Q&A with Rosie & Faris Yakob of Genius Steals

HEY GENIUS STEALS - HOW DID YOU GET HERE?

R: After graduating I worked for an entertainment branding company started by Jay Z and Steve Stoute. It was a great first job, but I was frustrated by lack of digital understanding. As the founders were from the music industry, digital media wasn’t a priority. Next stop was Cake, a PR company now owned by Havas. There I launched the global social media presence for Motorola, and got to work with Havaianas as well. From there, I jumped to Saatchi & Saatchi where I got to lead social & emerging media. My immediate team was great, but the agency really wanted us to be the cool looking kids that did internet things… and there was less of an opportunity for me to learn. So I went to 360i – a Dentsu-owned agency, with a focus on digital marketing.

F: Oh and you won a Cannes Grand Prix.

R: Well, that was a team effort — the Oreo work was more than just a few people!

F: Of course, but… Still worth pointing out. :P

F: Well, now I’m old and patronising. But my early career was typified by complete uncertainty. I didn’t know how to be ‘good’. It was never clear that there was a right way to do something. No one taught me stuff and I think Group Think is probably a reaction to the fact that it’s still the case. After uni, I thought – “What do I do with a BA in English?” It doesn’t prevent you from applying to anything but doesn’t exactly set you up for anything. So I got a job at a small management consultancy focused on building digital businesses. I got an inflated salary, had to wear a suit, a flotation plan that would make me a millionaire in 5 years and I was like… hmmm. I appreciated the strategic rigour. But the reality was that I was surrounded by Oxford and Cambridge types trying to extract money out of blue chips on promises about the internet that just weren’t true yet. The company imploded in the first dotcom crash. Then I wrote some pieces for Maxim, worked at a record label, a bunch of different jobs…

R: One of Faris’ jobs, they were so baffled by his ability to Google that he was the original Ask Jeeves. Ahaha. They asked him at to be available to email requests from staff that wanted him to Google questions for them, right?

F: I applied to a graduate scheme at a media agency [OMD]. My ability to Google became one of my best tools. I had an email address with ‘askfaris@’. Yes… One of the more interesting things I did there was that I built some very simple media planning macros in a spreadsheet (You’ve got to imagine that tools were very unsophisticated back then).

Then I got a job at Naked, and I was there for years – it was an amazing place to work. Media neutral, creative and analytical. I went to the Sydney office, then got invited to NYC. And then McCann Erickson asked me to work there. I went from a small agency to a really big place, 2,000 employees, overnight, and a huge title, becoming Chief Digital Officer. After that I was recruited to work with Alex Bogusky at MDC as the Chief Innovation Officer, but he left a few weeks later. I was deployed inside one of their New York agencies and then was a founding partner of their creative technology outfit. I got a small stake after setting up the digital agency and I then sold it back to them – that was the fuel for our journey eventually. Now it’s keynotes, consulting and…

R: We both were working pretty hard in NYC — there were a lot of meetings. And then in March of 2013 Faris proposed, and yeah part of Faris’ proposal was that we’d quit and go traveling for six months. When we were travelling we realised we liked everywhere more than somewhere. The next place was cool, the next place was cooler, and so on. We found that we didn’t want to settle down. We did a few small projects here and there – people were asking us to support them as consultants. Most of the time we said “No” because we had set aside funds to travel, but we said “Yes” to some stuff and after six months we realised that instead of depleting our funds, we had broken even. So we decided to keep traveling and then go back to agency life when we stopped getting emails and making money haha! But it hasn’t happened…

R: We don’t really want to be leading in execution – only in solving the problems. We aren’t incentivised to suggest a certain type of predetermined solutions. No kickbacks or higher fees for suggesting stuff. We are neutral, as much as possible.

F: Yep. And that was a philosophy I’d learnt the importance of at Naked. Neutral and objective advice and ideas.

R: We think about structuring engagements in sprints. Three months at a time at the maximum. Most of the time we come in for a day or a week, or an hour for a keynote. You get to tackle a new problem and don’t sucked up into the bureaucracies associated with most offices.

F: We work with clients to refine their propositions, and classically refuse to hone ours at all! Haha.

R: If you’re a strategist your main asset is your mind. If you don’t know how to solve a problem immediately with your mind, you trust you’ll get there. That’s the joy of it.

 

YOU LIVE MY DREAMS – TRAVELING AROUND THE WORLD DELIVERING STRATEGIES FOR AMAZING BRANDS. BUT WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES OF IT?

R: More things are difficult than easy. Taxes are mental when you work in different countries and being fiscally responsible is nuts. When you run your own business, you realise when you don’t have particular skillsets, so we have trusted partners that help us out. For example, healthcare in the US is only valid in the state that I’m from – so figuring out how to get doctor’s appointments and insurance that gets us the cover we need is something we have to get figured out.

F: I can think of three big challenges. Well, three challenges and a kicker.

The first is that running a business is very different to being a planner, or any employee really. When I first tried to do it myself I fucked it up. Friends hired me and I didn’t sign contracts and I got fucked. This is why employment papers in the US are so long – at one place in the US it was 60 pages and they said I should get my lawyer to look over it… I mean I didn’t have a lawyer, so they said they could get one of their lawyers to look it over haha. I obviously didn’t take them up on that! But you’ve got to know all this stuff and be wary of it. There is loads of risk – cash flow, modulating overheads, ‘deal flow’. People have to want to give you money for your thinking and ideas to survive every year. If they don’t you have to drum up work quickly.

Second thing is that the life logistics stuff is hard. Leases are difficult but once you make a decision about where to live, that’s usually it for a year at least. We have a whole new stream of work that’s to do with working out where and how we get to places, how to book accommodation etc. Today we tried to work out “if we’re in Lithuania on Monday, how the hell do we do it all and get to Berlin on the way and then to the next place…”

Third is that maintaining a community is difficult. Our friends are scattered in different places and it’s hard to keep up with everyone. Rosie has figured out how to keep us all together and it usually involves organising a big weekend to get all our friends together a couple times a year.

And the kicker is – everyone thinks you’re on holiday all the time!

R: Yeah. I mean I post a photo of a beautiful sunset somewhere exotic, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been working on my laptop all day in a coffee shop and that I’m exhausted. Everyone thinks we’re living the dream and you can’t complain haha!

 

HAVE YOU SEEN A CLIENT FACING A SIGNIFICANT BIAS THAT HAVE BEEN ABLE TO OVERCOME IT?

F: There are two things to recognise about this. There are the biases that they aren’t aware of and the biases they won’t tell you unless they are drunk. The latter is something we try to tackle head on. We like to be frank with our clients in order to do a good job. If you ask your client “How do you secure your bonus?” it makes things a lot easier. If we can crack that and solve their problems – then no idea gets ‘rubbished’ or blocked from being sold into the business.

R: Even if it’s not a bonus – how are they motivated? Thinking of your client as individuals will help. “What happens after you send your deck through?” is a question we have asked our agency partners so many times and they have no idea.

F: For example, does it become 1 slide in their deck of 60 slides to their boss? That is honestly what often happens!

R: Another thing is that if you figure out what ‘changes’ are actually going to happen inside a client’s business based on what they are measuring then you know which measures are actually useful to them. If they can’t act on what they’re measuring, or they won’t act on it, then don’t bother measuring it. When a diagnostic measure becomes a target in itself, it ceases to become a useful measure. [That’s Goodhart’s Law]

F: The other one that is not mentioned is that, well when you get clients that have been lifers at their companies they think the thing they sell is super important, e.g. gum. And there’s no way to tell them that gum isn’t important. The role agencies have always had to play is in helping clients to overcome that. The same is true of any client, or indeed any agency person. Creative agencies think the creative is the most important thing, media agencies that media, and so on.


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LOTS OF AGENCIES ARE TRYING TO DO EVERYTHING THESE DAYS AND IT’S VERY CONFUSING FOR CLIENTS. DO YOU SEPARATE YOURSELF FROM THAT BLUR?

R: We have done work with agencies to create different departments to service clients. Everyone is fighting for the same non-media working budgets. It’s a big pile on and a challenge we see everywhere. Helping clients manage their problem saying every agency is trying to up-sell you on solutions and they are forced to do that because you are squeezing their margins… It’s a big problem for lots of agencies and a good opportunity for us.

We do talk to clients about how to better incentivise and work with their agencies – the best idea should win. The best reward is a often a creative award, for those agencies, which leads to a raise and so everyone is incentivised to try and get an award so they can say they’ve got the best idea. So sometimes we suggest to clients that everyone submit ideas at the same time.

F: The new blurry thing about this stuff is the fragmentation of strategy. When I was at Naked in the mid-2,000s we would become the de facto agency integration function for our clients because they couldn’t manage 50 agencies and the complexity of it themselves. Naked would take on the total planning problem and create communications ideas and then allocate channel budgets. We’d dictate what proposition they would work to. Agencies sometimes fucking hated us for it since we were cutting out their planning and giving them their budget. But honestly, when you are one agency out of five or 50 you can’t have your own planning/strategy process because it might affect the whole thing.

R: One last thought on this – 360i, well because we were the digital agency we didn’t get first chance to develop ideas often just because we weren’t the main creative agency. So one thing we tried was getting our clients to come to the city and drink with them so we could understand them. Then we hosted a workshop with all the other agencies, and decided what the best criteria for the next campaign was and we created a score card that would be used to evaluate every idea from then on. We became the facilitators of that whole creative process, which meant we had enormous influence over it.

 

GIVEN YOU’VE WORKED WITH CLIENTS ALL OVER THE WORLD – HOW MUCH THINKING IS GIVEN TO CULTURAL STRATEGY?

F: Very good question. A lot of brands struggle with this. Looking at culture is an amazing way to develop different insights [Cultural Strategy by Holt and Cameron is a good reference for this]. There is often a directive in global companies to create efficiencies, which means that in marketing/advertising lots of their creative agencies in ‘second degree markets’ end up putting on the global spot but with awkward translations that just don’t work for the market and is demoralising for the agency.

R: There was a brand which has a compelling tagline in the US, but when the agency tried to translate the tagline into Hindi just didn’t work. It was over three lines long, trying to convey the same meaning. The client team in the US just said ‘make it shorter’ but that was never gonna work. It just didn’t work. So to your question – people are trying to address this stuff but it’s got an enormous way to go.

F: You can have a global creative framework that is just so big that it’s somewhat meaningless… Think of ‘Just Do It'. You can stick that line on anything and if the spot is good it’s a good Nike ad. Big emotional concepts like 'Happiness' for example, you could brief different markets with that and maybe it would work. But the reality is that sometimes you get stuff being made that’s actually racist... You’ve seen the Dove stuff right?

racist-dove-ad-composite-650_650x400_61507808524.jpg

Ouch.

It’s hard though because you want to use cultural insights and make interesting statements but so often you can’t or feel you can’t. In America if you try to make a semi-political statement you piss off half the nation. If you sell cheese and everyone buys your product you feel that you can’t afford to piss half of them off.

 

ARE YOU SEEING EMERGING TRENDS IN AGENCY LAND?

R: The ‘gig economy’. We are seeing less agency rosters. More and more we are seeing people wanting to take jobs freelance. It’s not just in advertising but there are programmes like ‘Remote Year’ or ‘We Roam’ and they setup all the travel stuff for you. I like the idea of people doing that stuff and I think it’ll lead to a new set of thinking on employment perks.

F: We’ve seen loads of people trying to solve this from a private company level.

R: But yeah, another big (probably the biggest) trend in the industry is The Great Blur – every agency fighting every agency for everything. It’s the Wild West right now.

 

THE WHOLE BRANDS HAVING PURPOSE AND COMMENTING ON POLITICS OR SOCIETY – YAY OR NAY?

R: I don’t think it’s good enough to not have an opinion any more. Oreo made a gay pride Oreo and certainly there were people that freaked out, but I think it’s better for brands to have balls.

F: There are two schools of thinking in this realm – Sinek’s book Start With Why (and he is an amazing speaker). And then there’s Byron Sharp – who says 'ignore all that stuff, it’s bollocks, just be close mentally and physically'. And to be honest both of them are right. But the truth is that just saying ‘making money is our purpose’ is bollocks too – everyone does that and it doesn’t…

R: ... Tell you how to act.

F: Exactly. It doesn’t direct you. So it’s not helpful. A strong brand ‘purpose’ is generative, it helps everyone in the company make decisions.

 

MAKING A STAND – HOW DO YOU CONVINCE A CLIENT OR BRAND TO BE LESS RISK AVERSE?

R: Understand all the lines. I don’t mean crossing them and then asking for forgiveness. My team at the agency I used to work at went through all the same legal training as brand managers to understand how to know where the risks are for our clients so we can jump through the hoops. It’s boring training. But once you understand what rules they are being held up to by their local legal council then you know how to surmount those/exploit those things. At the end of the day lawyers aren’t there to eliminate risk, but to decrease the amount of risk you are going to take on.

F: 100% agree. Same as the client motivation thing we spoke about earlier. With things like focus groups, the honest truth is that loads of people do focus groups to ensure they don’t get fired for making decisions.

R: I always befriended the lawyers at the agencies I worked at. And the finance department. They are really helpful. Take them out for drinks. Ask them questions.

F: Never ask clients to take risks without a reason. ‘Risk is going to make a return’ – that’s always a good argument because there’s so much noise with stuff like advertising. Managing risk, not entirely avoiding it, is how a business makes money. If there was no risk there would be no reward. But you do need to work out what the risk is – to the brand and to the client themselves.

R: We hear from clients all the time that their agency doesn’t listen to them, ignores the details of the brief or the business. It’s frustrating. At Cake, we had a new client in the US and we wanted them to take a risk on us, and spending some money. We charged them a smaller fee up front, and then built in a bonus scheme. We put skin in the game, which gave them a much better reason to take a risk.

F: You’ve also got to give them the tools to feel comfortable and sell it up the line. Most companies are very political. Our risks in advertising (i.e. the cost) is fucking tiny compared to media budget, and even smaller compared to all the financial risk associated with a new product launch.

 

I’VE BEEN ON PITCHES FOR ASIAN CLIENTS AND SOME OF THE CULTURAL DIFFERENCES CAN AFFECT HOW YOU DO STUFF. CAN YOU GIVE US SOME EXAMPLES OF IMPORTANT CULTURAL NUANCES YOU’VE FOUND ON YOUR TRAVELS?

F: I can give you a couple of examples. When I worked on Sony, local agencies get training on Japanese culture to know how to respond. For example, Japanese business people can’t say “No”. So I’d come up with something and they’d say to me “Faris, that was a really good idea, let’s bring it up next time” and that effectively means it’s dead but I’d bring it up next time and they’d lose their shit. It was taboo! It meant the idea was dead.

Another thing I found strange was that clients shut their eyes when they are concentrating. But my presentation is really visual and so if they shut their eyes… Argh.

Also, going to America as an English person, you don’t realise it’s a foreign culture because your brain tells you that you’ve seen the television and they speak English and you understand it. But the culture shock is often subtle. Lots of little things come up.

R: The cultural barrier we come up against a lot is the cultural barrier between the US and the UK. I am very enthusiastic and proud of what we’ve done and Faris can be more shy.

Another thing I find is that, old white men, they often understand I am the co-founder of the company but it still happens that men will direct their conversation to Faris as if he’s the one in charge — when in reality he’s not going to be doing the negotiating. I really hate having to ask Faris to send a message to these people to make them ‘get it’…

F: And when we come across this kind of stuff we’re also just like “Urgh. You’re like 80% less cool now in my head.”

R: It’s funny. When you encounter men that work with women in female leadership positions their mindset is completely different. But I never know when I’m going to encounter misogyny like that.

 

ANY TIPS ON NEGOTIATING WITH CLIENTS OR YOUR OWN SALARY?

F: I was very uncomfortable talking about money. I moved to NY and everyone asks your rent and salary. It’s not uncomfortable at all. But Rosie was always like “ask for more money” and it’s never, not once, made a client or a project go away.

R: So, yeah, always ask for more money. If you ask a client for more money and they say “Yes” straight away, you know you’ve lost. If they say “No” you’ve entered into a negotiation. That’s a win. On the salary front, your raise is often based on percentages — and a big percentage of a small number is still small — so you want to get the biggest bulk up front.

F: And as strategists you have cost/benefit analysis skills. You can prove how much you are worth by looking at how you’ve impacted business. One of the greatest tricks agencies pulled on planners is tacitly convincing them that what they do isn’t the product, isn’t fee generative, that it doesn’t make money on its own.

 

BLOWS MY MIND WORKING ON GLOBAL BRANDS – CAN THEY SURVIVE? BECAUSE IF THEY HAVE DIFFERENT IDEAS AREN’T THEY WORKING AS DIFFERENT COMPANIES IN DIFFERENT COUNTRIES? FEELS LIKE A LOSING BATTLE AGAINST STARTUPS.

R: Nestle is one of the biggest brands in the world. In emerging markets, one of the ways their brand is used is as a stamp of safety. In the US, if you’re in a supermarket you don’t need a stamp like that because of all the rigorous checks around food etc. – being in the supermarket means you’re safe. But in South America the Nestle brand is really important as a stamp of safety.

F: There are different drivers creating these things. There are brands that tailor their self (even the brand name) in markets because of its history. Unilever will complain that their biggest competitors are local brands that have local cultural cachet – in Bolivia, there’s a detergent called Bolivar because it’s named after the founder of the country that ‘liberated them' from the dirt haha. But the fact is that in lots of markets, big Western brands are a sign of safety. They have been seen on television. So they are at dramatically different stages of evolution vs local brands.

R: The reality is that 99% of startups are not going to upset big brands massively. For a lot of small brands you can still make it small. Brands that aren’t run by people trying to make a fortune but instead make enough for them to live off of and which they are passionate about (vs working for someone else or trying to make stacks of money just because).

F: And when local brands do grow, big brands can often just buy that local brand and then push it out through their amazing distribution networks…

 

R: THE ONE QUESTION WE HAVEN’T BEEN ASKED TONIGHT BUT IS AN INTERESTING ONE IS PROBABLY – “DOES YOUR APPEARANCE EFFECT WHO IS PREPARED TO WORK WITH YOU?”

F: We realised that if we didn’t dress up ‘smart’ for clients (like every other consultant), it would lead to them asking us the questions they wouldn’t ask other people. Yes it’s branding in some sense. But honestly, when people go to hire consultants and they’re turned off by our hair, we know they were gonna be shitty clients anyway.

R: Yeah. We know people often judge us based on our appearance. But when clients go ahead and hire us anyway because they appreciate what we’re saying/telling them… Well it’s great because those people often leave with a bit more of an open mind than before we worked with them.

 

DO YOU HAVE ANY SUPER PRACTICAL ‘DARK ARTS’/SECRET TIPS? (FOR EXAMPLE ONE Q&A GUEST SAID THAT WHEN THEY’RE PITCHING THEY ALWAYS RING UP AN ACADEMIC EXPERT ON THAT SPECIFIC SUBJECT FOR INSIGHT)

F: Here’s one on pitching we wrote earlier, for a book about it.

http://peterlevitan.com/how-strategy-and-brains-drive-attention-and-sales-6828/ 

R: It’s not really a secret tip, but being nice to people and making friends goes a long way. Seriously, though. We try to always respond to emails we get (though sometimes it can take a while when the inbox gets backed up) — whether it’s a request for a quote, feedback on a resume, insight from a place we’ve been or a brand we’ve worked on, and so on. We don’t do it so that we have a favour to call in, but of course the more you give, the more you get. :)


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Genius Steals is a strategy and innovation consultancy which helps brands, agencies, and rebels find the awesome at the intersection of new communication ideas, new product concepts, and new ways of thinking, especially about the impact of technology. Co-Founders and husband and wife team Faris and Rosie have been living nomadically with no home base since March of 2013 — 240 weeks and counting!

Genius Steals issues a twice-weekly newsletter of awesomeness, which was named an “essential read for creative minds” by Hubspot. You should probably subscribe: http://geniussteals.co/subscribe