Unabashed in its wanderlust, exalting in its monomania, "Brain Surfing The Top Marketing Strategy Minds In the World" by Heather LeFevre is a global journey into an obsession with strategic planners, marketing strategists otherwise known as account planners. LeFevre's journey started "with the role of strategy director in a cool company (StrawberryFrog founded by Karin Drakenberg and Scott Goodson)."
For those unfamiliar with the term strategy director or account planner the definition of this role is someone working inside an ad agency to identify and empathise with the target market and unlock insight that creates value between the consumer, the brand, the category, and culture. The thoughts and observations are construed into a value proposition and make up a document called a Creative Brief that is used to create to inspire advertising campaigns and other marketing communications. There are other parts to this role but you should have the gist.
This is the role LeFevre chose and she did it exceedingly well. Eventually after much important work she chose to sacrifice the position in the agency in order to travel the world and learn more about marketing and life. A natural story teller, she she set off to experience the life she had only researched in ethnographic and anthropological studies in her many marketing assignments, and put them into this compelling book.
LeFevre took up two week apprenticeships on a journey to work with "some of the wisest people building brands today," she says. The twist is she stayed in the homes of her generous coaches with their families benefiting from commute times and weekends to really get to know them and how they do what they do. Similar to how a journeyman would have worked in multiple studios to become a master craftsman in the times of guilds, she treated marketing as a craft.
LeFevre is the book's protagonist, while her cast of supporting characters and situations include being sold at a Chinese marriage market, meeting spies and criminals, eating the world's oddest and most delicious foods, and finding out in the end that all the answers to her life questions were really right in front of her the entire time.
Scott Goodson: Why this book now, I recently asked her?
LeFevre: This is a book for anybody who's ever asked themselves: 'What should I do with my life?' or 'How do I find a mentor?' or 'What should Burger King do next with the Whopper?'
Goodson: What unmet need are you meeting with this new book?
LeFevre: There are a lot of business books that claim to have the answer. But when it comes to business, our problems are so varied that no one model or way of working applies to all scenarios. Off-the-shelf solutions are far less potent than they once were. Moreover, most business people are overwhelmed with their own never-ending list of things to do and a constant onslaught of information. They don't have time to read, let alone separate wheat from chaff when it comes to business advice. This book sets out to do just that by covering an array of ways of working and analyzing their merits. And it's all wrapped in a travelogue that's written in a vibrant, in-the-moment manner that readers thus far have found very enjoyable.
Goodson: What is the main thrust of the book?
LeFevre: While we don't need another model falsely claiming to work in all scenarios, we do need to adapt to a rapidly changing business landscape. This book sets out to show that doing something a little crazy like apprenticing oneself mid-career may just be the sort of thing we all need to do to keep up these days. That's because one person's experience is no longer enough to guarantee success in business. We all know we need new ideas to garner competitive advantage for brands. And new ideas require combining existing information in news ways. The more things we know, the more likely our brains will reward us with novel approaches. And while peering into the minds of others is an obvious way of collecting experiences, in my experience we rarely spend focused time excavating such insight from others. It's the rare biography that deeply penetrates a person's ways of working; most business books and articles rely on a one-hour interview. By contrast, I spent two weeks with each of my coaches and I lived with them in their homes, thus significantly increasing the opportunities to unearth their best stuff. The Brain Surfing reader will not only be primed with a bounty of building blocks, but also inspired to surf more brains more deeply as a way to stay current.
Goodson: How do you know you're right?
LeFevre: Through my work teaching executive master classes with Hyper Island, I've met hundreds of business professionals who are fearful of falling behind on the one hand, and overwhelmed by the effort to keep up on the other. The explosion of webinars and online courses over the past few years furthers my belief that there is a powerful drive to keep learning. Everyone is searching, but it takes a huge amount of work to pursue all the paths of learning.
Goodson: Can you share a few examples?
LeFevre: One great example from the book is a tool buried within Clay Christensen's Jobs to be Done methodology for innovation that I learned while spending time with Brian Millar of Sense Worldwide in London. The tool unpacks what Christensen calls "Progress Making Forces," which are four forces that inhibit and promote the selection of a brand. The push of needing a new solution and the magnetism of novel solutions both draw us toward a brand while the anxiety that a choice won't serve us and our own inertia and habits both inhibit switching. By mapping the state of these four forces for any brand, it becomes immediately clear where a brand ought to focus its efforts.
Another great example is the business model of the consultancy Sticks in Seattle where I worked with founder Kevin May. Kevin utilizes salon sessions to help build his clients' brands and help solve their more intractable problems.
By calling on a few select people from his extensive Sticks' network and hosting several two hours sessions over the course of each project, Sticks solves problems far faster and with more novel approaches. Strategic challenges benefit from diversity of perspective because one person can bring the whole group up to a higher level with a better question. It's a simple philosophy yet so few of us are experimenting with ways of working such as these.
Goodson: Why is this book relevant now?
LeFevre: Most business books are about being smart, not about being wise. Wisdom - having good judgment about a situation - is something that's more than an approach or something you can lift from an HBR listicle. Wisdom requires the breadth of experience and understanding of the human condition to choose the best course of action.
I learned a lot of techniques on my journey, but the most important thing I learned, and in turn my readers learn, is a broad understanding of our accelerated culture. The outcome is an enhanced ability to make better judgment calls about what approach works when. This book is a wisdom booster. That's why I believe we all should be brain surfing.
While I could go on and on about the times we are in, I think what others have to say carries more weight. The book has been out for just a few weeks and I was expecting to have at least a few trolls disapprove. I mean you can't please everyone, right? But that hasn't happened at all. I encourage you to check out the Amazon reviews and tweets/LinkedIn posts people have made spreading the word; business folks both green and seasoned have found the book to be relevant and useful.