Didn’t See It Coming: An interview with Marc Stoiber

Even though he has 25 years experience in advertising and marketing, it would be inaccurate to call Marc Stoiber an “ad man.” That brings to mind a Mad Men type character who spends his days dreaming up slick taglines to sell some flagging product that nobody really wants or needs. If you’ve ever seen Glengarry Glen Ross, you get the picture.

Marc is the polar opposite of this. First of all, he doesn’t look the part. No slicked back hair, no three-piece suit, and no three Martini lunches. Marc is laid back to the point of being chill. He epitomizes the West Coast: He cycles to his business meetings in blue jeans, and his ideal weekend getaway is a surfing trip with his family. But that’s just the superficial. It’s not until you start talking with Marc that you realize how much he is unlike the archetypal ad man. Perhaps most noticeably, he is a vocal critic of wasteful, unnecessary over-consumption. In his view, rampant consumerism is taking us down a dangerous path with potentially disastrous consequences to our health, culture, and the environment. That’s a refreshing – not to mention surprising – perspective from a guy who makes a living helping companies sell more stuff.

But, Marc is a marketer with a strong moral compass. He is optimistic about the role of corporations to do good in the world – and he’s on a one-man mission to help the good companies do better. His new book, Didn’t See It Coming, tells the story of how these companies can get ahead by building brands that are authentic, innovative and sustainable. I recently had the chance to chat with Marc about his new book, as well as his career path in advertising and marketing.

Marc, you make a living by helping companies to improve their brands. In your view, what are some of the most common problems with corporate brands these days?

MS: Companies have a difficult time understanding how to articulate what they stand for, what needs their customers are hoping they’ll satisfy (beyond simply providing a product or service), and why any of this matters. For the longest time, people were happy if you simply told them your skin cream would make their skin more beautiful – now they want to know your stand on climate change, and more often than not they want a say in how the cream is formulated. You can imagine large corporate marketers having a bit of a struggle with this.

Funny thing is, this incredible sense of disruption and new world order is also spawning some incredible brands and products – everything from Tom’s Shoes to Etsy.

You use the phrase “futureproofing” when describing how to create better brands for companies. What exactly do you mean by this?

MS: I’ve had a few careers in my time – I’ve worked as a big ad agency Creative Director, I’ve run an agency focused on making sustainability sexy, I’ve worked in innovation, I’m currently working on launching a couple of new companies. If nothing else, it’s all given me a good perspective. The biggest lesson I’ve learned? Companies don’t give a crap about advertising, they don’t get innovation, and they tend to love sustainability intermittently. What everybody DOES care about, though, is keeping their jobs. The need I saw in the market was to offer brand stewards and CEOs a way to build brands resilient and tough enough to survive the shock waves of today’s market. That’s where futureproofing started.

In the beginning, it was just a phrase I used. But I noticed in my speaking engagements that everyone would suddenly wake up when I said ‘futureproofing’. So I started to build a methodology around creating brands that understood what they stood for, how to express that belief, and – most important – how to keep an ear to the ground and adapt to what consumers were thinking. Fairly basic stuff, if you think about it. But as the saying goes, common sense isn’t usually common practice.

Not every brand makeover results in a home run. For every Old Spice, there are probably a hundred New Cokes. From your perspective, why do some rebranding efforts work so well, while many others fall flat? What’s the secret ingredient to creating brands that soar?

MS: The beauty of this profession is that our customers are people. And – no insult intended – people are weird. They can’t be ‘solved’ with an engineering equation. You can’t guarantee they’re going to love what you do, simply because your research told you they would. I’m surprised on a daily basis when I discover what triggers peoples’ ‘on’ switch. ‘I haz cheezburgers’, cat websites, stuff like that.

What that means is that you get to combine research with intuition, numbers with hunches. You get to create things that haven’t been seen before. And as anyone in any creative profession will tell you, you won’t hit homers every time.

So is there a secret ingredient? I’d say the willingness to try, try again is the only secret formula. Fail forward, learning every time you strike out. Unfortunately, joyful failure and (as they call it in tech) pivoting isn’t in the vocabulary of most companies. Their brand stewards are terrified of going for anything more than a bunt to first.

Your new book, Didn’t See It Coming, is now available. It’s a provocative yet fun-filled read that draws on your war stories, experiences and insights gained from over 25 years in the advertising and marketing game. Can you tell us a little about it?

MS: Didn’t See It Coming started out as a speech I honed over five years. I tweaked and tweaked it until it really started to resonate with audiences. Inevitably, after every talk, a few folks in the audience would come up and ask if I had a book. Each time I had to give them this lame answer – I’m a copywriter, I only write 30 second commercials and half page print ads, insert uncomfortable laugh here.

What changed everything was my trip to Bali. I took my family there for the better part of 2014. My only ‘job’ in Bali was to buckle down and write. So I hammered out Didn’t See It Coming, in copywriter-length snippets.

I set out to craft a piece that worked on multiple levels – as a guide for CEOs wanting to futureproof their brand, a thought starter for young marketers wondering how to cope with a job morphing beyond recognition, and for a general population looking for a fun read and a peek inside the kimono of big advertising and marketing. From the reviews, it seems to be working quite nicely on all levels.

I’m happiest that it’s resonating with folks outside the marketing world. My mother-in-law told me yesterday that people in her hiking club had leafed through her copy and loved it. The last thing the world needs is another dull-as-dirt pontificating business book. If a 70-year-old hiker likes it, business readers are going to like it.

Behind every lazy copywriter who needs to get a book out is a tireless, patient, whip-bearing wife. Marc and Colleen Stoiber in Bali. (Photo by Dex Stoiber)
Behind every lazy copywriter who needs to get a book out is a tireless, patient, whip-bearing wife. Marc and Colleen Stoiber in Bali. (Photo by Dex Stoiber)

 

In the book, you write about some of the nasty side-effects of overconsumption – ranging from climate change, to technology overload, to cultural exploitation. But, you also admit that much of your career in advertising has been built on convincing unsuspecting consumers to buy more and more stuff they probably don’t need. Talk about cognitive dissonance. At what point did you realize you had to change course in your career?

MS: I’ll give you a snippet from the book, describing the precise moment the lights went on for me:

I’ll never forget the day.

I was creative director at a multinational ad agency, and my team had been drafted to breathe new life into the comatose Mr. Clean account.

We were doing well. Mr. Clean was en route to becoming Procter & Gamble’s global turnaround of the year. Go team.

This particular day, one of the account service people walked into my office clutching an array of Mr. Clean bottles filled with brightly colored liquids.

“Spring, summer, autumn, winter scents!” he declared. They were all new, created expressly to cajole North American homemakers into buying a bottle of Mr. Clean every season, even if there was still a half-full bottle in the cupboard. After all, you wouldn’t want your floor smelling like spring if it was summer.

Really?

I looked at my account person. He looked at me. Someone in the last row of the imaginary audience coughed, and we called it a day.

That evening, I talked to my wife about the dim bulb of doubt that was glowing in my head. “Does the world really need four more flavors of floor cleaner?” I asked.

Her answer, a simple “No,” pretty much ruined my life.

Because when you work in advertising and you finally realize the world doesn’t need what you’re selling, you’re screwed. I was screwed.

As the bulb of doubt began to glow more brightly, I saw the insanity everywhere. Most of the products I marketed could’ve gone straight to landfill without consumers missing a beat. The millions spent on advertising this stuff, meanwhile, could’ve been redirected to charity or (drumroll please) innovating products that actually improved the human condition. Either way it would’ve bought the company more goodwill.

And that was just the stuff I was selling. When I took a hard look at all the products advertised around me, my mood got very dark indeed. How did I not see the pointlessness of all this before?

As you might imagine, my days in Big Agencyland were numbered. I quit my job and set out on a career journey that, over the course of ten years, would expose me to some tectonic shifts in marketing.

I like how your book remains hopeful, in spite of all the doom-and-gloom facing the world. You present a number of principles and recommendations for creating brands that can survive – and in fact thrive – in an uncertain and unstable future. Can you describe one or two companies that have done this well, and how they have benefited?

MS: In the book, I write the better part of a chapter on Patagonia. They ‘get’ the company’s reason for existence, and they live that purpose. No compromise. Speaking with Rick Ridgeway, their VP of Environmental Initiatives, I discovered that in the sewer of the recession, with a product that was expensive, they enjoyed incredible growth. When the world collapses around us, we turn to those we trust. Patagonia has built a trustworthy company, and they’re reaping the rewards.

There are plenty of other companies described in the book – from Unilever to 7th Generation – that are pushing hard to walk the talk, and doing well by it.

One of the recommendations in your book is for companies to know what they stand for, and to align their brand with that higher purpose. In a word, the brand needs to be authentic. Suppose, for a moment, you were advising Marc Stoiber Inc. What would you say you stand for? And how does your own personal brand reflect that?

MS: Gee, it’s personal revelation time? I’m all about staying curious. Everything I do needs to align with staying curious, keeping learning and not getting too comfortable with my status quo. It’s terrifying, but it keeps me bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

How does my personal brand reflect that? Right now I’m consulting with clients who want to build better brands, helping launch a next-generation search company, launching another (still top-secret) company, teaching entrepreneurial marketing at university, and doing public speaking. I’m constantly treading the fine line between pushing myself into new unfamiliar territory and spinning off course into irrelevance. That’s my personal brand. It makes my banker very nervous.

Lesson 1: Always throw yourself into things that turn you into a perennial beginner. Lesson 2: Wear rubber. (Photo by Ella Mickelberry)
Lesson 1: Always throw yourself into things that turn you into a perennial beginner. Lesson 2: Wear rubber. (Photo by Ella Mickelberry)

 

Marc, you spent years working for large advertising and marketing firms. Then you made, what many people would consider, a risky decision to leave a lucrative career path to start your own small company that leveraged your marketing powers for good. What compelled you to take this leap of faith?

MS: There are risks, to be sure. What I realized somewhere along the way, though, was that the biggest risk is not risking. Our world is transforming itself at a frightening pace. Anyone who wants to pull the blinds down and wish it away is toast. So I decided to embrace the risk of striking out, as much as I hate striking out. I’d rather swing for the fences than bunt.

Finally, what advice do you have for others who want to make a big change to align their career with their own values and purpose?

MS: One terrific bit of learning before you jump: Ask your most trusted clients and friends what they think you do best. I did it, and got three answers back consistently. I connect dots other people don’t see. I simplify. And I add a creative twist, making the mundane charming. No matter what I do, I try to fall back on projects that allow me to make the most of those skills.

If you’re going to jump, don’t jump off a cliff. Take the risks, but make sure each risk allows you to accentuate the stuff you’re good at. It helps you sleep at night.

Marc Stoiber is a brand consultant, entrepreneur, and writer. He has worked in the corner office, the basement, and at coffee shops around the world. His work – even the legitimate stuff clients paid for – has been recognized by virtually every international industry award for advertising and design. Marc writes on brand innovation for Huffington Post, Fast Company, GreenBiz and Sustainable Life Media. He also speaks on the subject from coast to coast, and has been featured at TEDx. You can find him at www.marcstoiber.com. You can find his book Didn’t See It Coming at Amazon.