Sean Womack on Marketing We All Borrow We All Steal

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Sean Womack is arguably one of the most honest marketers around. Who else states unequivocally on his website, "No one needs what I do?"

Or suggests, on the concept of innovation, "We all borrow. We all steal. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. We all look over the shoulders of those who work beside us. It has always been so. It will always be so. It should be so."

For the past 20 years, Womack said his work has been to create, innovate and develop businesses, brands, products and services. This has ranged from working in product development at a social expression company to launching a magazine for a boutique consulting firm to helping found and grow three different agencies that focused on entertainment marketing, shopper marketing and video content marketing, respectively.

The Back Story


Womack relocated from Los Angeles to Arkansas in 2002 to become chief creative officer at Saatchi & Saatchi X. He remained in that position until 2006, when he became vice president of marketing, communication architecture at Wal-Mart.

In retrospect, it wasn't the best move. Within a year, he was out of the job. He summed up the experience on his LinkedIn page, stating, "I keep looking for the rewind button for my life, but I've yet to find it."

But Womack is a survivor. He continues to live near Wal-Mart's Bentonville, Ark., headquarters and has moved on with his life. He founded a marketing agency, TBD, where he describes himself as a "purveyor of ideas and creator of content."

So what exactly does he do? "I create remarkable brands and innovative content. But that’s not what you need.

"What you need is what the outcome of brands and content. You need to win raving fans. And that’s what you get from a remarkable brand and innovative content."

Idea Junkie

Womack has a confession: "I am an idea junkie. There I said it. That’s supposed to be the first step. Admitting it. I love ideas. Especially new ones."

We were intrigued. So we sat down with Womack recently to explore the ideas that drive an idea junkie, the state of marketing and where we all go from here — especially if our journey originates in a tiny town in Arkansas rather than a major city.

Sobel: I have to ask … Bentonville, Ark.? A very unusual place for a marketing guy, especially since you're no longer associated with Wal-Mart. Can you talk a bit about the challenge of working in a place that's more than 600 miles from Chicago, almost 1,300 miles from NYC and almost 1,400 miles from Los Angeles?

Womack: You forgot 1,800 miles to Silicon Valley, which is the place that's changing how marketing is happening today. And it was not the center of the advertising world when it all got started. Now, arguably the most important ad channel in the world is located here — Google.

Innovation doesn’t happen in the centers. It happens on the fringes. I live in a small town that once was on the fringe, but it is now the center of the retail universe. With Wal-Mart located here, it means that the world visits here. Now that the Walton family has built Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, it means the art world is visiting as well.

Bentonville is a very interesting place to be right now. It’s only gotten more interesting in the eight years we’ve been here. We moved back from LA when Saatchi & Saatchi bought the agency I was working for. That’s one of the biggest and most awarded agency networks in the world, and they bought an agency in Northwest Arkansas that was one of the pioneers in developing shopper marketing. Now shopper marketing is standard practice for all brands and retailers.

Yes, innovation happens on the fringes. Even in advertising. Look at the hottest shops in the past few decades — Crispin Porter+Bogusky in Miami, Wieden+Kennedy in Portland, Ore., Goodby in San Francisco — none of those are New York City or even Chicago and yet these are undoubtedly some of our best agencies. What happens in so-called business hubs like New York for marketing/media or LA for entertainment is that people circulate in the same air and ideas and influences. What happens on the fringes? People do the work in the best way that they can and innovate new ways of working because they don’t know the right way to do things.

So, yes. I'm a long way from the center but I think it's the right place to be to innovate. And I’ve spent the last 20 years of my career trying to forge ahead at the innovation edge of marketing, whether that's entertainment marketing, shopper marketing or now, content marketing. And I’ve found that good ideas come from everywhere, not just 'the' city.

Sobel: You said “the ultimate container is your brand name, but there are others like your website, your retail presence, your office space, your packaging, etc. You have to fill these with content of all kinds -- stories, images, films, documentaries, commercials, print ads, letters, emails, interviews, events, etc.“ Can you elaborate?

Womack: Containers and content are the future of marketing. There are a lot of containers that are important right now. Your brand is the ultimate container and one that gets filled with all of the experiences, impressions, ads and thoughts about that brand and its products. But there are other containers as well — media channels that are important to us like Google and Facebook and newcomers like Vice and BuzzFeed and Snapchat. Then there are the devices — especially the mobile devices. These containers shape our habits and practices.

The containers hold the content that we say we love. The posts we write, the searches for answers to questions, photos of family or new fashions, films of friends or by famous people. And ads. Yes, lots and lots of ads show up as content in these containers.

In the past, the content didn't shape us as much as the containers did. Marshall McLuhan was the first one to talk about this when he said, “the medium is the message.” By that he meant that the medium — or what I am calling the container now because I think it is broader in the digital age — will change our lives and our behaviors more than any content ever will. I think this is less true today.

We see the innovative media channels becoming more and more important. Our mobile devices are never more than six feet away from us, according to research. And brands have shaped our behaviors significantly over the past thirty years with the advent of brand management. And what’s unique about our moment is that the content and the containers have a closer relationship than ever before.

The content running in the channels isn’t just being forced on us — it is being created by us. Whether that’s search or social media or just a quick post, we are co-creators. We are filling the containers along with the professionals. In many instances, we are filling the containers better than the professionals. This puts us in a very different space than in the days when Marshall McLuhan was writing.

If I were a brand marketer, then I would not just be thinking about content. I would be thinking about containers as well. Not just my brand, but also technology and innovative media outlets. One of the reasons is because these are the people with the audience.

Sobel: Your thoughts on the Personal Marketer versus the Professional Marketer are fascinating. You said, “There's never been a more exciting time to live at that nexus of brand and content because the tools to create and the motivation to create are everywhere. Professional Marketers know their customers by reports. They get briefed about social media. They are creating a cause marketing campaign. They buy their products to be good corporate citizens, but their spouse brings home the competitor's brand from time to time. Personal Marketers, on the other hand build audiences. They don't rent or buy them.” Can you expand on that and give us some examples?

Womack: I think we are seeing a reemergence of the Personal Marketer: Someone who embodies the brand, who knows the customer personally, who communicates directly. They do this work because it is who they are. It’s their life and their business. You see it in a wide range of new businesses, like Blake Mycoskie’s Toms Shoes, non-profit organizations like Scott Harrison’s Charity: Water or Kiva’s Jessica Jackley. But it’s not just these new organizations. It's also people like YouTube beauty guru Michelle Phan, whose audience of 6 million subscribers has attracted the attention of Lancôme, which partnered with her to launch her own line of cosmetics.

Sobel: In a recent blog post entitled “Apple is boring … and it seems not to care,” you wrote, “Apple might be the most straight-forward, boring brand in the world. But they don’t seem to know it.” Is this a post-Steve Jobs conundrum or just Apple simple doing business as usual?

Womack: That post was satire. I called them boring as a nod to my favorite marketing author, Al Ries, who says that brand building is boring activity. Once you establish it, you just keep doing the same thing over and over again. Apple is this way. It's got a great position and it's never wavered from it. It also does the fundamentals of marketing very, very well. Its website is very straightforward. It writes great headlines. It does the fundamentals spot on. And it works. That’s because the fundamentals of marketing work.

There is so much innovation and swirl going on, but at the end of the day we need to know our customers really well. We need to make products and services that meet their needs, and we need to wrap it in a brand that is remarkable. And then we fill it with engaging content by doing the fundamentals really well. We position our brand. We communicate consistently. We keep delivering.

Get it right the first time and then don’t mess with it if it’s working. In a sense, it’s boring. But then again, when we do it well and do it right, we're making art and making culture.

Sobel: Finally, you mentioned the recent launch of your venture TBD Labs, which is designed to help businesses, brands and organizations develop unique and valuable ideas so they can innovate and grow. Can you give our readers some thoughts and suggestions?

Womack: I've been working in the creative fields for the past two decades and in that time I've learned a couple of things.

First is that we don't fully understand where ideas come from or how important they are in business. Advertising talks about the big idea and there are certainly ideas that provide breakthroughs for us. They are transformational and not incremental.

But they tend to be the result of many incremental steps leading up to a big leap. And they tend to be the result of many inputs and not the work of a line genius. We love the myth of the line genius, the inventor slaving away until breakthrough happens. But this archetype is a fiction — and a damaging one at that.

And because we believe it so deeply in our bones we operate from a place of fear and control. Afraid that someone is going to get credit for our ideas or that too many cooks will ruin our idea. Yes, groupthink is bad, but many cooks came before us and we borrow their techniques and recipes as we create our inventions and tweaks and changes.

We all borrow. We all steal. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. We all look over the shoulders of those who work beside us. It has always been so. It will always be so. It should be so.

But our creative cultures, structures and systems fight against this, even though the latest creativity research from Keith Calder and others shows that collaboration is the key to real genius. And Ed Catmull's brilliant book on Pixar shows it's possible to build a culture that fosters collaboration.

The second thing I've learned is that the typical client relationship is not collaborative. Or if it is, then it is so only slightly. The client briefs the agency. The agency does the work. The client gives input. Revise and repeat.

The problem is that both sides overlap so little, usually only during briefing and reviews. So you get clients thinking the agency is clueless about their business and agencies thinking that clients don't know good work when they see it. And both are right. The problem is the system. We need more collaboration. More overlap.

This is why I've set up Labs. I get together with a cross-functional client team to surface issues, problems, challenges, needs, threats -- whatever you want to call them -- and then we do the work of solving them in the room together.

If we need research, then we break and go get it. Then we get back together and work it out. It is a facilitated, focused, intense conversation about the business. It's like improv theatre intersecting with an agency brainstorm and a client offsite. It has principles underlying it based on the latest research. But it is free form.

We've invented new products, named brands and developed new pitches for all kinds of companies in this format. It works well and is more rewarding because the client is involved and feels like part of the process. And the ideas are better because more perspectives are represented.

I'm not set up as the genius with the ideas to save the business. So the pressure is spread around and it is lighter, which makes for a more collaborative environment. Fear kills creativity.

I love facilitating and participating in the Labs and working with clients on solutions. It's been a great pivot for my consulting business.