Transcript of Questioning Best Practices to Do Great Work
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John Jantsch: Everybody loves best practices. Give me an example. Give me a template to follow. Well, I think that that practice leads to mediocrity. In this episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast, I speak with Jay Acunzo. We’re going to talk about breaking the wheel, questioning best practices so that you can do your best work. You’re going to want to check this out because this might be the ticket to innovation for your business.
This episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast is brought to you by Klaviyo. Klaviyo is a platform that helps growth-focused eCommerce brands drive more sales with super targeted, highly relevant email, Facebook and Instagram marketing. Hello and welcome to another episode of The Duct Tape Marketing Podcast.
This is your host John Jantsch. My guest today is Jay Acunzo. He is the founder of Unthinkable Media and the author of Break the Wheel: Question Best Practices, Hone Your Intuition, and Do Your Best Work. Jay, thanks for joining me.
Jay Acunzo: Thanks for the invite, John. It’s good to be here.
John Jantsch: Now, you also spent a little time at Google I think, didn’t you?
Jay Acunzo: Yeah. That was actually my first foray out of where I started, which was sports media and into tech and marketing.
John Jantsch: I’m doing a couple episodes today and my last guest was a head of engineering at Moz. I’m not going to lie to you, we did a little bit of Google bashing.
Jay Acunzo: Look, there’s a reason I’m not working for any of the large companies I worked for before.
John Jantsch: Actually it was more dang it, we have to play. You know? It was more of that. You know?
Jay Acunzo: Sure.
John Jantsch: Let’s get into the book. One of the lines that jumped out at me really from the very beginning, stop obsessing over other’s right answers and start asking yourself better questions. That’s really in some ways the premise to the entire book, isn’t it?
Jay Acunzo: Yeah. You know, work has this tendency through a number of reasons that I explore in the book to regress to the mean. We look at content marketing as a really easy example because it’s so public. You look at a lot of blogs. I came out of the marketing tech world. Every marketing tech vendor, marketing trade publication, if you see a list article of tactics on a given channel, six ways to drive leads from LinkedIn for your business, I’ve seen that article in 17 other places and it looks identical. There’s this glut of average or commodity work out there, which is becoming a real problem for marketers.
In writing the book, I wanted to explore in a world where that’s table stakes where knowing just the basics of how to do anything is instantly available, how do you go not from zero to average, but from average to exceptional?
John Jantsch: What are some examples of ways that people because … I mean I think most people get that, “Okay. Yeah, I’ll ask better questions,” and then the next thing is like, “What does that look like? How?”
Jay Acunzo: Yeah. Well, in the book, I propose a two by three decision-making model, which is basically a fancy term for like I think there are six great questions to ask, but it’s about what you ask those questions of that truly matters. I think if you look at commodity work, especially from marketing teams, what tends to be missing is the variables found within your own specific context. Because what we’re so obsessed with doing is finding some existing playbook and repeating it or guru or expert or best practice or new trend to glom onto. We’re looking for these generalities or what works on average and I’m using air quotes because I know this is a podcast here, but we look for what works on average or in general.
Really that’s a dangerous way to make decisions because it doesn’t take into account your context. If you just break down your context into three different things, I think investigating those things becomes paramount to making really good decisions. The decision here isn’t what works on average. It’s what would work for us. Your context is basically you, the person or people doing the work, your audience, especially key for marketers, but the people receiving the work, and then your resources, which is your means to make that work happen.
If you ask really good questions and I propose two apiece of those three things for a total of six, ask good questions of those three things, your context. All of a sudden you have a lot more clarity than just trying to grab at all those general bits of wisdom swirling around our industry and there’s more than ever before.
John Jantsch: Here’s the problem though, of course, it worked for them and I won’t get fired if I do that. People are scared to make a decision that maybe breaks the wheel. I mean would you agree that that’s part of what holds people back?
Jay Acunzo: 100%. I always say two things. One is I wanted to take thinking for yourself out of this realm of the rebel and hand the ability to do that to the practical individual working in business where it’s not like I’m bucking the trend for its own sake. I’m not different for different sake. I’m not running in an opposite direction or counter cultural direction because it’s cool or because I have an idea and I disagree with my boss or client. No. I think it’s very practical to do these things. It’s just that we’ve never really been taught how to do this. Finding best practices isn’t actually the goal. Finding the best approach for you is.
We’d all agree with that, but we don’t really have a practical system in place for how to make those decisions and more importantly, John, how to vet any best practice or precedent to ensure it’s working for you in the here and now. Our main skill as marketers need to be not finding someone’s answer, but vetting on all those possibilities to work for us or to throw out the ones that don’t. The main answer I would give you is I wanted to take that scariness and make it practical, but part of me honestly wants to say what’s deep in my bones here is there is a certain type of person that this book is not for.
This book is not for somebody who just wants to follow a blueprint and clock out sharply at 5:00 and doesn’t care about the results and doesn’t care about serving their audience. That is not who this book is for. This book is for somebody who really truly is bothered by shipping it when it’s terrible or mailing it in because whatever, I don’t really care about my work. That’s not who I’m speaking to.
John Jantsch: I was with you completely on the practical side until you threw the word intuition in there. Now, I’m picturing the crystal ball approach to making decisions, but that’s not what you talk about, is it?
Jay Acunzo: No. I hate that idea. I’m a creative person. I run a business, Unthinkable Media, that makes original series for brands. I think about big ideas and big picture creativity all the time. I can get lost in the fluffiness of all that stuff very easily and be fine with it. But I know when we enter the real world, A, that’s not everybody, and then B, we have work to do, results to get, clients or customers to serve. If you look at the history of that word intuition, it’s really been twisted. It’s embedded in this idea of like the mystical muse. But all intuition means, if you look at the root of the word, is to consider. It’s from the Latin intueri. That’s all that means, to consider.
I like to think that these visionaries that we laud in business, the ones who seem to react to their intuition effortlessly, the Elon Musk’s of the world down to the creative individual on your marketing team, these people that we call visionaries they don’t see the future. They don’t have the gift. They’re not like visited by the mystical muse. They just see the world for what it actually is. They just have this incredible ability to consider their environment and make decisions based on that, based on reflection and testing and learning instead of somebody else’s general idea. That to me is what intuition is about.
It’s about understanding how to ask good questions, how to contemplate and consider the world in a critical way, which might be slow at first. What I’m trying to do in the book is propose a system to make it faster for you. So that if you leave the book, if you go and implement what I researched for a couple of years here, the product of that is you can start making better decisions faster, and your first impetus is to investigate your environment instead of to glom on to what some expert said you should do.
John Jantsch: I’m going to pile on your intuition idea because I think one of the missing ingredients quite often is you actually have to care about the people that you’re trying to serve. I think that that’s a part that’s often really missed. I think when you really care about the people you serve, then you start looking at … That’s part of what to me drives this looking at the world in a different way. I’m looking at the view through the lens of my customer or who I’m trying to serve and I think that allows me and I think allows most people who have done anything innovative to say, “Hey, there’s no new ideas. But if we combine them this way, it’ll serve this group better.” Would you agree that that’s a missing ingredient?
Jay Acunzo: Totally. One of my favorite examples of someone who did that in the book, and it seems radical or innovative what he did, but when you hear this story it’s like, “Oh, it’s really logical what he did because he just focused more of his time on the people he served,” is a guy by the name of Paul Butler who if you’re an environmental conservationist is like a rockstar and has a nickname, which I love, The Parrot Man of the Caribbean. Best nickname ever, The Parrot Man of the Caribbean. Here was a guy in the ’70s who went to the island of St. Lucia to try and save a species of parrot. He did all the usual things you’re supposed to do as an environmental conservationist.
He wrote a big essay to the government and demanded all the people locally stopped killing the bird or capturing it for pets or for food. Very little result, just handing out facts and demands, as you can imagine, but it was all based on this convention in conservation called homo economicus. Actually it’s a term from economics which means the rational man. The idea here is people are rational, so target them using rational argument. Any marketer worth their weight in clicks here knows that people are emotional. They’re not solely rational. In fact, we mostly don’t make decisions rationally.
By talking to the local people he served, these native people who killed these birds not because they were just being terrible people, but because they were poor and had mouths to feed, or they were growing crops and they were ruining those crops, or they ran a tourism business and these giant noisy creatures were disrupting that, whatever the case was. The commonality was these people had pride in their home and pride in their profession. Paul created this icon, which turned in to a mascot that he actually dressed up as called Jacko the Parrot. He associated this parrot not with a problem or a nuisance or a thing to discard, but it became a symbol of national pride and all of a sudden they stopped killing them.
They agreed, “Okay. This region is for the bird.” They made all these decisions that he was demanding of them as a population before that they didn’t respond to. But just by understanding their world and seeing that this was an emotional group of people that cared about national pride, he flipped his approach and it worked. If all you see is the mascot and the songs and the t-shirt and the content and the videos, you’re like, “This guy’s creative. He has the gift,” but to hear his story is just to see him actually investigate in his own environment first and put aside the precedent in his industry for a moment to see how much if any of that actually applied in his shoes.
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You’ve been podcasting for a while now and a great deal of … I won’t put words in your mouth, but a great deal of the book and these stories come from your interviews and your storytelling that you’ve done on your show.
Jay Acunzo: Oh, yeah. 100%. It was kind of my sneaky advantage of the last couple of years for my show and my speaking is actually I just aerate these ideas and these stories with a real community. I get to hone my craft and the ideas before I actually put it into a book.
John Jantsch: The book Break The Wheel you self-published, right?
Jay Acunzo: Yeah. I did what’s called a hybrid publisher where I actually owned all the creative and then the production parts or the backend and the distribution came from a publishing service that offers that.
John Jantsch: But the point that you just made about … I think where a lot of people who look at and they go, “I want to write a book or, I want to have a podcast, or I want to do videos and have a YouTube channel,” and I think the folks that have really built something that is a true asset, I mean obviously they’re people that do something like that and it blows up and goes crazy, but regular practical people that built something like that as an asset, you really kind of look at how all of these things can work together, don’t you?
Jay Acunzo: Yeah. I mean I look at your work with Duct Tape. I look at people that came before me in the marketing world like your Jay Baer’s and a dear friend of mine Andrew Davis who helped mentor me throughout my career. I look at some of these people I admire, Ann Handley’s another good example, and I think there’s only really two ways to ensure you’re, A, building an asset with compounding value, and B, serving the audience in deeper and deeper ways, A.K.A., ensuring the thing works. You can do an idea tour or an idea journey.
I don’t know if these words exist and maybe you’ve experienced this too, Job, as someone who speaks a lot, but an idea tour is I have proven in, in my example, a podcast episode that this story is really resonant with my audience. I’m going to take it out of the episode and put it in more places. I’m going to bring it with me into a speech on a stage for example. I’m touring around with this idea. I’m doing that right now. Arguably, the book tour is a type of idea tour, but then the idea journey is I’m going to see how deep this well goes and ask a lot of questions, and I’m inviting the audience to join me, which is what I’ve done for years on my podcast Unthinkable.
I’m like I’m exploring this big idea with lots of questions underneath it, and I’m going to necessarily tell stories and pull out insights from them over time. I don’t have the answers. Come with me as I explore. For a while, it was what’s the difference between average and exceptional? How do we avoid creating commodity work? Now that we’ve broken the wheel, now that we’re questioning conventional thinking, it’s like, “Okay. Well, how do you create consistently creative work?” That’s my 2019 on the show is how do you do that. You can do an idea tour or an idea journey.
I think what that that does is it unhooks you from this idea of like a newsletter versus a podcast versus a blog versus Twitter. It’s like I’m using all of these things in a coherent connected way.
John Jantsch: I guess the next book is fix the wheel, right?
Jay Acunzo: I have this thesis I’m working on which is like if you’ve broken the wheel, the attempt might be to like keep just swinging at something that’s no longer there. It’s like okay, cool. I’m not following the best practice. I’m doing things on my own. Well, now you’re at risk of like manufacturing stunts essentially or what I call random acts of creativity. Just make the numbers go up right now faster. I don’t want people to do that. Next book maybe it’s … I don’t know if it’s like rebuild the wheel. It might be like refresh the work. It’s sort of like break the wheel, refresh the work.
John Jantsch: Yeah, I like it. You’ve already shared on story of the Parrot Man. You want to give us another one of your favorites from the book because essentially the book’s about a lot of stories.
Jay Acunzo: Yeah. I mean I know nothing if not story. That’s what I want to build a career on. Another great example, one of my favorites is … Well, let’s actually go to something timely here, which is Howard Schultz from Starbucks, whether or not you agree with his stance on politics or the fact that he’s going to run for president apparently. There’s this tactic or this moment rather under his reign at Starbucks when he was their CEO and chairman where looking at the audience and pulling out a better more human insight than at first glance the data revealed or any best practice showed them turned around the company in China.
Not a lot of people know this story. As he leading the company, they were doing what you would expect when you move from region to region like wildfire. They were taking the playbook that was proven and trying to apply it with incremental changes to fit each new market and that had worked except in China. They encountered a really odd problem. Their employees, unlike a lot of coffee shops, the employees of Starbucks, historically anyway, were very educated, decently paid and they had a lot of great benefits offered to them.
They were able to provide exceptional service at Starbucks because they hired exceptional people who weren’t just like there for a paycheck and they were either burned out or looking to do their next thing. They weren’t like the proverbial L.A. barista who wanted to be an actress.
John Jantsch: Except for the ones at the airport. I’m just going to throw that in.
Jay Acunzo: Oh my goodness.
John Jantsch: Go ahead. Go ahead.
Jay Acunzo: You and I could share more stories about coffee shops in airports. Oh my gosh. Don’t get me started. But for the most part, in general let’s say, most of these employees were taught to provide exceptional service because they were treated exceptionally well. In China, they kept losing these employees and they couldn’t figure out why. Then when Schultz talked to Jack Ma, creator of Alibaba and another billionaire who probably has political influence, that’s a different podcast though, he told him, “Well, look, in China, if you actually talk to these people and investigated this context instead of America’s context, you’d realize that the parents have more of a say in these individual’s careers.
They spend good money especially because they can only have one child because of that rule in China, that law in China, they invest very heavily in that child’s life. They spend good money to bring them to college and university and they don’t want to see them working for Starbucks. They want to see them working for Alibaba or Google or all these other notable tech companies or what have you.” What Starbucks did seems radical, but it made a logical sense in this situation, in this context. They started giving not just the employees great benefits, but the parents of those employees.
They had an annual summit, almost like a shareholder meeting, with all their employee’s parents where they could attend, see the great work that Starbucks was doing, help them understand that this is a great corporation to work for and have a say in the direction however little it might have been in that room. This is a radical thing. It’s a very expensive thing. It seems crazy in Seattle, but it doesn’t seem crazy in China at all. The difference is that Starbucks was willing to investigate and ask good questions of a different context instead of just rerun an old playbook that was proven elsewhere.
John Jantsch: Jay, where can people find out more about your work and obviously acquire a copy of Break The Wheel?
Jay Acunzo: The website jayacunzo.com/book has way more information than you’ll need, including some behind the scenes stuff about making the book because I make stuff for marketers who love to make stuff. Jayacunzo.com/book, and then my podcast is Unthinkable.
John Jantsch: Jay, I should have asked you this at the beginning of the show, where are you located?
Jay Acunzo: I’m just outside New York City.
John Jantsch: New York City. All right. Well, Jay, thanks dropping by. We’ll have links to all the things we talked about today in the show notes and we love those reviews and tell us who else you want me to interview. Jay, hopefully we run into you next time in the just outside of New York City area.
Jay Acunzo: Thanks, John. I appreciate it. To every listening, thank you for getting this far.