in good company // issue no. 14 // john ounpuu
Most professionals who work in an agency exude this electric, how ya doin, have-you-seen-my-work type of personality. Their all about the awards, the showcase, the thrill of poaching and winning clients. I should know, because I've been there. Twice.
John however, is a little more subtle than that. He's the strong silent type, and no that isn't an insult. It's probably one of the best qualities he has, aside from his talent. That talent is strategy and he has the chops to prove it. His resume is remarkable but his work is even more impressive, because I am lucky to have been on the receiving end as both a colleague at Blast Radius and as a potential client when I was with Browns Restaurant Group. This guy knows his shit, but he's as humble as humble pie.
I do need to mention that this was not John's chosen career path and like many of us, he 'fell' into strategy and content. Once living the dream as a musician sporting very Neil Gallagher/Oasis hair, that career ended leaving room for something completely different. Unexpected, yet perfect for him. And a few years ago, he took the leap and formed Modern Craft. so naturally, the rest is history.
I love getting inside the head of people like John and geeking out because I constantly leave the conversation far more informed and inspired than when we started. He's a wealth of information, but someone who is open to learning more. He's thoughtful and strategic in his approach and all around, just a nice guy. I'm beyond thrilled to interview him for my hobby-of-a-blog because even reading his answers I continue to learn from him!
I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did. There's some fascinating insight on the constantly changing world of marketing and digital you might want to take notes on.
When did you get started in marketing/strategy and what was it that interested you about it?
I started my career late, as a professional musician and had some moderate success there.
Below is some evidence:
I had no solid career plan when the music career ended but I had a degree in English Literature and I felt like I was a decent writer, so, I got into marketing that way—writing copy. At the beginning, most of my work was for B2B clients in the tech sector and I had some contacts there. The first dot com boom was underway, so it was an exciting time.
As much as I enjoyed the work, I had a tendency to question the brief. To ask: “why am I writing this and not something else?" or even “why am I writing anything? Why not choose another approach?”.
Eventually I got a writing job at Blast Radius, a digital agency located in Vancouver, BC. I started writing about strategy because that was the core of what they did for their clients. Right away, this was a lot more interesting to write about than B2B software and after I was writing about it for a while, I decided that I wanted to actually to do it for a job. For some reason, I had the crazy idea that I might even by good at it! So, I made this my mission and, eventually, it happened... I somehow convinced them to give me a shot. That was about 12 years ago, and I have been doing strategy consulting ever since.
You spent a great deal of time at BR, honing your craft (no pun intended), allowing you to work on some large global brands like Nike, Starbucks, Microsoft and Lululemon. Tell me one of the biggest impacts working at BR had on your career? Also, how do you feel the company changed post-WPP acquisition?
I was tremendously lucky to land at Blast Radius when I did. To have the opportunity to work on those amazing, high-profile accounts at such an interesting time, when we were all still figuring out what marketing would become in the digital age. And to work with brands like that while staying in Vancouver was such a rare thing. The best part of all was working and learning alongside an amazingly talented group of people who all really cared about doing the best work possible. I didn’t realize how rare all of this was at the time.
As for the acquisition and what happened after … the company definitely went through some major changes over the years. In all honesty, acquisitions can be rough, so let’s just say I’m glad to be in charge of my own destiny these days.
How do you feel the marketing landscape is shaping up to be these days? Do you feel like it’s becoming more important than ever or less relevant for companies to invest in this business area?
Marketing is going through a huge period of tremendous change and uncertainty right now. There’s a lot of disagreement about what is working and what isn’t. There are camps forming. Specialists. Factions. Debate can be quite polarized … much like the world at large, really. At the same time, the boundaries around what marketing is and isn’t are also blurring and the demands being placed on marketing leaders are rising.
As a result, it’s harder than ever to chart the right path forward. From a CEO or CFO’s perspective, all of this feels risky, so maybe cutting spend feels like a good choice. But standing still and doing nothing is just not an option and it’s also easier than ever to fall behind and lose relevance. Ultimately, a continued investment in marketing is crucial. The trick comes down to making better choices and placing better bets. In other words, making sure your strategy is strong.
In a world that is so digitally focused, where people are glued to their devices and companies are spending millions of dollars on digital advertising, what are your thoughts on this medium? Do you think digital is slowly dying or is it just getting started?
Great question! Honestly, I think the label of “digital” has grown very problematic. It used to be much more useful—a way to call attention to a bunch of changes that were happening and remind brands to pay attention and not to just fall back on the old ways. But I don’t think anyone needs convincing of that any more. “Digital" is not a really a medium any longer. It’s just how we all live, therefore the label is less useful. To me, it’s less about doing digital marketing and more about doing marketing in a largely digital world.
I actually think the habit of thinking of “digital” as a medium is actually a major cause of the confusion and uncertainty I spoke about in response to your previous question. You mention “digital advertising”. That phrase has actually come to refer to a style of advertising that could more accurately be called “targeted direct response”. This is a very narrow view of what can be done to connect with customers through digital touch points.
So, what’s going to happen next? I think the growth in direct response digital advertising we’ve seen in recent years will slow down considerably as marketing leaders come to their senses about the risks and limitations of this approach (ad fraud, wasted spend, ad blockers, brand safety concerns etc.) and begin to widen their digital thinking to encompass the whole customer experience, not just acquisition tactics.
What inspired you to take the leap and go out on your own, forming Modern Craft?
I’d say it was a mixture of pragmatism, idealism and opportunism.
Pragmatism: it was clear that the agency I was working at was largely moving out of Vancouver and my future there, barring a move to a different city, was uncertain. It was also clear that I had been extremely lucky to do the kind of work I had been doing in a city that’s not a major centre for the agency business. Therefore, if I wanted to stay there I would probably have to create the job I wanted.
Idealism: I had been thinking a lot about where marketing was going and where the opportunity might lie to build something new. In talking about this with some smart friends, we had some idealistic ideas about how somebody might build something different from the typical agency model and better equipped to help modern clients. Starting Modern Craft was a chance to put this idealistic idea to the test.
Opportunism: Two of my most brilliant colleagues were open to teaming up and joining forces. This sounded way more fun (and much less frightening) than going it alone.
Where did the company name come from? What was your inspiration?
To me, the word “craft” speaks to a mixture of art and utility, creativity and pragmatism. And also, a certain timelessness. “Modern” is kind of the opposite. It speaks to the backdrop of constant change and the need to keep pace. So … another option might have been “timeless and timely”, but that doesn’t sound as cool!
Also, I like the name because it reminds me of a great David Bowie song:)
Modern Craft was founded because you all saw a 'growing need for unbiased advice on unifying and optimizing the full marketing engine'. What is one of the biggest mistakes you see companies make when it comes to their 'full marketing engine' or lack thereof?
There are three big mistakes that are easy to make. Or let’s call them pitfalls. The first is about chasing shiny new tactics or technology in an effort to stay current—and forgetting about strategy in the process. It turns out that a strong strategy is actually a very useful thing to have when you’re navigating your way through complexity. And without a strong strategy, your new technology and tactics can easily end up falling flat and failing to deliver on the dream. You can very easily end up pissing off your customers, too.
That brings us to the second pitfall … losing sight of your customer. Customer-centricity is easy to say but hard to do, especially when you’re facing down an aggressive acquisition target. But forgetting about the human beings on the other end of all that marketing is never a good thing.
The third pitfall... is about changing your strategy and your tactics without changing the internal working of the marketing department. You can’t change what you do without changing how you do it— who’s on your team, how those teams are structured and measured, the processes that govern their work. It just doesn’t work.
How do you and your team work together so that you deliver the best results your clients are after?
It’s really a very bespoke way of working. No two clients have the same problems or the same challenges. We spend a lot of time diagnosing the problem before jumping to solutions. And as we’re doing this diagnosis, we zoom out and look at the full picture and how all of the pieces fit together. We ask ourselves: how does the whole system function? What are the root causes of these challenges?
If we’re looking for a point to anchor our enquiries, that’s actually pretty easy whatever the business is: we just ask “how does this feel from a customer’s point-of-view?”.
The other thing that sets us apart from some others, especially in the agency world, is that we’re not trying use our consulting work to sell execution. We’re not biased by a biz dev agenda. We get paid to solve problems.
How do you guide clients in the right direction, given the fast pace of how marketing moves?
Well, we help them tune out distractions and focus on what counts. When things are moving fast, that’s very important. We help them shape a very clear picture of where they want to be, so they can move quickly without drifting off track.
Also, much of our work these days is focused on the marketing org and marketing operations. We’re helping our clients build stronger capabilities internally. And one area where we focus this work is on speed of responsiveness—helping them become more nimble and adaptable to ongoing change.
In your experience what truly makes a great customer experience?
The formula here is not actually that complicated. It’s the execution that gets complicated. The qualities that make a great customer experience are all pretty intuitive and common sense if you think about them in human terms. Pay attention to me. Acknowledge me as a human being, not a target or a prospect. Behave consistently over time. Think about my best interests. Put them ahead of your own whenever you can (within reason). Be fair, not manipulative. Be honest. Keep your promises. Cut the bullshit. Be generous. Take responsibility for your actions. Show your appreciation. Keep this up over time—don’t make it feel like you’re dropping the act once you’ve got my money.
Everyone has failed at some point in their life (me included). What was one thing you failed at (according to you) and what did you learn from it?
Oh god. I’ve failed more times than I can count. One example comes to mind, because the lesson directly impacts the way we work at Modern Craft today. Early in my agency days I would pour all of my creative energy into these decks full of ideas and recommendations that I believed were just perfect. If the client would just adopt my advice, I was convinced that their problems would disappear and success would be theirs. Then, when this didn’t happen I would blame them. Our ideas were perfect, the were too blind to see it. Their loss.
Eventually I realized that, first off, this was pretty damn arrogant. You have to be confident to give this kind of advice, but you also have to be humble.
And beyond that, my attitude showed some real cluelessness on my part. A lack of understanding regarding all the complex forces that have to fall in place within a marketing organization for some action to occur. Especially if that action involves changing the way things work. Funding, executive buy-in, people, processes, capabilities, inter-departmental alignment, alignment on multiple levels etc.
These days, I walk the line between confidence and humility very carefully. We always zoom out to take in all the dimensions of the problem and all the barriers that stand in the way of execution. We approach our clients with empathy and patience and never underestimate the difficultly of what we’re trying to help them accomplish. We want them to think of us as a true partner. We want to solve the problem alongside them, not give them lofty advice from on high.
In my years of marketing, it's amazing how little focus and attention a company places on truly defining their brand and strategy. Do you agree and if so, why do you think this is? I find every marketers perspective is different.
I know what you mean. I’m a strategist and a big believer in the power of brands. But not everyone sees the world that way. I think most of my career has been all about addressing this absence.
As to why this is the case … well, there are multiple reasons, I think. Training and education are in the mix there. People come to marketing in different ways, along different paths. I certainly did. So not every marketer is lucky enough to be grounded in a clear picture of what good strategy looks like, how to create one and how to use one. Or how brands function and what role a strong brand strategy should play.
Some of it is related to category conventions. Some categories run a very standard playbook without much variation, so strategy seems less necessary. But I think a lot of it depends how you get into the field and what path you take. This has long been the case, but it’s even more true to today, with so many marketers coming up through specialized roles that look at marketing through a somewhat narrow, tactical lens. Search experts. Social experts. Email experts. That sort of thing.
I think there’s also a sense, in today’s very fast-paced business environment, that strategy is time-consuming. Too much like naval-gazing. Too removed from action. It’s too bad, because I believe the truth is actually the exact opposite. As I mentioned already, if you’re moving fast it’s even more important to know where you’re going and stay on course.
Where do you see Modern Craft in 5, 10 years?
Well, it’s hard to say what the marketing landscape will look like that far out, but I hope we’re still helping our clients navigate it. Acting as the voice of reason, helping them steer clear of distractions and focus on customers. From a business perspective, I would hope to see some growth, some expansion in our capabilities. In the types of problems we can help our clients solve. Maybe a few new offices in different cities if it makes sense. Happy employees, happy customers, fresh challenges. Achieving those things without giving up on the principles and beliefs that we hold dear.
If Modern Craft could have their pick of the litter, what would be the one company you'd love to sign on as a client and why?
That’s a tough one. The truth is, the ideal client is very hard to recognize from the outside. There are brands I like, personally. Brands that are cool and sexy. But they could turn out to be a terrible fit for us. I love working with organizations with positive intentions and a strong culture. Not too mercenary or too driven by the short-term bottom line. Organizations who care about their customers. With leadership who recognize the need to make changes and are ready to invest in doing so. Teams of smart, talented people who are ready to open up and collaborate.
Of course, discounts on products I like are also great. So maybe something in the world of musical gear or menswear. ;)
In your opinion, what is still the best type of marketing out there that often results in the best ROI?
I don’t think there’s a single answer here. The right path will vary greatly from brand to brand, even in the same category. Every business is unique, with its own set of challenges and strengths. That said, I do believe that the most successful brands will build on a foundation that mixes careful balance, customer-centricity and courage.
When I talk about balance I am talking about how you weigh the short term against the long term, brand building against demand generation, creativity against business savvy, art against science.
When I say customer-centricity, I am thinking about a holistic view of the customer experience and how all of the pieces add up—beyond messaging and communications, grounded not just in what the business wants but in what customers really need and value.
And when I talk about courage, I mean finding the bravery to stick your neck out and stand for something. To break away from the conventional.
How do you balance family/work life, since founding Modern Craft? I can imagine its quite the juggling act.
It can be, at times. Yes. But it’s honestly not that much more demanding than my years in the agency world, to be honest. I find it’s actually much less stressful to have some control over your world, despite the extra headaches and anxiety that come with the added responsibility. I am also very lucky in that my business partners are extremely capable and have a whole handful of strengths that I don’t.
What do you love to do in your spare time?
I still love to write, record and play music—alone and with friends. Here’s something some friends and I did recently.
I'm a big believer in 'ah-ha' moments, that timing is everything and things happen for a reason. What has been your biggest ah-ha moment in life (career or personal)?
When I landed at Blast Radius in 2004, I was still really finding my feet. I’d worked full-time doing music for 5 years and when that ended, there was this feeling of … what am I now? What’s my identity? Then I discovered the agency world, which was full of creative people—screenwriters, directors, other musicians. It felt like I had landed in the right place. It felt like home. A-ha!
What's the one word of advice you would give your younger self?
Don’t let your fears stop you.
What inspires you and motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?
I like solving problems. I like the work I do and the people I do it with. I like the journey of building something. And I like to think that the fruits of my work make their way back to my family. And that the combination of working hard, taking risks and enjoying yourself along the way are modelling something positive for my two sons.
Is the risk really worth the reward?
Only one way to find out.
When I say 'success' what comes to mind to you?
Doing what you like the way you like doing it.
What are some of your favourite go-to business/marketing/digital sources where you find inspiration, insight and info (print and online)?
There are many. I think of it mostly in terms of people, so here are a few I like to follow.
- Seth Godin is always great.
- Faris Yakob is consistently smart and insightful—and very prolific.
- Mark Ritson at Marketing Week is worth listening to.
- I tend to pay more attention to the industry publications coming out the UK—The Drum, Campaign. WARC.
- I think the new CMO of L’Oreal, Stéphane Bérubé, is worth paying attention to.
- I also watch the big CPG CMOs—they’re at the forefront of things and their voices are influential. For example, Keith Weed from Unilever and Mark Pritchard form Proctor & Gamble.
- The folks at CheifMartec do a good job of covering marketing tech in a thoughtful way.
- Tom Fishburne, the Marketoonist, is great, insightful and funny.
As a team, we subscribe to HBR and the Economist and I read the Daily Brief email from Quartz every morning.
When have you been the most satisfied in your life?
I’m pretty restless by nature and part of that is never being very satisfied for long. That’s actually something I’m working on. Trying to hang on to the drive and curiosity but also trying to be more in the moment and appreciative. Looking for balance. That’s my next project, you could say.