branded?” So from here on out I had a career effectively running my own little marketing agency’ which then went on to help form the Email Marketing Association. And over and over I was dealing with the same issues: the right timing, the right market, the right brand, and the right IP. I really got into Blue Ocean Strategy. In fact I think that it’s formed 90% of my thinking. In a nutshell, most companies try to innovate within a red ocean: price, incremental innovation, positioning, and so on. The blue ocean is where you burst through all of that that and you change the parameters so much that your product exists in its own space. Take Cirque du Soleil. The circus is tried and tested with hundreds of years of tradition, right? Along comes CDS: it has its own space, its own audience, its own price point and it completely blew circus apart with changes in demographics, pricing, you name it. Again, that’s what Manson was trying to do, to move into a category of one.

I tried to bring that kind of thinking into areas as diverse as festivals, agriculture, leisure, brands and music. I lived in Australia for a time and I took a massage company into pubs and clubs with a pay-what-you-want model. The company went from the front room of a flat to being one of the biggest providers of massage in Australia! I like that environment, that kind of growth: it always fascinates me.

That “record company for ideas”

So I’d been doing this and running my little agencies; and I’d developed a social media platform, showing how to use social media to be a micro broadcaster. And then my sister -Rachel Botsman – was asked to write her first book for Harper Collins. As she was completing the drafts she realised she wanted to unpack it into a brand and launch strategy and asked me to become involved, which I did and got her to the first TED talk on what became the currently £9bn valued Sharing Economy.

Anyway, the first book came out and it went nuts. I saw my sister break like an artist, going from being sustainability consultant to a public speaking superstar in just a few months, and that’s when my mind went “hold on a second, this record label of ideas is happening with my sister!”

So at that point I wrote to TED and asked them how many talks they did and it turned out is was about 20,000 a year! That’s just one provider – think about all the other platforms for lectures and presentations – for ideas! And yet all these people with big ideas don’t have agencies. No-one is servicing them like a record labels or publisher would, or for that matter as a modelling agency would. Someone needs to identify the best in the market, help develop them conceptually and then commercialise them.

That’s why I founded Propelia. I was fortunate to be introduced to the founders of a big speaker bureau who gave Propelia its first investment and from there on out it happened really quickly as they also helped Propelia get its first clients.

What we needed to work out was how you take individuals at the top of their game – We’re not looking for the leader who shouts the loudest – and find a consistent journey for someone who is (necessarily) continually changing and growing. We’ve developed a process to look at this journey and help analyse it.

Looking for new kinds of (thought) leaders

What’s interesting to me is that the model – and the look and feel – that weirdly I thought would be at Universal (and wasn’t) is here, not least in the diversity of people with whom we work.

One of the pleasures of the work is consistently meeting fascinating people at the top of their field or sector. For instance, this week I was with an activist called Lisa Ma. It was only our first exploratory meeting with her but she is looking at activism in another way. We discussed everything from Occupy to the Charlie Hebdo protests and she has a view that chimes with me: that these movements contrast with a complete lack of leadership in modern political, academic or business life. We live in an age clearly of uncertainty and transition; leaders need to be highly flexible but this tendency is restricted by our class and the political systems.

We also need leadership in “digital” – things need to be lead and indeed be steered. I think it can all be morphed into a new type of leadership that can handle the ambiguity of modern life. This isn’t built on theory; I’ve spent my last 15 years immersed in it, I’ve invested in it, I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve learned from them. So to me I it’s fascinating to see the shrinking of one style of leadership on one hand and the emergence of a new one on the other.

We call these new kind of leaders pathfinders. A path finder is a thought leader who is able to ask for help. We’re working with leaders who see an opportunity to morph and see that this needs a whole team of people to bring this about. It goes back to Marilyn Manson for me: the creation of a punk ecosystem that’s compelling and interesting, dynamic and relevant and complex and not in any way patronising. So all of our clients, who as I say all come from divergent bases, and might appear random, nonetheless all reflect this ethos. We’ve never done any PR on it, but the interestingly they all talk to each other because they’re all woven from the same cloth, looking for people to take us over a transition.

In part 2, Dan discusses his collaboration with Robert Rowland Smith, the Ovation.