Q&A with Marcelo Peretti Kuhn, Head of Strategy and Culture at Forever Beta

HOW DID YOU GET WHERE YOU ARE TODAY?

I’m Marcelo, from Brazil. I’ve always wanted to move here for the weather. I arrived here late 2007, but because I didn’t have the right Visa I had to go to Italy and lived there for a while. When I returned to the UK, I started working in a company called Sense Worldwide, which is an innovation research company. I’ve always wanted to work in research and bring that to clients who could create new products and campaigns. I stayed there for a while, and it was a lucky situation because they needed someone to go to Brazil, Sao Paulo, Rio and Porto Alegre, so did that and ended up staying there for a year and a half.

After that, I thought I needed some big names that people can recognise from my CV, so I got a job at Wunderman and Ford was my main client. It was a very tricky situation because they didn’t have freedom, it was Wunderman, Mindshare and Ogilvy trying to play together while stabbing each other in the back. That didn’t last very long and Wunderman lost the Ford account. I don’t think I was solely responsible for this (laughs). Then I went to Karmarama, for a year and a half again, and worked on Honda bikes, plus a few bits and bobs. Then I went to Isobar and worked on Kellogg’s. After that I ended up at Forever Beta.

 

BRAZIL IS ONE OF THE MOST CREATIVE COUNTRIES IN THE WORLD. WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE CULTURE THAT ENABLES PEOPLE TO FULFIL THEIR CREATIVE POTENTIAL?

I think the only thing Brazil is really serious about is not being serious about anything. Which is terrible in lots of ways, but when it comes to creativity it’s very good. You can see it in Brazilian football players: they’re not necessarily the best, but they so enjoyable to watch. It really feels like they’re playing around with the rules. Right before I was leaving, Brazilians were trying to figure out what “Brazilianity” is all about, and where I got to was: a healthy disregard for the rules.

 

HOW CAN WE APPLY SOME OF THAT HERE?

One of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had working in this industry was that one of my CSOs loved to create templates. We had briefing templates, and sometimes we’d do presentations which looked like you just needed to fill in the boxes.

I think the more you try and constrain the creative process in a way that tries to boil it down to a formula, the more you kill it. I’m not saying that we don’t need process and some predictability, or a little bit of ability for people to understand where they are. But at the same time, I think you need to be able to uncover complex things. In order to do that, you need people who are able to know that there’s a process, but also understand that if the process is not working right now, how can you go back to the principles of what you’re trying to do? Always stick to the principles first and the process later.

Going back to the question about Brazilian culture, Brazil in a way is like that. Back in the 1920s, they were trying to develop Brazilian culture, and they decided to absorb a huge amount from the rest of the world and vomit it out our own way. And if you go to Brazil today, in Rio de Janeiro for example, their culture is a mix of different parts of Brazil, a few imports from the US, which they mix and spit out in their own way. That mix is what makes it unique.


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WOULD YOU SAY PROCESS IS A NECESSARY EVIL IN STRATEGY?

Not the process itself. The problem is when the process becomes blind to whatever we’re trying to achieve. When people say you should just follow the process and not question it. That’s when it becomes a problem. When you forget why we’re doing this. It’s the old story of the monkeys which need to go up a ladder to get a banana. Do you know this story? There are three monkeys, and someone put a banana on top of a ladder, so the first monkey goes up the ladder to get a banana and then a hose soaks the monkeys beneath them. Then another monkey goes up to get the banana, and the other monkeys get hosed again. So after a while the monkeys start to think: “ok, I can’t go up the ladder, otherwise I’ll get hit by the other monkeys and the other monkeys get soaked”.

Then they start changing the monkeys. A new monkey comes in, it’s never been hosed before, so it tries to get up the ladder and the others beat him. This goes on for a while longer. Then they switch another monkey, and now two monkeys have never been hosed down. So the new monkey tries to go up the ladder and gets beaten by the others. Then, at some point, there are three monkeys, and none of them have ever been hosed down. But none of them tries to go up the ladder, because they know they’re going to get beaten up by the other monkeys.

That’s the situation I’m talking about: when people continue to do things without really knowing why they’re doing it. And process then overtakes culture, it overtakes principles, and people can’t explain it to you. For example, people say you need to have a single minded proposition, but why? Because it’s the way you do it, that’s how people do it.

 

DOES THAT HAPPEN WITH CREATIVE PEOPLE TOO? BECAUSE IT'S SOMETHING THAT OFTEN COMES FROM ACCOUNT SERVICES.

I think when you get a bit insecure or you’re not sure what’s happening, you go back to something you understand. I think it’s the strategist’s role to go back to the principles. The strategists that I really admire are people who see loads of people talking and are able to understand what’s going on. They know this happened, this person said this, which made another person think that, and that’s why we’re in a certain situation. That’s what makes a strategist valuable, that understanding of principles.

You worked at Karmarama, and they’ve now been bought by Accenture. We also see more work going to consultancies who now do creative marketing as well. Do you see the role of strategy changing because of this?

For me the answer to that is very easy. You look at the Mad Men days, when ad men made a lot of money. The reason for that was that people couldn’t track results in real time, they needed to spend a lot of money on media as well. And the way they had to ensure they got return on investment was to get great creative. That’s the thing they believed would get a return on investment. And then, again the principles and the process, people went, “oh yeah, it’s creative, creative is everything”. But actually it isn’t. Return on investment is everything. That’s why clients come to you, and that’s why you get paid big bucks. When we get too caught up in the creative process and templates, we completely miss what the point is.

Our team is quite varied, we have different types of skills, and I want to have a really varied team because I don’t know what kind of project I’m going to work on tomorrow. So instead of teams who are like operating machinery and they always know what’s coming down the pipeline, I want more of a SWAT team who never quite knows what’s going to happen and need to adapt to the situation. When strategists see themselves as someone who wants to figure out how to get the best return on something, in terms of effort, capital, maybe even happiness, then it’s not that hard to understand the role that we’re going to continue to do.

 

WHICH SKILLS DO YOU LOOK FOR?

I don’t look for individual skills in particular. I want the team, I want diversity. I look for different people and I expect different things, but at the core I want people who are self-aware. People who are able to understand that they’re not infallible and they’re ok with that. They’ve built that kind of confidence.

There are two questions we always ask in interviews, that to me really expose people. Two very simple questions that I stole from Laszlo Bock from Google. The first one is, tell me of a difficult conversation that didn’t go your way. The second one is, tell me of a difficult conversation that did go your way. It’s quite simple, and yet it really shows you who people are. The worst thing you can do is say that a conversation didn’t go your way, but then add, “but at least”... that just shows the whole thing. Just show me you’re ok and sometimes you lose an argument. That’s it. It’s one of the things I look for, and I want to find a mix. I want to find cultural fit, I want people who are interested in other people and listen to them and are able to play off each other, because we’re never going to be working by ourselves. If you have that, than you should be ok.

 

HOW DO YOU EMBRACE DIVERSITY IN A FAST ENVIRONMENT? AND WE OFTEN TALK ABOUT HAVING TO FAIL FAST TO SUCCEED FAST, HOW DO YOU ACTUALLY RECOGNISE WHAT'S BAD FAILURE FROM GOOD FAILURE?

Let’s go back to the first one, diversity. The first guy I hired at Forever Beta, he was a guy called Pietro, who was ginger and spoke Italian, and I soon realised I had hired myself! You can have that blind spot. And he is great, but I think there was something there. I hired myself and I tried not to do that again, not to look for someone who’s just like me. It’s easy to do it and easy to tell yourself that you’re not doing it. I want diversity in personality in my team, and I want diversity in backgrounds. It’s very tricky to attract those kinds of candidates, and I want to be able to talk to more people and then find the people who I think will be a fit and still be diverse. We have now four nationalities in our team, which helps a little bit.

In terms of failure, and failing fast, one of the things that I’m very passionate about at Forever Beta is starting a mentorship programme where everyone has a mentor and a manager. I think that really helps with the failure thing. Because if things don’t go your way, at the very least I want you to be able to learn more from one exposure from that than you would at other places. To be able to sit down with someone who will be able to help you relive that in a more mature way, and guide you through it, help you extract more from that experience. I think bad failure is when you lose the confidence of the team. I let people down often, I can’t always do the things I said I wanted to do, but I think still, people go, “well Marcelo tried his best”. And that for me is important. When you lose that, that’s bad failure.

 

HOW DO YOU GIVE PEOPLE PERMISSION TO FAIL AND BE THEMSELVES?

As a leader of a department, your job is to try and get people to bring more of themselves to work, be more of themselves, explore the way they don’t fit in a traditional box is what makes them different. That’s what I want. There’s nothing more boring for me to get a CV that says you’re a highly driven, ambitious individual. I just skip those. When you get someone who is different, who is not afraid to be themselves, that gets interesting. And then it’s on you as a leader to get the best out of that person.

I think it goes back to the question of giving people permission to fail and experiment as one of the things that really drives results. How do we help clients design those spaces? How do we design a space for experimentation and failure within those companies? If you can help them find the budget, the safe space, the air cover, the framework of how that’s going to work and how you’re going build that culture where it’s ok to fail, that’s where it gets interesting.

 

YOUR BACKGROUND IS IN RESEARCH, AND FOREVER BETA ENCOURAGES PEOPLE TO FAIL FAST, LEARN AND MOVE ON. HOW DO YOU BALANCE THE FACT THAT USUALLY, TRADITIONAL RESEARCH TAKES A BIT OF TIME TO DO, WITH THE SPEED THAT SOMETIMES CLIENTS REQUIRE A SOLUTION?

We have a very good researcher that very quickly just produces amazing documents which are amazing to read. So that helps. But at the same time you need to continue evolving your hypotheses. One thing my mentor says is, don’t look for a knock-out, look for leverage. If you’re looking for that idea that you go, “YEAH that’s the thing”, I think it actually hampers the process. If you understand that this first idea is not perfect but there might be something here, then you can move on. There will be a limited amount of time to do that iteration, but it’s what you have to work with. I think that allows for research to progress in interesting ways. You think of different ideas along the way and keep progressing the research.

 

DO YOU USUALLY HAVE A FIXED SCOPE FOR RESEARCH? HOW DO YOU MIX THAT WITH KEEPING THINGS DYNAMIC? 

We try to be there and adapt questions. We haven’t been doing focus groups ourselves but we are invited we develop questions and follow ups. In the end, you have to get to the focus group with a clearer hypothesis that you’re going to test through conversation, quant, and so on. I’d much prefer the deep dive ethnographical research to focus groups, it’s what I did the first four years of my career: going to people’s houses, their medicine cabinets, wardrobes. I started in Brazil in an advertising agency but that’s basically what I did. We worked for two fashion retail brands and the world’s largest plastic shoe maker. It’s more interesting that you’d think!

 

HOW DO YOU KEEP DEVELOPING YOURSELF TO BECOME A BETTER STRATEGIST?

It’s weird, because I do feel like I’ve moved on a little bit and try to become more of a manager than a strategist now, so that affects the stuff I am reading and, the stuff I am listening to. But there was certainly a period in my life where I was reading about strategy. When I first read Good Strategy, Bad Strategy I thought, how did I get where I got to without reading this? It was really helpful. In the end, these guys [Group Think] are doing the right thing. Just talk to people and learn from that, that’s what helped me the most. That really opened me to things like mentoring. It helps people become more of whatever they are.

When I talk with my mentees now they say, “oh if I don’t tick these boxes now I won’t be an Account Director”. That’s when I say, “fuck being an Account Director, you want to be you, right? So let’s figure out how you become more valuable to this company that people trust you with bigger pieces of work”. Fuck that title, fuck that box. I don’t want that, it’s helpful for big corporations that just need to fill that in but it’s not going to be fulfilling to you. And if you don’t find purpose in coming to work, you’re not going to make your best contribution, you’re not going to be as happy as you can be. This stuff can get a bit deep but it’s important.

As Head of Culture at Forever Beta, is this something you promote outside of strategy as well?
The whole thing here is inter-departmental. You have a manager that’s from your department, and you have a manager that’s from a different department. I want people to grow slightly wonky. From that I realise this was the thing I really wanted to do. With AI coming in, we need to get better at the thing that you can’t reproduce with AI now, which is creativity. What AI can’t do is see something outside the system. If you put all the data there, AI tells you that eating ice cream will make you drown, because AI doesn’t understand the context of summer and that people do those things at the same time. But I think for people to be able to do that, we need to be able to create these environments where people are not afraid to fail and everyone tries their best. That’s the impact I want to have. If I’m able to create something that shifts that in a small way, I think my career will have been worth something. That’s my reason for waking up everyday.

 

DO YOU THINK AI AND HUMANS CAN CO-EXIST IN THAT CREATIVE ENVIRONMENT?

Definitely. But at the same time there’s a lot of people whose skills will become obsolete. With the education system being what it is, we’re educating people to be operating machinery, just repeating the same thing over and over again, predictably. That will need to change. And it’s very scary. Not to get too political here, but I want to see political leaders that are progressive, that have new ideas, that somehow communicate the message that we don’t quite know what’s going to happen next but we need to go and try something new. It’s not going back to what it was. That’s gone.

 

SPEAKING OF AI, DO YOU THINK STRATEGISTS SHOULD READ MORE SCIENCE FICTION TO BE AWARE OF THESE WEIRD FUTURES MIGHT BE?

I think it’s something that I’m kind of naturally interested in, so I never needed to push myself to read about it. But we need to expose ourselves to things we wouldn’t find and get out of our bubble. Try and force serendipity into our lives. I had a teacher that bought a new book every time he went to the airport, and make himself read that book while there. And from that you start getting new ideas, you know?

There’s a story that I continue to tell, years and years later, because it was helpful for me, which is not far from what we were saying about process. This yogi master had a cat, so every time he sat down to meditate the cat would jump on people, so they had to tie the cat to a post. So every time they’d sit down and meditate, they’d tie the cat to a post. Sit down, meditate, tie to post. Sit down, meditate, tie to post. And so on. Then the yogi master dies and they continue to tie the cat to a post. Then the cat dies, and people go, “we need to find a cat to tie to the post so we can meditate!”. That’s a great story from a book I wouldn’t have normally read.

 

FOREVER BETA DOES LOTS OF DIFFERENT THINGS. HOW HAVE YOU MANAGED TO NOT FALL INTO BEING KNOWN FOR JUST ONE THING?

We’ve done media planning for clients. I’ve led innovation workshops with clients. We’ve done rebrands, TV ads. I don’t fucking care. Whatever solves a specific problem. The thing is, we take that first job with a specific client, and then have the adult conversation that is needed, to show that we know more than that. And that’s what we do.

We go to clients and say, “yeah we can be a digital agency!”. We really do this thing of land and expand. The trick is, listen and ask more questions, especially if you don’t have a lot of leverage. We have really good account people as well, we’re very good at helping clients figure out what they need and create these spaces to go in and talk about the things that matter to them. It’s the human side of it. It counts a lot.


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