At LBB, we love to learn what makes business leaders tick. Where does inspiration come from? What have been the defining moments of their careers so far? How do you know an idea is a good idea? Daniel Robey is a pioneer in digital innovation. 17 years ago, he launched Think Jam - the entertainment agency he proactively built when he saw digital marketing gaining speed. It’s a common thread for Daniel’s career, creating the solution to the problem that’s just about to hit. First with Think Jam, and now: ReMake, a slick MarTech solution that’s revolutionising content versioning and giving brands and agencies a solution for speed, volume, and cost-efficiency that they have been crying out for, for years. He also managed to fit in a three-year stint at Harvard Business School studying on its president management program - this is a leader who knows how to lead.
LBB sat down with Daniel to find out how he went from leading an entertainment agency to developing a SaaS solution and how sometimes the best ideas are the ones under your nose all along.
LBB> You’re an incredibly busy man, what’s your advice for running two companies at once?
Daniel>I’m lucky I have excellent teams in both businesses that do an enormous amount of the heavy lifting. Of course, it’s challenging, but evolving and adapting is a challenge I’ve always loved.
Both of my businesses are at very different stages and I think it’s about understanding how to split my time effectively. As a new business, ReMake needs lots of love and attention. It's also a very agile business, where lots of fast decisions have to be made. Think Jam, on the other hand, is very well-established and fortunately, has been doing incredibly well of late. But of course with success also comes a greater workload too. One of the few benefits of the global pandemic has been a substantial amount of time saved on travel to meetings. The move towards remote working has meant I can get to more meetings in one day than I ever used to and perhaps that has been good timing. For the 10 years before the pandemic hit I was travelling to LA for one week out of every four. That seems mad now.
LBB> How would you describe your creative process?
Daniel>Creativity in my opinion comes from inspiration; who you’re surrounded by, what you’re reading.
For me, there are two core things: Understanding your industry and business so well you have an idea and can create a solution that fills a need, or we see something in other industries that inspires ours. And we try and do it better, or do it smarter. I’ve never been an old-fashioned inventor trying to create hundreds of new inventions to see if one pops. I’ve always been about quality and quantity while taking risks. For all my successes, there have been failures too, and that’s where you apply the learning. We’ve got some where we’ve raised money, and it hasn’t worked, or some that have got so far but maybe the timing wasn't right, and so on. I think that’s where creativity and inspiration come from.
LBB> What was the catalyst for ReMake? You’ve said before that you’ve seen a need for it for years.
Daniel>About 12 years ago, we solved the problem for 20th Century Fox. It was for its international media localising and versioning, to centralise that work. So before ReMake came along, at Think Jam we were one of several agencies internationally developing and versioning ads for Fox. It was an ecosystem where lots of different agencies were charging clients the same amount to do the same work. Imagine a lot of duplication and an enormous amount of inefficiency - that’s what we were facing. And there was no real guardian of the brand because everyone was doing their own thing, which meant that a lot of ads were being bastardised and adapted and edited, without real consideration for what the original intention was.
I went off and wrote a business plan to solve this for Fox. I actually took a week off work, moved into my in-laws house - they were away - and wrote a plan for what it could look like. It was a huge piece of business - it had to be, to solve this problem. And it wasn't until a year later that Fox called me to say ‘go for it.’
I tell that story because it's not dissimilar to ReMake today: inventing something to solve a problem. It's the same problem we solved back then. From Fox, we rolled that out to a number of other global films studios. And now, history is repeating itself in a good way. We're better now at using the tech around us, and that’s paved the way for ReMake’s entrance.
LBB> Let’s go back. You founded Think Jam 17 years ago - was it a similar experience starting ReMake now? Would you do this again?
Daniel>It feels like a new job. It's so new, it's like learning a new language. So in a good way, it’s a fucking nightmare. They’re very different businesses with very different philosophies and different economics.
Think Jam is a transactional business, a relationship business where we’re only ever as good as the relationships we have and the last work we produced.
Tech is a whole different ballgame. It’s a product. It has to work. The needs we’re trying to solve are different. The proposition of what we’re selling is different, as is our marketing, the numbers, the ROI - it’s a change from a service business. It’s felt like a steep learning curve in the last 18 months, both ridiculously enjoyable and hugely rewarding. Especially when it came to meeting other sectors, brands, and understanding the competitive space, and inventing different economic models for business. I guess that’s the entrepreneur in me; trying to be creative, inventive, experimental - while taking risks.
It’s a challenge for sure, but I’d absolutely do it again - that's a given. It’s an absolute self mandate. The reality is: tech doesn't stop, innovation doesn't stop, so evolution can’t stop. And actually, it's more about evolution than revolution. ReMake might be revolutionary for the industry but really it's an evolution of what's already happening. So absolutely there will be more needs, more solutions, more experiments, and hopefully more success.
LBB> What are the challenges of starting something new?
Daniel>There’s so much crap and clutter out there, so many buzzwords - it’s bullshit bingo. I don’t believe in it; I believe in simple facts. But cutting through the clutter is hard. Marketing executives are busy, business procurement is tough, companies are running at full steam already. So to make sure we can show them a very simple proposition with simple and meaningful benefits, and ensure the process is as simple as possible: that’s the big challenge.
Another is convincing executives to take a little risk in an already busy day. It's about getting them over that hurdle because we know that the longer they don't take the risk, and the longer they don't make a decision, the more money they're spending. They're not saving time, and change will come whether companies want it or not, at least taking the leap early allows them to pick their moment
My gut said, crucially at the beginning of the pandemic, to think calmly, to think rationally. But you can't think for too long. If you think for too long, you'll always find a reason not to do something.
I think many people fail when they see the obstacle as the tough thing and not the opportunity.
LBB> Finally, how would you describe your leadership style?
Daniel>I will always try and be pragmatic. I try and stay calm. I love change, I love innovation, I love experimenting. I love learning new things. I love being surrounded by brilliantly smart people that inspire and energise; my leadership style manifests from that.
I'm really curious, and being that way connects me to innovation and where ideas come from. I think the world's an exciting place! You’ve got to make the most of it.