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Meet The Disruptors: Jeff Charney Of MKHSTRY On The Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Parading your clients in the media is just a self-serving and back-handed way for MKHSTRY and any agency to acquire new clients. Because we’re an invite-only collective that already has enough business, we don’t have to be a slave to that circular process.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Charney.

Jeff Charney, the “Ad Age 2021 Brand Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) of the Year,” is a high-energy innovator and founder of MKHSTRY, a disruptive invite-only marketing industry collective, focused on helping companies, brands and individuals make “history” through code-cracking ideas. The company’s scarcity model approach is unique in any industry — especially in the marketing industry. Charney has stuck to his “history speaks louder than words” mantra by not granting any in-depth interviews since his new business was announced in late February 2022.

The former CMO of Progressive Insurance, Charney was responsible for developing a range of brand icons including the perky salesclerk “Flo” and the parental-life coach, “Dr. Rick.” In addition to character creation, Progressive quadrupled its marketing budget, becoming the nation’s #3 spender according to Ad Age. Also, during his time as CMO of Aflac, he was the boss of the annoying, yet widely known Aflac Duck. He and his teams have received more than 100 national and international marketing and creative awards. Charney was also named “Brand Genius: Top Marketer of the Year” by Adweek Magazine in 2011 and has a track record of success at driving bottom-line results across three decades of work, which includes QVC and startup Homestore.com (parent of Realtor.com) now Move.com.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! We know you don’t do many of these types of in-depth interviews. Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this career path?

I grew up in rural South Carolina, but oddly enough, my love for Ohio State University quite possibly ignited my early passion for marketing. While my childhood friends cheered for Clemson or the University of South Carolina, I was all in with the Buckeyes. Their football helmets caught my initial interest because I noticed they were a little too plain. Maybe it was a subconscious early marketing challenge.

My Dad explained that players earned Buckeye stickers for their on-field achievements. It was early in the season so obviously the helmets were blank, waiting to be adorned with Buckeye stickers. I was ready for the transformation. All it took was a few games and those helmets suddenly morphed, gaining more and more Buckeye stickers, which really demanded fan attention.

I think that somewhat disruptive Ohio State aesthetic planted the idea of what you could do to engage people with a little creativity … and stickers.

And how did you apply those “Buckeyes” throughout your career?

As I’ve moved through my life, I’ve used that simple sticker example as added motivation to help track my achievements:

Accept a fellowship at Ohio State and graduate with honors with a Master of Arts in journalism? That’s a Buckeye sticker.

The first national brand launch at QVC when I was senior vice president and CMO? That’s a Buckeye sticker.

Join Aflac, where I took a second look at modernizing that plain white Aflac duck? That’s a Buckeye sticker.

Go to Progressive Insurance and be compelled to develop “Flo” into a more relevant personality as well as develop a dozen more characters to complement her? Sticker.

It’s about making something more appealing, authentic, and relatable.

Marketing is everything and everything is marketing; I just didn’t know it when I was 11. Even this year, in an odd way, “history repeated itself” when, many years later, my son was accepted to Ohio State, starting in the fall as — drumroll please — a marketing major! Sometimes life takes you full circle.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

I truly believe that everyone is one idea away from making history. If you really grasp that point, you can understand why I’m so intent on disrupting and modernizing the marketing industry. I structured this national marketing collective to work with very brave, invitation-only corporations, advertising agency leaders, and individuals who are ready to accelerate an idea that may just have been sitting there. Maybe it’s a transformative idea they haven’t even had yet.

Do you know that at the time the pandemic started (over two years ago), marketing firms and ad agencies were still operating with essentially the same service model that was developed back in 1869 by Francis Ayer, who started the first advertising agency, N.W. Ayer & Son. That’s a whopping 153 years ago and the industry still abides by Ayer’s 15% commission model. This is a $300 billion industry that needs to be disrupted — in a good way.

We need to get people to evolve, and we need to do it quickly. We need to turn those traditional print, radio, TV, and digital marketing models on their heads and speak creatively in ways that engage and include more people, more ideas, and more communities. We also need to complement these existing mediums using modern technology, like the blockchain, Web3, crypto, NFT, and the metaverse to get us there.

How do you get companies to change their mindset into not only doing great results-oriented marketing but also to getting over the high bar of making history?

It’s not easy and it really is a journey of change. To help people reach that point, I created a simple 4-C focused approach:

  1. Coaching the new game-changing model and mindset — immersive speaking “with” clients/audiences and not “at” them; plus
  2. Consolidating the existing external agency model with the formation of an innovative internal/in-house model; plus
  3. Code-cracking creative between the two entities, applying the modern-day blockchain and Web3 principles; equals
  4. The fourth C, Cultural relevance in the external market, balanced with internal cultural impact among existing — and potential — employees and customers.

The most important “C” that’s not included above is CHANGE. Unfortunately, no matter what people might profess, they’re just not open to it — either professionally or personally. And in order to really be open to making history, you have to really be open to changing yourself, your brand, your company and ultimately your industry.

In the most simplistic terms, MKHSTRY is part accelerator/lab for industry-changing ideas, part creative partner/agency catalyst, and part lifestyle brand. It’s a hybrid for 2022 and beyond. It’s the perfect model for the new virtual “in-home” agency world.

Can you share a story about one of the toughest mistakes you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I will give you my tough dilemma, but you’re going to have to “wait for it” … while I give you a bit of background.

The MKHSTRY collective is unique in that it operates as an invitation-only model. Before us, companies looked for creative agency partners by submitting detailed, extensive, and expensive Request for Proposals (RFPs). Then, they would use fee-laden matchmaking firms to lead a search which can sometimes take 6 to 12 months. MKHSTRY turns this model on its head by doing just the opposite. We look for a good area of disruptive “white space” and spend weeks combing through companies and individuals based on the breakthrough approach that we as a collective offer. Then, we send a detailed correspondence to the company CEO or the key decision maker within the company.

It’s the simple scarcity model. We figured that scarcity would scare most people off, but it did just the opposite and within the first week we received hundreds of invitations from brands, individuals, and companies wanting to “get-in” and get an invitation. We never expected it, but we’ve become a modern-day version of Studio 54, which is exciting, yet daunting all at once.

For a small start-up like us, that kind of dam-breaking reaction was almost the equivalent of our internet servers going down. Right after launch, we had to “turn off” all media interviews (and we have maintained that stance except for this one) and social because the demand was too great. We responded to as many requests for invites as we could and when people didn’t like the answer they received, they went to my social channels and pinged me there. When they still didn’t like the answer, they went even further, somehow finding my cell number and trying to reach me there. The cycle continues. We’ve had to be very reactive and explain to them why they weren’t brave enough for our model, but in the long run, we are still meeting some good folks and learning a lot.

So, you’ve turned the industry on its head by interviewing your potential clients rather than have them interview you. Is there an analogy you use to explain this approach?

MKHSTRY’s client acquisition approach is like searching for your lifelong mate. We want a relationship that is long-lasting because we don’t want to have a messy creative “divorce.” Divorce hurts the “kids” (your staff), the “family” (your brand), and the industry (your business). You can’t marry everyone — we’re in search of the right one and we have a proprietary way to find that match which I will go into later.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I’ve had wonderful mentors at different stages in my career, but the one who most likely helped me the most was Bruce Karatz, chairman of a large homebuilder, KB Home. It was very early in my career and when I started with KB, I was their head of communications. He told me that if I was as “creative as I appeared to be” that one day I could leave all the PR pitching behind and become the company’s CMO.

A few weeks into my career he quickly proved good on his promise. He called me into his office and offered me the “brass ring” of the CMO job. Rather than holding my hand through the transition process, he said that he trusted me to figure it out and then the next day he went on a business trip to France for a month. He knew exactly what he was doing. I didn’t want my hand held and knew he didn’t want to hold it. Even though I failed early and often, I knew my boss always had my back in the process.

For more than 25 years, I’ve held the top job as a CMO. I’ve never wanted nor required a hand holder and I lead my team in the same way.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has “withstood the test of time”? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Those are great questions and really speak to why I have formulated the MKHSTRY collective. My belief is almost every industry can and should be disrupted and you can test me on that belief. We need to make new history, not live in the systems and structures of the past. We are constantly evolving as humans and so should the way we express ourselves.

I think of the example I gave earlier of the marketing/ad agency approach that is 153 years old and still in practice today. Come on — that is just not acceptable — especially for a person who loves the industry as much as I do. Additionally, the pandemic rocked that existing system to its core with the work from home movement. MKHSTRY will work only with courageous corporate leaders, visionary agencies, and firms to maximize remote work productivity and modernize their aging traditional business models — helping them adapt to the new creator economy, blockchain, Web3, and Metaverse worlds. Either you make history, or you will be history — it’s that simple.

That’s the good news. As I stated before, what started as a simple “invite-only business” has ballooned into a modern-day version of Studio 54. The response has been overwhelming with everyone trying to get beyond the velvet rope to work with me and my “Oceans 11” virtual team. It really shows that there is a problem with the old way of doing marketing and that our company offers the more modern way to get historic results. But you must be brave.

On the negative side, you can’t just jump on the disruptive bandwagon for the sake of disruption. The block chain crypto craze is the perfect example. It became the trendy thing to do, and people ran in with their hair on fire, trying to crash in and cash in without knowing what they were getting into. Some did well, but unfortunately many lost their life savings in the process. Don’t follow the disruption trend without having the disruptive gene in your DNA. If you’re lucky enough to be a first-mover and lead the trend, great. After that, be deliberate and measured in your research, approach, and ultimately action.

Can you share five stories of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Huge question. Rather than just talk about pieces of advice that I might find out of a self-help lecture or textbook, I will give you five “original” pieces of advice that I continually give myself now and through the years.

The first is “Why Not?” This came indirectly from my Mom, who was a teacher in rural South Carolina. As a kid, I was probably a little too worried about academics and I studied A LOT. I remember in the 4th grade, I was over-studying for a simple spelling bee. My mother drove me to school that day and as I got out of the car, I asked her, in an insecure, sheepish, kind of way, “Mom, do you think I will win today’s spelling bee?” My mother took a long drag out of her cigarette (which unfortunately was normal in those days), looked at me, and said, quite simply, “Why not? You’ve done the work in studying for it. Why not just go win it?”

Although it wasn’t the most motivational thing I could hear at that time, it still impacted me. When I was up on that spelling bee stage, I thought about it and fortunately the preparation paid off and I actually won! Now, I apply those two words every day. If somebody’s going to win, it might as well be me, my teams, or my brands, because I’ve come in well prepared — having already “done the work.”

The second is “Outcreate not Outspend.” I know my strengths and I know my weaknesses. I’m never going to be the absolute smartest person in the room, but I AM going to be the most creative. It’s what I’ve always done. It’s who I am. It’s easy to throw money at a problem–it’s tougher to outcreate your way out of a situation.

Sure, as a CMO I believe in the “science” around the data, but I believe much more in the “art” of my creative instincts and judgment that have been well-honed over 20-plus years as a Fortune 500 CMO. I know I go against the grain of my CMO colleagues by over-indexing on the “art,” but that’s part of the reason why our teams have been so successful. We deeply understand human insights and we quickly get things in the market today, by making decisions today vs. waiting on the data to eventually come in sometime in the future.

“Relevance” — It’s THE most important nine-letter word in marketing. The minute you are not relevant is the minute you need to hit the eject button and rocket yourself out of marketing. Just like you exercise every day to keep your body healthy, you better find some creative regimen to stay relevant.

“Fire yourself” — Huh? When you find yourself getting complacent; when you find yourself starting to settle; when you find yourself not being as relevant as you should be, look in the mirror and say, “Jeff…you’re fired.” Then the next day when you go back in, think about what you would do starting a new job as Jeff Charney, replacing yourself as Jeff Charney. Let the “fire yourself” concept marinate for a bit — really understand it. It will change you and give you that kick in the butt that you need — I do it every 12–18 months.

“Don’t change. Be.” I’ve always been a square peg in a round hole. All the times that I’ve tried to really “fit in” hasn’t worked for me. I just wasn’t myself. “Fitting in’’ was like me wearing a suit and tie to work when I really wanted to wear sweats. Once I became comfortable with being me and had secure enough bosses that let me be me, was when my career really started to take off. There’s never been a better time in marketing to be a “square peg” round hole than right now. It’s literally the “Roaring 20s of Marketing” right now with blockchain and Web3 technology helping to rewrite the marketing world. Maximize it!

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

We’ve developed the proprietary MKHSTRY Index (MHI), a pre-engagement mutual bravery barometer index that gauges client/agency risk tolerance, relevance, flexibility, and ability to evaluate and perpetuate change. I’ve refined it over two decades, and it has proven highly effective in identifying and inspiring “one idea away” clients and developing launch-ready concepts. For the right clients, the MHI is the absolute best thing that could happen and for the wrong clients, it’s the absolute worst. It’s already a game-changing tool and we continue to refine the MHI to increase its pinpoint accuracy.

On a lighter scale, we also created the MKHSTRY Hybrid Line of clothing designed for the way we work today. The clothes are comfortable meant to last through history and to make a strong, simple long-lasting fashion statement about who we are and how we manifest our creativity. It’s not only a great company, but a great brand and we’re still searching for the right brave clothing partner to upend the fashion world. The hybrid line will also operate with the scarcity model. Only a few pieces of clothing exist now and will for the foreseeable future. Finally, in all of this, I will be shaking things up by asking folks to join me in giving back to our communities. A portion of the proceeds from the Hybrid Line will go to the national Little Free Library, which is a nonprofit organization focused on expanding book access, creating history by inspiring young readers.

Who are your earliest and bravest clients and is there a specific case study you and is there a sneak peek you can share with us and our readership?

This is a seemingly easy question and let me unpack my broader, more provocative answer.

People always ask me, who are you working with…who are your clients…has anyone passed the MHI, etc.? When can I see the work and when will you release it to the marketing trade press, etc.?

“History is always in the making” and, trust me, we always have something up our sleeve…and we have a lot of sleeves. However, part of that history is just letting it happen without necessarily beating your chest about it.

I’ll tell you now, one of the countless and controversial differences between us and any other creative firm on the planet is that we have a “No Megaphone Rule” about the pre- and post-business we do for our clients. As a scarcity brand, we operate just like the movie “Fight Club.” For those of you familiar with the cult classic: “The first rule of Fight Club is…don’t talk about Fight Club.”

Why not talk about your clients and your work? Isn’t one of the 4Ps of marketing, Promotion?

There are four simple reasons we operate with this “Fight Club” philosophy.

First, parading your clients in the media is just a self-serving and back-handed way for MKHSTRY and any agency to acquire new clients. Because we’re an invite-only collective that already has enough business, we don’t have to be a slave to that circular process.

Second, this kind of promotion allows the creative agency to take the chest-beating credit for overall agency-client partnership accomplishments. You’re only as good as your client direction and we drive a no-bragging “team first” approach.

Third, explaining your campaign strategy and creative details in the media just gives too much of an alert and a playbook for your competitors. All that self-promotion is an ancient relic left over from the fictional bravado of Don Draper and the Mad-Men days where confidentiality wasn’t in their vocabulary. Draper is dead and so should the “work and tell” practice.

Still, it’s probably the single and hardest thing for me and my team NOT to burst out and talk about the work we do for our clients on a 24–7 basis.

Which brings up the fourth and final reason. Quite simply, we’ve talked to countless clients and when pressed–they just don’t want it. They never liked it, but it was just another assumed client mandatory practice to “keep the agency partners happy.” I wish other agencies would stop this practice and realize what a competitive advantage a “no megaphone” philosophy could be for them. It definitely has been for us.

Our clients are paying us to do work that will make history. If one day, they choose to talk about it, that’s great. It’s their story to tell. Us running to the media to scream and shout, is just not what we do now, nor what we’ll ever do.

Again, your “Fight Club/No Megaphone” philosophy is disruptive and a very complex thing to understand. Could you relate this to a simpler analogy?

You could equate this to going to an exclusive night club with a velvet rope. If you’re in, you’re in. The club does not reveal who else is on that list alongside you, nor do they share that you got entry with the rest of the people attempting to gain access themselves. People just want to go to the club, be left alone and to have a good time. We will do the same and choose not to share this private information about our clients.

Finally, if you can’t relate to the club analogy, go way back to the ancient Chinese proverb. Those who know don’t talk. Those who talk don’t know.

History does speak louder than words…and people. Trust me, everyone will get the “credit” when history is made.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

First, I’m definitely a recovering pop culture junkie. I have a rack of four televisions outside of my office going all the time. Podcasts are on nonstop and I’m constantly skimming as many forms of news and entertainment as humanly possible.

But for now, I’ll focus on books. I’ll share one that’s very old that I always return to and one that is relatively new that I constantly apply in a more tactical way.

As far as older books go, Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” is a true classic. It’s heavy narrative, but as marketers, we are all first and foremost, story tellers. The “hero’s journey” that takes place in the book is the foundation and a touchstone for many of our stories today. Many of the great epic stories that exist — from Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Wizard of Oz, and on have their roots in that hero’s journey. The same patterns apply to modern-day movies, theater, and pop culture. Finally, for me, it says clearly that we are all heroes in the making, always on that journey of transformation, always changing, always evolving, always existing way out of our comfort zone to fulfill that inner call. It inspires me to this day and is the foundation of my three favorite six letter words: G-R-O-W-T-H, B-E-T-T-E-R, and C-H-A-N-G-E.

A more tactical book that has really influenced me was Michael Farmer’s Madison Avenue Manslaughter, which is a sobering read and for anybody in marketing. Whether you agree with Farmer and the book’s title or not, it is a real wake-up call for all of us in the marketing and advertising field. For me though, it made the problem we all face much more vivid. Rather than keep whining about the problem, I started MKHSTRY to really do something about it.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My most inspirational quote comes from perhaps the person who in my opinion is the greatest and yet most controversial marketer of all time, Muhammad Ali. It’s very simple — only ten words — but it speaks to me.

Here goes: “If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.” Just think about that and it goes back to the roots of MKHSTRY. You really can’t be brave without fear.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Quite simply, I know it sounds a little too soft, lofty, and overly-motivational, but I try to live this.

I just wish I could inspire people to really reach their full potential and be their best selves — whoever and whatever that may be. To do that, unfortunately, sometimes they just need to find a way to get out of their own way. It’s not their boss, their spouse, their company that’s holding them back; it’s themselves. There’s no blame game here. Period.

And when we took all the vowels out of MKHSTRY…in exact order, A, E, I, O — the only one that was left out was U. That’s when it hit me. U is the only thing holding folks from making history. U is one thing within our control. Once you realize that, you’ll never be the same. Once you realize that, you’ll also realize that we’re not getting any of this time back. Once you realize that, you’ll make every moment of your life count. It’s simple stuff, but you must be committed to it. If you do, it’s amazing what you can really accomplish.

Even in our name, we disrupt. Nearly all of the older, traditional agencies are someone’s name: (i.e., Ogilvy, Burnett, Fallon, Chiatt-Day, Hal Riney & Partners, on and on.) These were all pioneers, but they all unfortunately passed away. Our name is who we are. Our name is what we do. It will live on forever. We make history–and just as we have modernized an old word, we’ll modernize an old industry. It’s really exciting!

How can our readers follow you online?

Thank you so much for taking the time to get all of this out of my system. Your questions seem simple, but they forced me to really dig deep as I am the one usually on the offensive in asking the tough questions. And they’ve prompted so many new ideas for me.

Readers can find me through my website but can also connect with me on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram. Still, as mentioned in our “no megaphone rule” about client confidentiality, realize that there are some things I CAN say on those channels, but many things I just can’t. With an invite-only and scarcity model, you have to live by the sword and die by the sword, so I hope your readers can understand. Bottom line, we have a high bar and our team is incredibly busy. History is always in the making and our team is committed to continually making history. When it happens, the work will speak for itself. You’ll see.

Thanks so much.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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Fotis Georgiadis

Fotis Georgiadis

Passionate about bringing emerging technologies to the market