Embracing our Child Like Creativity and Banging Gongs

An Extraordinary Conversation with…Rob Lowe, Senior Global Director Kids Engagement Lego

The Extraordinary Club has launched a new strategic partnership with The Liverpool & Sefton Chambers of Commerce to bring cutting edge, thought leading conversations to the region. Big brands, big leaders and new opportunity. Who better to launch with than a truly global, well loved brand. Lego’s motto is “Only the best is good enough” – we wanted to unpick that notion in a world where MVPs and agile development are increasingly important – and still stay true to the level of quality that their consumers have come to expect.

Our Co-Founder Dawn Paine sat down with Rob…

Mine and Rob’s story goes back 15 years. Back in 2004, I was a hotshot new Marketing Director at Nintendo, starting to build what would go onto be a multi award winning marketing team and one which would lead a new paradigm of video games play against a text book delivery of blue ocean strategy. I had my loyal co-pilot James Honeywell but I also needed someone new as well, someone special, someone different. I’d interviewed all the candidates with the 2.1 Marketing Degrees – they were all bright, smart, but ultimately a bit vanilla, a bit text book, no attack. And then I interviewed Rob. He blew my socks off. Smart, funny, creative, self deprecating and someone who loved the video games industry.

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed, has been to see incredible young talent that I’ve worked with, go on to soar and achieve brilliant things in their own career. There have been some who’ve gone onto have truly stellar paths, Rob Saunders at Apple, Helen Mellor-Mitchell who I worked with at Universal Pictures and of course Rob Lowe. What sets them apart and explains their trajectory is creativity, humour, drive and strategic thinking. Plus a certain star quality.

When Rob and I parted company at Nintendo, we’d had the most extraordinary time together, we’d got older people to play video games together, we’d shifted our market share from 5-80%, we’d picked up BAFTAs and MCV awards – and most of all we’d had fun everyday, being part of a genuinely once in a lifetime, high performing team. In my humble opinion, Rob is the living definition of a change agent, maverick, up-ender of tables and he has gone on to a superb career at BBC Worldwide and Lego. He oversees one of the most innovative areas of the business, globally – inspiring children to build with LEGO but in more creative ways incorporating a mixture of digital tools, experiences and platforms.

‘It’s about trying to build a creative community for children, building a safer internet for them,’ he said. ‘We feel an immense sense of responsibility to actually find the right spaces for them where they can still engage with each other in fun and creative ways but in a way that is preparing them for real social media and real engagement in the future.’

LEGO’s philosophy is all about ‘good quality play’ which essentially helps enrich the lives of children and helps lay foundations for adult life so it’s so refreshing to see a business that is fully embracing digital yet still keeping the heart of their business, the physical product of building blocks, at the forefront of their agenda.

‘We give them new ways to learn how to play, interact and build with the bricks.’ ‘Most children still don’t know the full capacity of what these bricks were made for. Our job is to keep underlining the creativity of LEGO as a product.’

It’s fascinating to understand just how this process of digital engagement works for a company like LEGO – success and failures are all part and parcel of a business, but how on earth does LEGO deal with everything that comes their way?

‘We’ve had a lot of learning experiences in the digital space along the way,’ Rob explained, and with as with any dynamic business these ‘failures’ have been the education they’ve needed to succeed. Working in the digital space, allows for a lot more flexibility in the creative process – to launch a digital product that perhaps wasn’t perfect and could take time to scale seemed to be the most conducive way to move forwards for LEGO.

‘It’s eventually how we get something of value – if we constantly test and learn things then we move to a more agile development model. We don’t assume that everything has to be the highest quality before we launch digitally.’

However, the realisation soon came that whilst they were talking agile, but not really living it and that’s the biggest difference – we live in a culture where we feel everything has to be ‘perfect’ in order to succeed, but to admit these short fallings may have just been the key to the success of LEGO in the new digital era.

It’s all about celebrating success little and often too every time something good happens in my team, we make sure everyone is aware by banging a gong.”

Even the smallest achievements like fixing a bug, need to be celebrated because otherwise with the iterative process you go through, you don’t have a big launch moment or a big release of a product or game.’

One crucial variable that informs the ability to fail fast is culture and I was keen to hear Rob’s insight into Lego “way”. He talked about the oxymoronic concept of ‘controlled creativity.’

‘We have a department whose job it is, is to invent the future of play,’ Rob explains. ‘They have the freedom to do whatever they want, to come up with whatever ideas they want.’ Creative freedom is key to the success and development of a brand such as LEGO, even if it still has to fit in with a business model along the way. ‘You start from a very wide area of innovation and then by the time it gets to potentially something you can bring to market, it’s quite honed as a product. We find that’s a good process of how to manage innovation in a company.’

One other area LEGO are passionate about is allowing fans, both old and young, to have a part in this creative process too. Under the umbrella of LEGO ideas, adult fans of LEGO are able to upload their own ideas of LEGO sets onto an online community where they are voted on and then passed through a panel at LEGO themselves – some of their best selling sets have been made by fans which is just a testament of this unique platform and process. It’s all about that great building experience. ‘LEGO brand needs to mean something in terms of quality and it’s something that we won’t compromise on in terms of the physical sets.’

The idea that there’s a greater tolerance for things to not be perfect digitally as there is for physical products is something that LEGO have embraced over the past few years – it’s all about finding different ways of iterating these stand alone digital experiences and being clever about how you do that. ‘When you have something purely digital, the acceptance for failure or for a lower quality is higher. However there is of course a certain threshold we won’t go below – for example, in terms of an app store rating or an NPS score.’ Within any business, you will always set your parameters, however, the digital space moves at such a fast pace, the ability to adjust your expectations in a brand where the motto is ‘only the best is good enough,’ is something to be admired.

A clearly defined culture plays a huge part in the everyday running of LEGO – it’s something that’s ingrained within the business and takes a lot of inspiration from Danish culture itself. The main offices are situated in a rural area of Denmark called Billund – the same place the founder of LEGO manufactured the first brick.

‘Brutal honesty and directness are the hallmarks of how we communicate,’ Rob explains and it comes from being in such a rural area of Denmark. ‘There’s this thing called the Jante Law – this very equilateral approach to society.’

The idea that everyone is equal in society and how that plays out inside a business is pretty revolutionary but it does come with its pros and cons. The culture in Billund is very much reflected in LEGO. ‘You’ll have very honest conversations between senior and junior people in a room and they’re often very blunt.’ ‘You have this consensus driven culture…which is great because everyone buys into it but it can be quite difficult in agile product development when you’re going into 2 week cycles.’

I asked Rob to discuss his thoughts on how Lego had managed to bring itself back from the brink of bankruptcy, just a decade or so ago.

‘The problem was that we diversified the business to react to what we perceived to be the trends outside of LEGO…there was a question around our relevancy and whether people were still interested in the bricks.

Of course, cultural resonance is a key foundation of a successful brand – but staying true to your core purpose is crucial. “We made the mistake of overly diversifying – making action toys, TV shows and games – they weren’t LEGO and they were not inspiring or developing the builders of tomorrow, our DNA wasn’t in play.’

Naturally, in any business, we all have to constantly learn and re-learn in our digital world, trends are constantly changing and it’s the ability of a business such as LEGO to be able to stay both true to oneself and at the same time, be able to react and adapt to fast paced change and that’s something that truly sets it apart from other mere mortal brands.

One of the key ways in which a business can retain its’ core values and still bring in new thinking is of course through its’ talent and recruitment.

“We have a unique recruitment process” stated Rob, “a robust process which allows us to make sure that we have people that share our values. There are as many questions about your family, how you spend your personal time and the things that inspire you.’

It’s really all about being ‘human-centric’ Lego truly get into their customers shoes and are able therefore to relate to the problems that they face. So what do LEGO do? ‘We have something called play day and we all go and build LEGO…and all be children again.’ Instinctive curiosity and creativity is something that is encouraged and celebrated at LEGO and the freedom to be able to express yourself in the workplace is perhaps something that is reflected in the quality of products that they launch.

Whilst on the topic of success and failure, I asked Rob what his secret ingredient was for such an interesting and varied career. For him, it’s all about passion. ‘I needed to find things that I was naturally passionate and interested in.’ From working in retail on the front line selling electronics to finding his way to the marketing team in Nintendo, Rob has always been able to work on things that he’s been passionate about and things he could find passion for, which is a magical element. Another top tip for success – knowing your own weaknesses and find ways to fill those.

I surround myself with people who can help me on those weaknesses and ask for help when you need it so you can thrive more yourself.’ It’s all about not being afraid to ask for help which is something that a lot of us in business and in positions of power can find quite hard. ‘You need people to fill in the gaps and be quite self aware – you should be very open about asking for help and not see it as a weakness, you can’t solve everything on your own.’

Wise words indeed Rob. I personally think Rob’s bravery and unerring capacity to throw himself into uncharted territory are also key hallmarks of his own personal brand. Watch this space to hear more about Rob’s new adventures in the world of start-ups and Lego Ventures, with a brilliant new role about to begin.

Watch out for more Extraordinary Conversations coming to the North West soon…

Follow us on Twitter at @TExtraordinaryC to stay up to date with The Extraordinary Club.

See what we’re up to with Facebook!

Our co-founder wrote about her 1st year as an entrepreneur and the trials and tribulations that go along with it. Read it here