It could win an award for most promising use of a degree. No sooner had Andrew Walmsley finished his MBA research in 1999 on agencies in the digital age, then this digital pioneer co-founded i-level, a business based on its principles. Earlier experience as a TV buyer at BMP and as the head of digital media at Bartle Bogle Hegarty fed into the success of an online media agency that has been agency of the year eight times in eight years. "The trick," Walmsley says, "is looking outside our industry for answers." As he explains here, mixing apparently unrelated ideas works too.
- Tell us about your inspiration.
I try everything, join everything, do it all (under a pseudonym). Digital is changing our lives at such a pace that there's no substitute for total immersion - it's the only way to build a world view that can help our clients address the challenges and opportunities it presents.
I also listen to Radio 4 a lot. Although Sailing By and The Archers drive me mad, the ability of this remarkable institution to surprise me and put stuff in front of me I'd perhaps never choose to listen to, is of more value than ever in a world where increasingly we select only the things we already know we're interested in.
- How do you make your working environment work for you?
Mess. I don't know how it works, and it tends to drive people mad, but that's the way it is. I used to think that being really tidy would help me to be more effective - but I've come to realise that sometimes I have to let this stuff alone. Ideas have a strange habit of coalescing out of the cloud; it doesn't seem to work when you force it.
- How do you turn a good idea into a great one?
Usually, it's the synthesis of two or more things from apparently unrelated fields. Even if the saying's true that there's nothing new, there are always new ways of mixing, combining and inverting existing ones. Then there's hard work. Testing it, challenging it, getting others' views.
- How do you unstick an idea when it's stuck?
It's just as important to know when to junk them. Lots of people in my position talk about having too many ideas - often time can be wasted on getting stuck (ideas have a habit of coming back to life after they've been parked for a while).
- Give us a real example of how you came up with a good idea.
While studying operations management, I learned about the discipline and how companies such as Toyota apply it to improve quality, efficiency and output, and marvelled at how nobody had applied it to media. Media agencies hand-crank pretty much everything, sending out plans in Excel that are vulnerable to error and fail to capture the knowledge that's created in the organisation. It's an £18 billion cottage industry.
I brought workflow and knowledge management across from manufacturing and applied it to media, using software we wrote that now sits at the core of the agency's business and is being licensed by other agencies.
The idea came from looking outside our industry for answers, to a question that hadn't occurred to our competitors.
- Great ideas are often so risky that frequently they are hacked to pieces. What's your advice for nurturing a gem and selling it to a client?
Never sell. Never. If you sell, it's because you lack confidence in the idea or your ability to communicate it. It challenges people, and often their response will be to push back. If they like the idea, they want some ownership, and that's what makes people add bits here there and everywhere. So the objective should be for everyone to arrive at the solution together, even if it's really yours - you get less fame, but the outcome is one you believe in.
- What are your creative trade secrets?
If they were secrets, I wouldn't tell you.
- Tell us about a turning point in your career.
In 1994, sitting in an Irish bar in Manhattan with six philosophers - all teaching and studying at Colombia University. All from different countries, and all with a passion for cricket. Turns out they all used Cricinfo on the web to keep up with their obsession. I'd been using the web for a while then, and this was the point I realised how big an idea it was - how it connects people and that this would change media forever. The real power of the internet is the connection it enables between consumers and the ability it gives them to collaborate.
- Name the most inspiring person in your working life.
Too many to mention.
- You have 24 hours away from professional responsibilities and a brief to re-energise yourself. What will you do?
Play with my kids. Go to the pub.
- What motivates you?
Learning. Everything else flows from it - success, fulfilment, happiness, money. Learning's the most important thing, and whenever I've got it wrong in the past, it's because I've prioritised other things that have given me short-term benefits but not positioned me effectively for the future.
- What ideas should we be taking more seriously?
The impact of communication and collaboration between (and with) consumers. We have to recognise that ethics, transparency and quality are features of our business that consumers will expect as hygiene factors. Our failures will be public and painful, and our successes accepted without acknowledgement - it's up to us to respond and create a new way of working with our customers.
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The Ideas People is drawn from major research conducted by The Economist in 2007. It's built on essential truths about the world we live in and The Economist's readership. One is that ideas, not products, are the currency of the modern economy. Another is that Ideas People are the stars of the 21st century. They produce and implement new thinking, they influence others, they have stamina. They are turned on by new ideas and opportunities. Are you an Ideas Person? Go to the quiz at www.theideaspeople.economist.com and find out for yourself.
Andrew Walmsley is a ... Pioneer Catalyst Builder.