Simon Pont is a writer, commentator and brand-builder. Hollywood movie studios, Icelandic investment banks, British chocolate bars and Middle Eastern airlines figure amongst his time on the inside of Adland.
He is the author of The Better Mousetrap: Brand Invention in a Media Democracy, and a novel, Remember to Breathe.
His next project, Digital State: How the Internet is Changing Everything, is scheduled for worldwide release (June 2013) through Kogan Page.
Simon is also Chief Strategy Officer at agency network Vizeum, though when asked, he has always wanted to say he is a spy.
He has never been a spy.
He is however married and has three children.
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Morris: Before discussing The Better Mousetrap, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?
Pont: It has to be family. Family: in the true multi-generational sense of the word. My parents set the moral compass, and I’ve always felt myself hugely fortunate to have been brought up with an emotional safety net that was unconditional, that was always there. I’m now a parent, and parenthood is the most incredible, off-the-chart seismic shift, as far as life-stages go. At least, it has been for me. My future personal growth will inevitably be defined by my children and the positive role I want to try and play in their lives.
Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?
Pont: You know, there’s never been one stand-out Mr. Miyagi type figure in my career, radiating warmth and charisma and setting the standard. There have been a couple of Buddy Ackerman types – and there’s no need to name real names – but what I am very conscious of is that overall, I’ve actually been very fortunate. There’s been a sizeable cast of characters, mostly very good and only a few questionable, who I’ve learned from. And that’s been hugely instructive in helping me decide what kind of professional I want to be, and the kind that I don’t. But to name a few names for all the right reasons, I’d happily cite Moray MacLennan, Hans Andersson, Jon Wilkins, Greg Grimmer, and Hamish Davies. In each case, and each in their own way, we’re talking about hugely impressive, inspiring, and fundamentally very decent human beings.
Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.
Pont: I don’t think there’s ever been just one! I think careers are twisty-turny things full of great highlights, 50-50 judgements calls, and a few near-disasters. Along that road, with hope, you bump into a fair few moments of revelation.
Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?
Pont: For me, a formal education’s been very important. It’s a good, solid grounding, but it’s also been the necessary series of experiences – from which I now understand how I work, think about things, explore ideas, investigate themes, and then, put those thoughts together. Quite simply, you have to read a lot of words, and put a lot of words down, before you get to a place where you find your own process and writing approach.
Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you started working full-time? Why?
Pont: Stop playing at being a grown-up and just be a grown-up. I think that’s fair advice to anyone in the early days of their career. By definition, when you start out in business, you’re naive, because your only former points of reference are academia and being a student; in most respects, being a “kid”. And it’s only experience that takes the edge off that immaturity. But there is a ‘but’. Once you’ve entered the business world, you’ve entered it, so you might as well stop “pretending”, stop play-acting, drop the pretence, and go at it full-tilt. I think real credibility and success comes from believing in yourself and what you’re capable of, even if you don’t have so much “experience” to draw upon. It’s not an easy message, of course, but self-doubt only gets in your way. So don’t have any. Or at least, work on editing it.
Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.
Pont: That’s a terrific question. I’m a big film fan. Swimming with Sharks and Wall Street are brilliant yesteryear windows on the working world. Margin Call, from 2011, is another great snapshot on a particular moment in time – but that’s not what you’re asking. Citing movies about the work-place isn’t the same as a movie that necessarily dramatizes business principles.
I’ve half-joked that I’d like to use the practices of Jack Bauer in 24 as a model for assertive leadership and an approach to decision-making. Jack could be accused of many things, but procrastination is not one of them. There’s an argument that indecision and atrophy are amongst the very worst business principles. Business, like life, should be about affirmative action. Just imagine: Jack Bauer’s Guide to being CEO.
Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:
“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”
Pont: Lao-Tzu sounds like a “hands on” and “roll-his-sleeves-up” kinda guy. Great leadership walks a fine line, a tightrope, I think. To inspire and lead and imbue trust, faith even, requires you to stand apart from those you’re leading. “The people” expect, need, their leaders to stand just that little bit taller . But at the same time, true leaders have a natural humanity and accessibility to them. And where they achieve, they achieve through the people they take on that collective journey, where everyone channels and delivers on the single and shared vision. To that extent, the definition of leadership, of “management”, is “results through others”. And when the result is achieved, everyone who played their part gets to feel good about it. That’s what Lao-Tzu is talking about here.
Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”
Pont: And, of course, the real trick is knowing who that is! Self-awareness, self-understanding – it’s a lifelong journey for pretty much everyone. That’s my belief, at least. I do think we can learn a lot from others, how they do things, the examples they set. These examples inform the kind of person we want to be, the kind of husband, the kind of parent, the kind of friend and colleague. “Be yourself” is about making and committing to a whole load of decisions… and then accepting that life can only be a permanent work-in-progress.
Morris: From Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Pont: Problem-making and problem-solving are certainly different mind-sets. Not just different, they’re mental inversions of each other. It’s how we look upon the water in the glass. You need to look on it as half full… in order to then work out how to fill the remaining half.
Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”
Pont: This is a lovely quote. I love its darkness; the wonderful pathetic-ness of being highly adept at a pointless act. I imagine Drucker received a parking fine or a letter from the tax man the day he penned this dark gem. The quote could be stapled to an internal memo shared amongst a legion of bureaucrats and pen-pushers – whose job it is to file tax returns and serve out parking fines.
Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?
Pont: I applaud the sentiment, that it’s a ‘team responsibility’ to do the heavy lifting.
At a practical level, ‘effective leadership’ falls quickly off a cliff if it ends with the ‘leadership team’, as opposed to being something acted upon, that then cascades down to the rest of the organization. So I’d wholly agree with the statement in regards to ‘organizational performance’. Where the logic is potentially more questionable is around a team’s ability to make decisions. I’ve never been a huge fan of decision-by-committee. Multiple agenda’s too often get in the way. And ‘Group Think’ dynamics can also lead to decisions (and then outcomes) that can go seriously south. Part of being a great leader is choosing your team well, picking the kind of expertise and personality blend that can most appropriately advise. But leaving the team to make the call – that’s weak leadership.
Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Shoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?
Pont: “Brilliant mistakes” is a catchy contradiction. It brings to mind Charles Saatchi’s book from last year, Be The Worst You Can Be”.
Of course, no one tries to make mistakes; rather some mistakes are sadly inevitable. Shoemaker’s fundamental message is one I wholly agree with. Companies shouldn’t be so scared to mess up once in a while that, by consequence, they don’t push themselves. It’s a fear of potential failure which causes organisational (read: managerial) paralysis. And the irony is that our world now moves at binary speed, and too many companies move at a human speed set to “risk aversion”. We need to make “indecision and non-commitment” more unacceptable, more unforgivable in fact, than the odd mistake born of trying. And I’m a major believer in testing deeply held assumptions, because quite frankly, even if they were rock-solid yesterday, or even today, there’s no guarantee or given they’ll be effective tomorrow. Our world is just moving too damned fast, and the “digital age” is continually usurping our definitions and understanding of things.
Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?
Pont: “Story” is eternal. It’s the definitive way to package a thought or sell-in a vision, because it plays to the biggest rule there is: “know your audience”.
However big or sweeping or grand the theme or thought, anchoring it in narrative and, in particular, the minutia of “human interest” is how we, “The Audience”, can relate and comprehend and ultimately care.
H.G. Wells could have written War of the Worlds any number of ways, could have gone large, as a story across a global tableau, but he didn’t. He wrote it as a first-person experience. He kept a very big idea very small, human, and accessible. And in “that smallness” lies the power of the bigger thought. Great leaders, great story-tellers, they know how to rally people, by addressing issues in a way that makes us instinctively care, because they put us, as individuals, at the heart of the matter.
Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”
Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?
Pont: The answer lives in that place of “easier said than done” – but then, that’s perhaps almost always the case. “The tyranny of custom” only loosens its grip when (more so, if) you can start feeling good about uncertainty, by creating a habit or culture where “change” feels ok because people feel fundamentally safe.
Cnsider the digital revolution. What we’re all living through is technologically-assisted, turbo-charged change. Social-economic-political… change, with a great big Boeing jet engine strapped on its back. And it’s the emotional response to this kind of fast-changing world that I believe is key. We can either put our hands in the air or our hands over our eyes. We need to condition ourselves to “Feel Good” about the “unknowables”, to be excited at the prospect of adapting. Like I said, it’s easier said than done, because custom and routine and “the familiar” is comforting.
Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism, of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the great need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?
Pont: I think the vast majority of folk who put themselves on an MBA do so out of professional frustration. Of course, frustration can be a pretty powerful and positive motivator. You do an MBA to either get a better job, or more so, to have a go at something yourself, to launch something. Where MBA’s could really come into their own is as ‘idea incubators’, that can then connect deeply into the right kind of VC’s – namely, those desperately keen to make financial leaps of faith. In cases where MBA’s can truly empower entrepreneurialism, and be outcome-focused, I can’t imagine any criticism then stacking up.
Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any Advice?
Pont: The greatest challenge will be shepherding their business through an almost-inevitable shift in business model. How do you monetize what your company does in a digital age? How do you define your company’s role in the social economy? When nothing stays the same? With all parts moving, how do you move in opportunistic synch? Arguably, it doesn’t even matter if you’re the CEO of a digital-based company, because with every new day, the game turns as you play. Permanent adaptation will be the CEO’s daily challenge.
Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Better Mousetrap. When and why did you decide to write it?
Pont: I wanted to write a book on brands and advertising that felt very relevant to “Now”, but that acknowledged the eternal truths of human nature. And I wanted to try and make brands and advertising accessible – in a way Gladwell has for social sciences and Levitt for economics. Those guys write with pace, clear authorial voice, and heavy use of anecdote and narrative. I’m a big fan of non-fiction writers who approach their subject like fiction writers. Tonally, that was my start-point.
Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?
Pont: The form is very close to as envisioned. I know that’s not a particularly exciting answer. If I were reading this, I’d much prefer to hear that I’d started out wanting to write one kind of book, and then a whole other book came out. That’s a better story. But it wouldn’t be a truthful one. The 3-section structure didn’t change at all. Nor did the major beats around ‘brand charisma’, the ‘accelerated consumer’, and media as a newly-formed ‘democracy’. That all said, I find that one of the great pleasures of writing is the organic and undisclosed nature of creation.
What I mean by this is that you never really know how it’s going to come out. You have a plan of what you’re going to do, to talk about, but you don’t know quite how that will articulate, the expressions, the references, the lines of argument and attack. You don’t know any of it until you start putting it down. Not always, but sometimes, it’s been my experience that the inner thoughts and the written word are connected in ways that bypass the fully conscious self. The revelations come in the outcomes, because you sometimes read back as one person what you wrote down as someone else.
Morris: I “get it” with regard to the “mousetrap” to which the book’s subtitle refers. What about other elements such as “cheese” and “mice”? To what extent are they also essential to the extended metaphor? Please explain.
Pont: The mousetrap metaphor only works with the implicit understanding that there’s a mouse – without the existence of a mouse, what is the trap? And the cheese is, of course, the trap’s delectable bait. The negative way to look at it is that “consumers” are mice, advertising is the cheese, and the trap is the never satisfied, “always-wanting-more” world of consumerism. But like I say, that’s the bleak interpretation of the metaphor.
Emerson was simply speaking to the principle of better invention. If you build something that works better, then people will understandably want it, they will “beat a path to your door”. So really the mouse is the itch that needs scratching and the mousetrap the better way of fixing the itch. The Better Mousetrap is simply about “better invention”. And that, of course, embraces the need to reinvent and adapt.
Morris: I agree with you that technology, society, and media are “mutable forms, shape-shifting, forever repurposing themselves. They sit within the wild, weird, and wonderful frame of change. But there is a frame” and change is not the only constant. “Up remains up, down down, gravity prevents us from falling into a big blue sky…and people don’t fundamentally change.”
Here’s my question: Insofar as branding or re-branding is concerned, what is the frame’s most importance significance? Why?
Pont: In branding (and re-branding) terms, the start-point is human needs, and specifically looking to meet those needs. A brand is a bundle of meanings and values, a package wrapped into an idea that should serve to meet a human need. Any brand needs to assert its role in the world, and that role is based upon being of use, of benefit, to someone. A brand must be benefit-based. That benefit can be very practical and “low-order” for people. A toothpaste you like the taste of. Or that benefit can be high order – say, a membership to a theatre ensuring you have first-option on tickets to highly-sought-after plays, but where your membership also helps ensure the theatre company keeps in business.
So the “frame” I talk of is about how all brands operate inside a fixed context, that of human nature and meeting human needs. Because like the existence of gravity, human needs are constant; can be defined as a set of objective, fundamental truths: our want to belong, our need to be individuals, our need to love and be loved, our ultimate pursuit of happiness, however elusive. These kinds of core human drivers don’t change – they’re a set bearing as we move through life.
Morris: Please explain the “rabbit hole” to which you refer in the Introduction.
Pont: I must confess, I don’t hugely enjoy bone-dry textbooks that speak earnestly and sail close to taking themselves rather seriously. There’s a place for them, and we’ve all read our share. It’s just, I didn’t want to write one. Brands and advertising is one big cultural and pop cultural riff; so many references being made and sources drawn upon. Reflective of subject, I wanted to write about brands by making all manner of direct and oblique references to movies, literature and music.
The “rabbit hole” is a nod, of course, to Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, particularly how her encounters with the fantastical and nonsensical make for very close parallels to the world of brands and advertising – where there are inherent contradictions and exceptions to almost every rule.
Morris: Why do some brands have “enormous appeal” but most [begin italics] don’t [end italics]?
Pont: Because in the case of brands it’s a lot easier to get it wrong than right. The brands that become iconic are in an exceptional minority. Why do people love Apple, but not, say, Dell? Why don’t people love Sony the way they once did? The brands with “enormous appeal” are an elite few that get it “very right”. And they have to keep getting it right. And of course, it’s not just down to “the brand”, but to a wholly aligned set of business and operating practices that buoys and builds and moves in time with the spirit of that brand.
Morris: What is a “counterpoint brand”? What is its primary significance?
Pont: The counterpoint brand plays to the idea of definition from relativity – that we have a greater sense of what BMW is all about, because Audi exists. “White” wouldn’t mean quite the same thing if it didn’t have a natural opposite. The existence of black gives added meaning to our understanding of “white”. And yet then, there’s the irony that counterpoint brands are NOT about literal opposites, but about the illusion and contrivance of opposite, when in reality, they’re inherently the same kind of things, offering the same solution to people, competing for the attention of the same people. Because how is Audi really so very different to BMW? The contrast between both car manufacturers is largely illusory. The “differences” are perceptual, and are born of our emotional and not rational responses.
Morris: Please explain “the other Moore’s Law” and its relevance to the branding process.
Pont: Moore’s Law (1965) plots a curve where the number of transistors that can be placed on a microchip doubles every two years. It’s an oft-cited reference – and most probably because it’s an attempt to try and make sense of technological progress, given that technology progresses so quickly as to sometimes scare the hell out of people.
In The Better Mousetrap, where I talk about “originality and reframing” and how you go about it, I reference a quote from the comic-book writer, Alan Moore…
“Life isn’t divided into genres. It’s a horrifying, romantic, tragic, comical, science-fiction cowboy detective novel. You know, with a bit of pornography if you’re lucky.”
It’s a terrific quote, capturing the wonderful, hurly-burly, melting pot of what life should be all about. I felt the quote also captured the spirit of how we approach “originality”, by making new pairings, of mashing things together, of not sticking to the tramlines of a set genre. You break from stereotype by crashing previously unlinked things into each other. I rather liked the idea of calling this “the other Moore’s Law”.
Morris: What is the “brain side” of a brand?
Pont: Brands offer either very practical… or very emotional benefits to people. They either fulfill in a very logical, rational way… or on a deeper, more emotional, and potentially more irrational way. There is of course need and role for both. Where I talk about the naming of brands, I make a simple distinction that some brands make their pitch in a very rational, very logical, very left brain kind of way. Think, Ronseal: Does exactly what it says on the tin. And then there are other instances of brands appealing to the right brain, to creativity and flair, where tone and inflection is more important that specifics or details. Where the French name one of their Citroens “the Picasso”, associating with one of the most inspirational painters of the 20th century, by stereotyping contrast, the German’s (in a very functional way of approaching things) make the Kompressor available on some of their Mercedes models, denoting a turbocharger where air is compressed into the engine.
Morris: You suggest, “You are your own mousetrap.” My take is, that you are urging people to follow Oscar Wilde’s previously quoted advice: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” Am I correct? Please explain.
Pont: Yes, you’re very correct. “Your own mousetrap” is a comment to the idea of personal branding. If a brand is something clearly defined, with an equally clear “role in the world” and “reason for being”, then this surely has pertinent, compelling, helpful application to personal development and an individual’s sense of identity? There are a lot of self-help books that look to draw on branding principles for the benefit of being more “effective” in the work place, or getting a better job, or getting people to say “Yes!” to you. But that’s not really the place I’m coming from with this thought. I’m trying to be more intrinsic about it. Know who you are and what you stand for, starting from the inside, and then project that outwards. And doing so might then make you happier… as well as being “more productive” and “successful”.
Morris: What are the defining characteristics of an “accelerated consumer””?
Pont: In modern societies, life isn’t slowing down. That’s simple fact. Our lives have less and less sense of pause or contemplation. We act with greater haste. We “multi-task”. We try and “do more” and “cram more in”. We live in a sound-bite culture, befitting of lives lived in fast-forward, where we base our decisions on “headline information”. We freely admit, often bemoan, we have no time.
And I think the speed at which society moves is, in part, a function of the accelerating speeds in technological progress. Because technological change isn’t just about how many transistors you can cram into a metal case anymore. Tim Berners-Lee recently commented on how the Internet is as much a social invention as a technological invention. The point being, on one level at least, that technology has crossed into the social domain and the pace of both are becoming more closely aligned, more hard-wired into one another.
Morris: I really admire your chapter titles. For example, “Through a Glass Clearly,” perhaps suggested by Saint Paul’s 1 Corinthians 13:12 and/or the Ingmar Bergman film. Please explain.
Pont: “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” Yes, the source is Corinthians. When it comes to reference points, I like it when it’s open season. Everything’s a potential reference point, capable of helping build a thought or idea. With The Better Mousetrap, I’ve thrown in all kinds of references, from Tarantino movies to British rock bands to the Bible.
And thank you for liking the ones in the book. I’m a real lover of chapter titles too. Of titles in general actually. The US sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick worked from the same source material for, A Scanner Darkly, which I think is a quite brilliant title. Philip K. Dick was quite frankly a bit of a title-writing genius. Two more of his that are nothing short of genius: “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (the source material for Bladerunner) and We Can Remember It for You Wholesale (on which the movie Total Recall is based). A complete side-bar, but another of my all-time-favourite titles is Super-Toys Last All Summer Long, written by British sci-fi author Brian Aldiss, upon which Spielberg’s movie AI is based. Maybe sci-fi brings the best out in title-writing?
Morris: The Hugh MacLeod observation (on Page 149) caught my eye: “If you talked to people the way advertising talked to people, they’d punch you in the face.” Do you agree with him? Please explain.
Pont: I certainly agree with MacLeod as the observation relates to “bad advertising” and “the old model for advertising”. The dictionary definition of advertising is hugely telling.
To “advertise” is to “call attention to something, in a boastful or ostentatious manner, in a public medium to induce people to buy.”
Boastful. Ostentatious. These are not exactly “positives”. And neither are they qualities that we keenly seek out in others. We don’t tend to make boastful and ostentatious people our friends.
My point is that “old advertising” typically has all the charm, sincerity, and humanity of a used car salesman. Today, the brands that soar do so because they are “real” and human in how they behave. They behave like real people, in that they can build rapport, empathise, and talk with people rather than “at them”. Brands without interpersonal skills deserve everything they get, including people taking a swing at them.
Morris: What is a consumer’s “inner hero” (or heroine) and what specifically is its significance during the purchase decision process?
Pont: I think brands help with our self-constructed “Inner Super Heroes”, and that a certain sub-genre of advertising is there to knowingly appeal and feed “The Batman” within us. Escapism, wish-fulfillment, our inner child and our fundamental sense of “play”, these are the things I’m talking about here – and that some brands very knowingly stir these moments of fantasy in us, inviting us to daydream and take flight. There’s a very simply reason the James Bond franchise reached its 50th anniversary. It’s because the themes are timeless. It’s because we all crave to be the better, more capable, more resourceful and super-cool versions of ourselves. And even though we know these kinds of thoughts aren’t exactly anchored, we all like to dream. Brands know this. Where we choose a Swatch over a Seiko, a Panerai over a Rolex, it all says something, and the statements made are very conscious, very deliberate.
Morris: For those who have not as yet read The Better Mousetrap, you explain in it how and why social media is becoming a geopolitical change agent. What specifically is being changed? By what or whom? To what extent? Why?
Pont: “Social media as geopolitical change agent” – that reference is particular to 2011’s events in Egypt and later Libya. Does social media put power in the hands of the people? Can you start a revolution with Twitter?
The notion that “social networking” could become a tool for mass-mobilization and demonstration, whereby regimes may topple as an almost butterfly-effect consequence Facebook or Twitter… before-the-fact, that kind of notion would have sounded rather absurd. But not anymore. Now we’re after-the-fact. And so, I like the idea of looking upon “Web 3.0” as an outcome; the tech-enabled consequences being that an oppressed majority living under dictatorship and state-controlled media can “socially network” themselves into mobilization and revolt.
Morris: Here’s a follow-up question: Is this change process reversible? Please explain.
Pont: China’s thus far managed to do a pretty effective job of controlling social media.
Morris: As you know, Henry Chesbrough has a great deal of value to say about open business models. As I read and then re-read your brilliant book, it seemed to me that the digital infrastructure for what seems to be a [begin italics] global [end italics] media democracy requires an open business model. Is that a reasonable observation?
Pont: Yes, it’s very reasonable. It’s “open” in some many ways. Open-minded, meaning open to being challenged and to change, and to walking away from the literal or even psychological investments placed in the former understanding and defining of “self”, as an individual or as a company, whereby there’s a willingness to start afresh. And then also “open” in an economic sense, in the laissez-faire sense, as the internet is creating a sense of perfect competition, where everyone’s invited to the medina.
Morris: Which icons are shifting? Why? So what?
Pont: “Shifting Icons” is an observation on the meanings behind what “icons” once were, and what they’re also now known for. Consider the icons of silver screen, like Monroe and James Dean, who defined a cultural moment; expressions of “celebrity” that border on deity. And then consider today, where we also have these little icons on our desk top or smartphone or tablet, that link to our social networks and our blogs and tweets and whatever happens to be the portal through to the self-curated and narrated version of our online selves.
And the theme I explore within that curious comparison is around people’s thirst for celebrity and profile and “having a voice”, and the way in which social media is providing opportunity for people to create personal fictions, fuelling their “personal celebrity”. It’s a simple but fascinating thought, the way movie icons can feel “untouchable” and larger than life, but social media “tools” (for self-defining and upon which people can be hugely dependent) are within finger touch, and it’s these latter icons that are able to make people feel a little more like “celebrities”.
Morris: Who or what is the “300 pound digital goliath” What’s involved? The potential implications and consequences? Please explain.
Pont: The goliath is “digital”, a real brute and a brutal truth, how digital innovation has ripped the heart out of previously secure business models and consumer practices.
The music, publishing, and movie (retail) industries are three sectors that are (arguably) at the sharp end of a world gone digital. Their business models pre-date digital. They were born in an analogue world, operating to the tramline practices of physically making, physically distributing, and then promoting through controlled mass-media. And then “digital” came along, robbed their margin, undermined their control, made their “product” potentially non-tangible, because it stripped away the need for box sets and disc cases, turning proud physical collections into dust-gathering clutter. Of course, the irony is that while they may sometimes feel like their heads are on the chopping block, the music, publishing and movie industries are potentially future-proof – because their true product is entertainment and escapism, “product” that people will always crave and pay for. The challenge is one of redefining your role and commercial opportunity. Do that and you can take down the digital goliath – even if he does weigh in at 300lbs.
Morris: In the Epilogue, you cite William Goldman’s comment about those in the film industry, “Nobody knows nothing.” What is the relevance of that comment to “hugely powerful tools that allow almost anyone’s performance to soar above the mainstream and the mediocre”?
Pont: Goldman is a bit of a hero of mine. I love his films, I love his books. Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, maybe my favourite Western. The Princess Bride, one of my favourite films AND books. Goldman tells it how it is with, “Nobody knows nothing.” You meet characters who’ll swear blind that they do know, that they have a handle on ultimate truth. The reality is that everyone’s guessing and making it up and working to a hunch. Sometimes, your ideas are based on a good hunch and a smart guess, but that’s about as far as you can big-up any claim.
The Epilogue is a rallying cry to people. Don’t be too quick to drink other people’s Cool-Aid. Instead, work on your own mix. Work on your own game. For “tools”, I’m talking about qualities: “common sense, clarity of thought, single-mindedness, force of personality, non-delusional self-belief, conviction, concision of purpose.” None of these are all that common, and they can give you an edge over the majority, who live within the bell-curve of the average. I think there are more exciting places to make your home.
Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read The Better Mousetrap and wants to establish an “exceptional” workplace environment that enables “almost anyone’s performance to soar above the mainstream and the mediocre.” Where to begin?
Pont: It starts with culture. One that approves of individualism. One that motivates and rewards the free-thinkers who challenge and provoke. But this only works with an equal intolerance of prima-donnas. A collective, a team of individuals, united by a common code, goal, and vision – you can change the world with a tight group of mavericks and misfits. It begins with culture, and then it quickly moves into talent and casting.
Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in The Better Mousetrap, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.
Pont: The Better Mousetrap is at once a kind of love letter to brands and advertising. It’s an industry that still fascinates me. At the same time, and without apology, the commentary is disrespectful of “the old and time-honoured ways of doing things”
Thematically, the book is about pursuits, I think. It’s about pursuing originality; about pursuing human (consumer) understanding; and about pursuing an iconoclasts view of convention and conformity.
Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?
Pont: “What happens when there are no more mice?”
I’m still working on the answer.
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