How to Be an Ideas Factory: Loosen Your Grip on Your Creations

Last Updated Aug 12, 2010 7:32 PM EDT

Interview by Ian Sanders
Dave Stewart is best known as a Grammy-winning musician and producer -- he was Annie Lennox's bandmate in the Eurythmics and has collaborated with the likes of Bob Dylan and Bono. But when companies like British Telecom and the ad agency Interbrand started inviting him to speak, a hidden talent came to light: Stewart is a polymath who can connect the dots between disparate subjects, generating brave new ideas. The business world was hungry for his way of thinking, and soon he took on roles as U.S. creative director of the global ad shop the Law Firm and "change agent" for Nokia. His company Weapons of Mass Entertainment, an "ideas factory" based in Los Angeles, works with partners including HBO and Virgin Comics on projects in film, television, publishing, theater, and interactive gaming.

Last month Stewart and Mark Simmons, the author of Punk Marketing, published The Business Playground: Where Creativity and Commerce Collide, a guide to creativity and brainstorming that introduces the straight-laced world of business to an artist's approach to innovation. I spoke with him recently about how to present an idea, why it's better to relinquish control over your ideas, and how businesses can create better environments for innovation.

You've got your hand in a lot of projects. How do you deal with the challenge of implementing all your different ideas?

Years ago, when I would have ideas it used to do my head in, because I was trying to make them work by myself. I thought, "I've got to own it 100 percent, so I have to build everything about it." But as I got older I realized, "No, I'm an ideas person." I can take an idea through prototype. If it's a TV series, I can shoot a little bit, give it a great title, and write a draft. Now, I'm not going to try and make that series; I'm going to meet with a company that makes TV shows in that genre. And I'm just going to retain a small amount of ownership, because I want to do other things. Before, I'd get tangled up in the making of the thing. It took six months out of my life. Now we have partnerships.

The best thing, in the end, is to relinquish a lot of control. Because that allows you to be free thinking. I'd rather have 10 percent of something that took off than 100 percent of something that's still on the table. When you've got a whole ideas factory, then you've got 10 percent or 15 percent of 50 different things. They can all be happening at once, but we're not worrying about that because we're not the ones making them.

What do you do with an idea once you've hatched it? How do you find partners to work with?

I've created a TV series called "Malibu Country." When we first presented it to the producer, the presentation was a wooden box that looked like an apple box. When you opened it up, there was a "Malibu Country" shirt, music on a CD, the script treatment on a brown piece of paper. It looked like a country store. Because in my mind, it will be a store: It'll be "Malibu Country" store, and it'll be full of all the lifestyle feeling that the TV show is about. That's all laid out in the presentation. When you go to someone with this, they either like it or they don't, but they can see that you're going to do this. Somebody is going to produce it. So they go, "Oh shit, I better not make a mistake in my decision here. This might be a huge hit!" It's very different than just walking in and saying, "I've got an idea."

You say your ideas are born out of chaos. But a lot of people in business are scared by not being in control. When you're working with businesses like Nokia, how are you getting them to change their habits?

The creative process is chaotic. I'm not saying that when you're executing an idea as a business that it has to be chaotic, too, but there needs to be a playroom where you can throw paint about. That should exist in all businesses, really. Because if everybody's just sitting around analyzing everything -- "Oh, we're going to make this widget a bit smaller this year" -- someone else is going to slam them from the side, and they'll be wiped out. You see that happen all the time.

Nokia, and all the device companies, are now realizing, "We're at the distribution point of all this content and media, and that thing in your pocket is almost like a remote control to your world." They had tons of people on staff designing phones and all the stuff you need to make a great device company. But now it's like, "Well, we wouldn't mind creating content that drew people toward our devices. What is a real game-changing thing we could do with our devices?" I worked with Tim Kring on one that just hit Britain in June. [Conspiracy for Good, a massive multi-player entertainment property that blends gaming, story telling, and projects for social good.] It's a real interesting blindside to the whole way gaming, television, networking, everything works. I've just created something else, a prime-time Saturday-night television show, and I brought that to Nokia. It's another diverse way of creating content that's on your TV, but there's extra content on Ovi, which is Nokia's cloud-computing site.

Another thing I like from your book is the idea of having a 48-hour business plan, not a 5-year plan. Weapons of Mass Entertainment can't really have a strategic plan. So how do you lead a group of people through that kind of uncertainty?

I look at it a bit like sailing a ship. You always have somebody awake on deck with the binoculars, looking out. Businesses often don't do that; they're all down below, working away.

I want to be a new media company for a new age. What does that mean? Well, one thing I know is it relies on creating very interesting content and being able to deliver it in all sorts of ways for many platforms. Years ago, if you were making a musical, you'd make the musical, and then people queued up and bought tickets for it. It was marketed in the New York Times or on Broadway. Now it's like, "Well hang on, you've got to have an app, and inside that app are four free songs and insights into the world of the musical, and guess what? You just press that button, and you've bought your ticket." Fifty years ago, you never would have thought of all this stuff. Some kid would just be selling tickets out on the street.

Photo of Dave Stewart by John Attwell
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