Horse’s Mouth: James Hurman

After a couple of years as managing director at Y&R NZ, James Hurman has taken the best bits from his life in advertising and started up an innovation consultancy called Previously Unavailable that aims to help Kiwi companies create better products and services. So why did he do it and what will he be doing? 

On the changing world: “What digital has really meant is that we now judge things based on the conversations we hear about them. If you want to find out whether you should buy a product or engage with a product you search for them and see what other people have said and that gives you a true read of the quality of that experience. Ten years ago, the game was you made something that conformed with the category you were in and you used an emotional positioning to say to people ‘buy this thing from us because you identify with our brand, we’re like you, and we have this interesting positioning that you aspire towards’. But the world’s really changed. So while advertising has a really big role to play for building awareness for products and brands and ensuring they’re front of mind, convincing people to buy things is much more about developing something that has an innate quality to it, or something that stands out by itself, even without the wrapping of advertising. As someone who’s always been interested in how you apply creativity to business I think the future is applying creativity to the product and the customer experience, helping companies create better things and then going out and advertising.” 

On breaking free: “I’ve always been attracted to the more innovative end of the industry, whether it’s comms campaigns or more in the product innovation space. It’s definitely where I get most gratification personally … In agencies, the creative thinking and strategic thinking is very good and often very innovative, but rightly or wrongly, clients usually go to agencies with a communications problem and so that’s where the process leads it and that’s what you spend 9/10ths of your day doing. There’s a quote from [management consultant]Peter Drucker that says if you want something new you have to stop doing something old. In terms of my vision for Previously Unavailable, this is what I’m really passionate about and what I believe in so I need to do that 100 percent of the time to legitimately develop an expertise in.”

On the process: “I was talking to someone else who was starting their own thing recently and it’s almost like a rite of passage to go through this weird patch where you don’t know what’s going to happen or how exactly you’re going to put bread on the table. But my business will be focused on helping medium to large corporates create better products and customer experiences. The way that I’ll do that is bring to them a plug and play innovation process [called Black Box], which is about innovation, strategy, ideation, execution and commercialisation.”

On Y&R: “I always wanted to end up doing my own thing but never really had the confidence to do that. Y&R going as well as it did [it grew 25 percent in the past year and added a heap of new talent under his watch] gave me that confidence. It wasn’t harder than I thought. I thought it would be hard. When Josh and I took over the leadership it was in really, really bad shape and we got it moving as quickly as we could and now it’s in very, very good health, to the point where the Australian Y&R business brought all the leaders of the agencies to Auckland at the end of last year to see what we’d done and how we turned it around so quickly and what they could take back to Australia. That’s what gave me the confidence to say I can run a business, I can attract clients, attract good people, make money and do good work. But I thought if I’m going to do something new, let’s do something really new rather than a new ad agency. We’re really well serviced in Auckland for ad agencies. So I don’t think there’s a great need for a new one, but I do see a strong need for really good innovation thinking. Advertising set me up to do this. I’m taking the bits I love most from my ad career and reinterpreting them in a new way.”

On competition: “In overseas markets there are categories of innovation consultants. In New York, London and some parts of Asia, much like the ad industry, you have an industry full of companies that are specifically about innovation. In our market you’ve got design companies that have applicable skills that sometimes do innovation, management consultancies where it’s not their core skill but they will advise on it, and ad agencies that occasionally do innovation projects for clients. But in terms of a specific innovation consultancy offering we don’t really have that and we’re at the point where there is a need for it. There were probably enough medium to large organisations in those very big markets ten years ago who said they realised innovation was their future, that they didn’t have fantastic internal innovation processes and that they could use some help from outside and I think that’s really starting to emerge in New Zealand.” 

On the future: “The soul of this nation is in innovation, in one way or another. And our future economically rests on our ability to innovate, for our own market as well as for the world stage. And the most exciting thing about our future from a business point of view is seeing these companies in New Zealand really cutting it on the world stage, not just doing an okay job or marketing well, but creating amazing products and experiences, whether it’s Xero and Vend in the tech sector or Al Brown and his restaurants … There are companies that are really good innovators because they value innovation and they’ll value an external perspective as much as an internal one, and there are companies that are yet to discover a need for innovation.”

On Stolen: “There are few things more rewarding than creating something that was previously unavailable. And watching Stolen Rum [which Hurman owns a small part of and plays a strategic role in] go from strength to strength has been incredible. Bringing new things into the world is something that I just love.”

On innovation for innovation’s sake: “High quality innovation isn’t doing something just because you can. It’s uncovering an original insight into what consumers really want and need and seeing where there’s a problem or opportunity before anyone else does and leading the way. It really is about leadership.”

On what distinguishes good innovators: “ What I’ve spent the last few weeks doing is a really exhaustive analysis of the best practice learnings from around the world in innovation from the likes of Harvard Business School, McKinsey and PwC … Innovation as a separate department [as seen in Telecom and Air New Zealand]can be a legitimate thing. But the important point is whether there’s a strong, clear innovation strategy that’s linked to the core business strategy. If it’s peripheral, the abandonment rate is often quite high. So even if it’s not the core in terms of the people who are doing it, it’s important to have it core to the overall business strategy. There are elements of culture and risk taking and bravery and creating an environment where you celebrate your successes and failures and learn from them. That healthy relationship with risk is a really big factor. And another big factor is process. The observation globally has been that too many companies have quite an ad hoc approach to innovation, there’s not a strategic discipline there. There might be executives within the company who are incredibly adept at executing clearly defined strategies but when it comes to out of the box thinking they are out of their comfort zones, so it’s about providing them with support, just as ad agencies provide marketers with support with some of the more creative things they’re doing. If you get companies to make their own advertising, it probably won’t turn out as engaging or well-executed as having a professional agency helping with that, so it’s that same kind of thing for innovation.”

On Telecom: “I feel really energised about the potential of that company. It’s easy to hold a subjective view of whether Spark is a good name or not, but the important thing is if they think it’s a name they can breathe meaning into and going to take them into the future. I think it’s a really brave choice to say we need to reinvent ourselves. You look at that, you look at Digital Ventures, the Spotify partnership, the TV play and you get a sense that here’s a company that’s doing a lot. It’s taking some punts, it’s really trying to take itself in a positive direction.”

On agency myopia: “I’m one of those people who is relentlessly curious about the big picture of any business I work with. That’s a planning thing, but there are plenty of others inside agencies who are drawn to that view too. I don’t think the ad industry makes you myopic. I will bring agency planners and creative people in as part of the process and I’ll be a real advocate for using the quality of strategic and creative thinking in ad agencies. When you join everything up like that and work in a collaborative way, if you’ve got a really brilliant, relevant and engaging product or customer experience and you partner that with a great campaign, that’s the best thing you can have. Good advertising makes a bad product fail faster and that’s definitely true. I had a client last year who we’d pitched some very good work for and their Australian business looked at the work and really liked it and they called us and said ‘we love this thinking but we’ve come and looked at our business and people are going to come to our company, they’re going to experience our product and they’re never going to come back again because we don’t have the business right’.” 

On partners: “In a collaboration sense there are a lot of creatively-minded business people in Auckland who wouldn’t necessarily work for a corporate or work for my business, but they’re very useful people to pull into a process along the way. People like Roger Holmes from Stolen Rum, who has really led the product development and understands manufacturing excellence and offshore markets is fantastic and bringing him in is really powerful. And as creative minds, restrauteurs like Al Brown, Michael van de Elzen or Mimi Gilmour are absolutely brilliant thinkers and the sorts of customer experiences they create are incredible and getting them involved in the process is something I’m pretty hot on.” 

On owning ideas: “With all entrepreneurialism, you might get something to market, but for it to really take off and make it valuable to someone in another market is another step. I’ve given this a lot of thought and while I’m intrigued about and open to the potential of developing a product with a client and retaining some equity and having some skin in the game, I also think that primarily clients want you to help make them more successful. I see Previously Unavailable as being in the service of clients, rather than going out and creating a new way of making money and new products. In saying that, the secondary business is helping younger, smaller start-ups to brand themselves and innovate better. So there’s some upside at the other end and it’s lovely to see those things grow and feel like you’ve played a part.”

On consumers always winning: “Innovation works best when it is truly in the service of the customer. They may not necessarily make the world a better place, but they are useful and enjoyable. You look at what Richard Branson did with Virgin Airlines and his fight with British Airways to get space at Heathrow. He was doing something that was genuinely going to be better for travellers and BA hated it and did everything they could to stop that from happening. The tide always flows in that direction. With something like Uber [which is currently fighting against the powerful incumbents in Australia and elsewhere], you’ve got the traditional structure of that industry going ‘this is no good’. But the beautiful thing about the age we’re in is that the good businesses, the quality businesses, the businesses that approach things either with a social conscience or just doing something that’s genuinely useful for people, they are the businesses that are floating to the top. Ten years ago they were the weirdos around the edges. Going back to someone like Al Brown, we all hold him up as being someone who’s doing something that isn’t niche and premium but that’s genuinely amazing and inclusive of everybody. Anyone can walk into Depot and either sit at the counter and have a cheap meal or have Bollinger and oysters. Or Peter Cooper from Cooper and Company [which is behind the development of Britomart]. You speak to anyone in this city about who they admire and his name will come up every single time. These are not the icons of the old way of doing things, they are very much these people saying ‘how do we innovate, how do we create things of real value, and keep the quality high, but in a way where everyone can participate in it’. And when you add that up, you go ‘fuck, the world’s heading in a great direction. That’s absolutely the right way’.”

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