I have always loved sharing amazing things with other people.
Interview: Ben St George
“I believe that people become capable of transformative things when they’re inspired” James Hurman tells me. It’s not the official maxim for his innovation consultancy firm Previously Unavailable, but it’s pretty close to the mark, especially for a business that can count TVNZ, Frucor, Westpac, Spark and Lotto among their clients.
Hurman came to prominence in the marketing sector as planning director for Auckland’s Colenso BBDO, publishing a book, The Case for Creativity, in 2011 and eventually being named the world’s #1 planning director in 2013. He struck out on his own in 2014 and founded Previously Unavailable, a new consultancy with a laser focus on creativity and, especially, innovation. They’re serious about it too - I received a note from James after our interview, simply ‘NB INNOVATION IS OUR ONLY FOCUS’ - and it’s something, as Previously’s website states, that 84% of business consider critical, but just 6% are satisfied with.
James, however, feels that that the climate is beginning to change around creativity, especially in his home base of Auckland. “Auckland is going through a creative revolution. In the future we will look back on this time and realize that we were living through something very special in our city. Ten years ago we were suspicious of creativity and innovation as a kind of folly practiced by people who confused commerce with art. Today, we recognize it as something that’s both a part of our identity and something that’s critical to our being a competitive city. When I look at the bright pink Nelson Street Cycleway, I see a sign of the times – that even in the most bureaucratic arenas we are embracing creativity in a way that we wouldn’t have dreamed of in the past. Let alone our hospitality, events and arts cultures which have become so rich and exciting”.
The Case for Creativity - James Hurman
Part of that revolution, James says, is embracing, rather than fighting, Auckland’s natural cultural affinity with informality and comfort, pointing to success stories like Federal Street’s Depot as best embodying this approach. “Al Brown and Charlie Nott designed Depot around the idea of a bach – a place where we are at our most relaxed and, in Al’s words, we ‘embrace all the wonky bits’. We are an informal people, and we are at our most comfortable, even in business, when we are being true to that identity. When Nat Cheshire was designing Britomart, his guiding idea was ‘humble special’ – presenting our prized humility back to us in a way that feels like a treat. I love that idea - that ‘informal’ shouldn’t mean sloppy, lazy or thoughtless”.
This considered informality informs his approach to dressing as well; often found in a blazer and jeans, consistently balancing looking smart and looking relaxed. “I feel that it’s respectful to others to dress informally in a way that still demonstrates that you’ve thought about your presentation. In the last year I have felt overdressed in a suit in board meetings and presentations to corporate CEOs - I actually feel more comfortable in a suit at social occasions. So I think the role of a suit is evolving.”
Fashion has had it’s share of growing pains as technology has changed the way we shop, with more people shopping primarily online and many more options for consumers than ever before. “The way technology has democratized fashion is a big challenge. Zara is a prime example of a company exploiting innovation and technology to give consumers throw-away fashion. They get close enough to the real thing to be desirable, but cheap enough to overcome the obvious quality issues. Fashion has always been about making the wearer feel truly special – and so the question I think fashion brands face is how to make people feel more special than they do when they choose Zara”.
James repeatedly stresses that the touches that humanise our day to day lives are just as important, especially in high-touch, client-facing industries like clothing.
The same few concepts - elegance, innovation, evolution, making people feel special - keep coming up again and again throughout our interview, and it’s clear that they’re the things that excite and motivate him. But this advocacy for technology and progress is not ‘at all costs’ - James repeatedly stresses that the touches that humanise our day to day lives are just as important, especially in high-touch, client-facing industries like clothing. “Technology is automating everything that can be automated – and most of the time that’s to our benefit - but you can’t automate thoughtfulness. I remember when one of the staff noticed me enjoying a book in Crane Brothers, and then when my suit was sent to me the book was sitting in the suit bag as a gift. Because of that one act of thoughtfulness I wouldn’t ever buy a suit anywhere else. I think that’s the critical differentiator in great retail”.
Beyond retail, he sees the way we spend across all service industries changing, with a model that benefits the consumer more becoming the norm. “Inevitably in our lives there are plenty of times when the quick, inexpensive option is right. I use Uber twice a day, but if I’m going to the airport or on a long ride to a client, I will always take a Corporate Cab, because if I’m going to invest that much time and money into something then I need to know the service experience will be a great one. It’s the stuff in the middle that’s not long for this world – why would anyone use a Co-op Taxi?”.
While businesses race to move towards on-demand, app-driven models, James sees wearable technology as the next big thing in consumer goods, with pieces like the Apple Watch only being the tip of the iceberg. “Wearables are so intimate. They’re technology that’s absolutely focused on us, and only us. What interests me most is how wearables help us learn about ourselves in a way that helps us live better. The fitness trackers are an example of this – simply by showing us how many steps we take, they quantify our behavior in a way that immediately compels us to improve it. After spending our lives being bombarded with messages about why we should exercise more, suddenly this tiny thing on our wrist, quantifying our movements, shortcuts all of the intellectual arguments and compels us to change. It’s so elegant”.
His pick for most exciting new development? “I am very interested in the emergence of headbands that measure our brain activity and help us understand how to focus, or relax. There are already several players in that space. What’s even more interesting is Thync, a head patch that uses neurosignalling waveforms to energise or relax us in the way that energy drinks or drugs do”.
This appetite for and appreciation of the new and interesting is what led him to create Previously Unavailable’s new app. Called The Amazery, the app provides a weekly round of video content, spotlighting some the most exciting global developments in tech, business and design, from shoes to screens to whiteware to helicopters. “At Previously, we are lucky to spend much of our time engrossed in the incredible creative output of people and companies from all over the world. Most people don’t have that luxury, being so busy doing what they do and not having the time to look up. The Amazery is one way that we try to give people that inspiration. Each week we hand pick a few of the most amazing things that we’ve seen so that others can be inspired by them in the spaces between their busy-ness – while they’re waiting for their coffee, or in a taxi... whenever they have a few moments to themselves”.
It’s this wide-eyed optimism, and this belief in the power of innovation making people feel special that has brought James and Previously Unavailable so much success, and while one doesn’t sense that he of all people needs help coming up with ideas, if he needed another maxim, it could be this: “I have always loved sharing amazing things with other people.”