Catalyst Conversations: An Interview With Simon Pont
Brand Strategist and Author
What is the biggest change in the marketing/advertising world since you first started?
The Digital Age.
Who knew that I – and anyone reading this – would live through a bona fide ‘revolution’? Where the thrill ride in it is not knowing, serving as witness to, and having voice and invitation to make of it all what we will.
Technological inventions, of any Age, are of course just the beginning of things. It’s not the invention itself, but the intended and unintended consequences of an invention that are really exciting.
The technologist George Dyson described the printing press as the springboard from which “knowledge began freely replicating and quickly assumed a life of its own.”
Invent metal movable type, as Johannes Gutenberg did, have enough paper to print on, and suddenly you have the means to spread ideas and fire-start conversations.
The printing press and the internet figure in the same category. They’re both innovations that, as Leslie Berlin of Stanford views them, “expand the human intellect and its creative, expressive, and even moral possibilities.”
‘Digital’ doesn’t just invite self-expression and creative liberation but commercial disruption and all manner of new competitive advantage. And this goes as much for the marketing/advertising world as for pretty much every other.
‘Digital’ invites entrepreneurs and provocative thinkers to take on the status quo of accepted wisdom and established order. Digital has become the spark for creative, cultural, social and economic progress. Against that rather enormous backdrop, we then face newly-fresh questions like, “What role can brands and marketing play in this new order?”
What industry buzzword annoys you most and why?
Let's face it, they all sit somewhere on the Scalp Tingling Spectrum. Every industry has its vocab, but buzz words are the vernacular default of the late (and lazy) majority.
I find ‘Meeting Room Jargon’ equally grating. The first time I was in a brainstorm where the facilitator proposed we ‘download’ ideas onto flip chart, I wanted to take the marker pen and give the guy an ‘Alimentary Lesson’ in inappropriate usage.
But, naturally, I just smiled sweetly and ‘downloaded’.
What are some of the most important behaviors/characteristics of modern customers?
Their level of empowerment, enquiry and right-of-reply.
How they can self-mobilise in thought and deed.
Yet where consumer sophistication through over-exposure to commercial messages means there's a start-point of numbness and easy indifference.
That’s a fairly major 3.
Brands have always looked to ‘Wow!’ us, but achieving the ‘Wow!’ looks very different these days.
What is a brand you LOVE? A brand you HATE? Why?
I LOVE how Google have become a brand, when their early days was an exercise in anti-branding. Those early typefaces looked like they'd been made in kindergarten. They had all the charm of Comic Sans. But some of today's commemorative Google doodle home pages are off-the-chart inventive. Fun, playful, participatory; they're just great.
And I HATE that I feel like a bandwagon groupie for LOVING Apple – but I continue to marvel at how Apple continue to set the agenda and pace in terms of our daily relationship with technology. No one was crying out for Facial Recognition phones, but Apple makes Early Adopters of almost all of us.
What are the characteristics of today's marketing/ad agency? How will those change in coming years?
‘Healthy paranoia’, if they're smart. Because pretty much all agencies are “three calls from disaster”. It just takes an agency’s 3 biggest clients to call-up and say they’re leaving, and it’s pretty much Game Over & Goodnight.
That prospect, of client departure and consequential extinction, keeps most Agency Heads up at night.
Preoccupation with self-preservation is, of course, a good thing. And a constant. It’s how an agency ‘addresses the constant’ which will lead to changes over the coming years. And sure, it’s a big thorny dilemma. Keep doing what you do, which will make money this quarter… but ultimately will become increasingly unwanted and irrelevant… or progress your expertise and service scope into a ‘Tomorrow Offer’, and potentially be ‘ahead of your time’?
Long-short: agencies will have to demonstrate a cultural willingness to change, to evolve, and to feel ok about ‘letting go’. They have to look sideways. To consider which verticals they can pivot into. We had the ad agencies trying to become media agencies as quickly as the media agencies were trying to become ad agencies. We have the Old Guard management consultancy firms repositioning themselves as ‘digital consultancies’ and looking to mop-up the independent brand strategy shops. Everyone’s looking to land-grab. Everyone’s got an eye on everyone else’s P&L.
The ‘Simple-Difficult Question’ for all agencies:
How do you become the Netflix/Amazon/Tesla/Spotify/Uber of marketing services?
Like I said, ‘Simple-Difficult’. But I do have a few ideas.
What keeps you up at night?
Kim Jong Un.
The order in which tends to alternate.
What motivates you/gets you excited about the marketing industry?
That it can redefine itself. That it can shake-off the straight-jacketed conventions of yesteryear practices and - with legitimacy - embrace all manner of specialisms. Entertainment, TV production, VR, AR, data science and probability analytics - there's some wildly far-flung fields that “marketing” can, and needs to be across.
Describe the skills and knowledge you look for (or think are important) in a marketer today?
Most of all it’s a mind-set that you look and hope for.
A mind-set that recognises that the world's in Beta. That recognises that leaning on conventions will most likely lead to a tumble. That recognises that you're better off planting laurels than resting on them.
Today, great brands are built by a more maverick mentality. Fear of failure will paralyse you and make any brand an easy target. Conversely, if your ‘Thinking & Doing’ roams beyond the tramlines, then so too does the potential to progress, move forward, and leave the competition at your back.
Who has inspired you in your career?
It's a good long list and the kind of thing that might start to sound like an Oscar acceptance speech - so I won't labour it here.
Sufficed to say, there are those who it's a real pleasure and privilege to have known, to still know, and to work with. And they more than out-weigh the shorter list of egomaniacs and sociopaths I’ve encountered on the path, and from whom I’ve tried to learn how not be.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
In what country would you like to live?
I'm a big fan of the States. And no, I’m not playing to the crowd. I lived in the US as kid and attended school in New England. A number of Life Stages later, my wife and I lived in LA after we married. Clients and work continues to draw me back and I have no problem with that. I love the East coast, and I love the Westcoast, both sides of the 49th Parallel.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
What is your motto?
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My children. It's not the thought of genetic immortality that does it for me. Just that I find them amazing and wonderful, and for me there's no greater sense of wonder or terror than the Wonder & Terror slam you feel when you first become a parent.