Geoffrey Colon on “Disruptive Marketing”: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

Photo by Stuart Tracte

Geoffrey Colon is the voice at the intersection of marketing, tech, and popular culture. Thinking is his commodity. DJ, data punk, podcaster and author, Geoffrey is a Communications Designer at Microsoft in Redmond, WA, for Microsoft search advertising (Bing Ads).

Colon has written for or been quoted in various publications and media outlets including Fast Company, The Huffington Post, The Guardian, Wall Street Journal, Billboard Magazine, Advertising Age, Digiday, Branding Strategy Insider, Entrepreneur and The Los Angeles Times. He has also appeared on NPR, Cheddar TV and NASDAQ Live. He is an avid speaker on the global marketing conference circuit. Prior to joining Microsoft in 2013, Geoffrey was vice president of digital strategy at Ogilvy & Mather in New York City.

Geoff resides in Kirkland, WA with his wife and two daughters after spending over two decades in Brooklyn, NY and Maplewood, NJ.

His first book, Disruptive Marketing: What Growth Hackers, Data Punks, and Other Hybrid Thinkers Can Teach Us About Navigating the New Normal, was published by AMACOM (2016).

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Now please shift your attention to Disruptive Marketing. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP.

First, when and why did you decided to write it?

Back in 2012 when I was working at Ogilvy. I saw all these brands piling $ into ads and none were working. I realized that things weren’t going to be the same at that point and I wanted to help people realize this with a new manifesto. But like all things it’s one to think about doing something and then quite another to do it. So I got really serious about making it happen in 2014 when I got to Microsoft and saw how tech was reshaping behavior.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

The fact brands only spend 8% of their marketing investment on mobile. It’s like they are living in the 1990s still.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ [begin italics] significantly [end italics] from what you originally envisioned?

I really am happy with this being my first book. It’s everything I envisioned. My publisher AMACOM really liked my vision with the book and allowed me to express myself in a creative manner that felt natural. The world is moving back to one where people are at the center of marketing and that’s what makes it so disruptive. I hope when people read it they realize this is a book for highly creative people who want a new vision of what the world could be and how to get there and isn’t a set of tactics.

At least since the ancient bazaars in Persia, the primary purpose of marketing has been to create or increase demand for what is offered for sale or trade. You suggest there is a New Normal. Which of its defining characteristics differentiate it from mainstream marketing?

Increasing demand and pushing for sales may still exist but it’s not relevant to customers. We live in a conversational and relationship world, not a transactional one anymore. The main emphasis of marketing isn’t to be a sales vehicle as much as a conversational vessel to make better products, services and ultimately a world that includes everyone in the conversation in terms of rules and regulations.

What is a “digital detox” and why do you recommend it?

Being in front of screens is unhealthy for you. It fixates you into a reactive state. This is why texting can be so addictive. You can’t wait to see what response you get. But doing this all the time is unhealthy. It’s more interesting to relate to people. To actually speak with them in person and not through interfaces. You can’t be creative and be in front of a screen 24/7. Artists can’t be in front of a canvas all the time and neither can software developers or marketer’s. When you take a break to breathe, you get to be truly inspired by the world around you.

Which benefits can be gained from counterfactual thinking?

Let’s make sure that we’re clear on what I was getting at with this in the book. I’m truly against this trend of a post-truth world. We need facts and errors when it comes to debating politics. But in order to build up your imagination you need to think of things that aren’t possible yet. This is what builds the future. That’s why I use a lot of terms in the book that don’t yet exist or were new terminology. We have to imagine what isn’t true in order to see if it becomes or can be made true. This is why I’ve always been a big fan of science fiction. Everything in Star Trek is becoming true but all of those ideas began as counterfactual.

I agree with you that “the power of imagination and empathy is more critical in the world today.” Is that because the world today is amore volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than at any prior time that I can remember? Please explain.

Yes. We live in a time where past rules are irrelevant to the future because the speed of change is so fast. I’m typing this to you on a small interface that is only 10 years old. In the next 10 years our world will look radically different from 2017. I probably won’t even be typing but voice activating many of the devices around me. To simply stick with a fixed mindsets will most likely leave you to be irrelevant and everyone’s competition in the world is two things: death is one, relevancy is the other.

You seem to be channeling Ellen Langer when asserting “it is even more necessary for people to pay attention to their thoughts, beliefs, actions, and experiences.” In a word, you and she affirm the importance of [begin italics] mindfulness [end italics]. Is that a fair assessment?

Absolutely. I love Ellen’s work. I was introduced to a lot of great psychological minds through my late mother who was a behavioral psychologist. The rise of cognitive capital with the rise of computing isn’t coincidental. We have the ability to build things we imagine into reality mainly because of this digital world. We have no more physical limitations that surround us anymore. This is what many politicians fear. As we’ve moved more to a world we live online, they have lost the ability to hold power or so we would like to believe.

Please explain why and how “there is a massive amount of power in being enthusiastically inefficient.”

We put up all of these barriers that are unnatural to human beings. We put KPIs on creative outputs, we demand ideas to be executed around rigid timelines. But this is not how creativity works. We’ve tried to monetize all of these cognitive ideas and that isn’t always possible. Some of the best ideas came about not due to pressure on time but the opposite, the ability to randomly imagine. If we are truly to be human again, we may need machines to do more of the grunt work for us so we can truly be our most creative selves.

In your opinion, what are the most significant examples of disruptive marketing among major brands?

I think two that come to mind are from radically different companies. One is Amazon. The other’s is Ben & Jerry’s. Amazon literally has built an entirely new operating system around voice. We know it as the Echo. How did a retail company build the next OS for computing? Because they imagined how a voice command for shopping could be the next OS for the next wave of computing. That’s radical as ever.

Second is Ben & Jerry’s. We see all of this political marketing by brands starting to pop up recently. But Ben & Jerry’s did that very early on by battling against GMOs in food, politicking for fair trade and protesting drilling in the Arctic. Some may perceive that as not too disruptive but when they were doing this in the 90s and early 2000s prior to the popularization of social media that is pretty amazing in terms of a company with social responsibility before it became a buzzword.

Why don’t ads matter any more?

Name the last time an ad made you feel commitment? People expect so much more from companies now. They need the entire recipe for the cake with all of the ingredients. Ads are simply the icing.

For about as long as there has been language and human interaction, people have immersed themselves in stories. Why?

Mainly to learn and survive. Storytelling allowed others to learn things so you could build civilization. We are social animals. Anyone who believes you behave as an individual in society and groups of people don’t matter is probably mentally unstable. People need people but we best relate through stories that help us bond. Programmatic display advertising doesn’t help bond you with others. It’s simply a click farm to build revenue to monetize the web. But we need to move past that and back to our roots which is telling stories. Even if the monetization behind such models is difficult to configure. We have a much larger chaotic world we need to stabilize and that should come first more than simply thinking about money.

You quote an observation by Brian Boyd: “When everyone is shouting, the way to get people’s attention is to whisper.” Please explain the relevance to disruptive marketing. What specifically does it disrupt?

We all know the loudmouth who is like “Lookee here! Look at me! Pay attention!” They get a lot of attention because they are loud. But not because they deserve it or are intelligent. Immersive communicators usually build slower but when they find their tribe they explode. I like to think of myself in this camp. I’m not a best seller compared to other marketing authors but I don’t feel I have to be all loud and arrogant to find my tribe. So in this case it disrupts convention. Yes, the introverts can win in a loud and noisy world. It’s just not winning in the traditional manner by which we perceive winning and losing.

Earlier I mentioned Jim O’Toole reference to “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” The disruptive mindset certainly threatens that. Those who defend the status quo probably played a major role in disrupting the previous status quo. Here’s my question: How to maximize buy-in for change initiatives driven by the disruptive mindset?

It’s difficult to adopt change management. People hate change and love habits. But if we go back to the earlier discussion on relevancy people hate extinction and irrelevancy more. If people can be made to realize they are slowly going extinct, they’ll change to survive. Our DNA is programmed to act that way. It’s a defense mechanism.

What is the disruptive continuum and how to sustain it?

Solve mysteries in perpetuity. Once you get comfortable with an algorithm, life becomes predictable for businesses. But not people. People are constantly looking for new things. This is why consumers want more innovation than ever before in the history of business from brands. But what do brands want? An algorithm. Algorithms help scale process but process isn’t personal. Perpetual change and adapting to that is how you remain relevant. This is unique for brands who think remaining constant is all they need to do when in fact they should always be pivoting and always evolving based on new missions and mysteries they need to solve to stay true to their vision.

You urge organizations to stop hiring MBAs because they need “hybrids” to succeed. Please explain.

MBAs teach you a process with P/Ls and mapping to strategize success. They also help with building one’s network. The former isn’t as important as designing for success based on context. Hybrids who have a background in strategy, analytics, and design are better suited for this new normal. The latter can be built now — without attending a university — via social networking. Especially using a platform such as LinkedIn.

What is the potential (albeit short-term) value of “tinkerers” and “temporary marketers”?

Tinkerers are why I have built a livestreaming video studio in my office at Microsoft. Live video is more important than ever before. But I wouldn’t have done this if I didn’t tinker with what lights, camera and sound I would need and how post-editing and distribution of that video is more important than simply producing it. Working on one product/client/business doesn’t expose one to the various things in the world. Thus being temporary forces you to work on projects for a short period of time and learn lots of tactics within marketing in a given period around specific lines of business. It’s why alive worked with B2B, B2C, CPG brands, entertainment brands, tech brands, finance brands,

Please explain the title of Chapter 7, “Content Is King — But Distribution Is Queen.”

Life is a balance, especially in business. Whenever you read about how something is important, ask what the opposite effect of that important factor is. For example if people say social media marketing is important, the complement to that is search marketing. You see, nothing in the world operates alone. That’s a myth perpetuated by Ayn Rand loving business moguls. So when people dictate content is king, content wouldn’t be discovered if not for distribution. This distribution is the queen to content’s king, making it equally powerful. Distribution is the ying to content’s yang.

To what extent (if any) is content marketing compatible with disruptive marketing? Please explain.

Content is the fuel of the social web. Without it, you wouldn’t bother to spend as much time as you do on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, etc. but content is always evolving. The first content I engaged with on the web in 1991 was a bulletin board. That would be boring engaging with it today. The same as how in 2020 engaging with a Facebook post will look antiquated to the AR and 3D interfaces being developed. Disruptive marketing will change the way we engage and thus new forms of content will drive this disruption.

To what extent is it not? How so?

It doesn’t take content to be disruptive in the world of marketing. But if content isn’t used as a medium some other type of experience has to be the conduit between brand and individual. This is why the rise of AI may be the biggest disruption in marketing since the advent of the radio advertisement.

What is the unique significance of a “producerist”?

We are all media now. We all have the ability to produce experiences, content and new businesses based on imagination. Because of this there is less emphasis on mainstream media to dictate what is and is t relevant in the world. We’ve seen this play out heavily in 2016 in politics. But we were just getting started. It will play out in business, medicine, education, law, energy and many more fields.

You assert that social by design is a strategy “that puts people ahead of commerce.” For example?

Most software as a service models put education ahead of sales now. These are the best examples of social by design. A back and forth ongoing dialog between brand and consumer where consumers help brands innovate products based on the consumer’s needs and wants.

Why are emotionally intelligent leaders the “essential” component of a culture within which disruptive thinking is most likely to thrive?

Leadership must understand customer context now. The only way to understand context and sentiment is to have your pulse on behavior and misbehavior of people. The only way to have a pulse on people is via emotional intelligence.

To what (if any) are there any significant correlations between disruptive thinking and Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of creative destruction? Please explain.

They are very much related. Disruptive marketing wouldn’t exist without creative destruction. But it wouldn’t exist also without disruptive innovation. Both creative destruction and disruptive innovation are the basis of disruptive marketing.

What is the relevance of this passage you cite from T.S. Eliot’s classic, Four Quartets, to disruptive marketing?

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

We think we are always moving forward into new unchartered territory when we talk of innovation. But that is a myth. Innovation happens by borrowing on the past and revising it to fit the present and future. While we live more in a digital world, it is also helping take us back to a society that is more communal, nomadic and analog. This is why the best futurists don’t study the future but the past.

What is the relevance of this observation by Oliver Wendell Holmes to disruptive marketing?

“I would give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

Most software isn’t intelligent yet. But we so want it to be. This happens via prompts that help machines to learn. While it is complex to understand machine learning, what we are seeking are the simplicities machines can help being to the world: balancing a budget, helping us find a store, translating dictation into a written document and having Alexa (Amazon Echo) order something we need based on the time of the month. We still have too much complexity in our world that is in dire need of simplification. A grand example of this? Both marketing automation and digital transformation.

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in Disruptive Marketing will be most valuable to those now preparing for a business career or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

I think that would be the four skill sets I note to be successful in the new normal. Old business books won’t note these and it’s a grand pivot away from the conventional skills that were necessary to be successful for much of the 20th Century.

To first-time supervisors? Please explain.

Most supervisors like to do what most brands do, work toward an algorithm of efficiency. But if you want to be a great manager, work toward building a team that is enthusiastically inefficient. Process helps keep a business operating but inefficiency helps it sins the future and innovate.

To C-level executives? Please explain.

If your CMO isn’t a growth hacker, figure out how they become one or hire someone who is. The new normal has no time for conventional methodology. Most CMOS are poor drivers of growth because most come from an era where they weren’t tasked with such objectives.

To owner/CEOs of small-to-midsize companies? Please explain.

If you don’t have a mission that is different from your competitors, you will not last. Plus, most of your employees and customers will find a company that does have a mission, one that is [begin italics] unique [end italics]. Missions are how the small grow into the powerful. Every small to MidMarket company uses this thinking instead of how to be more line their competition.

Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Q: What is a data punk?

A: Because of the rise in data, anyone has access to it and can make something out of it. Think of punk rock music. Anyone could form a band and change the world. Now with data you don’t need to have a PhD in math to find consumer data to design a new business where data is the fuel more than inventory. Data punks help spot trends, usher in new ways of thinking and have a great pulse on customer sentiment. Big data isn’t radical, small bits of data extracted from a stack of big data is and the person who helps find his and rationalize how to use it in an executed state to bring about change is what I mean by a data punk.

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Here is a direct link to Part 1.

Geoff invites you to check out the resources at these websites

His website link

Twitter link

Facebook link

LinkedIn link

YouTube link

Geoff’s podcast link

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