The Best Moments Are Off Script
The COVID-19 pandemic pushed many people to pivot in more ways than one, which paved the way to various personal discoveries and trials. For Ron Tite who does a lot of stand-up comedy, the art of improvisation guided him to become extra flexible in these chaotic times. Interestingly, this mindset led him to appreciate the silver linings of every challenging situation. He sits down with Katherine Twells to share how even going off script in a comedic performance leads to gold and what he learned from this experience when dealing with the world’s current state. Ron also talks about how creativity can solve different problems, how hierarchal organizations kill fresh ideas, and the complex dynamics of building trust.
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The Best Moments Are Off Script
Improvising With Our Favorite Creative Canadian Ron Tite
I am pleased to share with you a conversation with the incredible Ron Tite. As a long-time friend of the CMO Summit, Ron was one of our highest rated speakers and he ended up co-hosting the event. He was able to weave together the key insights from the day into such a brilliant narrative. Let me tell you a little bit about Ron and his incredible resume. He is a best-selling author, speaker, producer and entrepreneur. He’s always blurred the lines between art and commerce, and he’s been an award-winning advertising writer and creative director for some of the world’s most respected brands.
He’s the Founder of Church+State, host and executive producer of the hit podcast, The Coup, and publisher of This is That: Travel Guide to Canada, a best-selling and award-winning satirical book. He has written for television, penned a children’s book, wrote, produced and performed a hit play. He has created a branded art gallery, was executive producer and host of the award-winning comedy show Monkey Toast. Those are some of the reasons why Marketing Magazine named him as one of the Top 10 Creative Canadians, and you can see why. He’s in-demand as a speaker all over the world. He speaks to leading organizations about leadership, disruption, branding and creativity.
Ron’s book is Think Do Say: How To Seize Attention and Build Trust in a Busy Busy World and that hit the bookstores in October of 2019. I have to tell you before I start this conversation, Ron is a generous, amazing person. He is someone who is always focused on how to serve the greatest good in the world. We discussed how important our gratitude and framing are and finding the silver linings in this challenging world in which we live. He’ll share thoughts on creativity and how we can all come together to solve problems and explore new opportunities. I hope you’ll enjoy my conversation with a very engaging Ron Tite.
Ron, thank you so much for taking the time to be on the show with me. I appreciate it.
It’s nice to converse with another human being. When you add in someone as special as you, it’s a big bonus. It’s fantastic.
Thank you. Talking to you is always an uplifting experience. It’s funny, I will have shared your bio before the conversation and we’re going to get into your origin story. You’ve done all these crazy and amazing things but what people don’t know from a summit perspective is that you’re my professional person that has kept me calm over so many moments in the events over the years. You’re a dear friend of mine, of Coke and of the Summit. I wanted to thank you publicly for everything you’ve done to help in our endeavor.
It goes both ways. It’s been such a huge pleasure.
We’ve had your amazing talks on the show, but now we’re going to talk about what’s going on in this wild, wacky world that we live in. We will try to share some perspective with our audience because what we’re all trying to do right now is to reorient ourselves and see if we can share some things that might help each other out. That’s the whole idea of community. Before we get into some of the questions, I want to regrind everyone on your origin story because it’s such a big part of what makes us who we are. Share a little bit more about how you got to where you are now.
The origin story which depends on how far back it goes, but there are a couple of things that people may not know that drive certain behaviors and those behaviors lead to other things. There’s a couple of things that are important. One is I grew up very poor. My parents got divorced when I was one and my dad left very early. A mom’s influence was greater because of being in a single-parent home for a number of years and not just a mom, but a mom who was disabled and on social assistance with four children. We have two kids. My wife and I do all right and I’m like, “I can’t even imagine what my mom went through.”Pure creativity is pure expression. Click To Tweet
It’s unbelievable to fathom it.
That side of it led to two things. One, being incredibly appreciative about everything that we have in this world and being genuinely appreciative of all those things. The other side of it is because I came from a blue-collar family and there were no entrepreneurs. I had one uncle who owned a convenience store and one uncle was a president of a company but everybody else was very blue-collar. I grew up in a rough part of town where blue-collar was the best. The people who did well in that neighborhood had jobs in factories and lived down the road from the largest General Motors factory in Canada at that time. What it did was it made me really curious because there was so much that was beyond the borders of the South end of Oshawa, Ontario beyond the apartment building that I lived in that I had no clue about. I saw the movie Meatballs, Bill Murray’s first movie. I said to my mom, “What do you mean people go to the camp?” “They played basketball all summer.” “I want to do that.” She’s like, “We can’t afford to send you to camp.”
When I hit seventeen, I want to check this out. That’s the part that has driven many behaviors and experiences of being ridiculously curious about it. When I did stand up for the first time, it wasn’t because I want it to be a standup that I pictured myself being Jerry Seinfeld. I was curious about the process and how does one become that. How do you put together a set and all that? The only way to do it is to jump in. I bought my first car at the age of 23, and I had never driven a standard before my life. I bought a standard car. The first time I ever drove standard was when I drove it off the lot.
I wouldn’t want to be in the vicinity of that.
That has always driven the behavior of like, “I don’t know that. I want to check it out and I don’t care if I fail.” The third part that is helpful in terms of how I approach things is my mom’s side of the family was Italian, Francophone Quebecois. Her maiden name was Bocchino. You can imagine, a Quebecois Italian family, those folks were amazing storytellers, the animation and the voices. I grew up sitting around kitchen tables hearing my cousins, my aunts and my uncles tell stories. What I loved about it was that whenever there would be somebody new to the table, somebody would say, “Gizelle, tell the story.” My mom’s name was Gizelle. Everybody in the room had heard the story except one person. Even though they weren’t standup comedians, they understood the nature of a bit. That a bit is perfected. It is performed over and over again. If the crowd hasn’t heard your gold material, you do the gold material.
Did the story change over time? Was it embellished? Were there things added?
No, the story was the story. The bit is the bit. Those are the things that are in my background. Beyond that, I did a Phys Ed degree. I did standup comedy, dabbled with photography and stuff. I wrote a couple of plays.
Isn’t it funny where we end up? It’s this fascinating convergence of natural-born curiosity with what happens to us, who we meet and what we stumble upon. It all comes together to put us where we are. Many people I talked to, if you could rewind, they would never predict. There are a couple of people that said, “When I was five, I wanted to be a veterinarian. Now I’m a veterinarian.” It happens to us which is amazing. The other thing that I find very interesting, I interviewed some visionary entrepreneurs, people who were very mission-oriented and wanted to disrupt or change the world in some way. As I looked at their origin stories, almost everyone came from either a background of challenge, poverty or family dysfunction sometimes. It put this very unique fire in the belly of the individuals to go either create a different life, fix something, change something or achieve. It’s interesting how that upbringing shapes so much of how we see the world and appreciate the world as you shared.
My friend, Bruce Sellery, is a money god, a personal finance guy. I was on his podcast called Moolala. He’s like, “You’re financially irresponsible.” I save and all that stuff. If I buy something and my wife will say, “How much was it?” I go, “I have no idea.” It can only be so expensive whereas my wife is like, “I bought this but I used a promo code from here. I’m going to buy it for this other set. There’s a whole algorithm to save $6 and $500 purchases.” It’s funny because those who come from a background where they’ve been poor, it’s one or the other. They’re either super cheap because they understand the value of money and they want to save every cent or they’re like me which is I know what it’s like to have $0 in my bank account.
I remember in third-year University. In Canada, we differ between university and college. It’s two different experiences. I was at university, I was on student loans, and everything because my mom could not contribute any money to my education. I hit a point at the end of the school year where all my money had run out and I got a summer job in the business school but it didn’t start for two weeks. There’s going to be a month where I had no paycheck. This is 1992. At that point in Canada, and I don’t know in the US, for some reason, you could not pay for groceries in a grocery store with a credit card.
There was a very large drug store up here called Shoppers Drug Mart, which is like a big CVS where they did have certain food items and you could pay with a credit card. For a month, I had to shop for ramen noodles, bread and peanut butter in Shoppers Drug Mart, because it was the only place I could put it on credit. When it came time for my rent to be due, I called my mom and I said, “I don’t have any money.” She goes, “What are you going to do?” I said, “I don’t know. I don’t have it. I have no idea what I’m going to do.” She called back an hour later and she goes, “We looked at our vacation change jar and we think we can roll at least $300.25.” My mom rolled $300.25 and deposit it in a joint account so I could pay my rent. That moment, I remember thinking to myself that combined with standing in front of the ramen noodles when I’m about to pay for a credit card and go, “I never want to feel this way again.” That is why I’m so flippant with money. I don’t like the feeling of having to count pennies. I’d been there. I don’t want to ever see it again.
It is the fire in the belly and it’s such a powerful way to shape our lives. I’m convinced now that Gizelle is a Saint from everything you’ve said. I want to spend as much time talking to people like that about that sense of power and survival that they do to take care of their family and themselves. That’s remarkable.
She was supposed to be dead by six. She had spina bifida and they didn’t think she would ever make it past six years old. She had her leg amputated at twelve. This is how crazy this is. She went to a school. You will have to laugh because it’s so horrible when I tell you the name of the school. The name of the school was The Montreal School for the Crippled Children. This is in the ‘50s or ‘40s. This is the other part of the origin story. For someone who had every reason to hate life was the most joyful laughter-filled woman you’ve ever met. She was incredibly positive. She was certainly not perfect but she’d got tough through life. She did it with a smile on her face.
For the audience, with this show, we try to have some additional frames and then we talk about what we want to talk about. We’ll go off-script. There’s no question. We’re doing this interview in early February of 2021 and we’ve all lived through this unbelievable time in our world. As you’re talking about your mom, this is a question for a psychologist, but why do some people meet these crazy adverse situations with such strength and grace? For other people, it destroys them. How do you think about the makeup of people when they meet adversity? I think it’s so fascinating.
It’s because people haven’t had any adversity in their life, then when they do get it a little bit, it’s all relative. For somebody who wasn’t supposed to live past six, for her, everything was a bonus. I also think her family, my grandfather was like a tough patriarch Italian, old school Italian guy. He’s a great man. From day one, “We’re not treating you special. We’ve got six other kids. You got to sort this out on your own.” She always dealt with it and she moved on.
The Idea Of Reorientation
We have this unique makeup. We’re talking about how do we meet our life and what happens on the path. Many conversations I’ve gotten into over the last few months in 2020 through COVID have been about this idea of reorientation. We talk about life happens to you and then how do you meet it. We all want to plan. If we have a business, you’re a business leader, you’re a father and you’re a speaker. You have all these things in your life. How do you think now whether you’re a leader or you’re an individual contributor trying to figure out your career? Do you think about planning, setting the stage for the future, and moving forward when you are meeting these conditions that are always shifting and changing? How do you balance meeting the moment with like, “I got to set a plan but these waters have become extremely strange?”
I was a standup for twenty years which is a challenging career. I wasn’t a full-time standup. I did it professionally and was paid but I would never want it to be exclusively a comedian. You quickly learn that your best moments on stage are the ones when you go out with a script, but then something happens and you respond. That’s where gold is found. More importantly, that’s where great fulfillment is found. If you’ve got the bit and it’s your gold bit, you’ve got a collection of gold bits, and every time you do the bit you do at the same, you still get a rush off of the crowd, but its gold.
If it’s gold, it’s gold. They’re going to laugh. Rarely do they not laugh, but when something occurs and in the moment you discover something funny, you need to repeat it but there’s no time like the first. When you discover it and you’re like, “I can’t believe I thought of that, in the moment, on stage. That’s incredible.” The crowd responded and everything. The best moments are not the scripted ones. You need the scripted ones because you go in with a script thinking you’re going to do it. It’s when something occurs that you did not think could happen that happens, you adjust and you pivot the material or you abandoned the material and you’re like, “I’m going down this road.”Within established organizations, all you need is one “no” and the idea is dead. Click To Tweet
The trick for that is being completely comfortable that when you abandon the script, there is a risk. The risk is that you’re not going to find the gold in the moment. The risk is the audience isn’t going to appreciate it, you’re going to look foolish, it’s going to bomb and you have to be fine with that. Early in your career, when you do that, you think it’s imposter syndrome, “I’ve been fooling people. I’m not a comedian. I had like one bit and now I’ve been coasting this. I’m not funny at all.”
Other times, as you get further in your career, you realize, “No, this is the job.” I have enough of a track record of being funny. That wasn’t funny but that’s okay. You get so comfortable with it that you force yourself into a place where you go, “I’m not going to do any planned material tonight. I’m just bridging with the room. I’m going to see what I can find. If it tanks, that’s all good because it’s open mic night or whatever.” You get comfortable with embracing the chaos of that.
Isn’t there some beautiful liberation in being okay with the unknown in general? You mentioned imposter syndrome and I know so many people. Whether you’re a leader or you’re an individual contributor on a team where that inside voice says, “I’m not enough. I don’t know why I’m in this position.” The truth is we’re all improvising constantly because if someone is super tied to a script, they’re going to be rigid and it’s never going to work. You’ve got to be in an improvisational lens all the time. My friend, Kelly Leonard, talks to Second City about the power of improv and business, and they train business leaders on how to become more agile with all of this. Whether it’s perfectionism or thinking as a leader, you have to have all the answers because that’s what leaders do. There’s power in flowing. I think that pre-COVID was all true, post and during COVID, it’s even more true because we all happen to surf the wave of what’s happening right now.
I will clarify it, and I think Kelly would agree with me on this that the danger in adopting that philosophy is that people take that and assume that we should always improvise, “I should always be improvising.” The reality of the Second City and I was on the corporate roster at Second City for a decade. I was trained there. I was not Mainstage in Toronto but was on the corporate roster. My comedy grew up in that ecosystem with those people. The thing that people don’t realize about Second City is it is two things. It is a house of improv but when you go to the show, it’s a sketch show. It is a sketch comedy show like Saturday Night Live. For those who don’t know what sketch comedy is, it is a series of scenes that have been scripted and written. How they write those scenes is they improvise.
If you go to a Second City show on a Friday or Saturday night, you can hang around for the free improv. What the cast does is they force themselves to improvise, not for the sake of improvising, but so they can find a gold nugget or two that they can then go, “We can make this perfect by scripting it.” That can go in this sketch show which we do over and over again every single night the same way. I may have used the example at the summit of the concept car versus assembly line. It’s the same thing where it’s not about improvising, it’s about improvising when you need to or have to but the goal of it is to find and discover nuggets of gold and opportunity that you can then operationalize so that you do it that exact same way every single time. It becomes your script. You improvise to write the script and knowing that you abandon the script when the opportunity arises. It is something not everybody realizes Second City that even when you see the pre-improv, there is a reason they’re doing it and it is to write the next show.
I think this distinction is so powerful, Ron, because there’s a difference between improvisation and flying by the seat of your pants all the time. Great improvisers have planned, they’ve thought it through, they hone their craft and they do the work. In any field, you’re going to do the work to be excellent. You say, “Here’s my bar. I’m going to be excellent. I’m going to show up this way. However, I have enough flexibility in my practice of whatever it is to meet what needs to change because some conditions have shifted from when I practiced this and it’s got to change.” That is a very important distinction because otherwise, you get to like, “I’m going to let whatever happens happen.”
It’s that 10,000 hours thing where you get to the point where you’re like, “I’ve had this situation before. I know what to do.”
Improvisation In 2020
Let’s talk about your improvisation in 2020. How many days were you on the road before COVID hit for you?
I never counted days on the road but I would do like between 70 and 75 keynotes a year. That’s a lot of travel.
It’s a lot of travel out and about. You have young children, COVID hits and you have your own business that you’ve been running. A lot of times, we’ll speak to speakers and thought leaders and they are 100% in that space. You straddle both spaces where you’re running a company and doing speaking. Everything changes. What was that year like for you? What were the silver linings for you? What did you learn?
On March 11th, 2020, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. As you probably know, because you would have signed contracts, all of my speaking contracts is guaranteed revenue. It is like, “You signed the contract. You booked the date.” It’s not that hard and fast but that’s guaranteed revenue. The only thing that can cancel that contract because I’ve set aside the day and I’ve said no to other people. The only thing is something called the force majeure clause which is an act of God is the only thing that can get you out of this contract. On March 11th, the pandemic is declared. On March 12th, 2020, every single contract for 2021 can go force majeure cancel.
You can do the math on 75 keynotes a year. Every single cent of that money went down the drain in 24 hours. It’s gone. That happened. That’s the afternoon of March 12th, 2020. On the evening of March 12th or 3:00 in the morning of March 13th, I was still up doing the math. My wife descends from upstairs at 3:00 in the morning and says, “We got to go to the hospital, I’m having our baby.” On the morning of March 13th, we set hold of our second child. Benjamin is our COVID clock. That was the worst three days and best. It’s such a weird rollercoaster of emotions.
Ben was born at 9:45. At 12:30, I’m on the phone with my banker. I’m like, “Where’s the agency going?” “I have no idea. Our clients are canceling. We’re putting people into work from home,” and all that. We don’t know where this is going and we decide we need only A-players. We let some people go who we had conversations with before that to say, “This probably isn’t going to work out, you should start looking for a job, and we’ll help you what we can.” This hit and we’re like, “A-players only. We’re protecting the family now. We’re protecting as many jobs as we can.” It was three people and were like, “I’m sorry, we need to do that.” We did that. First thing, I go, “I’m coming back in,” because while you were very generous to say, “I was running a business,” the reality is you can’t run the business being on the road for 75 keynotes a year.
I have two business partners who were more involved in the day-to-day and because I was a former executive credit director, we decided Ron is coming back in. I’m like, “I’m not going anywhere for a long time so I’ll step back in as a chief creative officer.” I rolled up my sleeves and I started working with the team. We had a big pitch within three weeks. We don’t know where any of this is going and we won the pitch. It was a great omen for the year for us. We did a virtual holiday party for our team in December 2020 and I asked everybody what their favorite meeting moment of the year was. Everyone was like, “All the fun stuff that had occurred.” They’re like, “What about you?” I started to cry because I thought back to that emotional space I was in and that first pitch. When we won it, I thought, “Maybe, we’ll be okay.”
You’re talking about the job. I was going to be fine. We’re talking people. We hired 7 or 8 people throughout the pandemic. We have to hire more but it was such a rollercoaster of emotions. When you talk to the pivot, I got a job again. I dialed back into the business, hands-on and that’s incredible to be able to sit down and write a script. I had one of those weird Don Draper moment where I was at home, early on, one of our clients is a college, and I saw the video of that somebody was teaching musicians how to do virtual concerts. I was inspired but this friend of mine who was doing this. He was like, “Here’s how my camera set up.” Here’s a live musician who’s now pivoted to virtual concerts. I wrote everyone is a student. I thought, “That’s so true. Everyone right now is a student.”
I sat down and wrote the script. Athletes are learning new ways to train. The priests and the clergies are learning new ways to preach and all that. I wrote the script at midnight and the next day, I went to the client and I said, “You need to do this.” He’s like, “What is this response?” I was like, “You need to do this. It’s what you need to do right now. You need to stand for this.” He said, “I loved the script.” He was incredibly moved by it and he said, “I don’t have any money but leave it with me.” Six months later, he came back, and he’s like, “Let’s shoot that spot.” We shot it. Having that credited fulfillment in the middle of all that, I thought that was a great feeling.
Chaos In Creativity
You mentioned chaos but chaos does precede order. Chaos is at the heart of creativity. I got to give you props too. You were named as one of the Top 10 Creative Canadians. Anytime you make a top ten list, you got to go with it. Whether it’s being a comedian and running a creative agency, we’re going to talk a little bit about brands and trust, but this whole idea of creativity through disarray is a powerful concept. Chaos is a way to be the birthplace of something new, not just Benny but new ideas and new ways of being because we always are learning. It doesn’t matter how old we get. We are always in beginner’s mind. Talk more about how this feels creativity for all of us.
For me, creativity can be a couple of different things. There’s a standard Webster’s definition of it. Pure creativity is pure expression. Lady Gaga is a visual artist, is a dancer, and those of you have the utmost respect for her. If somebody says, “There’s no reason for me to do this. I just want to do it. I want to dance. I want to sing. I want to do that.” It’s the top of the pyramid for creativity. Out of that is in the expression.Every single person has a desire and ability to be creative. We need to encourage more self-expression in the world. Click To Tweet
It was also this idea of having somebody respond with, “I’ve never seen that before.” You had the Super Bowl and there was this incredible spot by Toyota of a Paralympic swimmer. They have a callback scene with the mother answering the phone at a desk but the desk is submerged in water and the swimmer swims through the scene. I thought, “I’ve never seen that before.” It’s like every other commercial. You’ve seen that shot four million times. The shot of the high five from the dad to the son. We’ve seen those shots before.
The Bud Light or the Anheuser-Busch spot or it’s never been about the beer. The opening shot of the husband and wife at their wedding clinking beer bottles because it’s pouring around them. I’ve never seen that shot before. That, to me, is creativity. It’s like, “I’ve never seen a problem solved that way. I’ve never seen a painting done that way. I’ve never seen it taught that way.” It’s based on that original thought of applying a whole new way to look at a problem, to see and solve a problem, and to express a problem. When you expand the definition like that, that changes things. What I’ve always hated was that even though I fed into it as a creative director, but we anoint people whether they’re creative or not like, “You fine sir with the goatee in the black t-shirt, you shall be called creative. You with the pocket square and the loafers, you’re not because of how you dress or whatever.”
The Apple Think Different campaign was like, “You need to be Jim Henson. You need to be Gandhi.” That is not creativity. Every single one of us has a desire to be creative and the ability to be creative. Some of us are better talented. We’re better suited for it in certain ways. Are you telling me that the average middle manager who wants to put their own clip art and PowerPoint? Why? Because it is a form of self-expression where they want to add their layer of creativity to it. We need to encourage more of that applied expression.
There are a million different equations. As you said, there’s always something new that can be born, and you’re right, people underestimate themselves. I’ve heard it all, “I’m not creative.” I had a conversation with one of our customers. I was talking to the CMO of this company. He came from IT and moved over to be the CMO. He has the most brilliant ideas about how he wants to disrupt and change things. This idea of, “This is the box that you occupy and this is who you are,” not just in creativity in a million ways. We make up our minds like, “This is who I am and this is my identity.” We all have our strengths, weaknesses, core essence and attributes.
Hierarchal Vs. Networked
I do think, for most of us, we underestimate our ability to create and our ability to do things. If more of us opened up to that, it’s beautiful to see what can be born. Coke is going through this major reorganization. We’re on the tail end of it and we’re moving from a traditional hierarchal organization into a very networked organization with a lot of empowerment. It’s very much an ecosystem. We all have a role. The more you unlock that ability to say, “It doesn’t matter what your title is, what your role is, where you live and what you’re doing, you have authorship on the next chapter of this company.” Some of the most incredible ideas come from the corners of a company that you never knew and it’s a powerful path.
I don’t know if I could have integrated this story into the last summit or whether it happened after but I did a really special engagement in Sarasota, Florida. It was for 100 CEOs and I’m talking the hundreds. I’m talking like, “No handlers allowed in the room and a parking lot full of black Suburbans with security. I couldn’t tweet where I was. Security was to the roof.” There are only three external speakers because there are no handlers around in the room. It was the CEO presenting to themselves. The three external speakers were me, George Bush, and Jeb Bush. It was crazy. If you’re familiar with something called Chatham House Rules. I cannot disclose who was in the room but I can disclose what was said.
I just can’t attribute it to anybody. You would know every single company who was there. One person was there, who was the founder and CEO of a very large eCommerce company that every single one of us has bought something from and he’s from the room, infinite wealth and boldness. Somebody asked him a question about embracing failure. There were two things he said that stood out to me. He said, “We don’t embrace failure. We’ve built 85 distribution centers. We should know how to do that, but we do an experiment. The sole purpose of an experiment is that you learn and so it’s what can you learn from the experiment?”
The other part was so smart and I’m only giving credit because I don’t want people to think this is my idea. He said, “Let’s say a startup has an idea about your category and they want to take you out. All they need to do is they go to Sandhill Road in San Francisco and they go to BC 1, BC 2 and so on. They keep going until they get a yes. All they need is one yes and they’re off to the races. They got the money and they’re going to take you out. Within established organizations, all you need is one no and the idea is dead.” The assistant brand manager has a great idea and pitches it to the brand manager who’s afraid to present it to the senior brand manager and they kill the idea. It never sees the light of day and it’s gone.
That is the difference between a startup organization and an established organization. Within established organizations, it’s not that there aren’t great ideas. There are tons of great ideas. It’s that those ideas get killed every single day. I understand the complexity of enterprise organizations. You can’t have everybody go at 500 ideas a day. You do need some process to allow those ideas to bubble to the surface so that the real people who can decide on investing in those ideas allow those ideas to happen. That is the trick for established organizations. The approach that Coke is now taking is beautifully in with that. You have the ability to write the next chapter as long as the publisher is like, “I’m buying this one.”
It’s a learned practice because you talked about that dynamic of a startup versus established. This risk tolerance, if you have nothing to lose, you’re going to be scrappy. You’re going to be like, “I’m going to go.” Once you’ve established some level of success and this happens to a lot of people in a lot of companies, you suddenly go into protecting that turf. Protecting is not a way to innovate because if you stop experimenting and taking risks, the CEO’s comments about not embracing failure, there are some distinctions that are important. We don’t welcome failure but we welcome risk-taking. We welcome a chance to test and learn so that we can innovate because too many years of protecting your turf and you ultimately will meet your demise. You’re not going to survive at all.
We had this with a client and I can’t even tell you the category. They’re the market leader by a long shot in this category globally. They came out with a new format for their product. That is a big disruption in the industry. They said, “We want to embrace this. This disruption is going to be huge but we can’t sacrifice our existing business. We can’t talk about the problem because the rest of the products contribute to that problem.” I challenged them and I said, “The heart of every infomercial is the first line. It’s how many times has this happened to you? We need to talk about that.”
I said, “If this was a disruptor outside your organization, that would be the only thing they’d talk about. You need to disrupt yourself and given this new disruption is going to add greater margin on the product that you sell, let’s cannibalize the entire thing. Take the old stuff out. If we can move everybody over to the new format, it’s amazing. If that means that we need to call ourselves it, then fantastic.” That’s easy for me to say because it’s not my job and bottom line. My role is to continually go, “I think you need to look at this and I’m going to challenge you on it.” As long as it comes with respect that, “It is your job and you do get to make that decision.”
Dynamics Of Building Trust
Ron, we’ve talked about chaos, creativity, disruption, how we have to meet the moment, all the changes we’ve been enduring and how you can find silver linings and new opportunities out of that. I want to talk a little bit about trust because I think about some of the past talks you’ve given at the summit, your book, the things you say and all the dynamics of building trust. This started with some of the power of the Millennial generation that said to all of us, “I want to see authenticity. I want to see you having social responsibility. I want to see you doing the right thing.” It’s grown. The shared adversity we’ve all been through is also brought to the forefront. This idea of values, meaning, purpose, connection and all these things that we inherently want to see as humans in our humanity. How do you think about trust both from how we work together as individuals and teams and as brands have to communicate in this new world?
It’s internal and external. Internal trust is as critical as external trust. Internal trust comes when people are allowed to find meaningful employment. Meaningful employment is corporate purposes shared across people but finding meaning in one’s work is incredibly personal. It was Roger Martin who wrote a great paper on this that I loved. It was like, “If I, as a person, not only understand and connect to the corporate purpose but see the personal role that I play in realizing that purpose, then I find great meaning in the work.” I’m like, “We stand for something more and I have a role to play in that.” If I don’t understand it, I roll my eyes and its corporate speak. If I have no role to play in it, then that’s the mission and vision and stuff that MBAs talk about.
Meaningful employment is a connection from the personal connection to the shared purpose. That’s the first thing. On the other side, I have often used the idea of Time Square as a metaphor. Not only for the blitz that’s happening of people being bombarded by marketing messages every single day. It’s not just people say, “There are too many ads and there are too many places to advertise.” I’m like, “Yeah, but it’s also no excuse.” It’s like, “You’ve got the cheese and the pizza. That requires its own ad now. It’s an innovative product.” There are lots of variety.
Trust is a two-handed trust. On the one hand, up the top of Times Square, you’ve got big legacy organizations that have been around forever. We love the longevity and stability of that, but maybe we don’t trust the people involved because they’re too perfect and scripted. On the street level, you trust the authenticity of the people on the street level of Times Square. They’re total characters. They’re not trying to be something that they’re, not but are they going to be there tomorrow? “Do I really want CEOs wearing a hoodie?” “I don’t know.”
This is the new definition of trust. There was a telco in Canada, it still exists, but their old tagline is old stream. The tagline was, “Big enough to deliver and small enough to care.” That is the basis for trust right now. I need to sign up for something where you’re like, “You’re not going bankrupt. You’re going to be here tomorrow. You have a process. Your people are paid. I get that. You are big enough to deliver and big enough to scale but you’re also small enough to care. You’re authentic enough. You communicate like real people and all of that.” This is interesting on a brand level because what do you see now? You see the big brewers of Anheuser-Busch, InBev and Molson Coors. What do they do? They not only go out and buy craft beers, but they allow them to retain their brand and their authenticity.
They go, “You can be big enough to deliver because now you’re a part of a bigger family but you’re small enough to care.” We got your back. You’ve got finance and IT, all that kind of stuff, so you’re not going bankrupt, but we still want you to maintain that authenticity of being this small and nimble brand. That, to me, is trust now. That has completely changed the game. For the first while, it was top of Times Square. I trust the people who have been around a long time. For a while, it was the street-level entrepreneur. It was all the startups and the hoodie-wearing CEOs and stuff. We’ve settled into the middle where we want a little bit of both, big enough to deliver small enough to care.Internal trust comes when people are allowed to find meaningful employment. Click To Tweet
It’s going to be interesting to see how this evolves. Trust in value, in virtuous business, and life has always been important but it’s going to become even more important. It’s going to be very interesting. I think about my kids being a part of that next generation. They’ve been renamed the Zoomers after COVID. I wonder how this experience will shape them as adults, shape their sense of meaning, purpose, appreciation and trust. I also see the technology being so pervasive in their development between gaming and social media. It’s a very different world in which we live, and I think it’s getting harder to navigate. The clutter is real.
The algorithms of tech organizations are feeding you and me something. I don’t know if Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeannie, and all those things are in Canada, but we can sit here and say, “Remember when we used to watch I Dream of Jeannie?” Now, there are 25 versions of that experience for kids. They’re losing somewhat of that shared cultural experience, and I’m contemplating this right now. I don’t know where it’s going to end up but I think it’s different.
Ben was a COVID kid. He was born in COVID and we joke that in future years where they’d be like, “What’s up with that kid?” “He’s a COVID kid.” Is that because he’s a little socially operated? He didn’t know babies existed until he was 1.5 years old. He’s just seen us and he’s sick of us. He’s like, “When are these people going to leave? I’m sick of everybody.”
Future podcast, I’m talking to Benny, “Your origin story.” “I could not shake my parents. I could not get rid of them.”
They wouldn’t leave me with anybody. At the same time, it is a little bit of a digital kickback. You can see that baking, woodworking and knitting skips a generation.
All three of those things right past me.
You and I were raised on craft processed cheese. That’s where that was our generation. On one hand, it’s scary but on the other hand, barbers are back in a big way. How great is that? When we’re not in lockdown, the barbershop that I go to, the barber that cut my hair the last few times before the pandemic, was a 23-year-old Vietnamese female. We had this image of the 80-year-old Italian dude being the barber. Now, it’s a 23-year-old Vietnamese female, and I love that. We are hopefully coming to a blend of the two worlds where yet digital will be used for certain things but woodworking, barbers and crafting and things that you do with your hands and all that are going to be more important.
It’s going to be fascinating to watch how much we appreciate being together again after being apart. It goes back to your origin story and what you value because you didn’t have it. What do you now embrace because you’re like, “I now know what it’s like?” I was talking to a gentleman who recovered his taste. He had COVID and lost taste and smell. He’s like, “People do not understand how smelling chocolate chip cookies and tasting great food is such a beautiful pleasure of life.” When things are taken away from us, the value goes up. I think we’re going to see that manifest in 1,000 different ways. Ron, my heart always soars when I talk with you because of your warmth, intelligence and generosity.
The Most Valuable Things
I’ve kept a lot of your time. I want to ask you one more question before we close. This is the broad blanket question I always try to close out the conversations with. The people that are reading are everyone from Coca-Cola employees to people all over the world who stumbled upon this conversation we’re having. What, in your experience, would you say has been the most valuable thing you’ve learned on your journey? We’re sitting around the fire and it’s passed to you. What can you share with us, Ron?
I did a Phys Ed degree, started working in the business school, and helped launch the first executive MBA program delivered over video conferencing in 1993. It was zoomed back when it was the Kodaks, TVs and stuff like that. I remember I was a Phys Ed grad. Of the 8 managers that were in this entrepreneurial unit of the business school at Queen’s University, 6 of us were Phys Ed grads. I went to the director of this unit, who was a PhD in Stats, and is still probably the best entrepreneur I’ve ever met. Imagine getting something like that off the ground within an academic environment was nuts.
I remember saying at the school of business, “Why are 6 of us Phys Ed grads and only 2 are B Coms?” He said, “The only rocket science is rocket science. What I like about Phys Ed grads is you’re social. You know how to get along with people. You can socialize but you’re not weird. You know the team environment. You can operate within a team and you’re completely competitive. You know what it takes and all that. It’s like, “We’ll figure anything out.” You look at the great entrepreneurs. My good friend, Michele Romanow, was a great entrepreneur. She’s a star of the show called Dragons’ Den, which is like a Shark Tank in Canada.
She started something called Clearbanc Financial so people don’t have to give up equity in their startups to get cash. She loans the money at interest easily. She has no background in finance or banking. She started this thing because she solved a problem. That was the first one that is a big lesson. The second one was my good friend, my former boss, a guy named Tom Blackmore, who was the president of Euro RSCG, now Havas. When I made my way into advertising, he said to me one day, “Do you know how you succeed in this business? Take care of people.” That’s it. I know it sounds so altruistic and nice and everything.
It’s true that if you take care of people, and enough of whatever it is will convert. That’s not why you do it. Know that you’ll be taken care of somehow, someway in whatever. Don’t focus on that. Focus on taking care of people and you’ll be taken care of. When I launched my agency, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had launched it because I wanted to figure out the problem of advertising and stuff. I was like, “I’m not going to go to organizations I had worked with before because I thought they would all see me as the TV commercial guy. I don’t want to be that.”
I ran into an old client who was no longer with Dell. She was my Dell client. She is now at AOL. She said, “I didn’t know that you started an agency.” I said, “I did.” She’s like, “Who are your clients?” I said, “I don’t have any. I just started it.” She goes, “I’ll give you a project.” “What?” She’s like, “I’ll give you a project.” She had not been a client in many years. I think because I took care of her then and continued to take care of her through the years of adding value wherever I could, I didn’t ask for her to return the favor. I didn’t expect anything. She wanted to take care of me. It was such a generous thing for her to do. That one project was like, “We’re off to the races, we’ve got our project.” Take care of people, then all will be good.
Ron, I cannot think of a better way to end this conversation than talking about the idea of taking care of each other because I mentioned the fact that we are in an ecosystem and everything we do matters. How we help each other matters because every action raises it for all. We certainly have seen that in recent adversities, and it’s only going to become more important moving forward that we do show up big for each other all the time. Thank you for showing up for me and for sharing your wisdom, your stories and your laughter. I’m grateful to you.
Thank you, Kathy. This is such a wonderful community of people who are reading this blog who had gone to the Summit and all that. When you look at what’s the one thing that all these people have in common? It’s you. Thanks for being you.
Thank you, Ron. I’m so grateful and I look forward to many more beautiful conversations.
Thanks to everybody for reading.
Thank you so much.
- Ron Tite
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About Ron Tite
Named one of the “Top 10 Creative Canadians” by Marketing Magazine. A best-selling author, speaker, producer, and entrepreneur, Ron Tite has always blurred the lines between art and commerce. He has been an award-winning advertising writer and creative director for some of the world’s most respected brands including Air France, Evian, Fidelity, Hershey, Johnson & Johnson, Kraft, Intel, Microsoft, Volvo and many others.
He is the founder of Church+State, host and executive producer of the hit podcast, “The Coup”, and publisher of This is That Travel Guide to Canada – a best-selling and award-winning satirical book. He has written for television. Penned a children’s book. Wrote, produced and performed a hit play. Created a branded art gallery. And was the executive producer & host of the award-winning comedy show, Monkey Toast.
In demand as a speaker all over the world, Ron speaks to leading organizations about leadership, disruption, branding, and creativity.
Ron’s first book, Everyone’s An Artist – Or At Least They Should Be (Co-written by Scott Kavanagh and Christopher Novais), was published by HarperCollins in 2016. His most recent book, Think Do Say: How to Seize Attention and Build Trust in a Busy Busy World, hit store shelves in October or 2019.
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