What creative entrepreneurs can learn from Sir Terence Conran

The designer, retailer and restaurateur Sir Terence Conran embodies the spirit of the 'creative entrepreneur' like no other, and all agency leaders would do well to learn from him, Johnny Hornby says.

What creative entrepreneurs can learn from Sir Terence Conran

Our industry is at an inflection point. Successful clients are redefining their business models, customer relationships, marketing functions and, with them, their whole outlook on communications. Successful agencies are doing the same. Every aspect of what we do, from how we generate insight and define brands to the very nature of our output, including its creation, production, distribution and measurement, is in flux. Successful leaders will be "creative entrepreneurs", with the vision and energy to evolve their model as fast as the demands on their creativity are evolving.

Do those leaders have what it takes? I suspect we’d all like to think we meet the brief, but the reality is that most of us still have plenty to learn. Which begs another question: who from? Today’s wisdom suggests the only entrepreneurs worth listening to are counting their billions in Silicon Valley. Which may be true, but I’d like to put the case for a creative entrepreneur who’s older, wiser and closer to home.

I first approached Sir Terence Conran to ask him to speak at one of our Big Ideas Dinners. The thought behind these was simply to be inspired by the authors of truly big ideas; with the brassiest of necks, I suggested he’d "probably heard of them".  He hadn’t, of course, but he showed a generous interest – generous enough for him to accept our invitation and, since then, become a valued friend.

Unique record

When you consider Conran’s entrepreneurial legacy, it’s hard to think of anyone with a similarly prolific track record for big ideas. It’s 50 years since he opened his first Habitat store in London, and few would challenge the view that no designer since has had as profound an impact on how we live. Habitat became an international chain, fuelled by the Modernist aesthetic Conran first encountered at the Central School of Art and Design and later while working on the Festival of Britain. I’ve often heard him celebrate the William Morris adage "Have nothing in your house you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful", and he brought it to bear in Habitat’s blend of utility and style. In so doing, he began the democratisation of design, blazing a trail that predated Ikea in the UK by 25 years.

It’s easy to forget the deeper contribution Conran made to retailing in this country: acquiring the Heal’s furniture business and infusing it with a similarly contemporary ethos; pioneering multichannel retailing through the first incarnation of Next; running revered businesses such as BHS and Mothercare. And he is still designing for Marks & Spencer and JCPenney today.

Experiential retailing in particular owes much to his legacy. He found it impossible to simply design a beautiful bowl; he had to know how and where it would be presented in the store. He conceived his stores as galleries, places people would want to spend time, admiring as much as buying. This approach would reach its apotheosis in The Conran Shop, inspiring the campaign we did for his New York launch in 2008.

Successful leaders will have the vision and energy to evolve their model as fast as the demands on their creativity are evolving

With his restaurants, Conran extended his democratising zeal from good design to good eating. Glamorous restaurants already existed, but were stuffy and filled with the rich and famous. He saw the opportunity for a more egalitarian experience and built a restaurant empire that matched fine dining and sexy settings to accessibility and value for money. Again, the impact was profound. Quaglino’s et al didn’t just breathe life into the restaurant scene, they helped reposition London as the world’s most vibrant and cosmopolitan city.

It’s not difficult to draw parallels between Conran’s eclectic skillset and the talents our business demands. He’s a creative – a maker – first and foremost, still drawing furniture in his Berkshire study and taking deep pleasure in the journey from drawing board to manufacture.

A planner too, fascinated by other people’s behaviour and how those patterns are likely to evolve. Ask him for his foremost design tenet and he’ll always say "functionality" – but it’s his thoughtful appreciation of how people live, how they could live, that sees him consistently define and redefine what functionality means.

And then there’s Conran as account man. Not of the glad-handing, hail-fellow-well-met variety – he can be as cantankerous as he is charming – but as orchestrator, motivating a team around an idea and applying relentless drive and attention to detail to its execution.

Relentless force

Imagination, insight and impetus combined in the definitive creative entrepreneur. He tells wonderful stories of his entrepreneurship: the pasta jars that kept Habitat afloat in the early years (Britain was just discovering a world beyond spaghetti); the introduction of the futon to Western Europe; the regeneration of Shad Thames; winning at the Chelsea Flower Show; the invention of button-fly jeans (there’s a little debate around that one, but he claims it and who are we to argue?). Even recently (aged 80), he wanted to buy the Rathbone Place Post Office and turn it into a farmers’ market with restaurants, flats and retail space.

I'm inspired by Conran's ideas but also his restlessness: his refusal to sit back and say 'There, I've done it'

I’m inspired by Conran’s ideas, but also his restlessness: his refusal to sit back and say "There, I’ve done it", and his refusal to recognise creative boundaries as he moves forward.

His interest always extends to the whole experience. At our first meeting, I told him we looked after the Tango brand. He said he liked the ads, but didn’t think much of the can.  "Oh, we don’t do that," I said.

"But you said you looked after the brand," he replied. "The can is the brand!" This "everything counts" philosophy was evident at his 80th birthday party, where every aspect – the furniture, the food, the fireworks, even the candles – was a tribute to his exhaustive perfectionism.

When Conran has an idea, he goes after it, in whatever direction it takes him. He won’t claim to do it all himself, finding like-minded individuals for these single-minded goals (think Simon Hopkinson for cookbooks or Stephen Bayley for the Design Museum), but he won’t be cowed by convention or category either.

And that’s our brief, I think. We need his vision. Our generation of creative entrepreneurs must have a clear-eyed sense of the agency that tomorrow’s clients will need. But we will need his restlessness too, recognising that this model will have to be tirelessly reinvented as fresh directions for our creativity emerge.

Johnny Hornby is a founding partner of The & Partnership