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Brain Surfing

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Heather LeFevre spent a year of living with nine top marketing strategists around the world. She stayed with each of the strategists for two weeks, and documented what she learned in her book, Brain Surfing. Listen to the interview to hear about how she planned her trip, and what kind of wisdom she gained. You can learn more about Heather here: http://heatherlefevre.com/.

Byron White:           Welcome back everyone. I’m here with Heather. Heather, welcome.

Heather:                    Thank you, Byron. So nice to be here.

Byron White:           Indeed. We’re going to do some surfing today; some brain surfing, thanks to you.

Heather:                    Okay. Sounds good.

Byron White:           You’re the author of Brain Surfin- Top Marketing Strategy Minds in the World. Tell us a little bit about the book and your tact as you set sail with your brain surfing book. Tell us what was in your head when you were thinking about the book.

Heather:                    Sure.  My career has been made in the advertising business, the Mad Men kind of world, and I found that after doing it for about 14 years I would still be in meetings starting new projects and feel like, “Why am I not an expert yet? Why don’t’ I know exactly what to do?” Instead of  just continuing on with more jobs, or going back to school when I already have a master's degree, I decided to sort of create my own, sort of journeyman, apprenticeship type thing where I asked different marketing strategists around the world if I could come and work with them  for a couple of weeks and learn from them. And, “Oh. By the way, can I live in your house with you while you do it?”

Byron White:           And I can’t imagine who would say no to that.

Heather:                    Yeah. I can’t too.

Byron White:           Exactly.

Heather:                    I’m six foot tall and blond. You just don’t say no to that.

Byron White:           Exactly. What was the selection criteria like? How did you really pinpoint, laser focus? Was there a method to madness there?

Heather:                    I don’t know if it was laser-focused but I definitely sought out people who are known entities in this world. People knew of me a little bit because I’ve done a survey of strategists. Over the years, I’ve come around every year in your email saying, “Hey. It’s survey time.”  I’m not like a complete stranger to some of the people, and so I think once a few people had said yes, then some of the people I had contacted just based on they’ve written a book or they’d written an article, they were receptive, so when other people had said yes.

Byron White:           Now, two weeks is a very long time to spend with somebody.

Heather:                    It is.

Byron White:           How did you decide upon two weeks?

Heather:                    When I first started thinking about it I thought maybe a month or something. I don’t know what I was thinking. I do a lot of market research in my work so I’ve been in really seriously hundreds of people’s homes around the world even. When you actually go in their homes and you see how they live, you learn a lot about them. And so I wanted to apply that methodology of ethnography to my own work. Yeah, so two weeks is what they say is 'house guests and fish start to smell' but I thought that was the most I could get away with.

Byron White:           Fabulous. Were you armed with specific things you were looking to learn from each individual?

Heather:                    Sometimes. For example, Rob Campbell, who is the head of strategy at Wieden and Kennedy in Shanghai, he has this practice of utilizing what he calls informants, so very much like in an investigative kind of style. He will talk to, for example, prostitutes about what kind of man would drive this car or that car because he thinks it’s important that a car company know what is the perception. And if you come into a business meeting and you say like, “Well, I talked to a bunch of prostitutes.” That is not something that most business people have heard of before. Not only does he  bring fresh insight, he’s also entertaining and interesting, so that was something I was really interested in exploring with him.

Byron White:           What was the most surprising thing you learned in your interview process?

Heather:                    The most surprising thing that I learned? I think the most surprising thing is - maybe not as exciting for regular people - but that marketing is really complicated now and we need a lot of tools in our arsenal to be able to tackle business problems. I think that the most surprising thing is that there is no one answer, there’s no way of doing things. I guess I was sort of climbing the mountain looking for the guru to tell me how to do things, and that doesn’t exist.

Byron White:           Do you find the most successful people have actually made things very simple in how they operate and how they run their approach to marketing?

Heather:                    I do think that that’s true. I think that we do have to come up with a solution that is simple but it is by slogging through the complexity. You don’t know where that interesting idea is going to come from.

Byron White:           Was there anything that you learned that blew your mind?

Heather:                    Anything that I learned that blew my mind? A bad interviewee, I think. I mean, marketing stuff doesn’t…. I guess these people were so generous with me that… I learned very personal things about every single person, so I guess the stuff that was most surprising was how great a friend and continuing to be mentors to me that these people are. I've got this council of mentors whether I’m writing an article or something, I’ll pass it by the ones who are really keen on writing. Or if I’m working on a particular project and I know that they’ve had some experience. They will always get back to me within 24 hours which is a pretty powerful group of people to have, so willing to do that for you.

Byron White:           Yeah. Tell us about what you might change in your marketing strategy based upon your book, if you’re a fan or a listener out there, what do you think you take away from your book that might help with betterment and change?

Heather:                    I think a lot of business books set out to make you smarter. And I think whereas… You’re not going to learn the Lefevre’s top ten ways to build a brand. What you’re going to learn is a lot of tools from a lot of different people and I weaved in the books that I’ve read and my perspective and my past experience with these people, past experience and books that they led me too. I think what you’ll achieve with this book is wisdom, which is very hard to come by.

Byron White:           How much time are your interviewees spending on tools? You mentioned tools a few times and how important tools are. Are people rigged with tools and spending half their days on tools and data and analysis?

Heather:                    No. I think maybe I’m using the word tool in a different way. So something like a model, a way of looking at something like… DJ Fog Behavior Model is something I share that, like a behavior happens when people are motivated, they have the ability and they’re triggered all at the same time. To me, that’s a tool and understanding that can help us to change human behavior, which is what we’re trying to do in marketing.  Yeah, so I wouldn’t say that it bogs down in data analytics or anything like that.

Byron White:           Got it. All right. More methodology.

Heather:                    Yes, yeah.

Byron White:           Got it. Okay. Where do you find people learned some of the methodology that you helped to surface?

Heather:                    This kind of job that I have, this marketing strategist, it’s also called an account planner inside of an ad agency, the types of people who are attracted to this job are input collectors. They’re voracious readers, they are watching documentaries, they are just curious humans and so they themselves are just masticating on as much information as possible, and that’s where a lot of it comes from.

Byron White:           I can’t imagine literally two weeks. I mean are we talking breakfast--

Heather:                    Can you [0:08:36 take] it over that part?

Byron White:           Breakfast to goodnight.

Heather:                    Yup.

Byron White:           Literally that intense, is that correct?

Heather:                    That is correct.

Byron White:           Were you given assignments? Could they like shoo you away for a little while and just be like, “I need to do some work here, Heather?” Or were you looking over them the whole time?

Heather:                    It depends. In Scotland with Phil Adams who runs the strategy department of an agency called Blond Digital, he wanted me to be his partner. So he got me up to speed on everything that he was working on and then we were tackling those assignments together. If it was something that needed some further research or some thinking through, a meeting that was going to happen in a few days, sure, I might sit by myself and thing through it and then we’d come back together and meet. Yeah, I was not in their lap the whole time.

Byron White:           Asking questions. “Why did you do that?” It’s like, “Heather, I just poured coffee for myself. What do you mean why did I do that? I need some coffee.”

Heather:                    Exactly.

Byron White:           Did you find anybody throughout your experience get irritated with you or second guessing getting themselves into this ordeal?

Heather:                    I think I got really lucky. They’re all lovely people. I think it’s also like we have these experiences of meeting and working with lots and lots of different kinds of people so we are kind of flexible in our natures. I didn’t get … I mean there is always… I was kind of ready to go home at the end of the two weeks. I missed my own bed, or what have you, but it was no, “We need to cut this short,” or something.  Yeah. I’m just so likeable, Byron.

Byron White:           Apparently so. I’m learning that right now. I’m wondering if you can come live with me for a couple of weeks and my wife, Heather; I need to run that by her. We --

Heather:                    [0:10:30 crosstalk] confusing.

Byron White:           “Wait a second. She already wrote the book. Why is she coming to live with us for two weeks? I don’t get that.”

Heather:                    The sequel.

Byron White:           Perfect. Tell us about your own marketing knowledge and how it probably vastly improved as a result of this experience?

Heather:                    It definitely did. I would say that part of it is just confidence, and I don’t know if this is a female in business kind of thing but by not seeing a lot of other women in this business as role models and not necessarily having mentors or sponsors, I know that I was feeling less than confident. By having all these people… Because in the process of interviewing them I also shared my perspective and to hear them think that it was valid, to think that I have good ideas, it boosted my confidence. As opposed to any one methodology cracking it open for me, I just have the confidence to persevere.

Byron White:           Did you find characteristics of these highly effective people, and of course there is a wonderful book called Habits of Highly Effective People. Did anything surface in your mind that struck out and could you share any of those habits with us?

Heather:                    The habits of how they work?

Byron White:           Yeah.

Heather:                    Well, for example, Kevin May, who runs a consulting called Sticks, in Seattle, he came up through the advertising agency business as well but when he set out to start something on his own, sure he wanted the flexibility and the autonomy of having his own business but he truly wanted to try to do things differently. I think we all can agree that most people don’t want to see advertising anymore; that marketing isn’t particularly relevant the more we experience an onslaught of it. We, the practitioners, we want to do better. We want to make things that are for the right person in the right moment and that entertains them and they find useful. We’ve got to change the way we do business. So what he did was he changed his business model to be very different from the typical place that I’ve worked. Shall I tell you how?

Byron White:           That would be great.

Heather:                    What he does is he plans in [0:12:58 salon] sessions to every project. So he has a nice meaty Rolodex of different people and he selects for diversity and what’s interesting about that to me and what I learned the process is that, there are some tasks like running a relay race or on playing a musical trio where one person being bad will make the whole experience worse, it will ruin it for everybody. But there is situations like business problems where one person having a great idea, lifts everybody up. That’s what’s cool about Sticks is that they’re bringing in this diverse little salon together. They talk about a problem for a couple of hours and it oftentimes yields results that you would never have come up the traditional  way of doing market research, presenting back to the client and coming up with ideas, just because you have a few hours infusion of different people.

Byron White:           Is it designed around a campaign, or is it around a, “How do you feel about this, more focus group-esque?”

Heather:                    It’s similar to a focus group, but whereas a focus group is usually people who use that product—

Byron White:           Testing.

Heather:                    Yeah. These would be business people and chefs or something that’s maybe adjacent, like an architect or something but not necessarily… They’re thinking about solving the problem. Kevin doesn’t really work in terms of campaigns; he’s working in terms of business problems, like one of the ones that I talk about in the book. Microsoft came to him because in Asia a lot of people would buy copies of operating systems. When you go to buy a computer, the operating system is not already loaded on the computer and so people just buy a copy. It’s a big business problem for Microsoft to want people to want authentic operating system products. So, how can they do that?  That’s a big, meaty business problem that he’s tackling.

Byron White:           Millions at stake.

Heather:                    Yeah. And you could go out and you could do a lot of research and understand who’s doing this, maybe why they’re doing it, but it’s not necessarily going to help you change the course of culture for that brand and get people to stop doing it.

Byron White:           What does he do with the ideas that surface? Is he presenting this to the customers or is he rolling those ideas into other things that may be relevant? How does he bring that--?

Heather:                    It really depends.

Byron White:           Yeah, yeah.

Heather:                    It really depends. So if like he’s trying to name a brand, that the salon might come up with a whole slew of names and he might directly present those to the client. Oftentimes what he’s looking for is a new question that hasn’t been asked before that then would unlock some new understanding for that problem.

Byron White:           It’s a fascinating approach, right, because it’s the opposite of personas, in interviewing the target customer and getting under their skin, and focus… Can I talk with your customers? Can I talk with your customer service team? That’s the traditional approach, right?

Heather:                    And he does some research in that vein. This is like an extra…

Byron White:           Bonus.

Heather:                    I would say tool.

Byron White:           There you go, tool. [0:16:11 inaudible]. There’s so many tools out there. We’re tool crazy over here in our worlds. But great food for thought here for sure. How do you think advertising is going to change after interviewing all of these marketing minds?

Heather:                    Well, I’m a big believer… Have you watched South Park recently?

Byron White:           Not recently.

Heather:                    I think they’ve got it right because there’s some really cutting episodes lately where they talk about, “Okay. Well, first the ads came in and interrupted our programming and then we got programming like Netflix where they couldn’t get in. So then the ads stalked us on the internet and then we get Adblocker. So now the ads are in our news and the ads are people.” Ads are a little bit insidious and they’ll find people. And what I think we’re seeing is a bit of a shift towards, not just pushing messages on people but having to really, truly earn people’s attention by being extremely entertaining or very useful.

Byron White:           Never combined?

Heather:                    That’s the Holy Grail, right [0:17:28 inaudible], utility that’s also entertaining but yeah.

Byron White:           Do you think that we’re going to begin demanding entertainment from our ads? We’re all going to shift the advertising to small Super Bowl ads for smaller budgets and more creative people creating how we market and communicate?

Heather:                    I think you’ll see some of that, but I think advertising as we know it is basically becoming much smaller and what’s changing is that we understand people in a way that we can change the products to be better for them and that the experience with that product, everything from how you interact with them through customer service, to maybe an experience you might have with the brand that they have created… Do you know what I mean by experiential marketing, whether --?

Byron White:           Sure.

Heather:                    --that’s like a concert or what have you, those kinds of things are going to be really where brands connect with their audience.

Byron White:           What was the take on social media with the folks that you interviewed in the book? Were they bullish, bearish?

Heather:                    I think we all see social media as a powerful method of connecting with people, but I think one of the phrases that I now has resonated, I’ve seen people tweet it, Simon Kemp, who’s the managing director of We Are Social in Singapore, said to me, “Doing cool shit trumps saying shit in a cool way every time. Doing cool shit trumps saying cool shit every time.” That’s really where it’s shifting is that if you do something cool that people want to share then that’s brilliant and then your brand comes along for the ride.

Byron White:           Interesting.

Heather:                    But then I don’t just mean a stunt. I mean like with the Standard Chartered Marathon, which is one of his clients, they’re creating a community of runners so that people could talk about carbo loading and talk about places to train, and they were just making that space as opposed to, “Sign up for the marathon. Sign up for the marathon.”

Byron White:           Right. Do we need a much deeper sense of social media to truly embrace it and let it take its course? Are we just at the tip of the iceberg in your opinion and those that you interviewed on what to do with social media and the power of it?

Heather:                    I don’t think that businesses are unaware of what to do with social media. I think that the bar keeps shifting because right now if you have a million fans on Facebook, very few of them will see anything if you post it. You have to spend money on Facebook for them to see. So they basically changed the rules. They had you build up this huge community and then if you want to talk to them you must advertise to them. That’s what happens is that these companies are figuring out how to make more and more money, and that’s what’s changing as opposed to our inherent human social nature.

Byron White:           Do you think that there’s an omni channel of looking at conversion moving forward? In other words, we tend to focus on conversion rates on a particular landing page and not looking at these influences of social and how we measure conversion. Do you think that’s coming together? Are we going to see some progress there in the future, and is that something that you talked about with some of the people you interviewed and asked them about?

Heather:                    I don’t 100% know that I understand what you’re asking. What do you mean by conversions to omni channel?

Byron White:           What I’m referring to is measuring… By the way, sometimes I don’t understand what I’m talking about so don’t feel badly at all. I was talking more about return on investment and how important that has been and continues to be for advertisers spending money. We’ve tended to isolate success by looking at say particular landing pages like, “What’s the conversion rate on that page? Let’s decrease the conversion rate on that particular page.” And those days, I think, are gone. There’s many more influences to why we make purchasing decisions. Things like reviews, influences on social media and our friends’ recommendations. But it’s hard to track all of those influences, that’s my point.

Heather:                    Okay.

Byron White:           That’s the strategy that needs to come from the top with how we do that. And there probably is a technology answer to that, although I haven’t really ever seen one, that can track influences of conversions through multiple channels. But I was wondering if that was a discussion point. Somehow we have to rationalize continuing to spend money on marketing, that it is a worthy investment and I’m just wondering if that was at all an interesting discussion you had with any of the top minds that you interviewed?

Heather:                    Well, measurement is sort of separate from brand strategy. You absolutely need to measure and know what’s working and not working. But there is no one measurement methodology or tool that I’m aware of that will zip it all up neatly for you. And then even some of the things that I was talking about before about how these social network platforms are changing. So one thing that you did last year, if it worked really well, the rules have now changed so you couldn’t even implement it the same way that you did one year ago, so the measurements are not apples to apples. Then we get really focused on measuring things and the after effects and we forget about crafting a brand that’s intriguing and interesting to people from the get go that is then expansive. A great idea will permeate a brand through the way that they interact with you through the buttons and like, I‘m feeling lucky on Google. You know that button? That’s a brilliant expression of their brand. It’s playful, it’s confident. You don’t need to type in the URL, you can trust us to just tell us the little bit of information, I’ll take you right to that page. That’s some of the best marketing that I can think of is a lot of the things that Google’s doing.

Byron White:           Speaking of feeling lucky, we’ve been lucky to have you today on this—

Heather:                    Thank you, Byron.

Byron White:           And really, really great stuff and I can’t wait to dive deeply into this myself, especially over the holidays when I have a little bit more bandwidth. I have two final questions for you that I love asking our guests. Who would you like to hear from and how can they get a hold of you?

Heather:                    Who would I like to hear from? I would love to hear from anyone who is trying to figure out this mad, crazy world of marketing together and you can find me on Twitter @hklefevre or that’s my Gmail and then heatherlefevre.com on the internet.

Byron White:           Fantastic. Well, we have greatly looked forward. We will look forward to your next book. Now, I know you’ve just completed your first book a number [0:25:00 inaudible]. But if you had to do this all again and drum up the energy, do you have a thought on what you would write about next?

Heather:                    I’m really interested in retirement so… We’re meant to save all this money for this very vague thing and now I have lived in two different countries so I don’t even know where that place would be. But I think it would be interesting to do a similar methodology of spending time and visiting people who have some aspect of their life that I might want to copy in retirement. So whether that’s a commune, I know some people in Boston that they got all their friends to move to the same suburbs so that when they got married and have kids they would still be friends.

Byron White:           Interesting.

Heather:                    Just like that.

Byron White:           Yeah, very cool. Well that’s another shout out--

Heather:                    For another day. [0:25:50 crosstalk].

Byron White:           Well, another shout out to people that might want to contact you for what’s next with Heather.

Heather:                    Yeah.

Byron White:           Right on. Well, once again, thanks for tuning in with us today. It’s been great chatting with you.

Heather:                    Great chatting with you, Byron. Take care.

                                  Byron White:     Write on. Thanks for tuning in everyone. We’ll see you next week.                                     Thanks.