Marketers are always searching for advice that they can apply to their marketing efforts and strategies. Luckily, plenty of people are more than willing to share their expertise, ideas, and “best” practices. Don’t simply emulate them and their words of wisdom. The biggest problem is sameness. Everything is the same, and no one stands out.
Rather than just taking their advice, make it your own, put your spin on it, and do what works best for your business. Today, my guest is Jay Acunzo, founder of Unthinkable Media and author of Break the Wheel. He describes how to push yourself to ask the right questions and make the right decisions when surrounded by conventional thinking.
Eric: Marketers, we are living in a world that is flooded with advice, ideas, and experts who are wanting to share their “best” practices. We’re tuning into our favorite marketing blogs or publications, where we’d be listening to our favorite podcast like this one in search of good content and advice that we can use and apply for our marketing efforts and strategies.
But our next guest says, Hmm, maybe what we should do instead is do what works best for us. The mistake that we make is we simply take and glean this advice, and instead of making them uniquely our own, putting our own spin on them, and making them work for our business, we simply emulate them; which leads to this endless cycle of stale approaches and all these training tactics that are, in other words, just holding us back from the creativity within ourselves. What we need to do is "break the wheel".
That is the name of my next guest’s book. It’s called Break the Wheel. He’s the founder of Unthinkable Media and his name is Jay Acunzo. Salesforce refers to him as a creativity savant and he is, in fact, a great guest on today’s show. So much insight because we have to figure a way, when we’re surrounded by conventional thinking, to really push ourselves. What questions can we ask ourselves to start making the best possible decisions, regardless of what best practices may tell us.
He says noise isn’t the problem. We talk about all the noise in the industry and trying to break through the clutter. The biggest problem is sameness. Everything is the same, pushing the same advice and so no one truly stands out. How do you? All coming up on today’s episode. My name is Eric Piela. I’m the host of the Actionable Marketing Podcast, and Brand and Buzz Manager here at CoSchedule. I can’t wait to introduce you to Jay. Let’s jump into the show because it’s time to get AMP'ed.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to another episode of the Actionable Marketing Podcast. I’m your host, Eric Piela, here with CoSchedule. Of course, on the show today, we have Jay Acunzo. He’s the founder of Unthinkable Media and the author of the book, Break the Wheel. Jay, welcome to the show.
Jay: Thanks for having me on.
Eric: Absolutely. This is great. I know we haven’t a chance to meet in person. We connected for a couple of minutes before the show, but I’m a big fan of the book. I love the thought around Break the Wheel. I’ve got to be honest with you. You know a lot of the best practices and we sure are guilty of that sometimes in our podcast about trying to pull away some of the best practices for our listeners.
I’m really excited to have you talk through some of the main concepts behind your really cool ground-breaking book. Before we do that, Jay, I just would love it if our listeners got to you a little bit. If you could just share your journey in marketing and creative.
Jay: I did not want to be in marketing. I didn’t even know content marketing was a thing. In fact, I may have joined the field before it really had [...], but I wanted to be a sports journalist. When I was a kid, I was always writing cartoon strips and I like to just write for fun, which is a little bit masochistic when you’re a student. I was a runner and a writer. I did the things willingly that other people viewed as punishments. I always enjoyed it, though.
I grew up writing, grew up creating things, and my career is really the story of side projects. I’ve been fortunate to work for some reputable organizations like Google, HubSpot, and a great venture capital firm called NextView, but really all the while I was creating things on the side from blogs about sports, to blogs about marketing, to podcast about creativity at work, which is now a whole business which is such as crazy, weird thing to have happen to you.
I created a community group. There are two stories of my career. The one that LinkedIn would tell would be about the logos that I’ve worked for. The real story in my career is just liking the process of making stuff and not caring if anybody consumes it, but learning through the process of tinkering. Instead of searching for the muse, it’s a lot more effective just to put out a lot of bad work and you’ll get better a lot faster. You’ll find your inspiration and your answers a lot quicker, too.
There’s this parallel track that I have that most people don’t see, of me just putting out a lot of work, some of which dies in the vines, some of which is read and consumed, which I’m thankful for. I could walk you through the logos but that’s super boring. Honestly, if we were to sum up my career, I like to make things that make me feel and make other people feel, too. I just so happened to be doing that in a business context instead of for a traditional media or publisher.
Eric: I love that perspective. Well said. Sounds like some great organizations you’ve been with. I love the idea of just putting your work out there. The enemy of perfection, sometimes, and just start to create. I love that. I love the approach of doing so. I’m going to ask, where are you from, Jay? Are you on the East Coast?
Jay: I grew up in Southern Connecticut, which is an area that I lovingly referred to as “NewYorkachusetts,” because it doesn’t really have its own identity. I grew up with just as many Red Sox fan friends as Yankee fans; I’m a Yankees fan. I’m so glad that I moved to Boston to work for Google as a Digital Media Strategist, where I’m basically trying to help marketing executives and their agencies move into the digital age quicker and with more clarity. I was hooked on tech from that moment on.
I really worked in the tech industry from startups that were small and no one’s heard of, to large companies, to an investment firm that invested startups. It’s always been about tech and creativity to me but it didn’t started that way. I grew up in Southern Connecticut thinking maybe I could be a sports writer. I love the Yankees. Let me move to New York or Boston and see where it takes me.
Eric: Originally, I was born in West Springfield, Mass. I was hoping we’ll be able to jive on some Celtics and some Red Sox, but it’s okay. We’ll let you slide with the Yankee fandom. Do you do any sports writing on the side?
Jay: Speaking of side projects, when I moved to Boston, Google is a great place to work, or was anyway. It’s been years since I’ve been there so I can’t really comment firsthand. I like the brand. How can you not? I like the perks. Again, how can you not? The people were awesome, smartest people that I’ve ever worked with altogether in one room.
But I hated the job with a burning passion. I just hated working for Google. Not because of Google but because it wasn’t a fit for me, which was a huge realization. My brain was not prepared for that reality because I was one of those students that took all the honors classes and got good grades, joined the clubs and then led the clubs, and joined the sports and became captain of the sports teams.
I was trying to follow the prescribed path because it’s what you’re “supposed to do,” then I got the job you’re supposed to get and I hated it. Again, my brain wasn’t prepared for that. Actually, I think that was the big realization the eventually led me to write the book.
When I moved to Boston, I was working for a company that I was supposed to like and hated it. I was kind of thrashing and I thought, “Why don’t I just start a blog for fun? Just to have some kind of outlet during my day, nights, and weekend, to scratch a creative itch for no reason other than I wanted to do it. I called that blog Cranky Yankee Fan because I was a Yankees fan living in Boston and I wrote all about a very niche topic. Although there’s a lot of people that care about it, if you’re not in this crowd, you really don’t care. I wrote about the rivalry between the Red Sox and the Yankees, and the experience of being a Yankees fan in Boston.
It was so weird to me that every job I held after Google, they wanted to talk to me more about that sports blog in the interview process than any of my accomplishments at Google. It was actually the same thing at Google. I had a prior sports blog called All Star Blog that nobody read when I was in college.
Google glanced at the resume and it’s like, “Yup, you check all the boxes, here’s all the table stakes stuff, but tell me more about All Star Blog. Why do you do it? Where do you find the time? What technology did you use? How did you design the logo? How did you get readership?” I had directors at Google asking me strategic questions about a blog that my mom and her friends read. I was just shown how broken it is, that we think expertise and just checking a bunch of boxes makes for a great career. That’s just not the case.
Eric: I love that. It’s those passion projects that set the precedent and set people above other individuals that pour their heart into something like that. Obviously, it was noticed. If those are archived, I love to have a listen just to have a glimpse into that. I know that a lot of those experiences culminated—this is my assumption—into your learnings from that time into the book which I want to talk about today on our episode, which is Break the Wheel.
I don’t want to steal your thunder but a lot of the premise around is, everyone is looking for best practices. They’re looking for guidance because potentially, they’re afraid what to do. They think they listen to the thought leaders and then they’ll do what they do. But in that approach, there’s really no innovation and you’re not thinking about what’s the best approach for yourself.
If I summarized that wrong, please correct me. What led to writing this book and what was the message you really wanted to hone in when you went to publish it?
Jay: Here’s a question. Why did you thank me for coming on the show as soon as you hit record, when you also thanked me for coming on the show before we hit record?
Eric: I wanted my listeners to know that I was appreciative of your time, Jay, and that you’re giving your time to talk to them, too.
Jay: How might I respond to that question? If you say, “Thank you,” might response is of course, “You’re welcome,” right? There’s literally nothing else you could say. What ends up happening is every podcast in marketing starts with, “Hey, thanks for coming on the program,” and somebody says, “Oh, thanks for having me,” or , “It’s great to be here,” or, “I appreciate the time,” It’s a very rote way of opening a podcast. But in reality, if you look at what a podcast opening is for, it’s to grip the listeners. It’s to give them confidence that, “Okay, this is a good time investment and I should continue.” If we try to do that, we usually default as host to saying, “Hey, we’ve got a great guest,” or, “We’ve got a great show.” Of course you do. You would try out a terrible show and then admit it? No.
There’s all these things we do, sometimes just because reasons and sometimes because we haven’t stop to think, “Well, what is this for?” Our careers, our work, whether you’re looking at the individual level or the team level, is for generating results. It’s for serving the audience. It’s for being fulfilled. I think everybody would get on board with that idea. In other words, finding best practices in and of itself is not the goal. Finding the best approach for you is. But we’ve never been really taught how to do that.
What I’d be curious to know is, what is Eric’s best podcast episode opening? Not a podcast opening, not the general podcast opening, but your specific, unique, unfair advantage, the way you are, what CoSchedule cares about, how could you open an episode where nobody else could do it that way? If I wanted to know how “one,” how someone opens a marketing podcast, I could find that information in an instant. But so can everybody else. What we don’t really have a system for is finding the best approach for us.
Partially because I got sick of it myself as a marketing practitioner, partially because I just saw such average commodity stuff swirling around the industry, I wanted to write a book about, “Could we put a decision-making system in place, where we could contextualize any idea or any best practice, to know if it would work for us and to what degree?”
What I did is before I wrote the book, I spent 2½ years creating stories on my podcast Unthinkable. The stories had all the same underpinning thread which was, all these people did something, that from the outside looking in seemed unthinkable, seemed crazy, but when you spoke to them and told their story, they could very clearly tell you why what they did was very practical and strategic.
I was like, “Huh, interesting.” What’s the difference between what we thought was true and what they’ve told me was true? It was context. They didn’t have innovation plastered on their forehead everywhere and they didn’t have some guru give them the muse or the idea, or they didn’t go look for best practices, or adopt the new technology. They just make decisions based on their context, they found a system not to find the best practice but to find the right approach for them, the best approach for them. I wanted to see, could I put a system in place and write a book about that topic, so we can push ourselves beyond commodity work and do something exceptional instead?
Eric: That’s really interesting and I think it’s really a challenge if we’re being honest. People have become so accustomed to taking to advice and adhering to advice, and I think there’s an opportunity to look at advice in maybe a different way, is what you’re saying. Like understanding what the realm of possibilities are but then figuring out what is the right, appropriate approach for your context. Is that close?
Jay: What’s the ideal number of words for your blog post that you’re writing tomorrow morning? The real answer is, it depends. Here’s a laundry list of variables that I would need to know first to be able to accurately say, “Maybe it’s this word count.”
Unfortunately, what we tried to do is get a very false sense of precision by looking at what works on average or what works in general as the answer. But there’s a bunch of problems with that. Number one is, we don’t want to be average. So, why are we copying the mean? Number two is, we don’t operate in a generality. There are some very crucial and concrete details—variables, if you will—in our situation that doesn’t exist in the expert situation when they advise you to do it their way.
I think the better starting point is to understand your specific situation first and use that as a decision-making filter to find clarity. It doesn’t matter if you go with what’s the best practice in general, or invent something entirely new, or probably most often, somewhere in between. Borrowing a piece from your own situation and a piece from what’s proven to work elsewhere.
Since we were brought up in school really, we’ve been taught there’s a right and a wrong answer. We keep approaching very creative and complex tasks in marketing the same way, when the real answer is, it depends. So, what does it depend on? Your context. Maybe we should start there.
Eric: For our listeners, Jay, how do we go about taking these steps? You’ve talked about in the book, there’s six fundamental questions that you should ask. I think there’s a [...] of thinking a little bit to purposefully understand and think from that perspective. What are these questions or how do we start approaching opportunities with this lens?
Jay: To understand how to operate in a way that is more contextualized to our environment, we first have to understand a little bit more about a fish called the pike. Do you fish much, Eric? I don’t fish at all.
Eric: I’m here in Fargo, North Dakota. When I fish, I’m typically ice fishing in about a foot of ice. Not much but a little; but I want to here your story.
Jay: Sure. There’s a psychological barrier to making decisions with clarity, based on our situation and instead of a generality, and that barrier is called Pike Syndrome. It’s really called learned helplessness. It has to do with the story of a pike swimming around an aquarium and a group of scientists that experimented on him. What the scientists would do is they would drop some minnows into the tank. Immediately, as you’d suspect, the pike which is a predator fish would eat the minnows as soon as they drop them in.
Then the scientists started lowering the minnows into the tank surrounded by some glass. What would happen is the pike would repeatedly smash into the glass in a failed pursuit of his prey. He would do this for sometimes hours until he trained himself that he couldn’t eat minnows. Then the scientists would remove the glass and those minnows would swim all around the tank undisturbed by the pike. The problem here is tasty little morsels were swimming right in front of this fish’s nose but he wouldn’t budge so much as an inch.
That again explains learned helplessness, which is how I think we’ve been brought up. We believe that the answer, the smartest path forward, the thing we’re supposed to do, is out there in some ephemeral sense. It’s the expert, it’s the past president, it’s the guru, it’s the latest trend. But tasty little morsels of detail are swimming right in front of our noses, about our context.
There’s only three different different parts of your context that are present in every situation. Three little minnows, if you will. Number one is you. There’s yourself, your team, whoever is doing the work. That is one variable in your context. Arguably, it’s the most important because it literally doesn’t exist for anybody else. The second piece of your context is your customer, your audience, whoever the work is for. If you’re pitching a client, it’s your client. If you have to go through a boss who’s a real stickler, maybe to give you permission to do everything, then it’s your boss. Who is the work for? And the third piece of your context is your resources. In other words, your means to make the work happen.
So, how do we make better decisions? We have to ask the right questions about those three things. But I want to start with that understanding of why we don’t do that, Eric, is because we’ve been trained over the years that we should look for the smarts, we should look for the answers out there in some sort of sophisticated fashion. Reality’s a lot messier and a lot more simple. There’s stuff in front of you. That stuff is messy but you can make it simple if you look for not answers but questions you can ask of your context.
That’s the system in the book. It’s not a list of steps, not a blueprint. It’s a list of questions that we could all ask ourselves.
Eric: I love that. Maybe that’s why I don’t ever catch fish when I go ice fishing. Those tasty morsels right there. But it’s great. I think it’s a really interesting practice in asking those question. I think at by even looking at my career at CoSchedule, a lot of the times it’s like when we get a new intern. They’re asking for processes and things, and you serve up, “Here’s how it’s been done,” and there’s never this opportunity to say, “Well, what’s my context? What is my opportunity here? Who am I serving? What resources do I have? And how can I do this a bit differently?”
Are people lazy or are they taking a shortcut? Or is it that training? Or maybe it’s the safe choice, is it, Jay? I mean, like, “Hey, someone else who’s really smart did this, so then I’m going to do that, too. This work for a lot of other people. I don’t know why it didn’t work for us.” What do you see is the reason why people are rejecting this? Is it an ignorance? They just don’t realize you’re not doing it? Or are there other explanations about why we’re just leaning towards the best practices and the advice option?
Jay: There’s four causes to this. There’s one cause I didn’t explore in the book at all because this book is not for that person, and that is I don’t care about the work, I don’t care about how good it is or how bad it is, I just don’t want to get fired, or I just want to get home at five and not think about work ever again.
If you’re someone who either hates your and doesn’t care about doing better, doesn’t care about personal improvement or team improvement, doesn’t care about serving the audience, you don’t get fulfillment at all from your work, this book is not for you. This is fundamentally a book about people who are bothered by commodity average work. I didn’t explore that at all. I didn’t solve that or speak to them at all because it’s fundamentally not a book for them.
But there are three other total causes of why we act like that. I don’t think it’s necessarily laziness. I think we all admit, we love to do great work. I mentioned pike syndrome, learned helplessness, that’s one. There’s two more psychological barriers. One is something called the foraging choice. There is a study out of NYU that looked at critical decisions under duress by human beings and how they resemble animals when foraging. We tend to group decisions into two different categories. Two different foraging choices we could make, A or B. A would be, we’re going to stay put and continue to raid the tree that we’re in, or B is we’re going to go exploring.
Really, what you’re doing when you make a foraging choice and when you make a lot of choices in business, you do this, too. When you’re stressed out, when the screws are turning, and the pressure’s mounting, you can either exploit your current position—that’s where marketers tend to stay; we beat things to death—or you can go explore uncharted territory or something new that you could try.
The solution to doing this is typically a boss that says, “Let’s grow our followers this percent month over month.” That tends to actually promote more exploitation because people get nervous when it’s a stretch goal, when it’s a metric-based goal, people get really stressed out and they tend to exploit. That’s what the study found.
In the book, I talked about something called aspirational anchors, which is more of a personal- or team-based mission statement. Instead of articulating what you want to achieve, it articulates what behavior you’d like to change.
An aspirational anchor wouldn’t be grow the followers 50%. It would be show the world how fun and relevant we are as a team. That would improve your blog or improve your social media presence, which would then as a by-product, grow your followers. An aspirational anchor is just the combination of your intent for the future and some kind of dissatisfaction with your behavior today. The only solution, the only way to go after that aspiration, is to go exploring. So, make a better foraging choice.
If pike syndrome is learned helplessness, that’s the first reason we don’t make decisions at work, the second is the foraging choice, which is our decision to exploit instead of going exploring. Really quickly, the third one is something called cultural fluency, which is just that’s how we’ve done it for years, or that’s what we do around here. We don’t know why but that’s just how we operate.
There’s another solution that we can deploy there, too, which is to ask open-ended questions. Because open-ended questions have no right answer, it’s the willingness to say, “I don’t know, yet.” The question, “Why?” is a really simple example of an open-ended question or what I call a trigger question, which just launches your investigation into your context. “What should we do? How many blog posts should we write?” “I don’t know the answer, yet.” “What should we write about?” “I don’t know the answer, yet. I have to go explore. I have to go talk to customers. I have to go look at our team, see what they love, and what’s their style.” “Maybe they are better at a podcast or a video than writing.” “I don’t know. There’s all these variables that I have to go and explore.” “Okay, well, this is how we’ve done it for years. Should we keep doing that? Should be change? Should I listen to that guru or glum on to the trend?” “I don’t know, yet, but I’m going to go figure it out.”
Asking open-ended questions turns you from this professed expert who has the answer into more of an investigator who knows how to go figure it out. Those are the three reasons, were either learned over time to be helpless, or we exploit where we’re at instead of going exploring, or we don’t know why we’re doing it this way. It’s just how we do things around here.
Eric: Those are great. I’m loving the conversation if I’m being candid. Sometimes in our podcasts, we can get very technical with tools. The fundamentals of how we’re making our decisions and the tactics that we’re maybe choosing to use is sort of the why. The big question, why are we doing this and how we go about doing this. I’m loving this conversation.
When you do keynotes, I’m assuming you deliver some of the content on this. Is this one of those things that you could push back from leadership? If I’m a marketing practitioner and I’m listening on the podcast right now, I’m like, “I’m not sure of doing these things.” Does it takes some level setting or explanation before? Are you getting any push back when you’re keynoting from the audience in terms of putting this vision into practice at all?
Jay: I don’t get push back from, you mentioned leaders, in particular. I don’t get push back from leaders because this book is about moving not from zero to five but from five to ten. Moving from everybody’s doing it this way, or we’re stagnant and stuck here, or we kind of understand that information of how-to stuff—it’s all commodified today—but now we’re looking at the, what’s the missing ingredient to be exceptional instead of average? How can we unleash our best selves in a way our competitors can’t? Or how can we serve the customer better than anybody else is currently doing?
All of these things line up with what an executive wants or good executive, anyway, which is they want to serve the customer better, they want the team to do better work, and the by-product of all that is you get better results.
At the end of the day, what I’m trying to help people do is set up kind of a mental heuristic of making decisions, when you’re surrounded by too much information, faster and with more clarity. When people walk away from the speech or when they walk away from the book, that’s the feeling they have. It’s like, “Wow, I actually know now how I need to act.”
An event is a good example of something that’s very well-meaning but creates a lot of problems. When you go to an event and there’s 17 different tracks and 150 speakers, or even if there’s 10 total speakers, you’re still going back to work and you have to enact all this information or decide what to keep and what not to.
I’m a nice complement to all of that stuff because I want people to understand quickly and with confidence. “Okay, Eric is one of the smartest marketers I know. I actually disagree with 50% of what he’s saying right now even though it sound strategic because in our shoes, that 50% makes no sense. But good news, the other 50% makes a ton of sense. Or I’m going to disagree with him wholesale, 0% of what he said applies to us. Or here’s a new idea that I have. I can actually press it through this decision-making filter and I know it’s going to make sense of us.” Leaders love this message because it’s about speed, it’s about practical execution, and it’s about outpacing both the competition and also the expectations the customers have.
Eric: That’s good. I appreciate the insights there. Jay, probably wrapping up here, if there is someone listening right now and figuring like, “Yes, I want to get my hands on this book,” where can they go to get it? I’m assuming it’s on Amazon, easy to snag. Any other resources you’d love to point them to, Jay?
Jay: It’s on Amazon. I didn’t mention, though, it’s a bunch of stories and the six questions that we teased out from that, that can help us again make that decision faster with more clarity. The best work I do is probably, right now, under the Unthinkable Media umbrella. I wrote the book, I’m super proud of that, that’s a big stake in the ground, and now it’s left me with all of these questions and all these things I want to go deeper on.
People can go over to unthinkablemedia.com/subscribe. I send out a newsletter with a new big idea in every edition and a round-up of resources, specifically for content marketers. It’s unthinkablemedia.com/subscribe.
Eric: Love it. I know I’ll be subscribing. Listeners, I hope you do, too. Jay, I’m going to say it again. Thanks so much for going on the show. Wonderful insights. This is good. This was really refreshing. I appreciate your time today. I hope all the listeners enjoyed and we’ll rush out and grab a copy of the book, too. Jay, I wish the Yankees no success but I wish you the best of success, sir.
Jay: I appreciate it. To everybody else, the word refreshing comes to mind, like here’s hoping everybody can find a way to do their version of whatever refreshing work is to you, because again, finding best practices is not the goal. Finding the best approach for you, absolutely is.
Eric: Love it. Thanks, Jay. Take care.