Mitch Joel of Mirum – Digital Urban Planning, Being Customer Centric, and The Subscription Economy

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This episode is brought to you by G2 Crowd

In this episode Mitch discusses:

  • How to prepare for the age of AI
  • What were these companies before they became customer centric?
  • The problem of not defining “Fake News”
  • The subscription economy

Read the Transcript

Sales and Marketing Automation Tools mentioned in this episode of Stack and Flow that you can review at G2 Crowd: Acquia, Facebook, Hubspot, Marketo

John J. Wall: Hello and welcome to Stack & Flow. I’m John Wall.

Sean Zinsmeister: And I’m Sean Zinsmeister.

John: And today’s guest is Mitch Joel. He’s the president of Mirum; Mirum is a global digital marketing agency in nearly twenty countries and has over 2,000 employees. In addition to his two best-selling books and his work as keynote speaker at companies you may have heard of, such as Google, Walmart, Starbucks, Microsoft, Proctor and Gamble, and others, Mitch has done over 500 episodes of “Six Pixels of Separation” a podcast where he shares what’s he learned as a media hacker, stretching all the way back to pod-camp one and before, with more than ten years experience on that front. Mitch, thanks for joining us today.

Mitch: I’ve got to copy and paste that intro and use it everywhere, I think. I’ll use it before I get into my house, just have my family be reacquainted with my greatness, yeah.

John: Sean, you had an article from Harvard business review about liberal arts in the digital age. What brought that to your attention?

Sean: You know, it seems like every time we have an episode that we’re touching around the edges of one of the AI conversations … and I think this one is one that definitely is really close to my heart, and one that I’m interested to banter around with Mitch a bit, which is … everybody’s talking about the importance of STEM education. My wife and I are about to have our son in November, and so we’re already kicking off conversations about, “What is he going to study?” And the types of interests that we want to surround him with. How important is STEM education going to be at that point? Is it even more important to be differentiated with creativity and liberal arts degrees? The ability to learn by asking lots of questions. And I think it’s too easy, especially when we talk about, “Go to market professionals,” and branding, and marketing professionals, we’re so focused on being data-driven and data-centric, and how we can use that to inform our decision-making. But I think that there’s going to be a renewed importance.

You know, we talked about this with Jeff Marcoux, and I point to my own background, where I’m going to steal from Mitch’s book, “Control, Alt, Delete” which I highly recommend if people have not picked up a copy yet, where you talk about the squiggly path, in terms of being a professional. And mine was in a music, having studied music and composition theory and performance, and using all of those … I call them auxiliary-latent skills. Indirect skills, if you will, to lead to some of the work that I’m doing today, and for marketing ops career and things like that. The final point that I’ll leave, and then I want to push it over to Mitch and get his feedback on this idea about the evolution of education, is it opens up what, to me, is a really exciting part of the artificial intelligence discussion, which is AI, yes, is a constellation of technologies, and I think that’s really, really important. But AI is also … it’s a cultural phenomenon. We’re sitting here asking our questions about education in the future, “Are we going to have jobs?” To quote an anthropologist that said, “The Luddite Rebellion” and things like that. And I think that this is the part that also really starts to be intriguing. I think that part of this cultural phenomenon really comes with education.

So Mitch, everybody’s sitting here talking about data as an education. Are we going to see a renewed emphasis, importance value, uniqueness, maybe differentiation against the machines and AI? What are you seeing here? I’d be curious.

Mitch: I have this line that I toss around, I know Shel Holtz loves. It goes back to “Six Pixels of Separation,” my first book, where I would always say, “Everything is with, not instead of.”

And I parlayed that as automation became more relevant and robotics were doing more. “Are robots going to replace us, or is it a real opportunity for humans to be augmented, because of robotics?” And there’s this part of me that’s extremely hopeful that the answer is algorithms and machine learning, and then how that develops into deep learning. And artificial intelligence is going to be the platform by which it’s going to actually do things all on its own, and not require us. But there needs to be some form of oversight, there needs to be some form of architecture, there needs to be some form of maintenance.

There needs to be some form of human interaction between the humans, maybe not necessarily with the computers. So you sort of go along, “Well everything is with, not instead of.” The actual philosophical problem with that is then that’s not artificial intelligence at the core. Artificial intelligence is computers deciding without any explicit command, on their own, intelligently, making better, faster, more intense decisions that a human ever can. And so I find that when you look at the discourse of it, it’s a real slippery slope, because I can choose one side that says, “No, everything is with, not instead of.” But in fact, that’s not artificial intelligence; that’s the opposite of it. It’s us explicitly telling machines what to do, which then really doesn’t mean that they’re making autonomous, better, smarter, faster decisions.

Sean: Right.

Mitch: That’s one part of what I hope is an answer to where you were going. The other part is, “What do we do? What do our children study?” It’s tough to say. There is a pushback against this whole “coding is what will make people truly bilingual or trilingual in the world.” That was the running joke; I lived in Montreal, and it’s a French province, and so the big push here in education has always been, not even bilingual, but French first and English as a second language, is the nature of the province that I live in by law. And I would jokingly tell my spouse that our kids need to be trilingual — coding. And the pushback against that is, “Well, having all these people code isn’t really realistic. It’s not like you need a million plumbers because a million people need a toilet.” And that’s fair, I get that argument.

But I think that argument is shortsighted. What learning how to code does is it opens up a collaborative, a way of thinking, a creative path to solving problems that may, in fact, make you as an individual going through this course now, more powerful and more employable at some point in the near future. So I don’t necessarily lament the fact that I don’t know how to code — I know some basic HTML, not enough — but I feel like I have at least exposure from business book readings and conversations. Not to talk myself through coding, but understand what it means and how it operates, because we engage and have hired a lot of them, employed a lot of them, that I feel like I’m dangerous enough to understand what this new world looks like.

The third chunk of it is pure architecture; so if you think about how our society has been built through many iterations, whether it’s from the agriculture complex into the industrial complex into the knowledge or technology complex, all of that requires intense architecture. It did take people to figure out, “We need shelter and building. And what does urban planning look like as cities get busier and busier?” And within it, there’s many layers, again, from how the plumbing operates to how homes go against commercial spaces against parks and recreational spaces, against where families live — urban, nonurban, etc.

Sean: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Mitch: I feel like there’s been a lack of conversation around this idea of, “What is this digital architecture?” So again, the coders are building this architecture, with and or without a lot of oversight around true, what I would call, digital urban planning, right? Like, “What is this really going to look like when it’s all built out?” And the visualization I can give to you two nerds is like Tron. You think about Tron and this Matrix-y lines and neon lines of what the city looks like. But it is, we’re sort of in that zone. We haven’t filled it in yet; we haven’t densely populated. What happens with urban sprawl digitally, right?

So, if young people can have an understanding of it, “Oh, this isn’t just coding for what line by line to get something to look like something.” That’s not what I mean, I mean it more from a 30,000 foot architectural view of it. What does that city now look like? What does state or province now look like, what does that continent look like? What does the globe look like? There’s a lot of white space in that. That doesn’t necessarily mean, “Let the robots take over and have it all be AI based.” I think it will requite some “mapping,” and some of that primitive architecture for it to really move the needle forward.

Sean: There’s so much there to pick off. I think that the first thing on the coding front; I completely agree with your synopsis there, and to me, the word that I roll that into is the idea of literacy. That idea, that it is important, especially for people to be able to at least understand some of the basics, I love that idea of the digital outline of things. The reason I like studying programming, even though no one would ever want to use my code, is introducing these new ways of thinking, new ways of problem solving. And be able to understand, to look under the hood, understand how these things work, makes it a lot more feasible, a lot more liquid to bring those messages to market in a mass scale. And I think that’s one of the things that I’m seeing that’s a big challenge right now, is you get this quixotic marketing from companies that are pushing these AI products that look like something out of a science fiction novel, and it’s almost just like people are shooting far too high.

The other part, speaking of, you talked a little bit about infrastructure, and the piece that I think is really interesting right now is that everybody always forgets that there is some hardware behind this stuff. We’re all wrapped up in Cloud and everything, but Cloud is just a computer not hosted on Prem, and the idea is that it’s fascinating to look at companies like Google, Microsoft, and some of the other big chip makers right now, who are now starting to be like, “Hey, CPU’s not fast enough. GPU’s getting there.” TCU’s is something that Google’s starting to talk about. This idea of the evolution of hardware and how much more we need this processing power is now something that we’re starting to see. Are you starting to see any sort of renewed emphasis on the hardware, in addition to some of the software out there, Mitch? Especially thinking with some of these big companies.

Mitch: You’re definitely traipsing into an area that is not my area of expertise. We’re talking about real tech hardware, infrastructure, versus Cloud, versus, “What are the needs of large organization to deploy against that?” I could run through some top-level thoughts here, but candidly, it’s the work of our CTO and CIO here, and it’s not the work that I necessarily touch. But what I would say, going back to where you were earlier in that, is with all of that, with all of the tech and coding and the importance of that, I think the other converse side of it is still what you were saying. If you were studying things like music composition, I would say that’s pretty close to the language of coding.

And the other side of it is, and this is maybe even applicable to your thought around tech stacks and how they’re growing too, is there is this sort of power of humanities and evolution, and thinking about, “How did we grow and evolve?” I do think there’s a lot of learnings in that studying that is hyper-relevant to how we deploy against larger and larger server farms, and where they’re placed, and the impact it has, and what it means, and on and on.

But again, specifically to what you’re asking … look. At a top level, of course, bigger and bigger brands want more and more power, and more and more access to more and more tools. I believe if they have anybody with a C title that involves technology, the passion and desire to have it off-site, to have it be Cloud-based, to have it pay month by month, and on the back end, whoever is providing that service, whether it’s something like an Acquia or something even more simplistic, as a marketing automation software, a Hubspot, Marketo, whatever, is that it becomes that person’s rule to improve the technology and make it better. And I don’t see any of that; it’s not like I’m sitting under Version 1 and you’re on Version 2.3. That’s where I think the own-ness of these larger infrastructures, beyond just a power and speed reside, they want to make sure that not only are they paying month by month or whatever it is, but that the person who’s providing them with any service that’s sitting on top of that, they’re doing the hard work that making sure everybody’s on the same version with the best functionality possible.

John: Man, I totally love digital, urban planning metaphor. I’m definitely going to steal that, I’ll give you credit for it. But I’m all over that.

Mitch: I just made it up.

John: It’s so perfect! There is, there’s two levels of that where I love it; one is that there’s just so much work to be done to get this to all come together. But then I love the other thing you have, and we’ve all seen this, where you see these companies where it’s basically one guy. You say it’s almost AI and it’s cutting-edge computer intelligence, but there’s one person who knows how that whole thing works, and knows how the hardware works, or worse case, it’s a larger company where there’s 30 people and no single one knows how it all works.

There’s no way to pass that on, so coming up with more of an architecture of how this stuff is supposed to be built and why it’s built that way, and to be able to finally get to a point where it can be passed on to other organizations, or just so it can evolve within the organization after that one guy finally retires or steps down. We talk so much about this being dystopian, but if we’re able to make such great gains, it continues to get cheaper and cheaper for us to feed, cloth, and shelter a person … gets to be table steaks and can happen, because if everything else is just so productive that if 1% of the world can build enough and make enough to sell to the whole rest of the planet, can’t we get to a point where everybody can survive? It doesn’t have to be this dystopian mess.

Mitch: I mean, the challenge with that is the have and the have-nots. The challenge with that is connectivity; I just came back from actually doing an event related to the FI space, but for rural areas. And it’s amazing to do your presentation, and again, the clients in the room know it. It’s not a question of if it’s going to happen, it’s just a question of when, so it’s nice to be able to show them all this stuff that big brands are doing today in relation to technology and marketing, connecting to consumers. It’s another thing for these people to go, “Yeah, but at the core, we don’t even have to pipes. We don’t have the infrastructure to even deliver rural.” And that’s in the USA. Forget about parts of the world that are just completely not connected, or parts of the world that maybe skipped over the Web world and went more to simplistic mobile platforms.

So if you think about it from that side, it’s a nice thought, John, but it’s not a pragmatic deployment against all of the world even being close to being ready for primetime, because you have many rural areas here, in North America, that you can’t even get a decent receptions, let alone connectivity. So I don’t know how we talk about this in terms of being an access for all, unless we solve the infrastructure issues and challenges first. And it’s a tough one, because these are big and/or small companies who have access to these communities, and the fact remains that it’s not “worth it” to connect them, or very difficult, or very costly to do it. And that’s where the “not worth it” comes in. It’s not a question of people not being worth it. You’re going to lay cable, fiber optics, whatever it might be, that’s going to be very costly for a small population. What do we do? How do you move it forward?

Conversely, in major metropolitan centers, I think about it in relation to newspapers. It’s like, “We’re going tablet only. We’re not printing anymore, we’re not.” I get this, I’ve sat on the board of directions for some of the larger organizations that have to deal with this. It’s an area of real, personal interest for me; it’s really problematic. It’s problematic if there’s no agreed upon centralized place that all of us go — could be many of them — to get real information that’s been vetted, curated, edited, and proper to our local areas around things that really matter. And you know, Little League matters, the city hall matters, but I’m talking about boiling your water advisories and stuff like that. It’s really challenging, it’s really challenging problems that we have that I think are somewhat micro, but they’re really macro, in terms of solving, that then roll themselves up to your statement about it being, “Well isn’t it great because everyone has it?” The answer is, “Actually, no, because not everybody has it, and two, even if we do have it, let’s say we are connected, we don’t necessarily know where to go for it. We have a high distrust of the content that’s being put onto these engines and these systems.” There’s a lot of inherent problems that we haven’t solved and our exuberance to have massive unicorn-like IPOs.

Sean: You sort of touched on it a little bit, and there is something when it comes to AI and dealing with information overload. But I also wanted to pivot into this idea of fake news, and this is something where if you think about what we’re consuming on our Facebook channels, for example, the algorithm is essentially deciding what information that we see, and we each have our personalized truth. They think that they can fight fake news with AI, but the way that people get information, and having it be so driven by an algorithm, does that have an existential threat on part of our society? Because there’s a lot of people that are hoping we look at the politics and say, “Hey, fake news that was also automatically curated by the algorithms of a Facebook had a big part in getting our current administration elected.” And they think there are spots that they’ll look at, where it’s all of these untruths. What are the dangers? Are these things that you think about when it comes to … it’s not just the information overload, but the types of information that we’re seeing?

Mitch: Well, I challenge that and say it’s also the definitions. When I think of fake news, I think about an automated platform that is generating news stories that are pretty much being written by humans trying to incite a specific group, to change their minds or crystallize a very polarized opinion. That’s part one of it; part two of it is leveraging technology to ensure that the targeting of that message has been automated and systemized so that the people receiving it will share it, talk about it, click about it, perpetuate it, and then almost humanize it and authorize it. And then what you have underneath that is more nefarious targeting and retargeting of that information so that it sits within the sphere of people whose influence they’re trying to perpetrate.

That, to me, in a very long-winded way, is what fake news was during the election process in the US. The problem is many people, and now currently the president of that administration, has taken fake news to mean, “Anything I don’t agree with, a type of political thinking that is not aligned to what I like, and what I’m going to do is I’m going to inflame that with gasoline and lighters when that group makes a mistake.”

So news that is a mistake isn’t fake news, it’s a mistake. News that is an editorial isn’t news, it’s an editorial. We actually have real definitions, but when you lump that all into fake news, and then the definition of fake news is different to people like the three of us, people more into tech and understand the media, versus the average consumer, someone who consumes the news. You can’t even answer your question, Sean, because nobody is using the same definition of what fake news is. And what’s happened is because of the blow horn of the administration, they’ve rebranded fake news to mean “opinions, things I don’t like, and when somebody else makes a mistake.” And unfortunately, that’s not what fake news is, but unfortunately, that is what fake news is now.

John: Mitch, you’ve always been at this intersection of brands, digital, and the consumers, and how those three always converge. And as a keynote, you’re always up to date about what’s going on in that space. Does this fake news stuff fit into that at all? Is there anything that you’re watching here that you’ve been telling people about, how to make that work for your brand?

Mitch: There’s nothing specific in the flow of a 60 minute keynote that I give. And even specific to … I’m doing one now on how to build your content marketing center of excellence, and to get to that place on where you really are focused on what you do. I also don’t get into it, one, because candidly, I’m Canadian. And this politics of, and the polarization of it, I don’t think adds value to my narrative and what I’m trying to do. And the other part of it is my content isn’t very specific to what I would call “media literacy.” So the problem isn’t just you have an administration doing this versus a technical what fake news is; you have a lack of interest in the consumption and the people who consume the media to have any form of media literacy.

Sean: How much responsibility, Mitch, do you think that the Facebooks and Googles of this world have on this particular conundrum? Do they have a responsibility to play here? How much do you think needs to be putting pressure on the firms who control the pipes, if you will?

Mitch: You know, there’s a couple ways to look at it. One way to look at it would be like, “What responsibility does the supermarket printer and trucking system have on the content that’s put in The National Enquirer?” Right? And that’s really the pragmatic connection you could make between the two. And so it depends on if the supermarket is saying, “No, we’re just a distribution center,” or is the supermarket saying, “No, we’re a hub for news?” And this has been the model, right?

Because you do a Facebook saying, “We’re not a media company,” and then back-stepping on that a little bit, or backpedaling on it just a little bit. That’s one side. The other side of the argument is, “Well, unfortunately, it’s a duopoly now, and you are the place where it’s coming from. And what is your responsibility to your customers to ensure that there’s a monochrome of ethical on that?” It’s a very complex question. I do not believe that Google or Facebook, in the early days of building a business model, were thinking about being these arbiters of that. I just don’t; I think they really saw their roles as curation and platforms by which individuals can connect and share ideas, let’s say. Now, you can bang a drum and go, “Whoa, hold on, brands infiltrated and they did everything that we’ve all been talking about for over a decade. Congratulations.” I don’t know if congratulations are in order. It’s like everything that I was very optimistic about, these digital channels and publishing and doing all these connections points, have come true. And I don’t know if it’s a good thing anymore — I thought it would be.

But again, it’s almost like a third part of it, which is there’s that argument that it’s ambiguous. It’s neither good nor bad; it’s whose hands it’s held within. And that’s the bigger challenge and conversation when it comes to Facebook and Google. “Is that true?”

Sean: You touched on the presentation that you talked about, the content center of excellence. I also wanted to try and tie that into maybe a new buzzword, maybe an old buzzword that’s being resurfaced again, which is the idea of customer experience, because all these things that we’re talking about right now, how AI could deliver and enhance customer experience, more personalized recommendations and problem solving … is that something that you’re seeing tied in, especially at a high level for brands, starting to think about that end to end? Or is the something that maybe has been resurfaced, perhaps, and maybe hijacked by some of the technology companies here in Silicon Valley, that brands have always been thinking about?

Mitch: Can you name a successful business that wasn’t focused on their customers selling to them? We have this conversation as if every single website built out of the gates wasn’t about the customer. It was about what? And so yes, I believe that when we talk about it, what we’re really talking about are connection points, right? Is the experience that I’m having digitally, whether it’s on the web or mobile device, the same as when I walked into your store, dealt with one of your sales reps? I think there’s a big gap between those two, and as we get more and more digital, the question is, “How do we get closer to that experience so that we can grow the business fair enough?” But this idea that brands were never customer-centric, and now we’re really customer-centric, I just find wild. I see brands non-stop get up on stage and they show these slides where it’s like, “Look, the customer’s now in the middle.” I’m like, “Where were they before?”

Sean: I guess I was thinking back to one of my Godin-isms, if you will, around brands being focused with selling average goods to averages Joe’s. And perhaps this idea … it may just be a misnomer, the thing about customer experience, where maybe we’re thinking about it more from a quality standpoint than how many widgets we can push out? Perhaps that could be a part of it?

Mitch: Yeah, and look. There’s no bigger Seth Godin fan than I am. And I think the question back to that point is, “What was really going on, though?” Was it average things and average people? Or was there a lack of need for unique things to people who now believed in unique things? In the hyper-globalized world that we live in, we’re seeing cities really emerge now.

And is that what’s driving us to have more unique experiences, versus again, Seth’s example. He always shows that slide of the aisle of pain medication, like, “Do I need 300 choices? I made my decision about when I have a headache, what I need.” Was it all mediocre? Is it just really brands trying to enter into competitive … to me, it always more about, “Oh, there’s a market there. Can I capitalize on it as a new business opportunity?” And that created a proliferation of brands. And I don’t disagree with them. Many of them were mediocre.

John: Mitch, I know you’ve got the two books that were out there and you’ve talked a bit about you’ve got some ideas percolating for the third book. What’s on your radar, as far as interesting stuff, and has anything sparked yet, as something that you might want to write about?

Mitch: It never ends for me, in terms of content. I think you’ve known me long enough to know that, where books are a function and component of a larger pedigree of content creation. Every Monday, I do a 10 minute radio hit, every Sunday I publish a podcast, every Saturday I do a link share, I do a column for a magazine every month, strategy. It’s like a never-ending thing, and I think books, for me, just become this place where I’m trying to figure out how to crystallize a couple bigger ideas. What are some of the bigger concepts I’m thinking about, in terms of presentations? One of them now is when I think of streaming. So people think of streaming, they think of Netflix, Apple Music, Spotify. I’m actually more interested in how these newer technologies that are being adopted at a rapid rate are changing about how people think about buying. So in the case of a Netflix or Apple Music streaming, it will focus on how many billions of hours are streamed every month, and we’ll show these interesting slides when we get up and speak. I’m more fascinated with the fact that suddenly, you have consumers who are willing to pay a small nominal fee monthly in a subscription model.

John: Yes

Mitch: And the bigger thought for me in that, that again, I talk about when I do my latest presentation that I’m crystallizing the bigger form, is they’re paying for everything over buying anything. You’re paying for access to everything over paying for something. Those two little nuance changes, I think, have massive impacts on how consumers think about brands and buying. So even Snapchat, you’d look and you know how they do posts. “IPO! How smoking is Evan’s model wife?” On and on, that’s the PR stuff we see around Snapchat. For me, what makes Snapchat interesting is that it very much replicated human conversation. Not everything gets posted and archived on the Internet forever. Sort of a femoral, transient way we talk to one another; I think that has been a catalyst for chat bots. I think that’s been a catalyst for messaging applications’ growth. And I think that’s also lead to a different consumer, where suddenly, if I can have these more private, engaged conversations with a brand, it changes the way I interact and the way I buy. So those would be two spaces that I definitely talk ad nauseam about on stage for 60 minutes and that I write about and think about.

And is it different? I don’t know how much different it is in some of the other great thinkers that are out there. But again, my focus is more, “Is there something going on here that changes consumer’s behavior in relation to how they buy from a brand?” And I think that yes, it is happening, and with that, there are fundamental new business models that are very exciting that most brands are still thinking, “Hey. What’s our Snapchat strategy?” Meaning, “How do we create content on Snapchat?” Versus, “Hey, do we actually converse and connect to our customers in that in femoral and permanent way?

Sean: You mentioned chat bots, and I think what’s really more interesting about chat bots is giving consumers and a new way to interaction with a brand, because I think it’s almost too easy to look at the artificial side of chat bots as actually having dinner with an entrepreneur who has done a lot of these messaging apps and worked with intelligent voice recognition and things like that. He’s actually fairly bearish on this, just given the level of intelligence that these particular automated messaging services are at, and I definitely think there’s definitely some instant use cases that I would see from the customer service side, and how to better route call centers and things like that. But I also look at these types of therapy bots that are really interesting that are starting to pop up, especially in China, where people are just willing to have these conversations with these chat bots. I think that it’s almost that I could go either way with this, but are there brands already starting to experiment? And are there any particular examples that pop out to you, Mitch, about brands that are taking a novel approach when it comes to … not just saying “How can I help you,” and finding the right FAQ type of thing. But in terms of really helping to shape a brand new connection through chat bots.

Mitch: Probably. I read the news, as others do. The challenge I have in commenting on that, and anytime I get asked, “Which brands are doing this right?” I get the question, it’s a fair question. I tend to avoid it for two reasons; one is we’re running an agency here with clients, and it seems to bang a large drum to talk about how great we are, don’t want to do that. The other side of it is that because I am on that side, I don’t ever know why someone does something. You look at something and go, “It’s pretty amazing that this brand did this.” You go, “Wow, that’s amazing! Yeah, it’s great!” But my side of it is, “Does anyone really know why? Was that a fluke?” I don’t know. So I never want to give props to a brand, because I don’t know what they were thinking.

Sean: Right, or what the pain was that led them to that, or whether it was purely marketing PR driven effort.

Mitch: Yeah, and there’s so many things underneath it, you know what I mean? Even the one we talk about, marketing, still to this day, would be like the Oreo dunk in the dark real time. I look at it and I marvel at it, and I go, “With that, what’s really amazing here is that Oreo’s done some amazing things. 42 plus million people who like them on Facebook …”

One of the case studies that I talk about live is what they’ve done with color-filled and the holidays and having people customize these cookie boxes that they sent for 15 bucks, and how they’re selling direct-to-customer. Again, another massive opportunity for businesses is, “How do you go from distribution models to direct-to-customer models?” It’s huge, and yet we harp on these thing and go, “Look at how great or creative that was, or how smart that was.” Fantastic, but I don’t know. I don’t know, and then you say, “Well, there’s a war room around it, and they were waiting for their moment. And they capitalized on it.” Okay, or was it three young people just sitting there and going, “This would be fun?”

I don’t know, and so I don’t like to ever applaud, or the opposite, diss a brand, because I wasn’t in the trenches. And I know so well, from doing this for close to 20 years now, that you work really hard with clients to do amazing stuff, and sometimes the amazing stuff never gets any credit. But it actually really moved needles. I’m not trying to avoid your question, Sean, I just never liked people who comment and write about brands that they have never worked on. They just have an assumption because they read something in AdAge.

Sean: Right

Mitch: But I’m going to assume yes. Listen, there are brands that are thinking really intelligently about, “How do we engage with people beyond, ‘Hello, can I help you?'” And again, I also look at that and go, “Well who cares anyways?” I mean, how many years has it been that we’ve had websites where after two minutes of not doing anything, a little pop-up box comes up and it’s John Wall going, “Hi, this is John! Is there anything I can help?” We’re talking about it like this is some massive new innovation. It was an annoying tech application ten years ago.

Sean: It’s true, and this is coming from somebody that before I jumped into the marketing game, I was doing sound design. And if you ever called FedEx, you’ve heard my work, and building intelligent voice recognition for phone trees, I’m the first guy to get on the phone and just mash zero or try to get to a human as fast as possible, let alone trying to futz around with a bot who’s trying to do the same thing. I’m laughing because we have been there with a different technology, we’re just repeating ourselves again through this …

Mitch: Well, yeah, and the difference now is because messenger apps are cool. The consumer’s proactively engaging the brand and putting it into their call list. Okay! Okay.

John: Mitch, let’s hit on a little bit of audio stuff before we go out the door. Obviously, we talked a little bit about music and subscription services, how this has all changed. But of course, you’ve been on the podcasting front forever, and even have podcasts about bass players, what’s going on on that front. So what have you got going on over there?

Mitch: I cannot believe I’m on “Stack and Flow” and we’re going to talk about my bass player podcast. But I will. So it’s called “Groove, the No Treble Podcast.” It’s available at, which is actually the largest publishing platform. It’s bigger than any of the other guitar-bass magazines for bass players. And the idea is there I just wanted to have conversation with these types of musicians, because I love them dearly. It’s just for fun, I do a monthly conversation, and we’ve had some amazing master legends on there. It’s going to continue to happen; I’m trying to build the largest oral history of electric bass players as possible, but it’s not the show for that.

It goes back to stuff that John, you and I were talking about at that first Pod Camp, which is there’s an opportunity with audio to do something that isn’t radio. And that’s always what “Six Pixels” was, and what “Groove” is, and any other form of podcast that I do. Which is I don’t have to go, “And now we’re back from the break with John Wall and Sean, and we’ve been talking for the past 15 …” That sort of, “You cut to commercial.” I loved doing “Six Pixels,” and still do, and still love doing “Groove” for the same reason, which is I don’t feel that it’s content you can really get anywhere. It’s long form, deep conversation, it’s fly on the wall. I just like that.

So when you talk about what’s happening with audio, I think there’s just been a proliferation of that. And I feel really vindicated and validated when people like Marc Maron have the success that he has, or Joe Rogan, or whoever, because it feels like, “Yeah, someone’s spending three hours talking to somebody. It works, and people like it and want that.” So I feel really vindicated; I also feel vindicated because it’s niche, and I’m speaking primarily to book authors about business. And at the same time, in that niche, there’s a mass audience now.

You look at a guy like Gary Vaynerchuk, love him or hate him, and he’s got millions upon millions upon millions of followers for his new form of motivational business thinking. So that means that my market isn’t that small, it can actually be quite a larger discernible market, and I like that. So, when I think about audio in general, I just go, “Wow, there is an opportunity not to do radio digitally, and there is an opportunity to have deep, meaningful conversations, hopefully like the ones we’re having now, about very specific and niche topics.” And that, to me, is the alternative underground vibe that I like.

John: That sounds good, Mitch. We appreciate you taking time to talk with us. And we did run a little bit long, but it was great stuff, so we appreciate having you on board. And we’ve talked about folks can find you at “Six Pixels,” they can find you at Mirum, but just to give you a chance to plug whatever your latest thing is, if people want to find out more, what’s the best way to get in touch with you?

Mitch: Just Google “Mitch Joel,” or “” It’ll take you where you got to go. But thanks, guys, I love these conversations, and I appreciate you having me on.

Sean: I just want to say, Mitch, thank you again for taking the time. And if you’ll permit me just to fawn a little bit, but I followed your work for years, and it’s not just that I admire your career story about how you went from the music industry to where you are now. I think what’s most inspiring about you, and what I continue to love to see in your work, is this thirst for learning, that thirst for curiosity; every time that I see a presentation of a piece, it seems that you have developed new seed of an idea that it’s just watching you explore this stuff. It’s been incredibly educational for me, very inspiring for me, and I have considered you a mentor throughout the years. And I really encourage anyone who doesn’t know you to get to know you, and it’s been a real treat to chat with you today.

Mitch: I really appreciate it. Very kind of you, thank you.

John: All right, that’ll do it for this week. Sean, anything else you’ve got coming up next few weeks?

Sean: There’s a little bit I’m doing on the narrative behind the knowledge economy automation and exploring that with AI. But I have some commentary around San Francisco’s looking to do a robot tax, and I’ve definitely had my opinion, whether it’s been shared or not on Linkedin, that I think I’ll be writing a little bit about. We’ll see where that comes down.

John: All right, that sounds good. It was great that you had that HPR article about liberal arts. I actually do have a copy of “The Fuzzy and the Techie,” by Scott Hartley, and I’ll be talking to him in the next couple weeks over at marketing over coffee. So I’ll throw out a link to that when that goes live, but that will do it for us for today. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you in the stacks.

John Wall

John Wall

John J. Wall speaks, writes and practices at the intersection of marketing, sales, and technology. He is the producer of Marketing Over Coffee, a weekly audio program that discusses marketing and technology with his co-host Christopher S. Penn, and has been featured on iTunes.

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