Chris Denson has made a career helping innovators connect the dots...
Chris Denson is perhaps best known as the host of Innovation Crush, a podcast with almost 700,000 subscribers featuring conversations with innovators from Chamillionaire to Rob Dyrdek to Alexis Ohanian. Chris’ natural curiosity makes him a great interviewer, but it’s actually only one of his jobs. He also runs an innovations team at Omnicom called Ignition Factory, which is doing some of the most interesting branding in the game—pop up tattoo shops for Suicide Squad at SXSW and pop up art exhibits for Inherent Vice at the Ace Hotel.
So what’s the connection between these two seemingly disparate positions? As an interviewing veteran, Chris knew we would ask, so he made it easy and told us himself. His central drive is helping people become the absolute best creators they can be. Thus, he ironically does the exact opposite of "crush"innovation; he stimulates it.
Like a “connector,” this is a new and fascinating identity, one were eager to explore...
What does [Innovation Crush guest] Sugar Ray Leonard have to do with innovation?
As an interviewer, it’s my job to translate my guests’ experiences into things the audience can use. On top of that, I’m a huge fan of unlikely pairings since they help see problems from new points of view. With Sugar Ray, it was really focused on the “fight” of the innovator. How to have a champion mindset, when to lean on your team, how to take a punch or a loss, how to take all your passion and energy and pack it into a powerful moment. Plus, from a pure business perspective, he’s a philanthropist, a serial entrepreneur, a motivational speaker, and is partnered with one of the largest hedge funds in the country.
How did you learn how to interview?
For starters, I did stand-up comedy for six years. That prepares you to connect with someone—even in a room full of people—in the moment, how to present, how to read a room, and of course, how to be entertaining. I also studied martial arts, and any decent martial artist knows when to be defensive or aggressive or at peace and confident in any situation.
My first day in the studio, I spent 6 hours just back to back interviewing. I did the same thing again the next week. Now we’re 140 episodes in, and 600,000 followers deep. But those early marathons helped me get into my own rhythm and understand who I was as a host and interviewer.
Stand-up—is that why you came to L.A.?
No. I actually came to LA to be a comedy writer; although I performed stand up for a while after the move. I started writing during college at Michigan State University. One of my best friends was a telecommunications major and had access to some equipment. One day, he said to me, “We should do a sketch comedy show!” I agreed. We held a casting on campus and got ourselves 6 amazing talents. At our first table read everyone was on the floor laughing, which turned out to be an eye-opening experience for me. The writing, the creation of an idea—I fell in love.
"I still feel like great songs—and great ideas—will rise to the top. It just takes a lot more ingenuity to cut through the clutter."
There’s very few learning experiences like stand up. I’ve done it and it was a total disaster.
Oh I know! It’s brutal sport. There’s a reason I don’t do it anymore!
What sort of storyteller would you say you are?
I like there to be a purposeful moral to the story. It may sometimes be long-winded, but I’ll always try to make a point. Or at least make it entertaining. Or a showcase of something super inspiring. A favorite quote of mine is, “Sometimes God puts you through something just so you can help somebody else get through a similar situation.”
What unique message do you feel like you have for the world?
I want to help people reach their innovation potential, be it through ideation, creation, or conversation. There’s always a next plateau, regardless of where you’re currently at. I want people to unmask their potential.
Can you share an example?
We recently put up a tattoo parlor at SXSW for the film Suicide Squad, which involved real and fake tattoos. Adweek noted it as one of the top 5 experiences at SXSW this year. However, before that was greenlit, we had a deck filled with about 10 different—and amazing if I say so myself—ideas in it. The journey of pitching and explaining these innovative concepts was a great exercise for us and our clients, because hopefully they learn something new about what’s possible in the world. And regardless of if they do the idea or not, some of that thinking may stick with them on a professional level, and for others, even a personal level.
But that’s you innovating yourself, right? That’s not helping other people innovate…
I disagree. I’m almost always working with a team so I’m never doing this stuff alone. It’s about pushing each other past our own limits of perspective and life experience. Allowing everyone to contribute means we’re constantly leveling up our insights and resources.
Even when I’m interviewing people, part of my job is to help them discover a new perspective about their work or themselves. For example, when New York Times bestselling author David Pogue and I discussed his passion for technology, he came to the realization that it tied back to his childhood obsession with magic. “Today’s technology is the closest we’ve come to real life magic.”
So you’re not so much a storyteller as you are a story enhancer...
Sure. I do best when I’m given a set of parameters and get to try to find cool ways to bring the underlying need to life. From there, it’s basically like creating new iterations or combinations of things that already exist.
And that’s so much of creativity isn’t it? People talk about Kanye West like he’s a genius, but when you look at his music, almost 100% of it is combinations of shit that already exists. It’s not that he’s not a “genius,” but he’s more of a genius curator than anything else.
It’s an innate ability to connect dots. One guy I interviewed, Elan Lee, has the largest crowdfunded game in history, growing contributions from a few thousand dollars to over $9 million. Like most guests, I asked what his one true superpower is. His response: “I’m just insanely good at connecting the dots. I can connect them faster than anybody else.”
"If we can do that in every conversation we have, every idea we make, every endeavor we go after, then authenticity becomes the lowest common denominator."
And the people who create the actual original thing always seem to get buried, right? Like MySpace or Friendster—they get buried by the person who does it better.
Totally. I recently interviewed two-time Emmy winner, Seth Shapiro, who also happens to be an expert in the growth of television and digital media, and part of our conversation was about survival. Why so many things die, and others survive. All in all, you have to know when to give and take with your idea or your business. Survival is really based on being nimble and being able to read the moment from multiple perspectives.
How much of survival do you think is pure luck?
Any idea is only as good as it’s marketed. There may be some great products out there, but someone else was able to get it into the peoples’ hands faster. And most times, it’s not even as good of quality as the original. You can chalk that up to luck, but you can market something up to the point where you finally convince a person they need it. But it also needs to be a great product.
At the same time, I look at a lot of innovations like you would the music business—sometimes that weird, crappy, song just makes its way into the charts. Once you hear it enough times, you’re like “why am I singing this song at work?!” Then a few weeks later, “Why am I dancing to this song at home?!” It’s a good mix of repeated impressions and the label keeping the song in your face. It also probably speaks to some form of cultural appetite.
I don’t really believe the cream rises to the top anymore in the music because what’s on the radio is fucking horrible! And there’s so much good music that’s not on the radio. In that sense, we’re dragged down by the lowest common denominator, right?
I had a chance to interview the vocal coach for American Idol, and he said something that really stuck with me: “I feel like we’re at a point in music where we’re celebrating mediocrity.” While I agree on some levels, I also think we just have a bigger pool of people making more and more music. It’s not like it was 15 years ago. I still feel like great songs—and great ideas—will rise to the top. It just takes a lot more ingenuity to cut through the clutter.
As people who are in the industry, what is our responsibility in really giving people something authentic? Something that’s not owned by Warner Bros, for example?
I feel like it’s our responsibility to put a little bit of ourselves into every project we take on. No matter what culture says at the moment, you have to trust your instincts. I watched William Shatner interview Drew Carey once, and he said, even when his show was number one, that he was depressed and obsessing over the attention his competitors were getting. Later, after he started operating from a higher place, he said he finally came to a realization that made him look at life totally differently. He said, “I believe we’re here to do two things: to learn and to teach.” If we can do that in every conversation we have, every idea we make, every endeavor we go after, then authenticity becomes the lowest common denominator.