Futurelab's Thys: in innovation 'the wrong questions turn out to be the right questions'

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On March 4th, 2009, I was able to meet and have breakfast with, at last and after a few missed opportunities, Alain Thys in Paris. Alain is one of the partners of futurelab, a consultancy based in Belgium (of which he originates) together with fellow Stefan kolle. I can't actually remember when,or how we came across each other, but is bound to be on the web, and that's probably how we ended up cooperating on the Futurelab blog by the way.

What I know though is that Alain is the author of one of the most important Marketing presentations that I have seen at slideshare.net, which I keep using over and over again, and is entitled marketing accountability (you will find the direct access to the presentation at the end of this article). Alain Thys's biography is also very interesting.

He describes itself as a "shopkeeper". He has had extensive experience in European advertising and marketing at companies like Mexx and Reebok. He was in charge of marketing at Reebok Belgium for a while, when it was decided to merge it into the Dutch arm of the company, at the beginning of the 1990s, and that's when the Internet arrived. It is also when Alain discovered these "funny computers" and the things that we could do with them. A 3-year stint in the Netherlands at the head of the Reebok marketing unit ended up in a re-org and a sabbatical in Mexico (lucky him!).

At the beginning of the year 2000, he then decided to go into start-up mode and work for a joint-venture in which AOL, and LVMH (Louis Vuitton) were involved. Their new plan was a groundbreaking online idea for the travel industry. This was "way ahead of what was done in those days with regard to online travel". In fact, it was a bit like à la carte holiday packages, what is commonly described nowadays as dynamic packaging (although very little of it is still to be seen in the field, which means that it's still ahead of its time).

The usual cash burning story about 2000 bubble start-ups is unfortunately repeated in this venture of Alain's: a $130 cost per customer was leading unfortunately to a meagre revenue of $16, hardly enough to generate profit. Vision doesn't always lead to profitability, but there is one thing about visionary people, is that they shall never be deterred. And that's exactly why Alain decided to move on to the next idea. So he started a new incubator for e-payment in Ireland, related to mobile payment. He admitted to having a lot of fun creating the new start-up, and he did this for a couple of years before joining a media group in Belgium in 2004-5.

This media group, itself a media pioneer in Belgium, led Alain Thys to focus on "creating new things and generating new profits". He admitted to "not being very knowledgeable about the Internet world" which actually led him to ask "the wrong questions, which turned out to be the right questions".

Alain was lucky enough to actually see the Internet at its inception, he grew with it (not exactly generation Y though). And he learned as he was going along. As matter of fact, and to be honest with him and yourself, everybody's learning as we are going along in this market (a case of the blind leading the blind I guess).

He then created futurelab in 2005, and Stefan joined him in this transition period. Futurelab is a consultancy geared towards "generating new profits out of marketing and innovation". This consultancy is actually working very much based on word-of-mouth, and is expanding across Europe, doing little or no cold-calling or direct marketing. But it is taking WOM to the next level with the help of the Internet.

Their work is mostly based around marketing strategy consulting, and their aim is to "generate profit through innovation and customer centricity". Future lab's objective is actually to "deliver on that promise of a value to the customer". He described innovation as being "doing something differently, and that you haven't done before." But he also has profitability in mind.

Alain Thys declares that "in 80% of current projects, we see marketing & innovation fail in that respect". When asked about the reasons why such an obvious metric is actually not taken into account, which seems zanyish and at the same time is happening on a daily basis, he answers thus:
  1. it is either that people forget about the bottom line altogether. However, there must be some sort of payback on innovation,
  2. the second reason why innovation fails is that most innovators "forget about what it means to the customer."

So, Alain adds, very often, "what is needed is a different perspective, and this is when consultants become really useful".

Most of Futurelab's business is done through word-of-mouth using their Internet website and blog, an incredibly comprehensive digest of the most authoritative Internet and blog writers about innovation, which can be found online. The blog is available at http://blog.futurelab.net and shouldn't be missed. I would also recommend Alain's set of slides which are available and downloadable in creative Commons format from sideshare.net.

Yann Gourvennec

I specialize in information systems, HighTech marketing and Web marketing. I am author and contributor to numerous books and the CEO of Visionary Marketing. As such, I contribute regularly on this blog for Orange Business Services account on cloud computing and cloud storage topics.