Motor City Confab Talks Innovation, Reinvention

Ryan, Barlow, Linkner Offer Lessons at Ad Age and Crain's Detroit Business's Idea: Detroit Event

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Eric Ryan, co-founder of Method
Eric Ryan, co-founder of Method

The week that the U.S. Census Bureau announced Detroit's population had declined 25% over the past decade, Ad Age and Crain's Detroit Business put forth a decidedly different take on the city, hosting the first Idea: Detroit conference. More than 400 people gathered at the College for Creative Studies' A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design to hear entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and the city's creative leaders talk ideas, innovation and how to move the region forward. Here are seven lessons from the day.

Define a cause
Your reason for being should be bigger than that if you want to succeed in a transparent and authentic world, said Eric Ryan, chief brand architect of Method Home and a native of Grosse Pointe, Mich., who returned home to deliver the day's opening keynote. "Search for a cultural shift that will lead you to the product," he said. In Method's case, the first trend it noticed was the trend of "lifestyling" of the home.

Just make it
Dale Dougherty had no personal connection to Detroit when he decided to hold Maker Faire in the city in 2010. But "there's manufacturing in your blood, and people who have these skills who are unappreciated and underestimated for what they can do," the creator of Make Magazine and Maker Faire told attendees.

Kate Daughdrill
Kate Daughdrill
Make is a movement based in do-it-yourself culture and you can make things for all kinds of reasons, Mr. Dougherty said. "Think about people who play music -- do people make music only because they're professionals? No, there are all kinds of reasons to play music," he said. "When we do things in a particular way we create new ideas. Ideas don't come out of the blue but from participating, being involved and playing with others." Maker Faire will return to Detroit this summer.

Invention is collaborative
"When you see yourself as a maker or doer it's not just with your hands but with your minds -- you're participating in a culture," said Mr. Dougherty, kicking off a theme that was echoed throughout the day. One example? Kate Daughdrill hosts Detroit Soup, a monthly dinner where participants pay $5 to show up, eat soup and listen to pitches of artists and inventors looking to fund their projects. At the end of the night, they vote on their favorite project and the winner takes the night's kitty.

Create ideas that inspire action
Colin Kinsella, president of Digitas North America, warned not to underestimate the power of distribution -- and social tools are the key to making ideas spread. As his company's Twitter feed (@digitas) summed up the advice: "How do you create an active idea? Pursue a purpose. Create experiences, not ads. Seek participants."

David Morrow
David Morrow
Surround yourself with passion
"Your most valuable corporate asset is your people," said David Morrow, CEO of Warrior Sports, a lacrosse- and hockey-equipment giant based in Warren, Mich. When starting a business you need to "find your passion and surround yourself with a passionate team. ... I spend the majority of my time looking for the most talented people in the darndest places, because that's who is going to help us take it to the next level."

The world is moving faster
You need to as well. "Microsoft has more money than most small countries, and the smartest people in the world, but it couldn't hold on to the leadership position," Linkner said. "The forces of change are wreaking havoc on the complacent incumbents," ePrize Inc. founder and Chairman Josh Linkner said.

Apathy is the enemy
The biggest problem when Toby Barlow arrived in Detroit to run creative at Ford's agency was apathy. Not apathy about the city -- though he encountered some of that -- but about Ford. "We had to stop trying to tell people what Ford was and empower them to come up with the answers themselves," he said. "The voice of god in advertising is dead."

Dale Dougherty
Dale Dougherty

Today, Detroit faces a similar brand crossroads and needs to rebuild itself not from the top down but the bottom up.

"How do we promote entrepreneurial immigration?" Mr. Barlow asked. Team Detroit, where Mr. Barlow is global chief creative officer, sees a solution in helping entrepreneurs connect to much-needed funding. It's launched Five to One, a platform where entrepreneurs can share their vision and others can donate to help it become reality; each dollar an individual donates, will be matched five-fold by a major foundation. Team Detroit has pledged $25,000 to it and is currently seeking foundation support.

"At a certain point the media is going to get tired of the Detroit story and we need to start creating positive chapters," Mr. Barlow said.

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Contributing: Crain's Detroit Business contributed to this report.

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