Do things. Tell people.

Genius Steals LLC co-founder Faris Yakob talks about how to increase the probability of creative success.


TALENT IMITATES, GENIUS STEALS. His blog is part of the diet of most strategists. After traveling in Asia for a good part of the year, he is back, with his own consultancy.

In between business, Faris kindly agreed to speak to GapJumpers about prospering in the creative industry, and much more.


“I had stock options that were supposed to be worth millions in no time. It was a crazy time, and it all came tumbling down a couple of years later. “
Faris Yakob

Q: Faris, how did you get started in advertising and (digital) strategy?

FARIS YAKOB: It’s been a circuitous route. I first got online in about 1994, with a chunky laptop and external 28.8k modem, paying by the hour. It was slow and difficult to navigate, but I was immediately hooked.

At Oxford I had to explain to my tutors that the reason some of my footnotes looked weird was because they were URLs — they hadn’t encountered this before and weren’t sure whether it was acceptable.

When I left, advertising was not on my radar. Ad agencies didn’t make themselves felt when I was at university; the big banks, law firms and consultancies were there buying drinks every week.

I started working at a management consultancy that specialised in digital business strategy, working with blue chips and incubating startups, learning the HBR strategy rule book. This was at the end of 1999. I had stock options that were supposed to be worth millions in no time.

It was a crazy time, and it all came tumbling down a couple of years later. Then I spent a brief stint writing for Maxim magazine, but wasn’t really satisfied intellectually so kept looking for other opportunities.

The annual ‘milkround’ came around again and I applied to a media agency, OMD, for their graduate scheme, as a planner. The pitch they made, that media agencies were at the intersection of creative and analytical thinking really appealed to me — in some ways it’s this intersectional idea that’s been the defining aspect of my ‘career’ ever since.

Alex Bogusky once told me I was unusual, and lucky, to have been able to carve out a ‘career’ without ever sticking to one ‘stream’.

I was the 20th employee at Naked Communications and was there for many years, working in London, Sydney and finally NYC. Everyone at Naked was a geek in something, I just happened to be the web/tech geek. Eventually I ended up leading digital at the agency.

I wanted to try working at a traditional ‘creative’ agency so when I was approached to be EVP Chief Technology Strategist at McCann Erickson in NYC, I took it.

I was tasked with helping the agency evolve in various ways, and I learned a lot about how, and at what speed, the mega agencies operate from the inside.

I ended up as Chief Innovation Officer of MDC shop kbs and was one of the founders of the creative technology boutique Spies&Assassins.

I got to work as, and won awards as, a creative director, set up a social team and developed their products, helped create a content team.

I sold my stake in Spies and launched Genius Steals as an independent strategy and innovation consultancy with my partner. We work as a micro agency, or with agencies, so I still think of us as being in the newly expanded definition of the industry.

Q: What are some risks and opportunities facing the creative industry that are on your mind as of late ?

FARIS YAKOB: As a strategy consultant I used to use Porter’s Five Forces model to analyze competitive threats to companies and it’s still a useful strategic tool.

Some risks that on the horizon are:

Ouch.

Some of these are old threats and problems — the biggest single issue is the creative business model, which does not, cannot in some ways, charge for the value it creates, rather than the time it takes.

Digital adoption has dramatically increased the skills required to concept and develop relevant solutions, adding understanding of Arduino and Code to Art and Copy.

Talent retention is getting harder, and with bottom line pressure agencies aren’t able to invest enough in training and development.

Companies like Google are gobbling up agency talent into their Creative Lab, and dis-intermediating agencies on the other side of the business, according to Sorrell.

But there are great opportunities as well.
  • When the creative solution to a business problem could be anything, agencies are well placed because their model allows for anything to get made;
  • Agencies can decouple ideas from executions, working with partners to make things.

If you have specific production specialities and staff, you are required to sell solutions that use them, which biases your strategic advice.

  • Agencies provide an environment palatable to creative people in a way the consultancies, or clients, often do not.
  • Storytelling is built into the advertising agency, as is deep understanding of changing human behaviors.

Hopefully, anyway ☺.

Q: The increase of (access to) tools of creativity offers more chances to achieve alpha , but how does an agency recognise the talent to attain it?

FARIS YAKOB: I’ve been using the alpha financial metaphor a bit recently — looking to outperform the market with breakthrough creativity. More risk, greater reward.

Duncan Watts’ work has shown that, creative success, as measured by popularity, engagement and sharing, which is increasingly important as we swim in the infinite stream of content, is inherently unpredictable.

As the industry begins to put weight behind ‘content’, we begin to learn the age old lessons of the content industries. Most films, books, albums fail.

Some become mega hits and there is NO WAY to predict which is which, although Netflix is putting data behind their attempts to mitigate creative risk, and there’s probably something we could learn from that.

Hence the portfolio model — many small fires — is old news to movie studios. Make ten, assume one will hit hard and back it when you begin to see traction.

The increased access to creative tools also changes the landscape dramatically in the sense that previously making ‘content’ at scale was a privileged act; now everyone can, and does.

It means that that audience no longer is. People are now partners in the creation and distribution of products and content.

Talent spotting and retention is always hard, especially in an age when people are starting their own micro-agencies left and right. The barriers to starting get lowered by technology.

Part of the issue with attracting top talent is that we compete broadly, especially for technology talent.

But big agencies can provide great opportunities, training, cultural environments, and access to huge exciting projects.

Agencies like W&K and GS&P have been actively courting non-advertising people to help them grow.

I’d like to see advertising people getting the training and encouragement to experiment and develop so that was no longer necessary.

Q: How do you rhyme lower training budgets, with the increased need of agencies to have better, more well rounded talent? If I need to improve on my own dime, than why would people be loyal to companies?

FARIS YAKOB: As an employee, this is tricky, especially in the USA where employment at will means you can be let go at any time for any reason [there are statutory redundancy payments and standard severance clauses in the UK].

The job for life seems to have vanished, and agencies grow and shrink in numbers with their client list.

Loyalty has to work both ways in my opinion.

Training and development is a key differentiator for agencies looking to hire young talent. It’s about making it a priority. We are working with some agencies at the moment that have done exactly that.

For example R&R Partners, who are focusing on continued education. They have created a new employee engagement and talent development role and are setting aside budgets to help their staff grow.

It doesn’t need to be expensive. I hired a team of young people at my last agency gig and created bespoke course teaching them about the industry, strategy, digital. In my spare time — that was part of what I promised them coming in [because, let’s face it, entry level salaries in advertising are pretty low].

If it is expensive, external training, then again a mutually beneficial arrangement can be come to. I did the IPA Excellence Diploma in the UK — it’s an 18 months MBA-styled professional development program for advertising and it’s pretty expensive, as well as a significant time commitment.

I was at Naked at the time — which was not a big agency then — and we came to an agreement that I couldn’t leave for a certain time period after I completed the course.

They were willing to invest in me, and in return I was more than willing to commit to them.

Q: New technology has amplified old and created new forms of consumer behaviour. Have you build any new skill sets, because of these changes ?

FARIS YAKOB: We are constantly learning. Being a geek, living online early, has definitely been an advantage. Remember, back in the day, it wasn’t clear to the industry that this digital thing was going to take over, or even be important.

I wanted a website for Genius Steals, so I taught myself to use Wordpress. I wanted to cut some videos for a project, so I messed around with keynote and iMovie. When the need arises, I will give it a try.

My friend Noah, who founded Percolate, tried to teach me PHP and it didn’t really take, as it didn’t when I tried to teach myself Processing — as he pointed out you need to start with a project, something you want to achieve, and then learn the skills to do it.

The question is more about continually moving forward, and being open to continually learning.

I don’t think everyone needs to learn to code, but I do think we need to be conversant about technology because it’s the prime mover — software is eating the world and that.

Q: One of the biggest changes in how we think about advertising, in the last few years, has been through the wider acceptance of the work of Byron Sharp and the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute. How has their work influenced you?

FARIS YAKOB: Ehrenberg’s Advertised Mind came out in 2005 and is required reading — he was one of the few who I consider a scientist for our industry and his death was a great loss. It greatly impacted my thinking, especially during the research for my IPA Thesis and since.

I think one of the great issues we face as an industry is that we are inherently amateur — there are no qualifications, no required body of knowledge, no exams like those taken by other business advisors, financial and legal.

So every generation learns in an ad hoc manner, and discovers the same truths again and again. The IPA Excellence Diploma and their other professional development exams in the UK are an attempt to address this.

That said, I’ve not read Prof Sharp’s book but I’ve read some extracts since I’ve been asked about it before. I agree with a lot of what it says:

  • Growth almost always comes from increased penetration rather than loyalty driven frequency was well established by Ehrenberg previously with his ‘double jeopardy law;
  • The primary implication of which is that penetration advertising always works better than loyalty advertising, per the IPA DataBANK.

Considering differentiation, Sharp’s point seems to be that consumers don’t want relationships with brands — Feldwick’s counterpoint being that

“communication is always about relationships, and this is often more important than the apparent content”.

We shouldn’t however confuse that with being friends with abstractions or companies; there are lots of different kinds of relationships.

Byron suggests focusing on creating differentiating personality attributes around products isn’t useful but one of his key rules is creating distinctive sensory brand assets, so he is simply recommending a different flavor of differentiation;

reminding us that habit and distribution are incredibly important in purchase decisions.

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?

FARIS YAKOB: Out of context I don’t really understand what this means, exactly, but Mike is a smart guy and I’m sure it makes sense in context. The aspiration of constant learning is probably a good thing.

The original T shaped thinking was about have a breadth of understanding that was thin, and at least one deep specialism.

I think the most interesting ideas, and people, are non-obvious combinations of influences, and the more disparate the influences, the better.

Q: In the article Mike mentions some areas to focus on. What areas are you currently exploring to stay interested and interesting?

FARIS YAKOB: I started exploring behavioural economics in 2006 — I wrote about its importance for the industry in the aforementioned thesis — and I’m delighted that it’s now mainstream thinking, although I’m not sure we have entirely worked out exactly how to use the insights it provides.

I got very interested in cognitive psychology, books like Subliminal support the System 2 primacy that Kahneman established in Thinking Fast and Slow; some of this thinking challenges deeply held assumptions of the advertising industry.

In general I’ve been interested in the mind, Pinker, Kurzweil’s latest, the new book from Michio Kaku — The Future of The Mind — and Jaron Lanier’s latest are next on my list.

But beyond books, I spent the last year or so as a nomad, mostly in S.E. Asia partially because I felt ignorant about that part of the world, where 50% of the world’s population is.

And we also set up Genius Steals as an LLC, so we are learning about how to run an independent company, with all the attendant challenges, which I hope will make us even more sensitive to the needs of our clients.

Q: What should graduates, looking to up their chances of breaking into the creative/comms industry, be looking to invest time in, in terms of skills?

“Do things, tell people.
I think that’s the key. It doesn’t really matter what things, there are plenty of different roles in the industry, but learning to get things done and finding ways to put them into the world is crucial for all of us, and it helps you get on people’s radar at the same time.”
FARIS YAKOB

Q: With the way that tech, design, comms and product development are merging, what would you advise 20 year old Faris, who asked you where to work: management consultancy, advertising agency, startup, something different?

FARIS YAKOB: Having worked in all three, ultimately, I think it comes down to the culture you feel most comfortable in, what kind of environment you want to work in, the level of risk you are comfortable with.

Being able to wear trainers to work was a huge part of the appeal of agencies after my consulting experience — it seems trite but it’s a metonym for a larger point — finding somewhere you feel comfortable, with people you like and can learn from, is more important, to my mind, than picking a career.

I know a lot of corporate lawyers and bankers from university, who went straight to the biggest firms. Some of them love it, some of them burned out.

There is great value in trying different things to see if you like them. I never did any internships while at school, so I had to spend a few years after trying different things to see what suited me.

I’ve not had a traditional, linear career path, and I think that’s increasingly going to become the norm. The wider your set of experiences, the better.

Thank you, Mr Yakob.

“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.