Unbuckle your seatbelt

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Paul Kemp-Robertson is the Co-Founder & Chief Brand Officer at Contagious, an editorial intelligence resource and creative excellence advisory service for the marketing industry.

He’s the co-author of The Contagious Commandments book, an advisor to the UK creative arts charity Create, and his TED Talk on alternative currencies has been viewed 1.38M times.

Biggest fuck up?

My biggest fuck up was, on the face of it, a seemingly inconsequential one. I was working at Leo Burnett in Chicago and had to take an early morning trip to New York to speak at an event. The plane was practically empty. On my only other trip to the Big Apple, I’d landed in the dark. This time, however, the cloudless sky was bluer than Yves Klein blue.

As we approached LaGuardia, I realised I was sitting on the ‘wrong’ side of the plane. My window offered only the monotony of New Jersey and Yonkers – whereas, across the row, I could glimpse the gleaming citadel of Manhattan, unfolding in a flash of famous postcard views. 

I loved New York, or rather, I loved the idea of New York, having only ever stayed for a couple of days before. I was fascinated by the boldness and the brashness, the colour and the contrasts: the world in microcosm.

On my previous visit, I’d walked everywhere to soak up the spirit of the place. My neck ached from craning at all those architectural icons scraping the sky. I found myself in the Financial District, directly outside the Twin Towers: the ultimate symbol of New York (so good, they build things twice.) As a Yorkshire lad whose working life had largely revolved around London’s Soho, these soaring towers by the Hudson held a magical allure. I had the urge to go do the touristy thing and enjoy an overpriced cocktail in the Windows of the World bar but was worried it would make me late for the client dinner I was scheduled to attend uptown. Next time, I thought. Next time.

Fast forward to my breakfast plane trip from Chicago. Across two rows of empty seats, I spied the World Trade Center twins looming into view. If I snuck to the other side of the near-empty plane, I’d enjoy an uninterrupted view of the city that fascinated me the most in the world. But we were in our descent. The ‘fasten seat belt’ signs were on. 90% of my brain was screaming at me to unbuckle and bask in an aerial panorama I’d longed to see.

But the sensible, rule-abiding 10% won. I’d probably be breaking some kind of federal aviation law. I’d get yelled at by the crew. Might even get some air miles deducted. So, I stayed in my seat, missed the magic and got on with my day.

Next time, I thought. Next time.   

But a few months later, on 9/11, the Twin Towers had gone forever. A seismic moment that changed the world. There would be no next time.

Compared to that atrocity, my moment of inaction and conformity is utterly trivial, I know. But it taught me something about myself.

I needed to be less timid, less conservative, less rulebound. To go with my gut and not my guard. When I later left Leo Burnett in 2004, I had the choice of going to a comfy, well-paid job at another network agency or starting up a little idea called Contagious that I’d had in a pub with my friend, Gee. It was my life’s big LaGuardia moment. Without hesitation, I unbuckled my seatbelt this time.

A little fuck-up on an empty plane that made me question myself led to a startup that’s still going strong nearly 20 years later.

Rant

It’s the obsession with youth. The ad industry behaves like there’s an inverse relevance between age and value.

Quite rightly, there’s a universal demand for diversity, equity and inclusion in the way the industry hires, briefs and creates. But anyone over 50? They don’t seem to count. Past it, mate.

Compared to professions like law, medicine and banking, adland has a pathetic proportion of people over 50 still working in it. I don’t understand the commercial logic in elbowing out a cohort of experts who’ve still got a lot to say and boast a psychological shortcut into the hearts and minds of the consumers most likely to have disposable cash these days. Ageism is divisive and demeaning and creates artificial tensions between people, yet somehow it seems to be tolerated inside this business.

I guess it’s all part of the industry’s lazy love of convenient boxes to squeeze people into the way demographic segmentation is used as a strategic and cultural crutch, even though it serves to fuel the use of stereotypes in so much marketing content.

My argument against all of this is that Freddie Mercury was born in 1946, and so was Donald Trump. One was a flamboyant singer, songwriter, record producer, secret charity donor and gay icon. The other is a sociopath. Dolly Parton was also born in 1946. So was Ted Bundy. One is a flamboyant singer, songwriter, record producer, actress, author, businesswoman, humanitarian and feminist icon. The other was a serial killer. But somehow, they’re all bundled into a box of clones called ‘Boomers.’

Where’s the sense in that?

Useful advice

Don’t be afraid to ask heretical questions.

By this, I mean the kind of questions that suck the air out of the room or make you feel you risk losing your job just by asking them.

Yes, heretical questions are hard and don’t always lead to fun conversations, but they’re exactly the interrogations that could protect your business or brand by sparking ideas your rivals don’t have the guts or the tenacity to even think about.

Challenging the status quo can give you a competitive advantage. But not enough dissent or deviation happens in marketing, which explains the lack of true differentiation between most products and their advertising.

Albert Einstein famously said: ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I’d spend the first 55 minutes deciding the right questions to ask.’ In other words, if you ask better (harder) questions, you get better results.

And the Contagious Advisory team has found that one of the best ways for clients to get to genuinely heretical and game-changing answers is to use a technique called Question Storming, pioneered by Hal Gregersen at MIT.

Here, people trying to solve a problem are asked to generate at least fifty questions about the challenge they’re facing. The process is much tougher than conventional brainstorming, which tends to breed more linear solutions that live closer to the surface. Gregersen says that halfway through, participants often lose steam and get stuck. But his advice is to keep going because the most valuable and unique questions come after you’ve sweated your way past forty. 

The key thing to remember is that for Question Storming to work, you must focus purely on questions. Don’t bother with answers, as they tend to come with objective disqualifiers and therefore interfere with the flow. Answers should only start after you’ve found your unexpected but fantastically right question that had never been asked before.

The benefit of heretical questions is akin to reaching the uncontested ‘blue ocean’ space identified by INSEAD Professors W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne. If you can leap into an ‘area of unchallenged opportunity’, you make your competition irrelevant.

Heretical questions are the ultimate ninja move.

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