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Mitch Joel on CTRL-ALT-DEL

I had a chance to talk with Mitch about his new book for Marketing Over Coffee, if you’re an audio kind of person check it out at the website, or on iTunes or Stitcher. If you’re the kind of person that prefers to read, well, here’s the copy:

Of course you can get CTRL-ALT-DEL from Amazon.

John:  This is your second book. The first one ran like wildfire. Take us from when we talked to you last. The book did well. You did the speaking thing. When did you realize you needed to write something else and what did you come up with for a big idea?

Mitch:  “Six Pixels” came out in 2009 (I wrote it in 2008) and I really felt it was a book where I was explaining how, as a small agency – a very small shop under a handful of people – we leveraged these ways in which we connect. I don’t want to lump it all under social media because I didn’t think “Six Pixels” was just a social media book, but how we leveraged it to really build attention, build clients, and use it as a springboard to what we can do, which is very different from the way traditionally you would think you would grow an agency and market it.

I was already latched onto the blogging bug, and for sure, the podcasting bug had bit hard, too. You go through the process and wonder, “Do I need to really write another book? I’m still blogging every day. I’m podcasting every week. I write for the Harvard Business Review one week, and the opposite week I write for Huffington Post. Magazine offers and newspaper stuff.” Life is sort of good.

I just came to the point in my life, professionally, where I realized it was sort of like, “What now?” moment. What now? So what? So everyone has a mobile phone. So everyone is creating videos and texts and images and audio and Twitter – but so what? What now? What do we do as a business to truly make this stuff matter, make it count, and not do the stuff we used to do in this very, very new and different channel?

In my conversations with C-level executives, in my conversations with marketing practitioners, I do about 60-70 speaking events every single year, it became abundantly clear to me that there were several things that have happened that have fundamentally changed business forever, and yet most brands were doing nothing about it.

I looked at it and kept modeling it and having the conversations and the speeches I was doing, and it really came into these five areas. To me, it was about: how do you reboot business? To me, rebooting business is about these five areas in terms of today.

But then I started realizing, what does that mean to me and you? You have to still get up and go to work every day. You have to still do what you have to do. Does this make you employable in the next five years? How do you stay employable in the next five years?

That became the catalyst for the second part of the book, which is called, “Reboot You.” I call them triggers, but it’s posture you need to have to make sure that you, in and of yourself, are a viable entity within this very, very different business system. When those two roles collided, John, it was the classic story. I was in the shower when I had the epiphany. It was my holiday break and I was like, “Wow, this is it.”

I have to tell you, from book proposal to speaking to my agent to all that, it was literally a function of a couple of weeks. I always had the title “Ctrl-Alt-Delete” in my brain as a potential for the second book, but there was this moment of crystallization. It really is a labor of love. It’s not a book where I’m talking about how I did something or why you should, too. It was more an exploratory book in these five regions and these different triggers, and for me, it was such a pleasure to pull it together in a much richer depth than I can go into on my blog.

John:  The thing that got me is, right out of the gate, you’re talking about sounding the alarm – the classic look to your left and right, and one of those guys aren’t going to be there in a couple years. It could be you, too, if you don’t have your act together. Do you really think it’s that severe – the shift that we’re facing that we’ve got in front of us now with all these tools coming into bear?

Mitch:  Whenever you put a provocation out like that, most people are like, “Well, hell yeah!” I’m Canadian, so I think, “Oh, I don’t know. It sort of makes me edgy.” It’s a line that I have been using on audiences for a while. For me, the real reason why I started with that is because I think about my agency – Twist Image – we started in 2000 and I joined in 2002, so I’ve been at it now for eleven years just here, not talking about the fact that I got into digital in 1993, so it’s been like 20 years of being in digital.

I think about how we have evolved, what services we offer and how we connect brands. We work with B2B, B2C, small impulse buys, we work with products that take long sales cycles; and you come to realize that I’m actually employing people currently in job titles that didn’t exist when I started this shop in departments that didn’t exist in the industry. It’s this whole new wave of vocation that has fundamentally changed.

Ctrl-Alt-Delete

Don’t try this while you read this

Then I meet with my peers who are in, let’s say, traditional media and they’re not really struggling in terms of managing growth. They’re struggling and figuring out how to cut things so it looks like there’s revenue there. And yes, I do think the foundational digitization of society is profound and I think it’s even most profound now because we’ve come past this shiny object thing.

We’re at a point where technology has removed the technology from technology. Think about the iPad; think about a smartphone. If you pivot on that idea, you start realizing that these are real shifts that have happened – they’ve already taken place – and we need to act. I do think that even five years might be a little long just based off of the exponential growth curve that we’re in.

John:  Yeah, and how it comes around. I like the way you’ve framed that as far as pulling the complexity out of the technology. There’s a classic Bill Gates line saying we always overestimate these technologies in the first year, but then we underestimate ten years from now what they’re going to do because they do finally deliver on all the hype and promise as time goes by.

Mitch:  The squishing of the time has also been much more compressed. Even when I first spoke about it in“Six Pixels of Separation,” I talked about that compression of how a message goes from ideation to publishing. Blogging fundamentally changed that. It became instant. Now you think about that just in terms of the world. I have to always remind people three-and-a-half years ago, we didn’t have an iPad. It’s not a long time.

John:  Literally, you’re talking about not even 1,000 days since that’s come up and around. Yet another angle that I like a lot is you talk about “no direct relationships, no future”. I like that idea because so often people have thought about these new channels and using them to promote and push, but it’s kind of flipping it around and saying, “No, you’re not getting it. If you don’t get those relationships, you’re at the end of the road.” Could you talk a little bit more about that?

Mitch:  Anybody can sell anybody now. You and I grew up in a day and age where if you bought a pair of Sony headphones, you did not buy it at the Sony store. You probably bought it Target, Wal-Mart, or wherever. If you were mad about it, you just went back to the store and complained. It never really filtered up to Sony. On the occasional poor customer issue, you would write a letter to them and they would maybe respond or maybe pretend like they never got the mail and it would wind up in someone’s file cabinet and that was the end of it.

If you think about what that relationship from the consumer perspective is today, it’s very, very different. Sony, Target, Wal-Mart – “like us on Facebook, follow us and do all this stuff.” This is a lot of marketing messaging. Just think about that food chain. Sony is telling me to like them on Facebook and Target is telling me to like them on Facebook, and it’s happening on Facebook.

Who owns the direct relationship? Is it Facebook that owns the direct relationship with Mitch Joel? Is it Target? Is it Sony? I try and make the argument that you can pick one if you want, John, but it doesn’t matter. Every single one is trying to have the direct relationship, because that’s what we have at the end of the day. All we have as a brand is that powerful direct relationship.

You might say, “No kidding. That’s not a new movement.” I would argue it is a new movement when you look at the food chain I’ve just described. Before, it was: you’re in the fight with the competitor for the direct relationship. Now if you look at your food chain from your product, you’re actually in a battle with each and every person on the food chain because they’re telling you to like them, follow them, and do all this stuff as well. Everybody’s hustling into that direct relationship.

I do think the perspective that most brands bring to that component of the relationship, they’re sorely missing and they’re letting that relationship go to not a competitor, but someone else in the actual food chain.

John:  The whole section that talks about the 7 Steps of Utilitarian Marketing, tell us a little bit more about that. I like the way that all fit together.

Mitch:  I found myself one day in New York City needing a bathroom really badly, turning on my iPhone and seeing the app “Sit or Squat.” You turn this app on and it knows where you are by GPS location and it tells you which are the cleanest bathrooms in the closest vicinity, literally rated from 1-5 stars. It’s based off of a wiki platform. Anybody can edit it. They can add as many stars as they want. They can add comments. They can add new bathrooms and request a bathroom be removed. It’s this amazing app brought to you by the good people at Charmin.

You tend to think about if Charmin was doing mobile, it would be, “Here are mobile coupons,” and “Here’s are double-quilted thing,” or “It’s a game with the bears from the TV and you get to pick the little piece of toilet paper off their butts,” or whatever it might be. It’s ridiculous that in a day and age where anybody can create anything and send it to consumers that what we’re actually doing is mostly bad advertising or bad iterations of advertising when you can create utility.

I think “Sit or Squat” was one of those bellwether examples where I realized it could be complementary. It could be an extension of a brand narrative. It could tell a bigger and more profound story and connect people more to the brand by providing them with something they would like to use. We live in a world where the home screen of our phone is the new real estate. It’s the same reason why a big store would open up on a specific corner and a specific city. They’re looking for foot traffic.  Well, that new real estate – that new foot traffic – is the home screen of the smartphone.

People recoil and think, “Well, what is it, one-quarter of all branded apps get downloaded, used once and never again?” All that data is wrong because they’re talking about apps that suck. You and I always use apps that provide utility – that added value – and I don’t know how many brands have taken the step back to say beyond the advertising schema that you can have in these platforms and channels, “Why don’t we actually create something that is of value?”

Pushing that further to the blackest of black belts, it would be, “Could you get it to the point where somebody would pay for it because it’s so valuable and useful to them?” I do think we’re at this amazing moment in the history of marketing and communications and the history of business where you can actually do that without traditional gatekeepers. That is massive.

I understand why brands haven’t done it, because maybe they haven’t been illuminated to the idea, but what an amazing opportunity for anyone.

John:  You have a whole chapter that talks about sex with data and nailing down the linear. Aside from just being provocative, it is all about the data. Of course we’ve seen the big data tidal wave wash over us here. What’s your take on this? What do you see us doing with all this data in front of us now?

Mitch:  I was talking recently, and I know you present as well, and sometimes when you speak you say something and it comes out of your mouth and you don’t know where it came from. Sometimes you wish you could grab it back and shove it back down your throat. There are other moments where you’re like, “Oh, that was funny; I should remember it.”

I remember saying something along the lines of, “I think everybody is overly-excited about big data and that’s really interesting in a world where most people suck at small data.”Where I was going with that is we have a lot of linear information that we take – e-mail addresses, advertising, direct marketing, etc. We have this new world on the right-hand side which is that circular gate. It’s the semantics stuff. It’s not data that you’re really capturing, but it’s data that individual consumer are willfully putting out there (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, etc.).

Looking at that and thinking about our world of dashboards, and everybody in data analytics is all excited about dashboards, I say beyond dashboards, what are with really talking about here? I think what we’re talking about is the intersection of that linear data going into that circular data. That’s where the good stuff happens. That’s where the sex happens.

Suddenly it’s not just about demographics and psychographics that are helping you as a brand connect information in a way that would be more relevant to music consumer, but suddenly you have a more 360-degree perspective of not just what Mitch Joel has done, but who he is. When you think about that at a macro level, you can just imagine a world where information, advertising, sharing, building relationships becomes that much more powerful.

When I say you can imagine a world, I say that because you can do it today – you can do it right now – it’s just brands don’t have the intestinal fortitude to do it. They’re not putting the time and effort into figuring out what it takes to make that happen.

When I talk like that, I realize everybody says, “Well, that sounds creepy. It sounds like an invasion of privacy.” I’m the immediate past chairman of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Marketing Association. I sat on the board of the Interactive Advertising Bureau. Privacy is a massive issue for me. Privacy is a massive issue for me because a lot of marketers screwed it up to the point where we need to have lawyers involved and government involved. That’s crazy.

I believe that what I see when I talk about sex with data is the ability to do things for consumers that are not breaching any form of privacy, but at the same time, creating a level of personalization that makes them just want it more.

Case in point would be Amazon. It’s so hyper-personalized that if you were to see Amazon as a brand new customer, it would be very overwhelming and probably very boring to you. But they do that personalization so well. They leverage that linear data with what they know about you in terms of your personal habits that it makes you yearn for more of it.  We don’t ever think, “Amazon is really breaching my privacy.” We think, “Wow, Amazon. Keep at it, because I’m buying more stuff and I like this.”

John:  You said the first chapter of the book talks about the corporate approach – things the whole organization has to worry about. But in part two, you get into the more personal level about what you personally need to do for your career to keep things moving. One thing you talk about is rebooting yourself and finding your blend, if you could tell us about that.

Mitch:  Blend is a really interesting concept that I wish I had created. It’s one of those things that you realize you’re doing, and then someone gives you a name for it. I’m at this really cool event and I get a chance to be introduced to Patrick Pichette, who is the CFO of a little company called Google. Can you imagine meeting the CFO of Google, by the way? What a gig.

John:  Yeah, tough life!

Mitch:  I don’t even know if you remember, in the news they had that thing where – I think it was for Google+ or something – where they rented a wave machine so people can surf at mountain-view. He was telling me, “I’ve got this purchase order” I asked, “What is this for?”

“Oh, we’re renting an ocean to go wave surfing.” And I guess that’s what happens when you have billions of dollars in a war chest.

I’m standing with Patrick and he happened to be here in Montreal. Patrick is a former Montrealer who was working for Bell Company, most people here know it. There were a couple of his old Bell buddies who were at this event. One of the guys is standing there next to him and I’m just a fly on the wall. They say to him, “Hey, Patrick, how’s your work-life balance now?”

It was awesome. Patrick looks this guy right in the eye – doesn’t miss a beat – and goes, “You don’t take this job for work-life balance.”

You would think most people would say, “Oh, I get the weekends,” or whatever. You don’t take the CFO gig at Google if you want work-life balance. You’re all in. I remember thinking it’s those super-execs who have great punch lines.

We sit down for dinner, and again, just magic of magic, Patrick sits right next to me, which is awesome, so I get to chat him up. I said, “I was really taken by your comment about work-life balance.” He said, “When you work as people like us work – and I include you and myself – in this connected world with e-mail and smartphones, this idea that work falls outside of life is somewhat erroneous.”

It’s so true. I’m really dedicated to the growth of Twist Image. I’m dedicated to the content I create and the speeches I give and all those things. At the same time, I don’t like putting it outside of life. I think it’s life. You have 24 hours in a day and you’re making it work.

He talked about this notion of blend, this idea that he had this crazy meeting in London, so he flew his wife in and they spent three days in London, but then he was gone for another two days or down in the office; then he did something with his kids. I’m not trying to make it sound like he’s neglecting his kids and he doesn’t come home for supper with his family – that’s not the scenario. It was more of him constructing his day around the blend and flow.

I don’t know about you, but I have found there are days where I’m looking at my computer and my agenda and I close the computer and go play with the kids in the park. I can jump back online at 9:00pm and catch up on the extra e-mails or whatever it is, or I can have this call on the way home in the car. We have very different lives.

I always worry, “Oh, dear Lord, I’m a workaholic and I’m going to have a heart attack.” That whole thing where I stress myself out about the fact that I’m not stressed out. I really started looking at my life realizing that I have a really healthy blend. Blend, to me, in terms of how I look at life is it’s a stool and the stool has three legs. One leg is my family and friends; one leg is my professional work; and the third one is my community work. Like any proper stool, if you don’t have the exact balance in all three, it will tip over.

When I have those moments where I feel it’s tipping over, I look to the three and I figure out: where is the blend missing?

John:  You’re talking about the way the market is changing, things are ramping up and an employee really needs to take more of a startup mindset, if you could talk about the components of that and how that protects you, makes you future-proof.

Mitch:  I know both you and I both have a huge love for all things Seth Godin. Whenever I’m doing something in work – and I consider a lot of my work very, very entrepreneurial – I think about that aphorism he always shares, which is, “The riskiest thing you can do is be safe, and the safest thing you can do is be risky.”

It’s a nice thing to say. It’s not necessarily an easy thing to do when you’re looking at the construct of what your day-to-day life is – “I’ve got to pay rent, make the mortgage, take care of family and all that sort of stuff.”

What is it about the sort of work that we do? You’ve always heard terms like be an entrepreneur, be an intrapreneur, etc. But there has been this startup movement that has come into the fray. We’ve had startups for a long time, but I think now because technology has become that much more easy, obvious and intuitive for people to at least try their own thing, I was wondering, what would happen if we brought that type of startup spirit?

If we looked at the things that are so beautifully written in “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries, if we actually took that mentality – that startup mentality – of testing, being iterative, learning, optimizing and applied it, one, to the work we do, and two, to us as individuals, what would it look like?

Not a day doesn’t go by that I don’t try and do one little test. It might just be a simple e-mail question to someone or whatever it might be, but the more and more I get into that idea of being that startup, – that constant iterative place – the more comfortable it makes me.

I think people who even come to work for our agency are somewhat surprised being 100+ people for 13 years that we really have that startup mentality, not just in the physical way we look and operate, but in just how we think. It’s always about we’re the underdogs and we have to really go for it. I think it’s a valuable lesson to think about in terms of your own personal development.

John:  As you’ve gone through the process of writing things – you’ve put this all together – has it changed the way you’re doing business daily now? You obviously had the idea when you began. By the time you finished, had it changed the direction you were moving in? Has it done anything different for you now today?

Mitch:  In terms of the whole book, you mean?

John:  A lot of times, the writing process makes things gel for you. By the time you’re done, you look at the idea differently than when you started. Has it metamorphosed at all or were you dead on from day one?

Mitch:  It’s a weird world when you’re between my two ears. During the writing process of the book – and it took a significant amount of time – I didn’t miss a blog post and I didn’t miss a podcast. You can imagine that if I blog every single day (365 posts a year, and take away one a week because I do a podcast on Sunday), I’m accumulating books and books as the book is being written. I think as you’re writing the book, other things that fall off or become inspiration lead into blog posts, articles, or what have you. With that, I’ve been talking about the concepts live in front of an audience for about a year, because you want to test the content and see if it resonates or not.

What I’ve learned is the book is the place where I go to really expand upon a lot of those ideas, whether they be in a blog post or an article or speaking, and then it takes you down other avenues and it becomes this beginning, middle and end. I know that the book retains that.

But definitely, if I look back to the fact that I finished writing it in May of last year and did the final edits up until January/February of 2013, I was updating things and moving things.

I think about one of the anchor stories that I tell in the beginning of the book, which is about Marco Arment, who is the former dude from Tumblr who went on to start Instapaper. This guy starts this business. He’s running it out of his appointment in New York. It’s worth millions and millions of dollars and nobody even knows because he’s self-funded, he did it by himself, and it’s this massive success. It got sold to Betaworks the other week.

You look at that and say, “Isn’t that the problem? How do you write a book and it’s already out of date?” I was thinking about it and it actually completely validates everything I’m talking about in the book. What does that tell you? It tells you that you can have a multi-million dollar exit in the time a book is written. That is complete purgatory. That is complete mode for reboot. That is a complete model for “Ctrl+Alt+Delete.”

It’s interesting to see how the dynamics change for sure, but the five movements are very, very real. How we’re bringing it to work is still very, very real. My real love is now that it’s written and it’s coming out, I can just really expand on some of it even more if I want – or update it – in the platforms I have.

It’s sort of an organic thing. The book can’t be the only thing. I think if anyone reads it and likes it, they’ll do what they did last time, which is latch onto the podcast, listen to this, follow me on Twitter, read my columns in HBR and hopefully what they’ll do is come with me on this journey – because it’s a journey. All of anything I ever do is a function of me working out what is going on in my brain in terms of trying to come to answer that has a business solution to it. It’s playing. I think that the book is a great anchor in terms of bringing together a much deeper breadth and depth to that thinking.

John:  That’s good. Let’s talk about more entertaining stuff as we wind down. I have on my list comparing Iron Man 3 versus Google Glass. Which do you fall under if you had to pick?

Mitch:  That’s crazy, John, that you say that. I was in Toronto for two days working and I had finished a client dinner. It was about 8:00pm. On the way to my hotel from my office, there was actually one of those Megaplex movie things. I was walking by and I thought, “I’m going to see Iron Man 3,” and I walked in and it was so busy. I was like, “I can’t do it. I’ll come when it’s quieter,” and I left. So, I haven’t seen Iron Man 3.

But I will tell you that I have used Google Glass and it is very, very transformative. All of the discourse I’m seeing online, I have to say, it’s just fundamentally wrong. The first thing is everybody you’re reading about Google Glass right now are the exact same things we said about cell phones: “You look like such an idiot when you talk on the phone in a restaurant,” “It’s so rude that you’re walking down the street talking,” “I can’t believe you’re talking in your car.” We said all these exact same things.

What people don’t get about it – and the transformative part about it – is this. Every time you access your keyboard, your computer, it’s about your hands and your fingers and touching and moving and your smartphones and all this. Think about moving all of that interaction that you have to your eyes for motion and your voice for control. That’s the profoundness of Google Glass. It’s not perfect. It’s going to be refined. But that alleviation of stumbling into your pocket, pulling something out, touching it and all of that just going away, and suddenly, the world is very clear.

There is a screen in the top-right corner. You can’t see it unless you look at the screen, so it doesn’t obstruct any view. It’s on a heads-up display. The ability to use your voice and your eyes to engage in that content is absolutely as enlightening as it was the first time I used a web browser.

John:  That’s a ringing endorsement then. We’ll put you on the side of being transformative and the next big thing.

Mitch:  On the beta list.

John:  How about if folks want to learn more about the book or more about you? We hit a bunch of the points, but where do you suggest they purchase the book? We don’t want to go through the regular channels if you’ve got someplace special they can pick it up.

Mitch:  It’s a massive publisher. I’m with Grand Central Publishing, which is part of Hachette Book Group. They’re the largest book publisher in the world. Anywhere you purchase books whether you do it in physical, digital or audio, it should be available. Hopefully you will buy many copious copies for yourself and everyone you know, because I have children that need to eat.

John:  That sounds good. We’ll have to come up with a package deal. Maybe we can throw Chris and I’s book in the fire and make it a 3-for-one deal.

Mitch:  Let’s do it.

John:  Mitch Joel, thanks for stopping by. We appreciate having you on the show. Any last exit comments before we wrap up?

Mitch:  I love you guys. You know that. It’s one of those weird things where we don’t talk often enough, but I think about you guys daily – both you and Chris (or as I call him, Ninja).

It’s amazing. I think back to: is this stuff real and does it make sense? People talk about the web all the time and Twitter. Is it useful? I think about you guys a lot because we met in Boston coming up to seven or eight years ago – real relationships, real interactions, real people, family stuff, friend stuff. I think people dismiss that. They dismiss the value of it and they don’t necessarily take into all the great things this digital stuff does. I would have never met you had it not been for podcasting. I’m all for podcasting.

John:  That sounds great. It’s the same here. It’s been fun to be able to watch you before the first book, before everything started. The whole PodCamp thing was crazy. David Meerman Scott got things going there.

Mitch:  You can go through it. It’s Chris Brogan, Julien Smith, John Wall, Chris Penn, David Meerman Scott. We could literally keep going for days on this. It’s insane. Pulver.

John:  Yeah, Jeff Pulver. And then Rocketboom was when they were on fire.

Mitch:  Scott Monty, Joe Jaffe.

John:  C.C. Chapman. You could really go on and on.

Mitch:  Hey, what about our friends at GALACTICAST? Same thing. All PodCamp.

John:  I’ve seen those guys in Pittsburgh at PodCamp. iJustine was down there for the first one. It was crazy, everybody on that wave. We definitely have moved on to other stuff, too, but it is great that everybody has been able to stay in touch and being able to work on different projects now and keep things going.

Mitch:  Life is good.

John:  That will do it for today. Thanks, Mitch. And to everybody out there, enjoy the coffee.