Learning to learn is the most valuable skill.

Valeria Maltoni on the value of non traditional backgrounds, continuous learning, and staying open-minded.



ONE OF THE MORE WORN OUT SAYINGS IN THE CREATIVE INDUSTRY IS THAT “ALL MARKETS ARE CONVERSATIONS”. While I still don’t know if it is profound or nonsense, I know that listening is better than talking if you want to be of value.

Someone who has figured that out way earlier and better than most of us, is Valeria Maltoni, of Conversation Agent fame; helping companies create better experiences for people they want to attract.

We had the pleasure of having Valeria share her thoughts on how to prosper in the creative industry.

“That took care of several threads: advertising agency, strategy work, technology, and ability to have conversations, which all translated into a strong baseline for digital strategy.”

Valeria Maltoni

Q: How did you get started in advertising and (digital) strategy?

Valeria Maltoni

Valeria Maltoni: My mother was an account executive at a local advertising agency in Modena, Italy, where I grew up.

I applied for an internship there while still in high school — I wanted to learn the business operational part.

I ended up spending a lot of time in court, applying for and picking up permits for billboards and signage. It felt very Kafka-esque.

Also, I wanted to figure out why she had to have her male colleague make calls to get through to prospects and clients — she was the top producer at the agency, building a long term book of business for them… it didn’t make any sense to me that she would have to do that.

The strategy part came around the same time. I developed a framework and methodology for my mom to learn financial accounting so she could pass a test she needed for work.

Mom had only the eighth grade and she was taught how to be a homemaker, and all that jazz. So that’s when I realized, “hey, I am decent at this”: she passed the test with flying colors. I loved how it felt to empower her to go do something with it.

My sister was a programmer — she actually developed a pre-CAD program for my father, a mechanical engineer. Most of my education was conversational and essay-based; you had to demonstrate that you had the ability to present a thesis and support it in front of peers and teachers.

So that took care of several threads: advertising agency, strategy work, technology, and ability to have conversations, which all translated into a strong baseline for digital strategy.

By the time I got to the U.S., I was fairly comfortable both with publishing and technology. I was working for a non-profit organization that needed everything. Literally.

Budgets were tight to nil, and it was a human development place, people needed to see proof it worked.

We ended up creating a monthly publication for parents to share the results kids achieved, then translated that into several languages.

So content strategy and publishing were the tools to get the word out.

A couple of corporate jobs later, I got fully into digital when I joined a UXD start-up that built sites for wealth management divisions of banks — the allure was we were developing strategies to help people complete tasks.

During my time working there I developed the Fast Company network on the side. Acted as community manager on the FC.com listserv, and created content/live events, offering 100+ events to the business community over 7 years.

Fast Company published an article about my work. When I saw the title, I almost fell off the chair: Fearless was part of the title and so apt!

I then joined a much more traditional business, building brand equity for a line of (mostly) off patent products both through advertising, direct mail and some digital, mostly as catalog/ordering system for distributors.

While I worked there I started Conversation Agent the blog; it allowed me to scale beyond the live Fast Company events and share what I was learning.

A few years later, after developing content strategies for an IT infrastructure services Fortune 500 company and helping it dip toes into social, I joined another start up as a social strategist called Powered, before the company was merged into Dachis Group.

Then I did consulting work as Conversation Agent, before joining a 7 year old UXD company, Empathy Lab.

When that agency was acquired by a systems integrator a couple of years later, I decided the front end was more fun, so I joined PM Digital, a full service digital marketing agency in New York city.

Q: What are some of the risks and opportunities facing the creative industry, in your opinion?

Valeria Maltoni: Coming from a non traditional background, as the client, then being immersed in social several years before the current madness hit, I have seen the misses clearly.

Some of the risks:

  • Agencies/clients diverging from what people — businesses, peers, and customers — want: which is better experiences, to complete their tasks, finding things easily. How are we making people’s lives better?
  • We live in a time of greater lateral mobility in organizations, where the digital or e-commerce teams could report into communications or marketing with varying degrees of or no collaboration at brand level.
  • Budgets are not what they used to be. I keep hearing they used to be good, not in my experience… Things have been pretty tight in all the industries I have worked with and in, so we learned to do better with less or to ask the right question.
  • Looking at the landscape today, it is becoming really hard to tell which agency is experienced at what. Positioning is easy, doing the work is where it matters. PR agencies want to be digital shops and own social media, media companies and consultancies are moving into marketing, and so are measurement and analytics firms.

Everyone sounds the same.

  • Collaboration is becoming more difficult at a time when it is most needed to support clients in the fragmented and complex world of consumer demands/data deluge.
  • Convergence is here to stay. Tech helps smaller organizations go after big clients, and compete through un-bundling and bundling of products and experiences. Look at what is happening in the retail industry with Apple and Burberry converging, for example.
  • Are we optimizing the wrong question? Everyone is after attribution and the predictive analytics Holy Grail. Just in the last couple of days, Walmart.com bought Adchemy , Google announced its intention to acquire Adometry and AOL bought Convertro.
  • Playing with data is risky. Look at what is happening with Target and Neiman Marcus, and in the discussions on privacy policies — as angel investor Esther Dyson said in an interview about data ethics, “The advertising community has been woefully un-forthcoming about how much data they’re collecting and what they’re doing with it. And it’s going to backfire on them, just as the Snowden revelations backfired on the NSA.”

On the opportunities side of the conversation:

  • In a much more mobile environment that requires greater horizontal skills, people with non traditional backgrounds like me (and Faris Yakob) are right at home. We are used to stretching in more than one direction.
  • Business problems require creative curiosity and often the better ideas come from a different industry — agencies that work across several verticals are good at doing that.
  • It is also about designing to the way things are, then helping tell that story and in some fashion help organizations view things from outside in, and gain and expand perspective in the process.
  • Using qualitative research to illuminate the nature of constantly shifting relationships. Adding depth to the facts of those relationships is a tremendous opportunity. As an industry, we are taking the first small steps here.
  • Going from the story to the product — making things, or helping clients with new products/experiences is the most exciting part.

Q: New technology has amplified old and created new forms of behavior. How do you decide what to invest time and money in to build skill-sets around?

Valeria Maltoni: Personally it’s an easy choice: go with understanding people and how they relate to technology/or not, to being connected or disconnected, to communicating with others, get stuff done, etc. What are the hot buttons? What does technology want from us?

Learning to learn is the most valuable skill.

Sometimes that means being able to discard or not hold onto our biases and beliefs too tightly — onto the empty hand falls freedom, etc.

Other times it means learning by example, and being available in response, being willing to be surprised.

Getting back to business, it means our strategies need to be responsive, and we need to become Conversation Agents.

I’ve been operating based upon both concepts for years and blogging and writing about them as far back as 1999.

I continue to be curious about why is it so hard to acknowledge the contributions of women in this sort of thing.

It’s a question that has been rattling in my head for ever, at least since I experienced watching my mom do a ton of great work and her colleagues getting the credit. I’ve talked about the need to collaborate more in my Austin Ignite talk.

We should invest in learning how to collaborate better. I grew up working in teams, we were literally graded as part of a team from the sixth to eighth grade. It can be taught. It’s a valuable skill. We are born with it, just watch children play.

It can help clients tremendously when they work with people who can collaborate— agency work should not be reduced to a punch list, as helpful as that is to manage projects.

I invest in learning and building capacity constantly. I read voraciously both fiction (useful for finding good writing and inspiring storytelling) and non fiction.

Q: Mike Arauz of Undercurrent wrote, with regards of what a strategist should be/know: “The typical ‘T-shaped’ team member is no longer adaptable enough to keep and maintain their value in a market that evolves as quickly as today’s market does. The ideal evolving skill set for today’s (digital) strategy world is shaped more like an expanding square than a ‘T’.” What is your take on this?

Valeria Maltoni: Round is a better shape ☺. In a Renaissance kind of way, tuttotondo, as an ecosystem, where every part contributes to a piece of the whole.

Thinking about the arts and the sciences, analytics and behavior, individual and group, passion and compassion or empathy, Leonardo da Vinci and Marie Curie, Umberto Eco and Dante Alighieri, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

We live in a “both/and” world.

Is it about keeping one’s value or is it about providing and delivering value? Asking the right question is often more than half the journey.

Q: What qualities do you look for in a successful digital strategist?

Valeria Maltoni:

  • The desire to take initiative and shape their own destiny;
  • A willingness to help others along;
  • Being open to learning and trying new things;
  • The ability to think/make sense of things, and to do them;
  • To see around corners;
  • The wisdom to take the ego out of the equation;
  • And be a pro who doesn’t take him/her-self too seriously.

Vision would be nice, too. It’s harder to learn, though.

Q: If you were to test a candidate’s skills by giving them a small project, what would you ask them to do ?

Valeria Maltoni: Deliver a guide or playbook to explain how they would go about conceptualizing and executing a program, or creating a product.

They are free to choose the format, whether to have images, a prototype, research, anything that floats their boat.

Then present it to a group. I want to see how they make sense of things, what they make do with, and how they make it come to life.

My first CEO asked me to select and read him a poem. Imagine that!

Q: What should students and graduates, looking to up their chances of breaking into the industry, focus on, in terms of skills and knowledge topics?

Valeria Maltoni: This is a tough one for me, I went the unconventional route.

I would say at a high level, find mentors and pros you admire and do what it takes to help them help you.

One of the most enjoyable parts of a successful career is to be able to support colleagues.

I’m working now with a very young practitioner and he is fantastic with follow up, providing feedback and additional resources, building on discussions — all so important to demonstrate you value the exchange.

Then focus on keeping the promises you make — do what you set out to do — and you will be able to make better promises as a result.

Be generous, and always contribute meaningfully, you really do never know how you will get to the next level and who will help you, so be respectful and behave with integrity, especially when you are having a bad day. That’s when you need a helping hand the most.

As for topics, I would encourage learning the art of storytelling and how to articulate/translate ideas into clear, crisp communication — much of success today is predicated upon the ability to move others; the art of persuasion is essential.

Dank Pink has written a series of great books along these themes: a Whole New Mind on connecting things, Drive on uncovering and encouraging intrinsic motivation, and To Sell is Human on the art of persuasion.

I love his work because it strikes a good balance between the science of behavior and the simplicity of exposition, with a dash of counter intuitive data points. He is a very entertaining speaker, too.

For skills, learning the basics of UX, web design, and development is very helpful. Analytics and dealing with data are good, foundational tools.

Mostly, be open to figuring stuff out by working on the problem and understanding how to deal with issues when they arise.

Q: In his essay on how to build brands in the digital age, Martin Weigel writes: “There is as much to unlearn as there is to relearn”. What are you unlearning and relearning? Why?


Bad habits. It starts with awareness.


The joy of play and learning experientially, with the whole person, not just intellectually. We do that so well as children. “

Valeria Maltoni

Q: With the way that tech, design, comms and product development are merging, what would you advise your 20 year old self, if she asked you where to work: Advertising agency, start up, client side company, something else?

Valeria Maltoni:

I’d say, “don’t change a thing. You’ll get to do it all.”

I did ☺.

Thank you Ms Maltoni.

“Where the puck is going” is an interview series by GapJumpers. We ask people we like and find super interesting to share some thoughts. Whenever we find someone willing to answer our questions, we’ll feature them. If you’d like to stay updated on more stories, please follow the collection.




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