From Big Ideas to a big move
Innovation isn't the holy grail of the moment only for publishing. It can, in fact, mean a leap of faith away from the day-to-day heart of the business for some of our industry's players.
One of the most familiar faces in TheFutureBook.net community, Marcello Vena, has just shown how this can look, with his departure from RCS Mediagroup to form his own venture, All Brain.
Less than a year ago, in November, Vena was one of the "Big Ideas" presenters at The FutureBook Conference in London, using RCS Libri's Rizzoli Lab "YouCrime" experiment with social-media-savvy thriller writers to explain his concept of co-publishing with platforming authors. [Note: the call has just gone out from The Bookseller's Philip Jones for 2014 Big Idea proposals.]
Now, Vena turns his attention to another big idea: As my colleague at The Bookseller, Lisa Campbell, wrote up the news of Vena's move, "The [AllBrain.org] website adds: 'We envision a new corporate role: the chief future officer.'"
And that, if anything, may define what Vena is making of himself: his own "chief future officer."
"Operations will start in September," Vena says in an interview, "and the internal structure has been designed to adapt to the market. Start small and quickly ramp up. There certainly are growth opportunities for talented people and, as well, for smart shareholders."
Seed cash? "Funding came from myself, but it’s not a scarce resource," he says. "What is very scarce and very valuable is the availability of top-notch brains -- people who can holistically envision the future and make it happen."
"An innovator, not a publisher"
While we in the international publishing sector know Vena as one of us, he points out that his own entry into business was a matter of "growing up professionally as an innovator -- electronic engineering and Ivy League MBA degrees are not the typical qualifications in a publishing powerhouse."
A 17-year background in consulting with elements as diverse as aerospace, pharma/biotech, and apparel now leads Vena to come out of his role of manager for RCS Libri's trade book business planning to create All Brain as "the world's first on-demand leadership service for top executives across the entire values chain of the media industry."
The fledgling company, fronted by a newly launched website replete with aphorisms from Jeff Bezos and Peter Drucker, says Vena, is focused "on exploring, inventing, delivering and executing successful businesses looking to forge the future of any interested stakeholder: key media and publishing groups, as well as key retailers, authors and agents."
And as many in the corporate construct of publishing look to find innovation in various applications of tech, Vena says he wants to leapfrog that layer entirely:
"Aiming at the future by leveraging digital technologies or innovation paradigms," he says, "isn’t enough. Business innovation and digital opportunities clearly are key enablers for future business. But any significant business is much more than that.
"Tradition and legacy assets shall not be underestimated [at All Brain], as they very often are the essential foundation of a successful organisation."
"Those who do the right things"
The name All Brain might be enough for many of us who feel, on any given Monday, as if we're functioning with No Brain. But Vena has a specific connotation in mind. He recalls a phrase from the late Warren Bennis, a key figure in the leadership studies movement, who just died on 31st July at age 89.
According to Bennis, Vena says, "Leaders are those who do the right things; managers are those who do the things right."
Leadership, Vena stresses -- as does the copy on his new site -- matters more than management: "We want to help the stakeholders of the publishing industry," Vena says -- "to do both: the right things right.
"All Brain means translating a vision into reality. It’s a matter of brainpower, not manpower...We intend to pioneer this road and prove that we can turn latent demand into something very exciting. We also want to pick industry-changing challenges that can also become a landmark or new reference for the entire industry."
Well, if someone were looking for an industry-changing challenge, surely publisher-retailer negotiations might hold some interest these days. And, in fact, in the Summer of Hachette-Amazon, ranking publishing figures might be forgiven for daydreaming, themselves, of following Vena out the door.
Is this the beginning of an exodus?
Indeed, are we likely, I ask him, to see more defections like his from publishing to civilian life? In answer, this chief future officer actually needs more time: "It’s hard to foresee it," he says. "I could expect a few individual executives trying it but I would be very surprised to see many in the short term."
One distinction, Vena points out, between himself and many of his executive colleagues in publishing is that they, unlike him, have spent all or most of their careers inside the business. And some, to put it a bit more direly than he does, may not make it out, even if they wanted to:
"Most of today’s high-level managers in the publishing industry," he says, "grew up professionally in yesterday’s industry. It is not clear if the outstanding skills and competences they had to have to climb the professional ladder are helpful and sufficient enough to stay on top in tomorrow’s industry -- or even to dare an innovative entrepreneurial setting.
"There always are exceptions, of course. Ultimately, this is tied to the single individual and her or his ability and willingness to bear the risks at a given point in his or her career.
"Maybe those publishing executives that come from other industries might be more open to evaluate entrepreneurial settings. [But] serial intra-entrepreneurs and successful industry hoppers have been very rare so far."
To the four winds
We'll see Vena and All Brain at Frankfurt Book Fair in October, he tells me, in presentations of his new company's division of its offerings into four parts: enterprise, "agency-producer," private equity/venture capital, and start-up.
The prospect of a return to BuchMesse prompts a look back: "In 2010" when he joined RCS Mediagroup, "the book-publishing industry in Italy was ground zero from an innovation standpoint," he says. "But it was ready for change. I built from scratch the entire digital business that operated as a standalone central organisation for the [combined] book catalog of publishing houses, from production to sales and marketing, including finance, accounting, authors' rights, taxes, commercial partnerships, IT systems, quality assurance."
The task helped confirm, he says, that "building healthy shareholder value by best serving authors and readers" was the only logical path in a hub of operation for publishers including Rizzoli, Bompiani, and Fabbri Editori.
And today, I ask him, where will All Brain be seated? Will he be based in Milan? Or somewhere else?
"Planet Earth," he tells me. "Wherever the client is, there we are. Hands-on. Forging the future is a global play. We are in a knowledge society. And knowledge is without frontiers."
Main image: from the AllBrain.org site