I feel very fortunate to be among the 400 people invited to attend Google’s Zeitgeist 11. So many great talks and genuinely inspiring ideas. Here are a few of my favorites.
The brilliant Robert Reich on us and them. He talks about why we can’t (or won’t) solve unemployment or address poverty among families with children. Reason? Us and them. They are not one of us. They are not in our community of concern. They are not people with whom we share interdependency. Too bad he’s not running the country.
You may never have heard of Jean-Philippe Vergne, Professor, R. Ivey School of Business, University of Western Ontario. But he will give you an entirely new perspective on the value of inviting your users, customers, community into the creation of your brand and company. He argues that pirates and hackers actually make things better. Those in control not so much.
And finally, this young dude, Adam Braun. It’s not so much that he took up a cause, though he did. Or that he built 40 schools around the world, though he did. Rather it’s the idea that he has re-defined not-for-profit, labeling it “for-purpose,” and applying for profit principles and practices to Pencils of Promise.
There were many other great speakers and endless conversations about possibilities. You can find more of them on the Zeitgeist YouTube page. If you want to be totally blown away, watch some of the young minds talk about what they’re up to. You’ll either think you wasted your youth entirely, or that you better get on your kids’ asses real soon. If you’re a news junkie, check out Koppel and Ariana going at it(gently but still) in this panel conducted by New Yorker editor Nicholas Thompson.
Thanks to Google for sharing all of this content with those of us who attended and the many more who didn’t. Watch. Learn. Be inspired.
A month ago I crowdsourced questions here and on Twitter for the instructors at BDW’s Making Digital Work workshop.
We settled on five.
How do we get clients to embrace more innovative work?
What can we learn from software startups?
Do agencies have a role in social media?
How do we stop the talent drain?
What kind of people should we hire?
Here are the answers from my good friends and teachers Matt Howell, Gareth Kay, Kim Laama, Tim Malbon, Sheena Matheiken, Scott Prindle and John Winsor.I weigh in, too.
Some of my favorite soundbites:
Matt Howell on innovation: If we’re serious about selling more progressive work we have to get serious about investing in prototyping, showing how something works and how you’d interact with it.
Gareth Kay on social media: One of the biggest problems with social media is that people are too focused on the media part of social media instead of on the social part.
Sheena Matheiken on software inspiration: Developers in general, especially the creatively inclined ones, are such doers. They just create stuff. They don’t sit around and noodle. They make and prototype.
Tim Malbon on software inspiration: Try not to treat what you’re trying to make like a piece of traditional media. It doesn’t need to be designed massively up front. It can be cruder; it can be quicker.
John Winsor on retaining talent: Traditionally agencies are siloed. The creative department stands on a pedestal. The account people are there to serve them. Strategy is somewhere in between. But great ideas come from everywhere so you need to set up a system that accepts that great ideas come from everywhere.
Scott Prindle on hiring: The core quality is an entrepreneurial spirit. Someone who is passionate about the digital space, maybe someone who thought about being in start-up. They have to come into the into the agency and quickly generate ideas and move things forward.
One thing about all of these folks is that they’re willing to share. Ideas, advice, insights. Take a look and connect with them on Twitter. It will be worth it. Thanks for stopping by.
Imagine being hooked up to an IV bag. Only instead of saline it’s filled with a high concentration of inspiration. And instead of the bag being set on a slow drip, it’s turned all the way to the right, to “fire hose.” That was Google Zeitgeist 11. Themed Each of us, all of us, it was brilliantly choreographed by the fine folks at Google who assembled an amazing cast of characters, all of whom managed to thread the theme through their presentations.
Robert Reich crystallized all of America’s problems and solutions into the simple need for creating communities that build empathy and interdependence. (Is this the potential of social media?) Will write a post on that later.
Ariana Huffington and Ted Koppel presented opposing views (sort of) on the state of journalism. Koppel arguing that the news media only gives people what they want rather than what they need. Ariana’s position is that truth (objectivity doesn’t really exist in journalism) is better achieved by crowdsourcing, curating and greater participation rather than through the filtering that Koppel calls for. Especially when foreign governments and one reporter’s sources can game the system.
Jean Phillippe-Vergne brilliantly compared similarities among The Dutch East India Company, the BBC, AT&T, and National Institute of Health to show how new categories initially operating as state sanctioned monopolies become much better when the “pirates” influence and change them. Think back to the days when the British government had the BBC presenting (almost exclusively) religion and classical music. Supposedly it was good for you. Every one of those categories and organizations initially thought it was best served by aligning with government protection. But was it?
There were stories of success from moguls like Ted Branson and Eike Batista; examples of innovation from technology enthusiasts like Dr. Jay Parkinson (brilliant idea to be a digital doctor); and amazing demonstrations of passion and purpose from the likes of Dave Eggers (826 Valencia) and Robert Hammond and Joshua David who co-founded Friends of the High Line.
Over two days, presentation after presentation by young artists, filmmakers, and entrepreneurs filled attendees’ heads with all kinds of possibilities.
Through many of the presentations I detected a similar formula working again and again, both for its creators and for those of us in the business of marketing them. Here they are:
Listen to your dreams
Every presenter who had a success story to share, from Dave Eggers to Nathan Sawaya, had a nagging urge to do something that would make a difference. Granted Zeitgeist 11 featured only those who succeeded, but many did so against huge odds and despite skepticism.
Avoid the naysayers
This ran through almost every great story. So many people, from young entrepreneurs (Scooter Braun) to successful artists (Miral Kotb) had to free themselves from people who told them they were insane or that their idea would never work. You can’t have that negative energy around you and accomplish anything of significance.
Include the community
You would expect this at a session whose theme is Each of us, all of us. But in case after case – crowdsourcing designs for The High Line, for example – ideas got better when multiple constituents were involved and communities gathered behind a purpose.
Tell a story
We still need marketing. Whether you launch an idea on Kickstarter, sell your vision to one other person, or put up a website, the story you start and re-write as you go becomes a powerful magnet, attracting attention and inviting others to share it.
No one among the presenters knew exactly how they’d accomplish their goals when they got started. They just knew that they had a goal. They figured out how to navigate there way there as they went. Early failures simply turned into lessons that that helped build the strength needed to persevere.
Google that shit. At least that made Adam Braun’s list. To me it’s simply a reminder that we have a multi-billion dollar infrastructure that connects and enables almost anyone with an idea. Answers, resources, community are all there for our using and sharing. Master the tools and platforms and you have new ways of creating a business. Just look at what Dr. Jay Parkinson did.
When you come home from something like Zeitgeist 11 one of two things happens. You instantly get caught up in the reality and demands of your day job and your new found jolt of energy dissipates . Or you actually rethink what’s possible and actually do something. In which case the energy builds. I’m definitely going for the latter.
The good folks of Cleveland’s advertising community recently invited me to keynote at an AAF event there. Cleveland is a pretty nice city and to my surprise is a foodie town — it’s the home of Eric Williams – and even the some of the suburban restaurants are pretty darn good.
Anyway, they wanted to hear a little bit of my story, the culture and transformation of Mullen and some thoughts on how we think about the business today and where it might be going.
Here’s the deck I shared. As is typical for me, the slides don’t say much without a voice over, but here’s the story in a nutshell
Slide 1: You don’t survive in this business, from the past to the present, or from the present to the future, without constantly evolving and embracing change. You have to live in beta.
Slide 2: In 1983 we launched the computer shoe for Puma. There are two points to the story of this ill-fated product launch.
The first: the sneaker maker asked the question, “Can we build it?” Instead they should have asked, “Should we build it?” They may have learned what was wrong with it before they put it in market. This story becomes more relevant later on when we talk about innovation and thinking like a start-up.
The second point: we made ads. We told people about our clients’ products, bought their attention, and made a product that was finished, polished, varnished and re-printed. A small group of us – pirates, renegades and outsiders even back then – were determined to do good work, win awards, establish a reputation and build an agency.
(Slide 3 — 14) We did well, but over time the world changed — digital, social, consumer engagement, etc.
(Slide 15–16) Once ideas were crafted out of words, pictures and stories. Suddenly they were created using applications, utility and technology. Media changed, too. Can you spell proliferation?
(Slide 14 – 24) Next came numerous predictions of the industry’s demise. From within and without. Also new competitors and models: Gary Vaynerchuk-like do-it-yourselfers. Crowdsourcing platforms. Scalable software services that strive to replace traditional service models.
Meanwhile lots of businesses in related or parallel industries did die, fueling the naysayers.
(Slide 25) So where do you look for ideas and inspiration? Certainly not to other ad agencies. How about Steve Jobs?
(Slide 26 –34) We changed — or at least evolved — a few things.
Our philosophy: Unbound
We reduced it to one word. Unbound was intended to free us from solving problems with advertising only and to become way more diverse in our thinking. It changed everything from what we made, to how we pitched business, the teams we put in the room and the space in which we worked.
Our influences: Steven Johnson
Good ideas come from collisions. That word became the blueprint for our new space and how we organized people. The idea was that the more collisions we could create — crashing people, ideas and disciplines into each other — the more creative (and effective) our solutions might be.
Our behavior and mindset: Social
One of our smarter moves was getting (or allowing) everyone in the company – and many of our clients — to embrace social media early on. We did everything from create experiences that introduced people to Twitter, started blogs, encouraged writing for the agency blog, designed conversation strategies for clients, even developed full-blown social media training and management guides. We started this in 2007. It may have been late for the early adopter but it was early for the ad industry. As a result, today we have a pretty good social media business.
Our culture: Curiosity
Some agencies and advertisers wait for new ideas and platforms to approach mainstream use before jumping in. We started trying everything new right away and encouraged clients to do the same. We introduced clients to Ning when it first launched so they could learn a little about community management. Today we have them playing around with Instagram, trying out Google+ (as individuals) and, of course, incorporating mobile functionality into more of what they do. Teaching, sharing, learning together has become a big part of our digital and social offering.
Our focus: Experimentation
We started experimenting more for ourselves. We incubated TNGG, a crowdsourced Gen-Y online magazine, which now provides content to Boston.com. To build our Twitter portfolio and generate coverage for the agency we created BrandBowl. And more recently, we launched the beta for a new integrated media platform The Pulse. If nothing else, our lab mindset has spurred a greater interest in experimentation of all kinds, with better work and creations likely to follow.
Not much needs to be said here. Every agency is doing this. But we’ve made it a priority and area of investment, recruiting talent in design, UX, front-end and back-end development, creative technology, production, project management, mobile, social media and digital media.
(Slides 35 – 72) I personally learned some new stuff, as did the agency. Got better at collaboration, both internally and across external alliances and partnerships. Became comfortable living in beta. Embraced the Google-y concept of giving credit to the idea rather than the person who “thinks” he came up with it. Re-thought where ideas comes from. Hint: everywhere. Validated the inter-connected circle of momentum and the four forces that accelerate it: culture, space, briefs, and teams.
The agency won some cool clients, realized that culturally relevant brands that reflect what the agency wants to do are great clients to have since they inspire you forward, and attracted some attention and even better talent.
In some cases we got better at practicing problem solving rather than message crafting.
But, note that change is hard. There’s plenty of resistance and no clear set of directions.
(Slide 73) Agencies and individuals tell me this is what they struggle with. That is comforting.
(Slide 74) Some agencies are being even more innovative. That is motivating.
(Slides 75 – 103) Five things every agency has to do. Why they have to do it. Some suggestions for how they can do it. Wrote about this a little bit in a previous post.
I think it went over pretty well. A sincere thanks to my new friends at AAF Cleveland and at Marcus Thomas for their warm hospitality.
I was recently asked eight good questions for an upcoming advertising and innovation conference. I shared the first four in a previous post covering upcoming trends, creating value, organizational dynamics and future sources of revenue. Here are the second four questions and some thoughts regarding agency differentiation, leadership, winning and anticipating the future. Note that the first and last answers, due to the questions, are somewhat specific to Mullen.
What makes your agency different? Do you have unique strengths or ways of creating value for clients that are difficult for competitors to duplicate? How do you capitalize on those differences?
Ask any new business consultant and most clients who’ve been through a pitch process and they’ll tell you that most agencies appear more similar than distinct. They all claim uniqueness but then present capabilities and demonstrate thinking that is pretty cookie cutter. We believe that if something differentiates us (talking about Mullen) it’s culture. In our case that would be collective entrepreneurialism and unbound thinking that gets delivered via a hyper-bundled model that we believe is essential to building a client’s business.
Back up a few years and our industry decoupled all of its capabilities believing that clients wanted to retain numerous agencies, each allegedly offering best of breed capabilities.They wanted a brand agency, digital agency, media agency, social agency. Well guess what? Today you can’t have best of breed without brand teams that combine all the essential capabilities working together. Everything is connected to everything else. We never followed that trend, instead preferring integrated brand teams that brought all the skills in the room simultaneously. Today many clients are coming back to the realization that this model works better than fragmentation. Even Forrester has identified that all those separate agencies aren’t working for brands. It’s easy for us to position this as a strength when it has always been how we work.
How does any agency win in an intensely competitive environment? Given such competition, how do you develop strategies for growth regarding clients, brands, markets and services?
By being better than the competition is the obvious answer. But since best is in the eyes of the buyer it’s impossible to even know what that means. I like to think you win by selecting and focusing on brands that best align with your vision. In our case we want to work with brands that are culturally relevant and that want the same kind of work – creative, digital social, experimental – that we aspire to create. It’s also easier to win if you don’t have to fake it.
Having been in this business a long time, I’ve made lots of mistakes. One of the biggest was taking on clients because of their size or budget. I won’t name names but in too many cases it perpetuated doing work that didn’t really support our long-term aspirations. And we produced stuff that didn’t help our reputation or our ability to attract talent.
As far as strategy goes, then, you have to focus on the circle above. To win takes talent. Talent only comes if there are opportunities for great work. Opportunities come from clients. Attracting them calls for visibility and evidence of what you can do. That only results from work itself. Which, of course, requires talent. This is the circle of momentum. It needs jolts of energy at all five key points. Our strategy is to focus on things like culture, environment (space), briefs (let’s identify problems to solve not just messages to craft) and the kind of teams that can solve those problems. Get that right and the circle spins.
The once common trait of leaders was followers. What do you look for in leaders today? How do you develop a leadership team? What do you see in those who do a good job inspiring others?
It’s pretty easy to be a boss. You simple tell people what to do and if necessary show them how. It’s a lot harder to be a leader. Leaders somehow inspire people to be greater than they themselves even imagined was possible. That means encouraging experimentation, inspiring confidence rather than doubt, and creating the conditions that reinforce both. Culture is essential. Space helps. But once you have that, nothing matters more than casting. Hire the right people, assemble a compatible team and get out of the way so people can do their jobs.
We all know the bosses. They meddle and second guess. They induce fear instead of confidence. They take credit when things go well but issue blame when it doesn’t.
Leaders on the other hand do a great job of spotting talent, pointing them in the right direction, and giving them all the support they need to succeed.
What’s your view of Mullen five years from now? How different will you be?
This is too easy a question to ask. Perhaps people actually think there’s an answer from which they can glean an insight that might insure their own surivival or even success. But only a fool would predict that far out. Look what’s happened in our own and related industries. Cliff Freeman gone. Newspapers gone. Magazines gone. Blockbuster almost gone. Five years from now we could be an advertising agency, a content company, a consulting company, or even a software company. I wouldn’t dare to predict with any certainty. But I do know four things.
Creativity will still be our core business.
Talent will be our most valuable asset.
Our culture of collective entrepreneurialism, and unbound thinking (even if we change that word) will have enabled us to be there.
I’ll be long gone.
Got better answers? Different ones? As always, feel free to share.