Jay Acunzo, a keynote speaker and podcaster, talks about the crucial skills we will be needing in the future, lists 3 Steps to Making Better Decisions, and explains how to translate his approach to everyday life.
Jay Acunzo is a globally touring keynote speaker and author of the book Break the Wheel. He created several original podcast series, including Unthinkable, Exceptions, and he’s the founder of Marketing Showrunners, a media company for creative marketers, with subscribers from Red Bull, Adobe, Salesforce, Shopify, the BBC, Mailchimp, and more.
Jay started his career in 2008 as a digital marketing strategist at Google. Later he worked for HubSpot as head of content, followed by a venture capital firm. He identifies himself as a creator, whether it’s writing, podcasts, videos, speeches, and now also books.
How Can We Break the Mold
Jay’s book, “Break the Wheel”, is a book about making the best possible decisions in your situation, regardless of the best practice. Jay explores what it takes to think for yourself in the face of conventional thinking, through refreshing stories. One of the statements Jay makes is that we, as humans, are wired to follow templates and best practices. But what can we do to break this mold?
“The statement, finding best practices is not the goal. Finding the best approach for you is. And everybody would agree, of course, doing what works best for me, my team, my organization, my career, whatever. Doing the best thing for my situation obviously is the better path than doing what others claim is best in some general sense. Everybody agrees with that.
I think the problem is a lot of us came up through school or early career stops that we had and we were taught that there’s a correct answer for something and that correct answer exists somewhere out there in the world. Somebody smarter than you or the documented history of your company, the conventional wisdom of a certain task or job or industry and that must be smarter than whatever I can do on my own.
And with all due respect to people that came before us because I do think we should learn from them. I disagree. I think the most important thing we can start with is the us. That’s what’s missing, is our specific context. And I liken it to, actually, I’m a writer, but I liken this to a formula in the sciences or math.
If you run a formula and you’re missing key variables or you’re doing a study and you’re missing key variables, you’re running faulty equations, you’re not going to get the best possible outcome. That’s what it’s like when we just follow a best practice or a trend because the key variables that we miss come from our specific situation.
So I’ll give you an example. There’s a coffee company that I profile in the book. They’re called Death Wish Coffee and they claim to have the strongest coffee in the world. And their message is basically ‘we all get one life’. You should pursue your life with passion, stay nice, work hard, pursue your passion with everything you have. And their customers early on were truck drivers and entrepreneurs and construction workers.
People that work really, really hard and believe that I’m going to give my all to everything that I do, no matter what I do. And so these people reached for coffee, like it was an energy drink. They didn’t really want a nice long cup of coffee where you sit down in a coffee shop and write your memoirs. They just wanted a jolt. They wanted the transaction, they wanted the outcome.
Well, Death Wish could have ignored that and they would have created a type of coffee using a bean, a very popular coffee bean called Arabica coffee. But what they did was they ignored probably the single most common rule of coffee, use Arabica beans. They ignored that and they used something that a lot of experts said, don’t use, which is called Robusta coffee. Robusta coffee is stronger and it has higher caffeine content when you roast it. All these things about the best practice said don’t do it, but if you actually look at their specific situation, it makes a lot more sense that they would question the best practice.
So that’s an example of using a variable, using a detail from your own context to then make a better decision regardless of the best practice.”
3 Steps to Making Better Decisions
Did Jay always have this “Breaking the wheel” mindset, or was it an inherent attitude? Or perhaps it was the different positions he filled that made him think, “okay, I need to change the way I work?”
“I wish it was that early on because that was while I was still a student and I worked for ESPN, but when I graduated, my first full-time job was at Google and my whole life I’d done what you were supposed to do. I got good grades. I showed up in class every day. I joined clubs and became the president of the clubs and join teams and became a captain of the teams. I was trying to do what you’re supposed to do to succeed in this path, this idea that people have in their minds for what success looks like.
And here I am getting this job at a company in 2008 which was basically the Mecca of tech. It’s like there’s nowhere else you can go, but Google in 2008 if you want to work for the best tech company with the best talent around you. Maybe that’s changed a little bit since then, but that was it. That was the peak. And I was like, great. I made it. I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. This is a success.
And I wasn’t prepared for what happened next, which was I was incredibly unhappy. I was frustrated with the job. I did not like working for Google. I liked my teammates. I liked some of the perks. I did learn a thing or two, so I don’t regret working there, but this was supposed to be the dream job that I stayed in for 25 years. That was what I thought the path dictated for me. That’s what you were supposed to do. That’s the conventional wisdom. And I was super unhappy and I left and I joined a little startup that nobody has ever heard of. They did not succeed. And yet that job was way more fulfilling, taught me way more and set me on a better path of doing content marketing and being a creator for living in a way that the job at Google never would have.
So I’m looking back at this now and I’m probably 25 at this point and I’m thinking, why was I so unhappy? That’s what you’re supposed to do to succeed. And also why are some of my friends at Google are still at the job and they’re happy. And at first, I was like, how could you, to my friends, I was like, ‘How could you work there? It’s terrible. That job stinks’.
But actually, what I realize now is it doesn’t matter what you do in general and it matters that you find something specific to you and your life or you and your situation. And we’re almost never taught that. We’re were never really told that in school. So that was the crystallizing moment. I wouldn’t say it’s one moment, it probably happened over years, but that’s when I first realized that actually the first step to making a good decision in anything we do is to look harder at three things: yourself, the people you want to serve and then your resources.
And if you look at those three things and you ask really good questions and examine them, then you kind of set up a filter to make better decisions. And had I looked harder at those things in 2008, I probably would look at a company like Google and say it’s great for some people, but it’s just not for me.”
The Must Skills of the Future
Jay’s interesting perspective is relevant to our audience. Designers and marketers, for example, will eventually have to do something similar which is producing content themselves and communicate with an online audience. And this is a certain shift in the way people consider career and how they develop a career, very different than what was common 30 years ago.
“Oh, totally. And I think what you’re speaking to is the amount of choice and the amount of control that people who are doing knowledge-based jobs have. And I’d argue that almost every job is knowledge-based today, but certainly the ones that will be left once technology starts to replace a lot of routine, repetitive jobs, that’s even going to become more important.
So the thing we’re going to be left with, the skill we’re going to need most is creativity. But even more so if you don’t get on board with the idea of creativity, and I can talk to you for another hour about why you should. But I think the thing that everybody should get on board with is that in a world of infinite information, the best skill we can develop is knowing how to vet it. Knowing how to vet possibilities and ideas, that is an incredibly hard skill to develop. That’s what my book is really about. And it equips you to make better decisions faster, which is a skill I think we all want.
For example, if you’re trying to write a blog very simply, what tools should you use? Well, if you start Googling that, you’re going to be overwhelmed right away because everybody is talking about their own tools or tools they’ve used or everybody’s writing a list of 101 tools available.
So if you want technology, if you want knowledge, if you want people to follow or learn from something to entertain you, something to eat. We just have endless choices and options today and that can be really paralyzing and really overwhelming. And so the shortcut for making a decision is the best practice, but all the best practice is a possibility that was vetted by somebody else. And I think it’s far better if we got good at vetting possibilities ourselves.”
Creating an Innovative Content — the Exceptions Podcast
Jay practices what he preaches. We asked him to tell us about the podcast series that he created for Drift:
“I was approached by the tech company Drift and they asked if I would do an original series for them, which is what I did for a living for three years. I was either making money by speaking, public speaking or I would make money by hosting and producing podcasts and video documentaries for brands. And I’ve since switched to teaching that.
So I now run an organization called Marketing Show Runners and we are a media company that teaches brands how to make great shows. But it started with me making those shows, and I still do a little bit today, but exceptions was this chance to kind of go on a journey to understand something that Drift wanted to know and wanting to support in the world. And that I really cared about, which is the increasing number of B2B companies that care a lot about brand and customer experience.
And so we called the series Exceptions because we were going to profile some of the early movers in that space over the last 10 years because they are kind of the exceptions. They’re kind of the outliers, but quickly that’s no longer the case. So the message of this journey was we’re going to go and figure out how they bet on brand and why, what’s making them so special today? Why are they thriving based on brand? And we also want to tell you the listener, you should care about this too.
So yes, the name of the show was Exceptions. We did 20 episodes. It’s this nice contained series we did. But at the end of it all, we tried to rally people to say, you should go become an exception in your industry too. And to your point then we would do some pretty heavy post-production.
So I would go and do usually two interviews, sometimes three. I think like the ideal episode we talked to a customer, which is so rare I think for a company’s podcast. Usually you talk to people at other companies, but we’re talking about brand experience. So we want to talk to the customer on the receiving end. So we’d start by talking to a customer of a company. Then we talked to an executive at that company and then somebody who was on the team.
And so you have three different perspectives on the brand. And then we would segment the show so that every single episode had the same structure to it, the same chapters, and the listener could get familiar with that flow. And every time we would make subtle tweaks to keep it refreshing. So that was the approach. It’s like what do we do first? The concept, let’s explore something meaningful.
Second, the format, let’s divide up the actual content within an episode to make it interesting and enjoyable and entertaining. And then third was, well, okay, who should host this show? Me. Okay. Who, what brands should appear on this show? We came up with a big list and we ended up with 20 so we kind of made those decisions in that order, concept format, and then talent.”
Translating Jay's Approach to My Business
There’s no doubt Jay has created something unique, but many people in our audience probably hear his amazing stories but think to themselves, “Okay, but I’m just a freelancer. I just build websites. How can I translate Jay’s approach to my normal average business that doesn’t do any exceptional out-of-the-ordinary product?
“Yeah. So Merriam Webster, they sell a dictionary and every other dictionary it looks exactly like their a dictionary. They have almost no marketing budget. They have a very, very small team internally and for years and years early on in digital marketing, they were incredibly boring. I mean, it felt like a dictionary gathering dust on a shelf. It was so boring. It would do the same stuff every day on Twitter they’d post, I think that like in the morning they would do a word of the day and then at night they would post a quiz.
And they hired a new chief digital officer, a woman named Lisa Schneider. She’s incredible at what she does and she looked at the boring marketing, the boring content they were putting out, and then she looked at her team and her team was anything but boring. They were incredibly funny, very warm people, very smart people and very clever. They would share all kinds of jokes with each other internally on Slack and they had to keep up with pop culture. In fact, I don’t think a lot of people know this, but the editor of a dictionary is a job called a lexicographer.
And lexicographers they don’t … Lisa told me this, I didn’t realize this, but Lisa told me lexicographers do not create rules for language or rules for defining words. What they do is they chart popular use of words and as more and more people begin to use a word, it becomes a word in the dictionary. And that’s why there’s certain slang words or what starts out as an incorrect use of that word becomes the definition. So what a lexicographer is supposed to be really good at doing is tracking and being part of pop culture.
People don’t realize that because they think of a dictionary as stuffy or they maybe like a teacher of yours that sets rules on their rigid. No, they have to be fluent. They have to be modern. So that’s the job. Their team was also that way naturally. They were witty and wonderful people, but externally they were very boring.
And so what she did was very simply say to the team, not let’s grow our followers on Twitter, not let’s have an editorial strategy meeting. What she said to them was, let’s show the world how fun and relevant we are, and immediately that type of goal, which I have a name for, I’ll reveal it in a second, but that type of goal setting with your team, it focuses you on the behavior change that your people need to achieve something great, not a number, not an outcome, not something you measure. The actual goal was, let’s show the world how fun and relevant we are.
Now, maybe a measure of the goal is follower growth or traffic to the blog. Those are measures of the goal. They’re not the goal themselves. The goal itself was showing the world how fun and relevant they are. Okay. So let’s not call that a goal. Let’s call that an aspirational anchor. It’s this aspirational statement for you and or your team that forces you to insert who you are into the work. You imbue everything you do with who you are as a person and whether you’re a freelancer with no budget and no name or a giant brand, what ends up happening is that forces you to differentiate because you don’t exist in any other scenario.
So just by you bringing your full self to the work and finding ways to do so, you will be different in a way that some other people deeply love. And so that’s the power of an aspirational anchor. It basically combines two different things about your unique situation, some kind of intent that you have for the future. So for like Lisa and her team, it was let’s be part of the conversation and then some kind of hunger that you have. So some dissatisfaction with your current status quo, that could be about your industry, it could be about you and your team and your behavior.
So for Lisa, the hunger was, our voice is too bland. We’re too boring and predictable in our digital marketing. So the outcome of that combination, let’s be part of the conversation, but we’re too boring. So let’s show the world how fun and relevant we are. And today, Merriam Webster’s dictionary is one of the most beloved brands on social media. They’re hysterical. They’re viral. People can’t get enough of their … they’re a dictionary.
Nobody can ever say, ‘My business is too boring or I don’t have the budget’. Because they don’t have a marketing budget and they are a dictionary. They’re collection of words that is the same exact collection as every competitor. Nothing seems more boring than that yet they’ve found a way to differentiate and it comes back to the people.
At Merriam Webster they do something called emoji threads where they basically take similar sounding words and they use an emoji to describe how they’re each different. So when you say all three words sounds exactly the same, there’s three different versions of the word peak. There’s was like P-E-A-K, P-E-E-K, P-I-Q-U-E. And they would put a little emoji next to each and define it. So like that’s a little bit of personality, but they would do bigger things too.
Like they came out a couple of years ago and they declared that the hot dog is a sandwich. They said, here’s the definition of a sandwich. This is what a hot dog is. So we’re declaring today the hot dog is a sandwich. And like people lost their minds, especially in America. It’s like that’s such a part of the holidays that we have here, several holidays, very big. You go outside, you cook and grill and hot dogs are a big part of that. Playing baseball for example. So people have passionate opinions on hot dogs.”