After an 8-year stint at Ogilvy, a New York City-based British advertising, marketing, and public relations agency, and 3 more at Leo Burnett in Australia, Rohit Bhargava left the agency world to write. He blogged the Non-Obvious Trend Report (January 2011) to share some unexpected insights about business for the coming year. That blogpost became a digital report that morphed into an e-book that, in 2015 became a hardback, made the Wall Street Journal list, and took off. For 2020, the 10th year, Rohit intends to do a retrospective of the big themes/megatrends across more than 100 trends, and then ask what these trends tell us about the future. Non-Obvious Megatrends is scheduled to come out in December 2019.
Rohit’s “signature book,”The Non-Obvious Guide to Small Business Marketing without a Big Budget provides a wealth of information for companies that can’t afford to hire the “big guys” – how to position a business against competitors, create a good tagline, pick a website URL and what a company should know about search marketing and buying search terms.
Non-Obvious, Rohit’s company, is a consultancy that provides workshops, trainings, and keynotes to try to get people think in non-obvious ways, to spot patterns, to be able to see what other people don’t see, and to be more innovative. Non-Obvious, the brand, is a “point of view on the world.”
Rohit spoke on a variety of topics at South by Southwest 2019 in Austin, TX. He discussed “Why Trend Predictions Suck and How to Fix Them.” Rohit believes that “trends often indicate wishful thinking” and don’t actually forecast anything new or provide insights. Futurists may make predictions, put them on the market, and talk about them. Individuals may look at trends, synthesize them, and distill personally useful, career-trajectory valuable information or even use that information to help individual’s clients.
Rohit described innovation envy as a future trend in his South by Southwest presentation, “7 Non-Obvious Trends Changing the Future in 2019.” Innovation envy happens when a company looks at what other companies are doing in the way of innovation, and then tries to adopt the “trappings” of these innovative companies . . . the beanbag chairs . . . the flex time. Yeah. That will work.
Another trend he discussed is the creation of Instagram-postable strategic spectacles, “bright, shiny” events that attract a lot of attention. These spectacles need to be created in a strategic way to provide value. In all trends, are they actionable? And what happens with the trend?
In 2017, Rohit identified a trend he saw as “fierce femininity.” Rohit sees the counterpart to that as “muddled masculinity.” When women can be anything, but men can only be one thing, the challenge is one-sided. As women are freed to embrace new outside-of-the-norm self-definitions, men, likewise need to be freed to develop those human facets that have been denied them (feeling pain, showing emotion) in the name of “classic masculinity.”
Rohit runs IdeaPress, a business book publishing company, which operates more like an agency than like a publishing company. He is publishing a guidebook series, The Non-Obvious Guide to multiple things, which will provide “smart advice for smart people.” (not for dummies and idiots.) To keep the books “up-to-date,” information that may become dated within 10 years will be posted online for download.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk. I am joined today, live at South by Southwest, by Rohit Bhargava, the Founder and Chief Trend Curator at the Non-Obvious Company. They’re based in the D.C. area. Welcome to the podcast, Rohit.
ROHIT: Thank you. It’s awesome to be here. What a great day and what a great event.
ROB: It’s great to have you here. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about the Non-Obvious Company and what you do?
ROHIT: The name’s quirky, and I think that’s intentional. The idea is that we want to teach people to think in non-obvious ways. I do a lot of keynotes, I do a lot of workshops and trainings to try and get people to just think of the world a little bit differently, to be able to see what other people don’t see, and to be more innovative. We do a lot of trend work, we do a lot of teaching, and it’s fun.
ROB: You come from a 12-year background at Ogilvy. What led you to strike out on this non-obvious path and this company?
ROHIT: Yeah, I spent 8 years at Ogilvy. I spent another 3 at Leo Burnett in Australia. So I came from the agency background, and I love agencies. I think that to some degree, the independence of being on my own really appealed to me. I think that was one piece of it.
I really enjoy doing some things that I think didn’t fit into the classic agency senior leader role, like writing books, for example. I enjoy disappearing for a month to write a book, and that doesn’t really work in the agency life. [laughs] Those sorts of things I wanted to be able to do and to take time to do. So that’s why I ended up going.
ROB: To an extent, if you are in a large agency, writing a book is kind of an event. It’s a big event, and you are actually much more prolific. You’re publishing at least a book or two a year, right?
ROHIT: Yeah, it’s been a lot. I have Non-Obvious, which as you know is an annually written book. Every year there’s 15 new trends and I rewrite about a third of the book, which ends up being about 20,000 to 30,000 words. That’s a lot of writing. Then I’m trying to launch other books, and I had a second book this past year. I’ve always been a writer, so it’s not a stretch for me to write. I love to write. But it does take a lot of time.
ROB: I believe that. You are deep on books. You mentioned as we talked before, you also run IdeaPress.
ROHIT: I do, yeah. It’s basically a business book publishing company that is very different than all other publishers because I run it like an agency. I run it like a services company. Most publishers, when you as an author go to them – if you get an advance, that means you got paid by the publisher, which means you’re basically an employee writing a book for the publisher. That sucks if you’re an entrepreneur.
In our model, the author is the customer, and they’re treated like a customer. They’re advised as if we are professionals helping them and mentoring them. That’s really different in the publishing industry.
ROB: This is a little bit of a rabbit trail, but why do you find that people are typically looking to write a book? Books seem kind of old school in 2019, but they’re also powerful and credible. What brings someone to say, “I need to write this book”?
ROHIT: There’s no one reason. There are some common reasons. One, obviously, is someone wants to build their reputation, either to do more speaking or to grow their company. That’s a common reason. I think another reason is people eventually come to – this whole cliché that everyone has a book inside them, that might be true. Not everyone has the ability to write one, I believe, and there are people who probably shouldn’t who do. [laughs]
But I think that when you come to your idea, your big idea that you want in the world, there’s no other method that compares to having a book in order to get that out there.
ROB: What would you advise someone if they’re thinking they might want to write a book, but they don’t know. Where’s the line in the sand where someone should definitely write or not write a book?
ROHIT: This is one of the things that I think people need to really be honest with themselves and ask. The first question I ask anyone who comes to me and says, “I want to write a book” is, “Are you a writer? Do you like to write?” Because there are a lot of people who want to do a book where if you said to them,” You need to sit down for 3 hours and write, just for 3 hours,” that would sound like torture to them. They would hate that.
Now, if you’re in that situation, then you’re going to need a different path to write a book. You’re going to have to team up with a writer. You might need to have a co-author. You might want to get a ghostwriter. There’s many ways to do it, but being honest with yourself about whether you’re a writer or not is a pretty important first step.
ROB: If someone’s on the outside and not thinking about it, what are the non-obvious benefits of writing a book? You think, “I’m going to write this book”; you may not know how you’re going to sell it, how people are going to buy it, what it’s going to do for you. What does writing a book do for you?
ROHIT: Well, I think one non-obvious benefit is – my signature book, Non-Obvious, it goes out every year in December for the next year. So Non-Obvious 2019 came out in December 2018. Non-Obvious Megatrends, which is going to be the next version – it’s going to be the 10-year anniversary edition – is going to come out in December of 2019.
Every year, when it comes out, it goes into the airports. It sells okay. Actually, it sells really well for an airport business book, because people tend to buy novels and other stuff. But the visibility of it being in the airport has a huge benefit because people see it in the airport, they’re like, “Wow, this is in the airport. I saw it.” There’s a lot of people who will buy it but they don’t want to carry it, so they’ll take a photo of it and buy it online later.
All of those things happen, and even if they don’t buy it, just the idea that this brand is continually out there – for me, I’ve always been a branding guy. When I think about the brand of Non-Obvious, it’s a point of view on the world. It’s a trademarked thing now. We have the whole registered thing.
We’re launching a whole guidebook series, the Non-Obvious Guide . . . to multiple things. We’ve got all these authors lined up to write them and compete with the Dummies guides, which I think are – nobody wants to be a dummy. Nobody wants to be an idiot. These guides are written as if you are. Our guides, on the back they say – kind of a dig at them – our guides say “smart advice for smart people.” Because you’re a smart person, so why not read a guide for a smart person?
ROB: That is a much more aspirational brand. That’s pretty cool. You mentioned you work with a lot of marketing agencies. What are you seeing in 2019 as trends across what different agencies are doing or should be doing to thrive?
ROHIT: I think across almost every industry, what you’re seeing is the lines are blurring between what used to be two different things. You have West Elm, a furniture company, running a hotel. You’ve got Crayola creating makeup. The list goes on and on. Capital One, a bank, opening a coffee shop. There’s everything.
I think in the agency world, a similar thing is happening in terms of the line blurring between what was agency work and creative work and media buying and what was business consulting and what was strategy and all of these things that management consulting firms used to do. Now all of these management consulting firms have agency-like models and they have digital groups.
That was a big, big question mark, I remember even at the time when I was at Ogilvy. We had a business strategy division that was doing business strategy because we wanted to start taking that business away from the management consultants. That was a big push.
I think that what’s really ended up happening is we’re trying to figure out what piece of that pie we’re going to get. The client’s sitting there saying, “Look, man, my pie’s not big enough for all of you dudes. I don’t know how I’m going to feed all of you. I need to figure out who I really need and what I’m going to bring in-house.” So there’s all this tension around what goes in-house, what stays with the agency. Do they niche more, is it better to niche less? Lots of questions.
ROB: Right. And Ogilvy now has Ogilvy Consulting full-on as a brand.
ROHIT: Sure, yeah. It used to be Ogilvy Red, then it was called something else. There’s really smart people working there, and they’re crossing over. Sometimes the people who used to be in agencies are now going to Accenture. Sometimes the people who were at Accenture are coming – so the people are super talented and they’re bringing all of that talent to try to figure out what to do next, and they’re all trying to outdo each other.
ROB: Right. You have Accenture and Deloitte getting into the agency business. Even many, many independent agencies that we talk to, when you ask them what they are focusing on, they say strategy, more than downstream execution. Things are changing quite interestingly.
ROHIT: They are. I see it as a great thing. The reason I say that – and I know that a lot of people maybe don’t feel like that, but I see it as a great thing because what it means is people who were working in agencies, doing very, very small niche things, have to now understand how business works, and in particular how their clients’ business works.
You could’ve survived 10 years ago in the agency model saying, I need to deliver a great piece of creative that actually delivers attention, and I don’t need to worry about all the other stuff. I don’t need to worry about whether it’s going to sell anything. I don’t need to worry about the business stuff. That’s not my concern. That’s not my job.
That’s such a one-dimensional mentality that doesn’t prepare you for life, because when that person then goes and becomes an entrepreneur, has to do all these other things, they don’t understand anything about business. The good thing about this is we are now forced to be businesspeople, which is good. We should be.
ROB: Perhaps adjacent to that topic, we have in front of us a book that you’ve written, The Non-Obvious Guide to Small Business Marketing without a Big Budget. What are some takeaways that either a business or an agency serving them should think about that are non-obvious?
ROHIT: This book was an interesting labor of love for me. It’s an odd thing for me to write as a guy who’s pretty much spent his whole career working with people who have huge budgets. What do I know about this?
ROB: Yeah, Ogilvy doesn’t do a lot of small business marketing, right? [laughs]
ROHIT: No, they don’t. But they do marketing for people who want to reach small businesses. But the point of this book was – I had so many people who were like, “Can I just pick your brain?” They don’t know anything about marketing, but they’re running a business, they’re running a restaurant, they’re running a dentist’s office.
All of these things that I knew in my head about what it takes to position your business, what a good tagline should be, what URL you should pick for your website, how to position your business against your competitors, what you should know about search marketing, how to buy terms so you’re number two on the list so you’re not overpaying for search marketing, how to focus on the subject line – which is the most important thing about the email because if they don’t open it then the email doesn’t matter – all of those things that we know in our head, I wanted to put into this book.
Every chapter is dedicated to a huge topic of marketing in a single, small chapter. It’s a highly visual, really compact, small format book. Easy to read. It really is a dig against those huge, bloated Dummies guides.
It was so funny; I was doing some research before I wrote it, and I read one of the Dummies guides to . . . I think digital marketing, and they had an eight-page chapter on what the internet is. I mean, come on. How stupid do you think the reader is that they need eight pages on that?
ROB: And how far can you bring them if that were their starting point?
ROHIT: Exactly right.
ROB: How far along can you bring them in that book?
ROHIT: The problem is with a lot of guidebooks, they’re written like a dictionary. People don’t need to read a dictionary. A dictionary is for looking something up. A guidebook should be, “Here’s what to do and here’s what not to do.” They’re not written that way.
ROB: That seems like a really interesting range of topics to cover, but also very pragmatic. It almost sounds like you’re helping people think about – we’ve had this conversation with our sales team. If people open your email, it’s because of the subject line. If they respond, it’s because of the content. Simple things like that.
ROHIT: Yeah, but a lot of people don’t know that. They don’t think of that. We are marketing people. But this book was written for the person who is smart, but not a marketing person. What I would love is for all of us marketing people, for anyone in our life who needs to understand marketing – which I think is all of us, because marketing is basically persuasion, and we all need to persuade somebody to do something at some point, whether it’s business-related or not. This book is meant to help them.
ROB: I used to be extremely cynical of marketing. I am an engineer by training, but did my MBA, and actually my marketing class was one of the more enjoyable classes and part of what brought me to merge engineering and marketing.
ROHIT: Look at you now. [laughs]
ROB: You have actually given three sessions here at South by Southwest.
ROHIT: I did actually more than that, but some of them were private. [laughs]
ROB: Oh, very cool. I did see you on some of those as well. One of your core topics, it seems – and you mentioned this early on in this conversation – is about trend predictions. You gave a talk of “Why Trend Predictions Suck and How to Fix Them.”
ROHIT: Yes. Trend predictions do suck. One of the reasons they suck is because they often indicate wishful thinking. If you have a business selling something – and we do this all the time and we put it under content marketing, right? “5 Trends That Will Change the World in 2019,” and Trend #3 is probably directly related to whatever you’re selling. We know it. You’ve seen those posts.
The problem is that they don’t actually forecast anything new, they don’t tell you anything insightful, and they’re kind of a waste. That’s what we’re surrounded by.
When I wrote Non-Obvious and when I started talking about trends that were good, I really tried to focus on being non-obvious. You can’t write a book called Non-Obvious and have it have something everybody’s heard before. That doesn’t work.
ROB: It’s a lot of pressure.
ROHIT: Yeah. But you intentionally put that pressure on yourself. It’s sort of like when you’re a good stand-up comedian or you go and do stand-up comedy, you show up on stage and people are sitting there saying, “Okay, be funny. I expect you to be funny. My barrier is high. I’m not going to laugh unless you’re funny.” I think that we need to put more of that barrier on ourselves, that challenge to ourselves.
The title for me, Non-Obvious, it really does do that. I think a lot about it, and I spend a lot of time with my team thinking about, is this really non-obvious?
ROB: Do you do stand-up comedy?
ROHIT: No. [laughs] I don’t.
ROB: [laughs] It was worth asking, and I wondered. I think it’s interesting – who should be in the business of making trend predictions?
ROHIT: I think that there’s two sides to trend predictions. One is, “I’m going to make a prediction and put it out in the market and talk about it and be a futurist.” I’m not the guy to tell you how to eat a donut. If you want to do this thing, do it. But come up with something that’s interesting and different than everyone else. Otherwise, don’t do it. Do it well if you’re going to do it.
The other side, the second side of trend prediction, though, is personal. It’s like, “I’m putting these pieces together so that I can figure out what’s going to be more impactful because when I figure it out, I can use it for myself and I can use it for my clients and I can use it for my career.”
That’s the sort of thinking that I tend to try to teach people. Not to be a trend curator or a futurist that’s publishing articles and stuff. I mean, if you do that, great. But what I want to teach people is how to think in this way so that they can take value from it for themselves.
ROB: Right. You do something and it helps you, and you share it while you’re at it, which is probably where many of your authors in this Non-Obvious Guide series are going to come from that point as well. They’ve done something to serve themselves.
ROHIT: Exactly. The type of author that I look for in these guides is – the way that we talk about them is that these guide should be written as if you’re having coffee with an expert. The voice that we look for is that voice. Someone who has that mentoring voice, who if you had an hour-long conversation with – if you don’t know anything about blockchain and you had an hour-long conversation with Jeremy Epstein, who’s writing our guide to blockchain, you’d be like, “Okay, I get it now. That makes a little bit more sense.”
ROB: [laughs] So, this is the substitute for, “Can I have coffee with you and pick your brain?” You’re like, “Here’s my book.”
ROHIT: Yeah, that also is great, because at some point we all need that. Yeah, we all need that too.
ROB: Playing into that trend prediction theme, your other talk was “7 Non-Obvious Trends Changing the Future in 2019,” 2020, and so on. What were you sharing in that conversation? What are the trends we should be thinking about?
ROHIT: That one was really popular, I think partially because it was about trends and partially because it gave you a very clear, “These are 7 trends. It’s going to be exactly this.” People are like, “Okay, tell me what those are.”
One of the trends that I talked about in my talk was something we call innovation envy. I think it’s a great one for agencies to think about because a lot of our clients are suffering from innovation envy. They see what Google’s doing, they see what all these other companies are doing, and they’re like, “We need some ping-pong tables in our office. We need beanbag chairs. We need flex time for working. And if none of that works, let’s have a hack-a-thon because that’ll solve everything.” Of course, it doesn’t.
The challenge is, how do we get smarter for ourselves and then how do we get them smarter? One of the things I spend a lot of time doing is I lead these Innovation Days. They’re theatrical moments in time where you can start thinking about the future. I think it’s a great thing for an agency. We did this when we were at Ogilvy, too.
It’s a great thing for an agency to proactively bring to a customer, because now what you’re saying to them is, “Look, you hired us for these projects and we’re doing these things for you, but we’re also thinking about your future. We’re thinking about it so much that we want to bring you together to talk about it and host this thing for you to be able to predict that future with you,” because guess what? If you’re the one doing it in that meeting, who are they going to come to when they’re ready to do something about it? It makes sense to do that.
ROB: Yeah, delivering value all along the way. I think that’s something agencies – if you’re in execution mode, you don’t think about it. It’s very transactional versus building out the roadmap.
ROHIT: Yeah. All the smart agencies, that’s what they’re thinking about. How do I become a partner, not a vendor? How do I become that resource, that trusted advisor? Whatever the term is that you want to call it, that’s what they’re all trying to create.
ROB: It’s hard because you can try to fake it, but if you fake it, then it’s inauthentic and it doesn’t work.
ROHIT: People see through that. They do.
ROB: Same thing with positioning statements around agencies. Many websites claim a lot of interesting things, but sometimes it really simplifies down to a few services that everybody knows you’re going to offer.
What were some other non-obvious trends?
ROHIT: We’ve studied gender quite a lot. We do a lot of cultural studying. One of the trends around gender was something we called “muddled masculinity.” It was a response to how often we’ve been talking about – in the past couple years we had a bunch of female-oriented trends. In 2017, one of our trends was “fierce femininity.”
ROHIT: Yeah. It was around these movies like The Hunger Games coming up with female protagonists, and the girl statue standing up to the bull and all of those examples. Muddled masculinity is really, what happens to men? What are men dealing with?
There was an amazing article written in The Atlantic by a writer named Sarah Rich. She talked about what it means to be a boy, and are we making it okay for boys to feel the full range of what they could be? Even the things that are more commonly associated with female. . . in the same way that we’re making it okay for girls to be aggressive and do the things that were commonly associated with boys.
If we don’t do this on both sides, we don’t have that equality happening, and then we get people left behind and we get people who are angry and all of those things. We don’t want that in our culture. We want everyone to feel like they’re valued.
ROB: What do we do with this muddled masculinity? It seems like we see weird projections of that trend into the world. I could almost argue – and I could be dead wrong – that Yeti Coolers are a weird projection of attempted masculinity into the market. We’re in Austin; I think they’re based here. They’re a big deal. What do we do – I guess you can try to embrace it, you can try to run against it – what do you do with that trend?
ROHIT: With all of these trends, we spend a lot of time thinking about how this is actionable. What happens with the trend? I don’t want to do academic research just because it looks nice and we might get some journals publishing it. That’s not the intention of this. This is meant to be super actionable.
With muddled masculinity, one of the things we talk about is how do we encourage the nonconforming? How do we make it okay for those people who don’t exactly fit what we typically think that men should or would do, how do we make it okay for them to do that other thing? Because if we don’t, then we have a one-sided challenge, which is that we have a culture where you can be anything if you’re a woman, but you can only be one thing if you’re a man. That’s not what we want.
ROB: That’s I think a better form of persuasion, a better form of marketing, than what we usually think about. You can have an appeal to classic masculinity, but it’s much nicer to help someone feel comfortable with who they are and create need for attention/desire from there.
ROHIT: And not giving them this sense of “You can’t do this because you’re a guy. You can’t show your emotion because you’re a guy. You can’t feel pain because you’re a guy.” That doesn’t work.
ROB: Right. More trends?
ROHIT: Let’s see, what else did we have that we talked about? Now you’re forcing me to recall. It just goes like a whirlwind, slamming through all these trends. Another one we talked about was strategic spectacle. I think that’s a good one for advertising agencies or any type of agency, actually.
Strategic spectacle is the idea that now we have the pop-up ice cream museum. We’ve got these huge things that are basically spectacles that attract a lot of attention. Everybody goes on Instagram and they post it, and it’s colorful and it’s cool.
The challenge with that is spectacle attracts attention, and we want attention, and we need attention. In many cases we’re being paid to deliver attention. But if it’s delivered in a way that’s not strategic, there’s not value. So the key to that is not just creating a spectacle, but creating it in a strategic way so that it provides value.
ROB: What have you seen here this week that kind of worked and kind of didn’t work as a strategic spectacle? Because South by Southwest is a lot about spectacle, and some of it delivers on the promise and some of it does not.
ROHIT: This year, there’s been people walking around in costume for a bunch of different shows. I think that that, from a visibility point of view, will probably work. People will see that and they’ll be like, “Oh, that show looks interesting. I’ll check it out.” The cost of acting on it is low. I already pay for Netflix, I already pay for Amazon, I already pay for Hulu. If there’s a new show and I can check it out and I’m already paying for it, why not?
Those types of spectacles I do think work. There was a great activation that Samsung did – I think it was 2 years ago – where they were trying to get people – A) They wanted to reward people who had a Samsung, a little dig at Apple, and B) They wanted to encourage people who did have a Samsung to get used to using the payment gateway, where you just touch to pay.
ROB: Samsung Pay, not Android Wallet, whatever.
ROHIT: Yeah, Samsung Pay. So they said, “We have these vending machines, and if you have a Samsung, you can take it and use Samsung Pay and pay 1 cent, and you’ll get a chance to win. You can play up to once per day on every vending machine, and there’s like five vending machines.” People were lined up because the prizes were awesome. You could get a free phone, you could get the powerless chargers, you could get the VR headset. I have a Samsung, so I was going to this thing. You could get sunglasses.
All the people who didn’t have Samsungs were like, “What the heck, man? How come we can’t do this?” It was this perfect reward where they made everybody who had a Samsung feel awesome. They made their customers feel awesome. They made the people who weren’t their customers feel envy. They rewarded [their customers] and people were talking about it.
That is a great spectacle. And they got them to use a tool on that phone that they eventually wanted to create the behavior for them to use. Everything about that was just so smart.
ROB: Right. How has the reward system for spectacle changed in this progressing smartphone and app and Instagram era? How has the calculus behind that shifted?
ROHIT: That’s a good question. I think that the necessity for spectacle has gone higher in order to break through, which is not necessarily a good thing. I think that there are people who create spectacle for its own sake because they want the attention.
If you want proof of that, just watch any episode of The Bachelor. There’s always one contestant who’s basically creating a spectacle around herself just to attract attention because that’s what she’s there for. That’s her job. That’s her type character that was cast in the casting of the show. So we do see intentional versions of this that are extreme because they work.
But really, what I’m talking about when it comes to spectacle is not just, “Oh my God, can you believe what she did?” What I’m talking about with spectacle is, is it part of a strategy? What are you going to do strategically to use that spectacle to then get people into this product, to evaluate whether they’re going to buy it – to do the things that marketing’s supposed to do, which is persuade somebody.
ROB: To your point, if you are Amazon and you have Prime Video, then you can make a spectacle and buy up a city block and do an activation, and you’re almost – if I’m thinking more B-to-B – you’re creating customer retention, almost, with the spectacle. You’re making people value what they’re already buying from you more.
ROHIT: Yeah. You can do it in big and small ways. I love thinking about the creativity around this. This is where creative comes in. The value that a lot of agencies are delivering is amazing creative ideas. We try to use that a lot.
Sometimes I’ll go to an event, and one of the things we do is a lot of workshops and trainings to drive innovative thinking. Because we’re the Non-Obvious Company, one of the things we’ve given away to people in the past that’s worked really well are these bright yellow tweezers. On the side of them are printed “Non-Obvious Workshops,” and on the back side it says, “Because non-obvious ideas raise eyebrows.”
People love those. People have kept those tweezers for like 3 years, and when I see them later they’re like, “Oh my God, I still have those tweezers in my bag.” Because first of all, who would give you tweezers? And second of all, it’s got a little bit of a clever tagline, but it’s not about us. It’s just something that’s useful for people. It’s not that same stupid USB stick that you get from everybody.”
ROB: It’s not a calendar on your refrigerator, it’s not a pen.
ROHIT: Correct. And it stands out because of that. People need tweezers. [laughs] Who knew?
ROB: Right. That plays into a question that’s brimming in my mind. What are some ways that you can create spectacle without a big budget? Tying things through to your book.
ROHIT: Tweezers cost a buck. Perfect example. I’m just saying, there are ways to do this without a big budget. I have a great slide that I’ve used in presentations around the time when Domino’s did their whole pizza reinvention thing and they re-architected their entire pizza and they did all this stuff and then they relaunched it.
There was a local pizza shop in New York that took out an ad on one billboard, and the billboard said “We never had to change our recipe because it never sucked.” [laughs] That’s one billboard, right? Perfect timing. Because Domino’s was spending millions and millions of dollars to promote the fact that they changed their recipe, and here’s one small pizza shop with one billboard taking all the media.
ROB: I think this may be an interesting trend that I’m seeing. With digital billboard, it seems like more and more people have an opportunity to introduce a little bit of spectacle into what they do.
ROHIT: Yeah, I think that’s probably true.
ROB: An agency we interviewed on the podcast bought some digital billboards to work to entice Amazon to put their HQ2 in Atlanta. I don’t think they bought a lot of billboard inventory, but simply having pictures of their campaign on the billboard – you only need 30 seconds of billboard time to say, “We had a campaign that was on a billboard.”
ROHIT: That’s true, and now it’s like a talking point.
ROB: Yeah. We’re early for 2020, but you’re already thinking about trends for 2020. What is top-of-mind for you that we will be talking about sitting here next year?
ROHIT: 2020’s going to be an interesting year for us because the Non-Obvious Trends series started off as a blog post in 2011. Then it got into a digital report, then it became an eBook. 2015 was the first year it became a book. That year it hit the Wall Street Journal list. That was when it all took off. Then 2016, ’17, ’18, and ’19 have been books.
2020 is the 10th year, so that year we’re not going to just go and predict a couple new trends. We’re going to actually look backwards at the past 10 years, find what’s been these big themes, these megatrends across more than 100 trends, and then put the pieces together to say, “What does that mean for the future?”
Actually, I don’t know what they’re going to be yet because we’re still in the middle of the research, but I’m really excited about the fact that we’re going to not just look forwards, but also take stock of what we did.
One of my biggest challenges and regrets about this model of doing this every year is we abandon ideas before their time. It reminds me of my agency days because we did that all the time. We would have awesome campaigns that would start huge new things, and then there’d be a new CMO and they’d say, “I don’t want that campaign anymore.”
Right when everything’s starting to click and the consumer’s like “This is awesome, I understand it,” somebody new comes in and we change it all. Or we don’t do service to ourselves because we finish the campaign and then it’s like, we’ve got to sell the next campaign. We don’t want them to stick with that too long, so it’s in our own interests as agency people to then sell them the next thing.
I think the problem is what ends up happening is we abandon all this great stuff before it’s actually run its course.
ROB: Right. It’s hard to time the updates sometimes. You mentioned you have an author working on a blockchain book, and the right take for that book is very fluid.
ROHIT: Yeah. Specifically with the guidebook series, one of the things we thought a lot about is, how do we write these things and not have them be dated and not have them be something that has to be updated all the time?
What you’ll find in all of them is anything that could be dated – for example, in the Small Business Marketing Guide, in the Email Marketing chapter, I have great vendors that you may want to use for email marketing to test your campaigns and all that stuff. That’s going to change. So that’s not in the book. What’s in the book is, “Here’s a link to download the list of the best providers.” That list can change whenever I want because it’s not in the book.
So the book will be – I wrote this particular book, and the goal of all the guides is to be good enough and broad enough that they can sit on the shelf for 10 years and be okay. Anything that would change in that interim will be pushed to an online section that will have resources that people can download.
ROB: You seem to have a tremendous instinct for platform building. As you’re talking here, what I can picture – you mentioned having your book at the airport and the brand value that has, even if people don’t buy your book. Now I’m picturing a shelf of Non-Obvious Guides, or a row of these books, lined up at the airport.
ROHIT: Yeah, that’s what I’m picturing too.
ROB: Where do you think that instinct comes from? Or did you learn it somewhere? What do you attribute it to?
ROHIT: You know, I never thought about it. I guess I pay attention a lot to people who have built those platforms. Or not necessarily people, but those platforms that have been built. Maybe I reverse-engineer some of it.
The Harvard Business Guides have their own rack in the airports, and they do extremely well. So to some degree I’m looking at, what else is there and how do I have something that’s different than that? Because those tend to be very academic, they’re not as practical, and they’re different than these guides, the way that these guides are written. These are like the Irreverent Travel Guides. That’s the tone of these. It’s like, “Don’t do that because that’s a total waste of time. Do this instead.” I think that might be part of it.
I think I also have a lot of passion for this brand in particular, like the brand of Non-Obvious. I really believe in it. I think the world needs more non-obvious thinking. If there’s a vision and a mission behind the company, that’s what it is. It comes through in the trend reports in the trend book; it comes through in the guides. When I launch a podcast, it’ll come through in that. It’ll come through in all that stuff.
ROB: You’re going to launch a podcast?
ROHIT: Yeah, but it’s not going to be an interview podcast.
ROB: What is it going to be?
ROHIT: I’m still working on the concept for it, but I think it’s going to be interesting stories that you haven’t heard before about very unlikely things, produced in a way where it’s a very quick take. The goal of it is going to be, very simply, to help people be more interesting. It’s going to be the Non-Obvious Podcast, and the goal is when you listen to it, afterwards if you told somebody else what you heard, you would be more interesting.
ROB: It sounds like a little bit of a Seth Godin meets Freakonomoics kind of direction.
ROHIT: Hey, if that’s the way that people will consume it, then that is a good group to be in. That’s a good category to be in.
ROB: Then what are the next 10 podcasts after that? Do you have a hunch? Is that a platform, do you think?
ROHIT: It’s definitely a platform. I think I would enjoy it. But it takes commitment. I respect what you’re doing. It takes commitment and it takes skill to properly interview someone, and I’m not sure that’s a skill I have.
What I’d rather do is produce really interesting stories, which is kind of what I do on stage, and tell them in a compelling way as short episodes. I’d treat a podcast that I would do much more like a streaming show on Netflix, where you release all the episodes at once. You have a season, you release the 12 or 14 or 15 episodes. They can download them all at once and listen to them all on a 6-hour drive, or they can space them out. Then you do the next season. That’s the way I’m thinking about it.
ROB: That’s interesting and uncommon in the podcast world. There are a few people who have done these very burst-y, download-the-whole-season-at-once. That’s a pretty interesting perspective.
ROHIT: Non-obvious, right? Gotta do it. [laughs]
ROB: But it’s a way that people do things. What else are you looking forward to for the rest of the year? I mean, you’ve got a lot going on. What else is exciting that’s coming up this year for you, for the broader marketing world?
ROHIT: I’m really, really excited about the guide series. I think that’s going to be huge. We only have three out in the market right now, but there’s a lot of them under development.
I’m really excited about IdeaPress as a platform. You mentioned platform building. That’s an alternate one because it allows me to be a little bit more behind the scenes. The authors that we have coming on IdeaPress launching books are just phenomenal. Laura Gassner Otting is launching a book called Limitless. Joseph Jaffe, who I know you’ve had on the show, is doing Built to Suck. Shiv Singh’s got a book that he wrote with his wife, Rohini, called Savvy. We’ve got Charlene Li with her book coming out about disruption. Really fantastic authors.
ROB: That’s really interesting and exciting. When will we see the next couple of books out?
ROHIT: I have a unique idea for my next Non-Obvious Guide, which I’m really passionate about writing. But I guarantee you if I gave you a thousand guesses, you probably wouldn’t guess what it would be. So I’ll let that sit for a moment. I’m also working on the Non-Obvious Megatrends book, obviously, which will come out in December.
And the guide – da-dah! – what I’m going to do next is The Non-Obvious Guide to Traveling for Work. How to be a road warrior, how to travel for work. I do it all the time. I’ve done it for the last 15 years, and I have a lot of things that I’ve learned along the way. I want to give this book to anyone who is either traveling frequently for work or who is going to be, to be their guide to surviving.
ROB: That’s an interesting one too. That seems like it could be a little bit less evergreen in the way that things change, but you mentioned you link out to the list of email providers. So there may be a similar dynamic there of some things that get enshrined in the book and some things that are a little bit more fluid, that go out on digital format and link from the book?
ROHIT: Hey, look, man, some stuff is going to be maybe a little bit dated, and of course I’ll push that online. But being nice to the person who checks you in because they can help you out is not a dated idea.
ROB: [laughs] That’s not new.
ROB: Very cool. I could even imagine with the podcast world, you’re not writing 30 books and you wouldn’t host 30 podcasts, even though you’re going to produce some good content. But you are also drawing people to you who could be fantastic podcast hosts.
ROHIT: Yeah. The reason I would do a podcast, to be honest with you, is because I want to tell powerful, interesting stories. If this podcast, the way I’m envisioning it, can do that, then it’s worth doing.
ROB: Very cool. Rohit, when people want to find you and Non-Obvious and IdeaPress, where should they find you?
ROHIT: Well, nonobvious.com. Which took us a while to get, but we have it now, so that’s good. [laughs]
Also rohitbhargava.com, just my full name. You can get all sorts of stuff there. You can watch videos. Actually, you can watch a video of my talk from South by Southwest last year, and they’ll have one for my talk this year. I think they tend to wait a couple months before they put it out there, but eventually it’ll be out there. So you can watch all those videos, you can download a bunch of different materials.
We’re working on nonobvious.com. Eventually we’ll have a page for every trend, so you’ll be able to fully dive into all of the trend stuff. We did this awesome data visualization thing with Microsoft where now you can step through the trends and do this big data visualization exercise. So there’s lots of materials.
ROB: Very, very cool. We will get those in the show notes.
ROHIT: Thank you.
ROB: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Rohit. It’s a pleasure to meet you, pleasure to chat. You’ve got a ton of interesting things to say, so thank you.
ROHIT: Yeah, thank you. I hope this was useful. I love what you’re doing here at South by Southwest. It’s a really exciting moment. We need people to curate it like you, so thank you.
ROB: Awesome. Thank you so much.
Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email email@example.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.