Mike Wittenstein: The global advertising industry is at the root of trust erosion. That must change for democracy to survive.
We live in a 'pick your own facts' world, where words are increasingly suspect. This is dangerous. Veteran marketer Mike Wittenstein shares his belief that the advertising industry, and its advertiser clients, bear a lot of responsibility. You should hear why he thinks that, and how he thinks they - and we - can fix that!
Hello, I’m Bob Westrope.
I believe these things to be true.
We live in an Age of Abundance, where, for the first time we have the means to eradicate human suffering, want and need.
Our world is in unprecedented danger. Too many issues that must be dealt with simultaneously, from climate change to an all-out assault on democracy itself.
We have years – not decades - to prevail. To make possible a new Age of Wonder.
The root problem is a systemic, global leadership insufficiency.
We can’t rely alone on current systems and structures to address this insufficiency. It’s time for big ideas.
It’s on us to fix it - the BoomXers born from 1946-1980. We have the experience, networks, power, money, time and most importantly the motivation. It’s our children’s world. It’s our legacy.
Join me as I explore the big ideas needed to inspire our generation to action – ideas offered by leading thinkers, doers and activists united by the understanding that we all share one very small and very fragile planet.
Before we start, the BOOM! series of podcasts will be brought to you by several sponsors. Since BOOM! is intended to promote actionable, measurable and meaningful impact, I wanted to make a statement in the acceptance of our first sponsor. That's why I invited Storyminers to be the first to support us.
Looking at the ten years we have to fix the world, each of us will undoubtedly face situations where success will depend on painting a super-clear picture of the future. The possibilities each of us sees and the means to get there, have to make it – clearly - into the hearts and minds of our friends, fellow citizens, employees, partners, and customers. If we can't make the future clear and compelling, how can we expect others to join us to achieve it?
Practically every leader faces the challenge of reshaping their organizations to meet whatever tomorrow brings. They must experiment while leading at the same time. It's not easy.
Storyminers understands that strategy is best expressed as the story of who you are and where you want to be next. The easier that story is to understand, the more people can see themselves in it. That means faster and longer-lasting adoption.
Storyminers are masters at this, with over 1,000 assignments over 20 years in 24 countries as evidence. To learn more about Storyminers see the links at the bottom of this transcript.
Let's get started.
I’m 65 years old. When I was born, doctors were promoting the ‘gentleness’ of menthol cigarettes to pregnant and nursing mothers – as had been done for decades before that. That this was an accepted practice spoke not only to the increasingly complicit behaviour of parts of the medical establishment, but importantly the naked success of the newly emergent advertising agency and their tobacco clients.
I grew up in a time when clever marketers refined wordsmithing for profit – of perfecting the art of the spin. Every laundry detergent was scientifically proven to be best; every car was number one, every appliance the longest-lasting.
But as the power – and hold – of the great brands grew, my recollection is that a certain selective suspension of credulity started to kick in with the consumer. Even as we became ardent Ford or GM owners, or Verizon or AT&T customers, most of us, most of the time stopped believing what we were being told. After all, who in their right mind trusted the new car salesman?
This wink-wink cynical gullibility is something that I bought into, it shaped my career as a marketer and entrepreneur. And while I like to think that I always stayed on this side of the line as far as honestly and ethically promoting what I was promoting, I was very proud of my ability to spin. To use words in a clever way to get someone to buy what I was selling. Even when I knew that they knew that I knew that they knew we were engaged in a game of relative truth-telling, where if they were clever – or gullible – enough to believe what I was saying – I won, and they lost.
The weaponization of words was largely conceived, refined, and incubated by marketers who increasingly shaped the productization of politics, where politicians became products, and political parties became brands. We sought and accepted not the truth, but the shades of truth, that resonated with us as the consumers of these political brands.
Business in general is of course not alone in facilitating the Orwellian lingua franka that today increasingly is employed by the leaders and catalysts of the global autocratic ascendency but it is seriously culpable.
It is only fitting then that we be joined today by a veteran marketer – and truthteller - with something like 40 year’s experience as a word-master, and likewise fitting that he be our first sponsor – the founder and Managing Partner of the above-mentioned Storyminers – Mike Wittenstein. Please join me as we discuss his big idea – and more importantly – his challenge.
"Bob: Hi Mike, what is your big idea?
Mike: The global advertising and media industry is at the root of trust erosion, and that has to change for our democracy to survive.
"The global advertising and media industry is at the root of trust erosion, and that has to change for our democracy to survive."
Bob: Couldn't agree more. So where did the big idea come from?
Mike: It came from my kids and it's been growing over time. If you have kids and you're watching TV with them, and somebody is obviously lying - obvious enough that a kid can see it - they'll ask you "daddy, why is it okay for that politician to lie"? Why is it okay for that brand to lie? Why is it okay for that person on the news who's being interviewed to lie? We teach our kids that is not okay to lie. We practice that in our businesses. We practice that in our family. The media that our kids consume allows it. The checks and balances, the Walter Cronkite's of the past, they're just not there anymore. And so many of us know better.
I go to Starbucks or Zoom conversations, and we're talking about how much lying there is, yet we're not doing anything about it. We're not speaking up. And I've also noticed, that there is a lack of controls. Here in the United States - and lots of other places - we believe in the power and the do-good-ability of free speech, but it doesn't mean without limits.
It doesn't mean with cruel or mean or disgusting intent. We need to make sure that we've got the right kinds of limits in our language around free speech and laws, and we need to educate better. We need social incentives, even shame, to bring attention on the folks who are using lying to their advantage at everyone, else's disadvantage.
Bob: So how is it a big idea or why is it a big idea?
Mike: A big idea is one that affects a lot of people over time and might just change the course of human history or at least help us save ourselves in the next 10 years.
In my opinion, lying destroys value for everyone. Instead of lying, when there are more truths around they lead to better decisions, you get more progress and everybody gets more of what they want because truth leads to authentic understanding around what everybody needs. Then it's easy for everybody to figure out the right thing to do. When there's so much lying, there's a lot more energy spent and a lot less action taken.
Bob: It's obvious the harm lying is doing in society, but expand on that theme. What problem or issue is this addressing?
Mike: It's not just one problem or issue. The way we speak is something that we take for granted.
As I've witnessed the last five or 10 years as an adult, I've seen that we move in a herd, but we don't even know we've got blind spots about how we communicate. We assume that everything around us is just the way things are or the way they're trending. But there are lots of things that can go right, if you don't lie or if you don't have to deal with others lies.
Just imagine this for a second. If you don't have to worry about false claims. What does that mean to your purchase behavior? If you don't have to worry about unkept promises, what does that do for your legal, for your supply chain, for your business? If you don't have to worry about deceitful manipulation, all those things, the lack of lying helps you feel safer and helps people feel closer to each other. We can all be more human. We can have a more enjoyable world to live in and we'll make better decisions.
When there's less lying, the world just feels fairer. And our choices matter more. This phrase came to my mind the other day; lying is like an invisible tax on all of us. It sucks our energy, our resources, and our options. Reducing lying on the other hand, would let us use our time and our energy and our resources, a lot more wisely.
"...lying is like an invisible tax on all of us. It sucks our energy, our resources, and our options."
We could be more focused on the problems that matter and on the things that we enjoy, but lying, sucks up our time and our energy - we just don't need it.
Bob: That notion of the invisible tax I think is brilliant and clarifying. As we witness events all around us, we see the corrosiveness of truth-telling and looking at it as an invisible tax on social discourse, I think is very helpful.
You've been at this for 40 years, which is interesting for somebody in his early fifties, but you've been at this since childhood working as a marketer. What from your life experience, your professional experience lead you to this?
Mike: You talking about my being a marketer as a kid. You're not wrong, because I started my first business when I was 13! The very first time I remember being disappointed by a product was when I was watching these television commercials for tennis shoes called PF flyers. What I remember about the ad, is they said you'll run faster and jump higher, and I was a pretty competitive kid, so I convinced my mom and I even paid some of my allowance to get those PF flyers. And they didn't make a damn bit of difference!
Bob: You didn't read the disclaimer!
Mike: I went back and I found a copy of the ad on YouTube, and sure enough, they did not make a fake claim. They used a little twisty word like you might be able to, or something like that. I don't remember the exact language.
But there was another one that got me in a ton of trouble. When plastic containers came out for consumer packaged goods, I was just a little kid. And one of them was for Breck shampoo. You probably remember the Breck girl with the lights behind her and the shining blonde hair. They said on the ads that you could drop the bottle and it wouldn't break. Wow. Isn't that cool? Because everything came in glass. So we moved into this new house when I was nine years old, and it had a tile floor. I wanted to see if that's true. So I grabbed the bottle and I dropped it from over my head height of five feet tall at that time. Sure enough, it cracked the plastic and all the shampoo spills out on the floor, and I have to tell my parents why I did it! That was when I paid for my first shampoo!
So I really don't like when brands lie, even to children, it's just not right. There are brands that do more heinous things than that, but just the idea of manipulating other people is not a prideful profession to be in. It shouldn't be that way. I don't think that should be the root of marketing.
I think it needs to be more about how things can help you and how to use them better. Titillating emotions to manipulate people, it's so easy compared to building a better product that delivers a better service or a better outcome. I think that's where more of the focus needs to be.
Bob: There's a straight line from your Breck metaphor, to January 6th, and the inability to think critically and see through the big lie - from a trusting nine-year-old to a peer of yours that found themselves in Congress on January 6th.
Mike: That's the closest I've been called to being a peer of our former president appear. That gives me the willies!
Bob: There are people around you, I'm sure in Atlanta probably not too far from your house, who actually made it to Washington.
Mike: We are in a very red spot right now. The thing about that whole January 6th thing is that it has proven so difficult for us to unravel as a country. And there are so many people on the Republican side that are quiet about things that the Republican party for years has held in high esteem. There are so many people not acting. There's so many false narratives coming to fill in the void - it feels like a minority doing everything possible to continue majority rule even though it's not part of the way we think, it's not part of our values and belief system, et cetera.
Bob: As you point out, we live in a time where up is down and down is up. The truth is we're not falling through the looking glass, we've gone through it, and again, to my Canadian and other listeners this is not just a US problem, this is a global problem.
I would argue that if we don't start speaking to some agreed form of truth, Democracy is dead and business in general has a vital role to play in leading the way on that. Isn't that the gist of your argument?
"...if we don't start speaking to some agreed form of truth, Democracy is dead and business in general has a vital role to play in leading the way on that."
Mike: Absolutely. Let me say this first, there is no such thing as alternative facts.
That should have been stopped instantly. That's just absolutely nutty. Human progress, at least as I've been taught to see it and with my own independent thinking, is based on building on what others have done in the past, as long as it serves everyone. When it's time to replace a theory, like if you sail too far in one direction, you will fall off the side of the earth, we replace it with something that works better, like the world is round. But if everybody agrees on what is true, especially things that can be observed and measured and understood as a human entity, we get to build on each other's knowledge, and that creates a virtuous cycle rather than a tear down cycle of ripping things apart. Or, returning to political parties, we've got one side that is advancing agendas, while the other side tears down everything, and has no agenda. So the idea of building on these truths requires everybody to be in the same boat.
Bob: A lot of actors have had a role in the erosion of truth and trust. It's beyond the scope of our discussion today to try and tackle all of the challenges that all of the actors need to address.
You're a marketer, I'm a marketer. We spent our lives 'spinning'. I assume like me, you think you've done that honestly and ethically, but there's still the 'spin'. If I think about my experience with the people that I worked with, it seems to be always the case the practitioners of anything are very often certainly part of the challenge. What would your clients think about this commitment to truth telling?
Mike: I think they would think "that would be amazing".
If I could eat all the chocolate in the world and not gain a pound, your instant reaction is that's goodness. On the other hand, a lot of us have been trained to think that big things are too hard. Our bias is that the institutions that we've built to serve us are fine. The problem is they're not the right size to tackle the problems that we have.
We are trying to tackle COVID with a world health organization and national versions of the CDC and a bunch of independent players, but we don't have the ability to act collectively. So anytime I've noticed that my peers, my clients, people in the media, respond to a really big idea, one that's healthy, that's good for us, that we should be working for, a moonshot size thing, their first reaction after 'yay' is 'no way'. And that's really sad. It's disheartening. Those 'no way' moments are exactly the ones that we should be doubling down on and really focusing on.
How can we garner our resources? how can we work together? How can we brainstorm? How can we change our own perspective so that those things that we need the most become possible. Because that creates benefit for everyone. We talked about lying being an invisible tax, it really is like the mafia - the economic model of the mafia is they take out of the economy, but they don't put anything back in. It's one way, not an exchange. And that's what lying is. It's a one-way conversion of public goods benefit or capabilities to just a few individuals. So they think it's hard and it's scary. And we don't have a history of doing really big things like that together.
In our previous conversations, you've talked about the Manhattan Project, or Kennedy's challenge to-the-moon-and-back-within-the-decade, those kinds of things. It's time for more of that kind of thinking.
Bob: In the preamble to this podcast we talk about our aspiration being a new Age of Wonder, a time when we are focused as a species on a joint future. If we were to get business to transform its role as far as contributing to this corrosion of trust, how does this help us on that path to a new Age of Wonder?
Mike: You didn't tell me, you were going to ask the hard questions on this podcast, Bob, but that's one of the things that you do very, very well.
Bob: You are up for it! You had said individually and collectively it was about getting people to spend time on priorities that matter most, imagine what happens if we don't do that.
Mike: If we don't do this, we might end up even more divided and separated than we are right now at a time when we have an abundance of education, telecommunications, health, the lowest amounts of war and poverty in human history on a percentage basis, we might be going back to medieval times. We might be going back to the Dark Ages, disconnected xenophobic angry and warring with each other. We might be wasting a lot of our resources on futile ends that really aren't true, because lots of stealing is based on lying. If we keep going down that path, we're going to be in more and more conflict and more and more separated from each other. During this time of COVID, we've all learned how important individual connection to each other is. And there are thousands and millions of stories of how people have reshaped themselves, how they've grown, how they've helped each other out, how they've become better. There's been lots of death. There's been lots of suffering. And there's been lots of goodness as we've come more together.
"...we might be going back to medieval times. We might be going back to the Dark Ages, disconnected xenophobic, angry and warring with each other. So if we allow lying to continue, we will continue to destroy value for the majority of us."
Bob: You're touching on dystopian possibilities - I couldn't agree more. If we can't come to an agreement on what truth is in some broad and general term, certainly democracy is dead and that's a near future, not a far one. And it's hard to dismiss the role of business. Business next to government is one of the great drivers of society and if there isn't leadership from the business community on fixing that corrosion of trust, we're dead.
We've talked about where we might go if we don't go there, let's talk about the the upside of this. So what's your challenge?
Mike: I challenge the leaders of the world's top advertising, marketing and strategy associations to adopt global principles around truth and to require their members to do the same.
"I challenge the leaders of the world's top advertising, marketing and strategy associations to adopt global principles around truth and to require their members to do the same."
Bob: Wow. That second part in particular is going to be really interesting. So what would success look like?
Mike: Success would mean that these associations, whose members include the world's largest advertisers - they represent close to one trillion in global advertising spend. That was trillion, not billion. They're the ones that set the pattern for the norms in human communication; will the bottle break when you drop it or not?
So if they get on the same page around truth, there will be a common ground, there will be a lack of alternative facts, there will be a coming together of thinking globally, amongst a few people, because the associations are made up of their members. The boards are made up of member organizations. So if those few leaders can get on board about truth and start modeling it, and practicing it, believing it, and putting it into their programs, their day-to-day operations, their ethics, and all of those things becomes a lot easier to launch that out to the other brands as a grand challenge.
I don't think it's too far out of our range to do that. We've responded as a world to COVID. We can respond globally around truth or anything else that we choose to. We've done nuclear disarmament, we've done all kinds of trade agreements, we've done education, so many organizations have eradicated disease and improved access to water and healthcare, women's rights. We have so much to do, but we've made so much progress. Imagine the power of a trillion dollars in advertising spend focused on that one thing, not to the exclusion of everything else, but that could make a big difference.
"Imagine the power of a trillion dollars in advertising spend focused on that one thing..."
Within five or 10 years, more and more advertisements would follow the new norms around what's truth, and what's trustworthy. Let's not forget, that when you speak the truth and you do it enough and you follow through, you earn trust. And what else is a brand other than made of trust?
Bob: I think about all those product managers, brand managers, account executives, all of those young people living and working in a world where increasingly they're being asked to be truthful - operating against, a fairly basic, humanist globalist set of values - it's hard not to imagine that they're going to become way better citizens. I think what's incredibly powerful about your concept is, I'm pulling a number out of the air, but, I think I would be right in saying, if you think about the world's top advertising, marketing, and strategy executives in the advertising agencies, in the associations in the companies, the client companies, you're not talking any more than 10 to 25,000 people. It's a small global community and it's a reachable global community that one can imagine targeting, and so I think your challenge to that community is a very powerful one.
Mike: There are a couple of things that come to mind, Bob, as I heard you frame it that way. Because it is a very addressable group with a significant amount of leverage their voice or their decisions have huge ramifications for the rest of us. Granted it's advertising, it's not the most important thing in our life, but it does set precedent and it's continuously visible.
One of the things that I think would be really helpful for association leaders to do, is to fund some work on the cost of lying, because we don't know what that is. Individually, liars believe that the gains far outweigh the costs, even when it involves their personal brands, when it involves their personal fortunes, lying, cheating, stealing, we're taught that, as a little kids that's not right.
But the people who do it gain a lot, or at least they think they gain a lot. We don't know in measurable terms, what the cost of lying is, and we need to, and if we tackle it as a collective, we can figure that out.
We've got more data, metrics and understanding of individuals and individual decision-making than we've ever had in history. We just need to focus those filters on figuring out what's the downstream of a lie. It's my professional instinct talking right now, I can't support it with numbers, but I think we're going to find that at a personal level, at a business level, at a brand level, that we're losing a lot more than we think. Lying is not good business. The best, most successful brands and leaders have espoused that - we just need to learn that collectively.
Bob: One of the things about the time we find ourselves in, is on a whole range of issues, it's obvious that intense self-awareness is required or self-reflection, and that's certainly true of us as individuals. But boy, is it ever needed by the industries and professions that are out there in terms of being, honest with themselves about the role they play. I had a lot of experience in the direct response television industry, a whole bunch of really nice people, I would say, deeply in need of the kind of reflection you're talking about, that truth is just something very plastic.
We marketers, we weaponized words. Political marketers almost always started out as brand marketers or business marketers and taking the skill set learned to sell laundry detergent and turn politicians into products and political parties into brands, and we're toast if we don't fix that. I think challenging the specific executives of the advertising ecosystem, I think you're really onto something.
"We marketers, we weaponized words. Political marketers almost always started out as brand marketers or business marketers and taking the skill set learned to sell laundry detergent and turn politicians into products and political parties into brands..."
Mike: It's advertising, marketing and strategy, because the strategy folks are the ones who come up with the numbers and determine the direction and the core assumptions addressing the questions what do customers want, and unfortunately, what can we get them to do? With lying is intent, and that's where I'm hoping that the strategy folks can come in and start to unmask some of those things, so that, what companies are doing is creating more value for their customers rather than trying to manipulate them for individual gain. Anytime the seesaw is on one side only, it's just not cool.
You mentioned campaigns and political advertisers. I wanted to point out on the positive side, living in Atlanta, it's been called one of the most important cities in the world recently, because of all the change that's going on here, it's like a Petri dish for the future of the world.
The mayoral race for Atlanta, which has always been hotly contended, very political, and we've seen some amazing people in it. This last campaign was absolutely, amazingly good. Every ad that I saw was positive, it declared what the candidate was for, it clearly stated the platform, and it gave you a look at them, not as some, made up overly large egotistical individual, someone that's all about themselves, but it showed them and their ability to talk to other people. Not just the cute shot of being in the school, but the shot of meeting with the representatives of the education board and talking turkey with them about how to get things done. It was very action oriented, very outcome driven.
And I was tickled pink with every single candidate whose ads I saw in this last mayoral race in Atlanta. So kudos. It is possible.
Bob: That's a great example of how to do it. We've talked about how to identify a choke point and that's a term that I think will become fairly common in this podcast, that is identifying the nexus where you can achieve the most impact by trying to get at the fewest number of people in a measurable and accountable way. I think you've nailed that. How would you imagine inspiring them to action?
Mike: You're asking me, what's the project plan?
Bob: It's not your job here to come up with a project plan, but what might you imagine the broad parameters being, what are some of the things you can imagine trying and doing?
Mike: First of all, there's creating a story of the future about how things can go in such vivid detail that people can be present at it, understand it, and then buy into it. To get to that point, it takes more people. It's not one person's vision. Nobody's got a brain, and the imagination big enough to do that. We need to do it by us, for us. So I think the place to start recruiting those minds from within that target audience of advertising, marketing, and strategy association leaders, is to do some rotating board-level presentations. Work really hard on that first storytelling that you do, so that people can understand the intent, so that it raises emotions in them that they've been dealing with, but on their own as individuals. It gives them that sense that different and better futures are possible. We've got to get their feedback so that we know what are the first steps to take so that the next story can be better. It might be some kind of a position study. It might be lying research. It might be a promise, if not funding, to do some of real-time dashboards so that we can all know what the truth is. Who knows what they're going to say, but getting that first story done and then sharing it at board level presentations in the associations, and then having them field- trial it with some of their members is a place that I would start.
The second thing I would do is I look for more presenters. It's like dropping a pebble in the water and watching the ripples go out. Once you go through the first two or three ripples, those are your prototype phases. Then you want more and more people capable of presenting. The trick there is to make sure that the whole thing comes across as an experience for them, because each one is going to be Harry Potter on a hero's journey. Not that they're going to become a wizard and defeat Voldemort, but they are going to go through a time of self-reflection, they're going to change inside, and they're going to be unafraid to share that change with other people.
That's where the inspiration will come from. By sharing these presentations, in a circle or a Zoom room, collaborating on them, they will get more and more cohesive, we'll all be saying more of the same thing, yet each presentation will be individualized by the presenter for the people that they're talking to - more the same and more different at the same time.
Inspiration will also come from some demonstrations of how people are going to do it. We love evidence. All the corporations have been churning out people who keep things the same and don't allow change in. It's one of the ways that we keep our large corporations going, but that's a challenge. We've got to let some new ways of thinking in. We've got to let things that aren't measurable - yet - into our thing. Somebody told me a long time ago, that magic is just science that hasn't been explained yet. I think we're facing the same thing. We've got to tell again and again, a story of what life with a pro-truth bent is, so that people can wrap their arms around it and see how they fit into it.
I think the decision, once it's easy enough for folks to just jump over the fence and say, hey, I'm on the side of truth, is not going to be that hard, but getting them to see that it's not a futile endeavor is the big challenge. That's what needs the attention.
Bob: You were part of a group that put together a set of values. We call them tenets, and the tenets are available on links at the bottom of this podcast. If you think about those tenets and you think about your network of former clients and colleagues, what's your confidence level that those tenets will resonate?
Mike: That's a great question. And I think it needs three answers. Answer number one is, those tenets have been vetted globally across socioeconomic spectra and I am so comfortable with them personally. From a business perspective, I love what they're doing - I'm used to synthesizing the future. With my company Story Miners, most of our work is helping leaders and leadership teams articulate their future, so that their employee and their client base, their partners can understand it and then lean into it and help make it real. So the tenets themselves are not hard to say yes to.
The second part of it is a little tougher. How do we get people to understand that it means that they have to do a little bit of changing, not just in their head, but in their day to day activities, in the words that they use in addressing truths? And how can they create new opportunities for these principles to shift the way that hey make decisions and shift the outcomes that they go for? That's the harder part. And it's not because people don't want to do it. It's because we're naturally trained to keep what we've got going.
Here's the big thing, and this is in the tenets. We have a scarcity mindset in business decision-making, though we live in a world of abundance. As I said before, we've got more health, less war, more money, more fiber optic in the ground, more talented youth. We have so much goodness, but we're practicing being skimpy.
"We have a scarcity mindset in business decision-making, though we live in a world of abundance."
It's a different kind of mindset and it takes some time to get used to it. The best way to learn is by trying things, so I think we need a class of folks, a group of facilitators who are very good at helping leaders and followers and everybody in between, to try these tenets on for size. You can't just throw a switch and say, yes, they're good, let's go. My experience comes from helping companies with their reason for being and their principles. We look at that all the time, but our principles aren't just lofty things - like we will be happy, we will help our employees thrive. They're very specific. For example, one of ours is we will never do business with a company that by design harms others. So we don't do porn. We don't do vaping. We don't do anything that has negative effects on people. That's not too hard to put into practice.
Bob: That would seem pretty basic.
Mike: Yeah. And there are other of those tenants that need to be translated into, rubber-hits-the-road kind of moments.
Bob: We need to reach a stage where an account executive wouldn't sell his or her services to a tobacco company or a young graduate from a marketing program, an MBA, simply would not consider joining a tobacco company or, somebody that does harm.
Mike: The women's tennis association is a great example by pulling out of some games in China and encouraging people to boycott the Olympics. I don't know if that's too far or not, I'm not read in well enough on that situation. But that's the kind of ethics, that's the kind of personal commitment, vote-with-your-feet, vote-with-your-mouth, get-things-done the way you think they need to be done. That's smart. And the more of that kind of behavior we have, even if it creates a little bit of tumult, it's visible and everybody gets to see it's more accountable.
I think people can learn faster from what they can see that's true, than by being fed all kinds of lies all the time, in very subtle and sophisticated forms. Here's an example. A lot of the commercials that we see on television, at least in my area, for all kinds of medications that will extend your life, blah, blah, blah. They have this basic format. You should use our drug because it has this benefit for you. And then it shows happy scenes while they read all the counter indications. You may explode. You may do...
Bob: You may get hair on the tongue...
I didn't mean to cut you off. I'm provoking you here a bit. My guess is, if you were to pull the trigger on an initiative tomorrow, there's quite a few people that you've worked with that would be interested in jumping on an initiative like you're talking about. What do you think about that?
Mike: I think you're right. I'm going to go in a different direction than you might expect, Bob. I think what we need, and maybe what BOOM! could do, is create, or magically make happen, some kind of fund that would allow people the option to go off and pursue these projects. It doesn't take a lot, but it's going to take a ton of time. And that means you're not working with your clients, because you're basically asking professionals to do this, people that are in these associations, working in the industry. It would be great to have a little bit of economic grease, and some shared tools, because I'm sure you're thinking of starting a bunch of different initiatives or encouraging people to do that and be very specific, but that could make all the difference in the world.
So I'd love to see a fund put together that would let people tap into it for very specific needs. If I needed 10 people to make telephone calls and they could get something for their time that could make it possible to get more done sooner. I'm involved in an organization that's trying to improve the way we vote, and the going is so slow because everybody's doing it with their volunteer time and effort. And they're reaching out to people with their volunteer time and effort, and it's just slow.
Bob: Those are the connected dots to the BoomXer population that I think is most relevant. And that is that we do have the time and the financial wherewithal as a generation and the motivation but most importantly, we have the experience. Many of us are still active in the workforce. Many of us are not, but have recently been in the workforce in different capacities. And so we do have the resources and the experience necessary to take on the challenge that you identified, the question is, are we going to do that? Can we mobilize that militant middle and and get them oriented on many projects, all on the same scale as you're talking about? You said this is a small thing, but it needs to be global scale in order for it to be truly effective, and it's something that is actionable and and attainable.
Mike: You're making me think about the practical implications of all of this, so can I share a couple of thoughts? I'm going to look at this as an individual project. And I'm also going to imagine that you have 20 of these things going on under the BOOM! moniker.
Some of the things that come to my mind are; how do I organize all of this? How do I put together the first story, the first materials, with visual impact? How do I get research done to find out the right people to reach out to? How do I reach out to them? How do I recruit other folks on a board or a group of collaborators?
All of those things are going to be traversed by every single group. I'm wondering if there's not some way to speed that up a little bit so that if I go out and find an agency to work with, I don't have to educate them about everything, and then Sarah, who does the same thing in a different area, has to go find an agency and bring them up to speed. There are some ways to move a little bit faster. I bet there are some ways to use social media metrics to understand where the impact of our messages is being felt. I bet there are lots of other opportunities like that. So maybe one of the initiatives could be about how to get initiative started. That might sound recursive, but there's a lot of knowledge that can be generated very quickly on not a best practice, but a solid framework that people could use in their own way to make progress.
Those results can be shared because what's interesting about this whole endeavor of BOOM! - it's abundance based, it's not scarcity based and there is no competition. The only competition is dystopia. So we're all working together. There'll be a readiness to share with each other. It's not like corporate walls and that kind of thing.
Bob: Excellent. That's a great conclusion to this. You've presented, I think a really strong idea and strong challenge. So thanks very much, Mike Wittenstein for a great big idea and a great challenge."
Here are a few take-aways of mine from my talk with Mike.
Mike’s Big Idea, that is “The global advertising industry is at the root of trust erosion. That must change for democracy to survive.” certainly, strikes at the core of the global assault on democracy. No other sector spends so much financial resource to influence so many – influence us all – with messaging so toxically and cynically manipulative. This is the invisible tax on our societies that he refers to.
Likewise, his warning that too many of us shirk from big ideas because they are too hard - and a desperate belief that existing institutions alone will protect us - especially resonates.
The preamble for the tenets on which this podcast is based start with this sentence: “We believe we are each held to be responsible for, and accountable to, ourselves and each other.” I submit that true responsibility – and most certainly accountability - starts with being truthful.
Accordingly, Mike’s suggestion that we focus on a sincere and substantive truth in advertising initiative is a powerful way for the business community to contribute to the societal transformation that is so vitally needed. In turn, his challenge to the leadership class of the worlds trillion dollar advertising eco-system, including agencies and their clients – is inspired. It’s worth reiterating that challenge here:
“I challenge the leaders of the world’s top advertising, marketing, and strategy associations to adopt global principles around truth and to require their members to do the same.”
An important note. While Mike's idea - and challenge - sounds like a winner, the fact is that it might not be as effective at achieving change as another idea and challenge. Or it might be the most effective way to achieve the desired results in the timeframe needed. We won't know until we try - and learn from - as many of these big ideas as we possibly can
For the time being, here’s how I’d like you to follow-up on Mike’s challenge - there are a number of ways.
First, click the follow button wherever and however you are accessing this podcast – see the links at the bottom of all print postings. Please note that at this time, we are NOT asking for your email address, but it is vital that we build a follower base as quickly as we can with your help.
Second, please share this podcast with as many of your friends, family, peers and colleagues as you can - and ask them to follow us.
Third, please engage in the community discussions on your preferred platform – LinkedIn, Medium or Facebook. These discussions will help elevate and refine the big ideas and the challenges that have been issued.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, imagine a world where advertisers – in fact all of us who sell something to someone - conduct themselves in a manner consistent with something like our tenets – taking the vanguard in the war on truth. And imagine how you and your peers might leverage your years of experience, your time, your connections in a specific, measurable, accountable, relevant effort to reach – and influence - the advertising and marketing executives that Mike identified by 2035. To in some small, yet vital way, make the world better as only you can.
Let me be frank. My purpose with this podcast series is to see if we can mobilize a well-funded global civic effort that leverages the learnings of Leaders Expedition. Let’s call this new initiative LeadersX. If we want to change the way the global advertising eco-system works in the next ten to 15 years – and countless equally daunting initiatives like it simultaneously, I believe nothing less will or can work.
Sometime soon, I hope we will move from discussion and imagination to action - to connecting, empowering and mobilizing our uniquely positioned and powerful BoomXer community to transform the world we have made. Until then please reflect, engage and spread the world.
We broke it. Let’s fix it.