You are a mentor

It is true. I know it may be hard to believe. “Mentorship” is one of those words that can be big and scary. One that can often bring up the self-questioning thoughts that often echo in our psyches:

“I really haven’t accomplished enough to be able to mentor someone else.”

“The skills/position/experience/(fill in the blank) really isn’t mentoring worthy.”

“I wouldn’t know where to begin with a mentoring process.”

It’s not true. Everyone has something that is completely unique, that they are experts in that no one else can claim. That is the story of their own experience. When you share your story a relationship is formed, and you put on the table examples, learnings and inspiration that only you can. It doesn’t matter if what you share is directly relatable in terms of topic or question to those listening. When you share your story connections will be made and new, usable perspectives will be uncovered that can help inform and guide the questions or struggles the audience may be experiencing.

I have experienced this personally. I had the opportunity recently to speak to the Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership class at George Washington University. I, like most, spun for a while on what I could share or teach that would seem worthy for the class to spend their time on. In the end, I decided to simply tell my story. My background, my journey, my decisions and what I learned from them. Where I succeeded, and where I fell. The dialog, appreciation and feedback I received from the class was amazing and humbling. I had helped, and it was so easy.

We need more people to step up and mentor. It’s the most effective and meaningful way to learn. There is a secret though–It must be your story, and not a report on chronological events. Timelines and resumes do not equate to experiences, and the nuances of experience are where connections and learning occur. So share your stories. And ask for others to to share theirs. Learning is a two-way flow. You will be amazed by how easy it is, and how impactful it can be.

Add “mentor” to your list of accomplishments. It’s a worthy goal.


A collection of aphorisms, Vol. 1


Advertising projected a story on a screen. Digital opened a door on the screen to participate in the story.


Hierarchy is a relic of the industrial age. Build fluidity into your culture for the connection age.


Outcomes, not outputs.


98% of RFPs are written based on the sins of the previous agency.


Agency leaders should realize that potential clients are uncanny in their ability to smell desperation.


100% ownership of a great idea that goes unproduced is worth zero. Get comfortable sharing your ideas early and often.


Admitting what you don’t know is the first step towards learning it.


Banking on RFPs to provide new clients is akin to believing you can earn a living at the craps table.


If you’ve made your thing, offer to help someone make their thing.


Scarcity is good. Mystique is even better.


Innovation has become both the holy grail and an overused buzz word in today’s society. Turn any direction and you hear and see businesses, leaders, and people touting their dedication to innovative products, processes and general ways. It is a noble focus. The world is better with energy being funneled to something like innovation rather than a slew of other goals.

But I wonder if we don’t fall victim to defining innovation in the wrong way. Often innovation is attached to a thing. It is that thing that represents innovation. And often it is accompanied by the attribute of new. We see new products, new models, new ways of working as the external signal of innovation. While the outcome is critical, perhaps that definition is too narrow and doesn’t take into account the core ingredient of the lofty word.

Perhaps innovation is a direction, not a destination.

Anything that demonstrates movement forward is innovation. In a world that suffers from deriving comfort in sameness and celebration in predictability, growth is hard to come by. Yet we fail to recognize and honor the act of moving forward, and reserve the designation of a respected title such as “innovation” to such a narrow set of criteria. What would happen if we took the blinders off and began to see and label innovation in these terms? Would we be more inspired and less afraid to try for fear of not producing? Would we begin to appreciate more accomplishments and recognize the contributions from areas we never thought to look? I wonder what type of communities and cultures would spring up if we bestowed the admiration of “innovation” on the passion and care to make any type of change, to move anything forward, rather than on the next new thing we can hold in our hands, or point to on a screen.

This is how I choose to see innovation, and where I will look for it. How about you?


"You know you’re branding your children, right?" said with snark.

I had this said to me recently in the course of a discussion regarding the sharing of my 2 boys’ endeavors via social channels. I’ve taken to talking about them under the label “littlemen” both offline and online, utilizing the term in discussions in reference to them, as well as the hashtag #littlemen, #littleman & #littlestman when sharing on social platforms. It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard a comment of this nature in reference to what I was “doing:” putting in place these external, recognizable  “marks” that refer to my boys. But I never really gave much thought to it, and even joked about it myself at times. “They’ll thank me for it later on.”

But this time it struck me differently.

This comment was delivered with a clear sense of disdain. I didn’t probe further to understand the obvious sense of disapproval, because I could formulate the counterpoints on my own. Exposing the world to my children and vice versa in the public space is always a fun topic, and one I’ve learned to “agree to disagree” with many on. But what struck me this time was the notion that I was apparently orchestrating activities to undertake this action of “branding.” That it was a concerted effort to write a story, or curate a perception of my boys to somehow endear people to them for some sort of gain. And then it dawned on me:

That’s what traditional branding is. And it is backwards.

The business of branding, or developing brands, is based on definitions. Defining the words that can be claimed, the people that need to be engaged, the marks that will be used and the rules of what fits and what doesn’t. The successful brand is measured by achieving things such as:

  • Delivers the message clearly
  • Confirms your credibility
  • Connects your target prospects emotionally
  • Motivates the buyer
  • Cements User Loyalty
So when I am told I am “branding” my children, it just doesn’t fit. Because these things are the farthest from my mind when I share my children’s activities. But therein lies the learning, and my own new definition of branding. Brands aren’t defined and then adhered to, brands are lived and simply shared. The rest falls into place.

Brands shouldn’t be something we put on paper, tape to the wall and then hope to live up to. Brands are lived. The definition comes from sharing and exposing others to that life.  I hear things like – “It’s important to spend time investing in researching, defining, and building your brand.” Really? Perhaps that’s the problem. It’s why so many “brands” fall short of resonating or becoming something people care about.

A great brand is not defined by mission statements or vision propositions. It is not defined by logos or color palettes or communication policies that are required to be adhered to. A brand is grown organically, authentically and most importantly shouldn’t be defined by a project that has a deliverable. Perhaps a brand is simply a life lived that is chosen to be shared. Maybe there are not a concerted efforts to uncover what people want to hear or believe them to be. Words and actions are not molded or positioned to deliver on an assumed opportunity to gain sentiment. And what if there’s no discussion about what followers expect to be delivered, about the tone of discourse, or how perception can be shaped.  What if those things are decided simply by who they are.

Seems the goal for those that work to “brand” businesses, ideas or others should start with finding windows into the personalities and lives of those they are trying to brand, rather than building the walls they need to live within.



The "A-Ha" Moment

No. Not that a-ha. :)

You’ve had an a-ha moment, right? I mean we all have at some point or another. The clouds open up, the waters part, and there is the answer, the thought, the solution we’ve been struggling to find. A-ha moments also take the form of validation expressions. “A-ha! I knew it!” can be one of the most satisfying feelings, even though we don’t like to admit it. We seek these out, sometime rely on them to move ahead. Especially in creative fields, where our whole goal is to connect dots that others may not see or fathom a connection. The “a-ha!” is what we live for.

I’ve come to realize that my own search for a-ha moments has been constrained by predefined definitions. How? I’ve more and more been made aware that a-ha moments don’t always reveal answers. Sometimes– if you are lucky–they unveil the question you never thought to ask. Why is that lucky? Because it forces you to think down a different path, figure something out, rather than be handed the answer. Learn. Grow. Explore someplace you didn’t know was there. And it is in these moments, when we try to answer a question we didn’t realize was relevant, that doors open.

So what does this mean? It has great application for leadership. The true measure of a leader may not be to bestow upon others answers and direction. Rather, the most influential may be those that recognize that bringing people to new questions is the most productive, inspiring task at hand. I believe it’s a layer that true leaders recognize and cultivate. The caveat is, it requires a keen sensibility and confidence to measure one’s own success against this skill. Challenging people to see and explore questions is not usually a line item on a growth plan. But it should be.

An 8 iron for creativity: what you can learn from one club golf

First of all, a definition of one club golf. No, it is not golf played by members of advertising’s famous One Club. Rather, it is a round played with a single club. That is correct—one, single solitary club and all the skill, creativity and talent you can bring to that particular round of golf. And yes, you must putt with this club as well.

It’s become my favorite way to play golf. Just last month I played a round with Joe Sorge, a.k.a. @ajbombers at the wonderful Missing Links par 3 golf course in Mequon. Missing Links is pretty much the perfect course for one club golf. It’s a Jack Nicklaus designed layout with holes ranging from 75 to 210 yards, where water seriously comes into play on 4 holes. Joe chose a 9 iron while I played the round with an 8 iron. We had fun, laughed, and of course tweeted updates of our match to the eagerly listening Twittersphere.

Four holes like this, one club to carry the water

Without getting too much into the details of golf, one club forces you to hit all kinds of shots with a club you ordinarily wouldn’t choose. I hit my 8 iron about 155 yards, so hitting a shot 100 yds downhill straight over water takes a fair amount of thought, some skill and a lot of guts. And a four foot putt with an 8 iron? It ain’t no gimmee. Forcing yourself to do things you ordinarily wouldn’t attempt gives you an entirely different perspective. And it’s refreshingly fun.

Ian Baker-Finch would say “Ah, lovely recovery shot there by AJ.”

So what does all this have to do with digital, strategy or creativity which is what I usually write about here?

A lot.

Let me ask you this: How many of us are hindered by thinking we can only play with a “full bag of clubs?” Think about it. The following is an incomplete list of complaints I’ve heard over the years for reasons you can’t come up with a creative solution for a client:

  • The budget isn’t big enough
  • We don’t have enough time
  • The creative brief sucks
  • The product is boring
  • The client doesn’t get it

Really? If you buy into this type of thinking, you’ve disqualified yourself before you even started because you can’t see a way to succeed without the proverbial “full bag of clubs.” How sad. Because in my experience, how often do you actually get to play with the “entire set?” Instead, I’d suggest seeing those limitations for what they are: things you don’t need to worry about. If you only have a week to work out an idea, then get to work now instead of kvetching about the several weeks you’d like to have.

Yes, all this rah-rah talk is empty without any real life examples. So I offer you one of my off-the-course one club stories. A few years back when I was still toiling for my agency Octane, we were working on a project for the local chapter of the Salvation Army. We had no budget. We had zero time. I literally had one day in the schedule for conceptual development. One morning I left at 5am to drive to Minneapolis to work with my long-time writing partner Rob Franks. We started concepting at 10am at a funky coffee shop in Uptown. We had lunch at Bryant-Lake Bowl, then finished the day outside at a table at Dunn Brothers. I got in my car at 4pm to drive back to Milwaukee. Six total hours of work. (Okay, we talked about movies, music and the Packers too). We had a notepad of ideas. We presented the next week and produced the campaign within another two weeks. One of the ideas—not a TV spot, but a sign that hung above the famous Salvation Army kettles—ended up in Communication Arts and The One Show (heh, One Club, see?). The campaign led to a huge increase in holiday donations that year.

It can be done.

I still remember sitting outside that day coming up with ideas on a beautiful September afternoon at Dunn Brothers. There was no time to worry about what we didn’t have at our disposal. We had X amount of time, Y amount of talent and we flat out had to execute.

Son, give me that 8 iron.

Maybe you have a story about embracing limitations, and then going on to do something you never imagined possible. If so, I’d love to hear about it.

Putting the Human Back in Humanity

There’s been talk about a shift in sentiment that has been evolving over what seems to be just the last few months. A backlash if you will against the thinking surrounding social media and the focus on implementation tactics. A level of frustration with the trepidation, nervousness and overarching reluctance to embrace social media for a fear of “doing it wrong.” I have thought a lot about this. And it goes a bit beyond embracing a new channel. I think the core issue is deeply rooted—more than we want to admit. Because I see social media’s influence going way beyond a marketing or engagement tool. It’s actually working towards putting the human back into humanity.

Which side of your brain are you using?

We humans have been busy at work developing our new brains—or Neocortex, for us science geeks. It’s the the part of the brain that is responsible for the ability to think logically, to reason and draw conclusions. It’s what sets us apart from most, if not all other species of life. Because it’s new, and we alone possess this skill, it’s become what we operate under, what is valued, and what we exploit the most in our ways (thank you ego.) Looking at this new skill set, it’s easy to see where humanity’s propensity for control comes into play. Logic and reason relies on rules. Rules require absolutes. Absolutes demand control.

We see this reliance on control affect everything we do. Look at any aspect of how we run ourselves, or the rules under which we operate. Government, education, parenting, business, marketing. It’s all based on control. Control the curriculum, control the message, control the process, control the brand. We’ve disconnected ourselves from each other and and placed more emphasis on the rules. The more rules, the more success. It’s this reliance on rules and control that has become our ingrained safety net, and exactly why social media is scary. The rules change in the social world, at lightning speed, and it forces us out of our relatively new-found comfort zone. We can’t control it. In fact, control is shunned.

But while this new brain is basking in evolutionary success, it is not our only source of definition. There is another side to us simple humans, an entire ancient brain (Limbic Cortex) that houses our intuition, emotions, and feeling. Our ego that relies on our newest toy has pushed aside the relevance of this type of thinking. We haven’t stopped experiencing those “gut feelings” or the influence feelings have on decisions, we’ve just somehow discounted them.

Until now.

This is what social media is doing to us. This is why there is a battle cry to stop thinking about the media and start paying attention to the social. (Sound familiar @augieray ?) Because the connections and emotions that these new technologies have enabled are reshaping basic expectations, and calling to the table a renewed appreciation for the human aspects of humanity. Inclusion, authenticity and freedom to participate are quickly becoming the new definition of success. This leaves rules and control to find a new, supporting role in how we operate. This shift goes beyond how we develop our social media strategies. Those that don’t evolve with these newfound expectations will be exposed and left behind. For example, it is quickly becoming not enough for companies to hire a good, smart voice who is smart in the social space. The expectation is that you at your core—in culture and practice—are engaged and care. And if you are not, you will quickly be found out.

I think what makes us human – is our interconnectedness among people. It’s our ability to form and maintain relationships. It’s the barometer by which we call ourselves human.
– Thomas Jane

The work that needs to be done in this new world is not understanding Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. The work that needs to be done is recognizing both sides of our brain and adapting to a new definition of success and engagement. I hate to break it to you. I know self reflection is hard. But the choice is yours. Where do you and your business priorities lie? Maintaining control and playing by the rules, or jumping feet first,  appreciating the unexpected, and being part of humanity?

I know where I stand. Do you?

Being unGeeked


Managing and cultivating a brand is hard work. Plain and simple. So many inputs to juggle and directions to look. There are moments things spin and you feel you need to be looking in every direction at once. Now throw in digital, and social media and you’ve got yourself 300 more things to understand, consider and apply. Are you ready?

It can be daunting. There’s no lack of advice and direction and perspective on what all this means, and the “best” way to “do it.” Lots of people talking at us, but that only goes so far. Thank goodness for opportunities like the unGeeked Elite event in Milwaukee, WI. coming up May 13-15, 2010.

Why is unGeeked important to businesses who want to manage their brand? Because this event is about you, to it’s very core. The speakers, the format, the opportunities have all been assembled around what will provide the best value to you.

Let’s start with the speakers. 8 keynotes including:

Yes, you read that list correctly. All the rockstars, in one place. In addition, 15 regional speakers will present on a wide range of topics. Discussions range from mobile marketing strategies with @sarasantigo, to real life case studies about social media brand building with @AJBombers and @streetzapizza. I and the Translator crew have the good fortune of discussing why you should approach digital branding efforts from a an experience standpoint, and how paying attention to all your touch points is imperative.  Check out the lineup and list of topics. It’s really quite impressive.

The most exciting part? Each session is about you. Our speakers aren’t presenters, they are discussion facilitators. That’s right. No talking at you, rather with you. Each speaker will be short on slides and big on mic time, opening the floor to you, providing lots Q&A time to allow for very relevant and timely discussion around the questions you have. Tickets to the unGeeked Elite event are still available at the early bird discount rate of $550 which includes all three days of sessions, 4 books, breakfast, lunch and attendee private parties each day. And don’t forget your chance to be part of exclusive 20-on-1 personal consultation sessions. I mean really, how can you pass this up? It would cost you more to miss it.

In the next few weeks I’ll be periodically posting information about the event, and my personal journey prepping for this exciting opportunity. I’d love to hear your questions and feedback surrounding the event, as well as input on what you’d like to talk about regarding the role of digital experience in helping to build your brand. I’m so excited to be unGeeked. Aren’t you?