Mark Stevens Interview: Marketing, Leadership, and Unconventional Thinking
This interview is with Mark Stevens, New York Times best-selling author of Your Marketing Sucks, Your Management Sucks, and God is a Salesman. Mark is also CEO of MSCO, a results-driven management and marketing firm, and a popular media commentator on marketing, branding, management and sales. Mark is known for delivering business insights with blunt truths and unconventional wisdom.
In this interview, you’ll hear Mark’s thoughts on the rules of unconventional thinking and leadership, and how you can apply them to your own life.
Regis: We’re going to talk a lot today about the rules of unconventional thinking and following them as a leader. What does that mean to you?
Mark Stevens: I have divided life into two parts: I don’t want to follow anyone’s rules about anything, but I want to follow the law. So, the only place that I will follow a formula is to make sure that everything I am doing is legal. However, I don’t believe any single law imposed by convention.
When you live your life that way, you constantly find things that you are living your life by convention. I stop in my tracks and I say, “Whoa, you are doing this for what reason Mark?” And I realize that I am doing it because convention imposed it upon me at a certain point of my life. I started to follow it as if it was legal, or as if it was the only way you could do something.
Convention, from a leader standpoint, is so filled with horrible nonsense that can destroy leadership and destroy full enjoyment of a career and a life.
- Mark Stevens
For example, convention says that you have to have a balanced life: there has to be work, and there has to be play. I think they are intermingled. I don’t believe in that balance sheet. I believe if you have true passion for what you do, it’s all wrapped into one great, exciting, exhilarating ball. I don’t believe in putting down your mind in a corner over here, and putting it back on again Monday morning.
If you ask a million people, “Do you believe in a balanced life?” They say, “oh absolutely, you have to have a balanced life.” I don’t know what the hell balanced means! Then sometimes people will say “Well, you’re a workaholic.” People say “Oh no, I don’t want to be a workaholic.”
Well, what if I want to be a workaholic? What does that word workaholic mean? If I do what I love to do all the time, does that mean I am a workaholic? I am not hurting anybody. I am not driving out of control. I’m not hurting my body, which I have a right to do if I want to. These terms get applied to us. You know why they get applied to us? It’s because the lowest common denominator of people – who have the least drive, the least ambition, and the least determination to be successful – want us all at their level. So they invent these terms to keep us at their level.
It’s about not being a follower, not following convention, and not accepting the terminology of the lowest common denominator. If ask most managers, do you believe in this (idea), they’ll say I want to build a “consensus” around this. Well, I hate that word. I don’t understand what it means. Why do you have to build a consensus around it? I can’t imagine.
The metaphor I always use is, Steve Jobs wakes up in the middle of the night and says ‘I want to create an iPhone. But, let me go to the office first and see if I can build a consensus around it.’ I mean, no!
- Mark Stevens
A leader finds out something, and he or she goes back to the office and tries to bring his or her team into the mission – and certainly listens to feedback from others. But at the end of the day, every single person in the company, or the family, or whatever it is, says “that’s a bad idea I wouldn’t do that,” the leader does it (because he/she knows it’s the right idea).
During World War II, right after Pearl Harbor, FDR was advised to mount the US war against the axis powers based on sea power. The naval forces, and most of the military establishment, put a tremendous pressure on him to mount the power war, based on sea power and ground troops.
Then, a few small voices in the wilderness said “Make it air, make it air, make it air.” We had about fifty planes, I think. I am not exaggerating. It was very few. The US Air Force was tiny. The US Army was tiny. We had almost no Air Force. And then he said “No, I am going to go against the grain. I am going to build the greatest Air Force in the world. I am going to command the skies.” And that was the secret to our winning. Everybody in the Pentagon was completely against his decision, but he was the leader. So the popularity contest argument, which I hear all the time: “people don’t like it,” “I have to get buy in,” and blah blah blah blah. I hate that stuff. That is not a leader.
Regis: I couldn’t agree more. When we talk about leadership, we talk about different styles of leaders: the “quiet but strong” leader, the “authoritative” leader, the “leader that leads by example.” Is there a common thread you see between all of those types that qualifies someone as being an unconventional leader?
Mark Stevens: I think one common thread which you never read about in Harvard Business School, which by the way, I think teaches you all of the wrong things. I think it’s the best place to get most ill-prepared for a business career. If you want to use it for a network thing, fine, but it teaches you all the wrong things. You get taught by people who have never done business. I know the usual B.S. that these guys used to be, used to be, used to be, blah, blah, blah. But they’re not. They are not in the war. They are not in the game. They are sitting someplace teaching you something they have never done. They haven’t done for years and they were not very successful.
When one of my sons – he is on Wall Street now – when he went to Cornell as a finance major, his first finance professor the first day of class said to him, “I am your finance professor. I am not very good. If I was really good, I wouldn’t be here.” He turned out to be one of the three professors that my son truly enjoyed at Cornell. The guy was sensing all the B.S. and coming clean. He went on from there to be quite an interesting guy. I love that story.
Coming back to your question, one thing that I think is a common thread is that leaders don’t care what anybody else thinks of them. And that is a very hard place to get. I have people working at MSCO who come on, and I say, “that person over there, that girl or that guy has the potential to go all the way.” I really mentor them heavily. I invest in them. Because I say “They could be great, they could be creative, innovative, they could make something new happen in the world.” Then it turns out so often that their trajectory is cut short: not because they don’t have the intellectual fire power, and not because they don’t have the creativity, but because they are afraid of what other people think of them:
- They are afraid of what their fellow team members will think: “Oh, you are getting ahead of us” or “Oh, you think you are so important now.” You have to think you are important if you are a leader!
- In their personal lives, one of the people that want to hold them back says to them, “You are a workaholic.” (coming around to our theme before of “there isn’t enough balance in your life”)…and so they say, “Oh, I don’t want to be unpopular with my friends, and perceived as working too hard and being a workaholic, so I will pull back.”
I really don’t care what people think about me. I mean, I want my friends and my family to know that I am sensitive to them and love them. I want the people that I work with at my company and my clients to believe and know that I have their best interest at heart: that I will put out for them way beyond the traditional business relationship. But I don’t care if they don’t like me. I tell them what my political stance is. I tell them what I think of things. People say “You don’t say that to people in business.” But I do, I don’t care. Take me as I am or don’t take me.
Regis: Right, leadership is about having a lack of fear. I think you hear it a lot of time even in people’s vocabulary. You hear people talking about ideas, and they say “well, my fear is that…” and I just want to say “don’t be afraid, just try it!”
Mark Stevens: Exactly. I have young people say to me all the time. “Well, I can’t really express my opinion because I am young and the senior people in the company won’t like what I have to say.”
My answer to that is that with every success in life comes risk. It’s impossible to achieve success without risk. One of the risks you will have to take, whatever age you are, whatever business you are in, is that the people that you work with won’t like what you are saying.
- Mark Stevens
If they won’t give you a chance to strive because they don’t like your opinion or your forthrightness, you have to leave. Not tomorrow: I understand that there are economic realities, but you have to start to pave the way to go. You can’t tell me thirty years later that you have wasted your life in a company that has decided that it wants to have you be a person without a voice.
Regis: Well, that is exactly it. If I think about Quicken Loans, mortgages aren’t sexy, but the environment of being able to try ideas and not be afraid is what gets me up every day.
Mark Stevens: Every business is exciting and every business is the same. There is nothing more or less exciting about Quicken Loans mortgages than there is about creating chips at Intel. Because at the end of the day you can be creative in any business.
I always say that if I do one more business, because I have done a lot of businesses in my life, if I do one more business I want to do a manure company. I want to turn that into a cool kind of manure. I want to take the greatest frowned-upon commodity and make into something special.
- Mark Stevens
We had a client some years ago that sold asphalt. Now, asphalt at that time was selling for $9.00 a ton. Contractors would pull up their trucks and they would fill up their truck with asphalt and they would pay $9 a ton. What are you going to do to increase the margin of a business like that? How could you take a business like that and make it sexy?
Well, we actually worked with the company to create different strings of asphalt. One which was environmentally friendly and one which melted snow very quickly. So, we sold the second one to schools and places that where very sensitive to safety. And we sold the other one to early movers in the green movement. That asphalt sells for $50/ton and $60/ton. That gave me greater satisfaction than representing some of the “cooler” companies that we have worked for over the years.
I think that every business is immensely exciting and enjoyable. The mortgage to me is one of the great inventions in history and people take it for granted! The mortgage was an invention. We all think now that it came through divine intervention, that there was always a mortgage. But there wasn’t.
Some smart financial guy says ‘Wait a minute, okay there’s a house over there. Regis wants the house but he doesn’t have the cash for it. I will create this thing called a mortgage. Since I create this thing, Regis can move into that house that he cannot afford right now.’ What a genius thing that is!
- Mark Stevens
Regis: I love that! You are right on.
Mark Stevens: It was an act of genius that changed the world. Now we all think “Oh there were always mortgages.” But no. Somebody said “I have to find a way to get people to be able to have this thing that they could not have.”
Now, it’s interesting how the pendulum has swung and we took it too far. I have a new book coming out this fall called “Rich is a Religion.” One of the things it talks about is how people, started to say, “You know what? I will now use the industry to buy something I can not at all afford.” I don’t blame the mortgage crisis on anybody but people’s lack of discipline.
But let’s stop and realize that the industry you work in is one founded by an act of genius, that is waiting for the next act of genius.
- Mark Stevens
So what’s next best mortgage, what’s the next new mortgage idea? How can I move into a house and never pay any money and when I die my kids will pay for it? Now I don’t know what it will be, but that is where the beauty is!
Regis: The mortgage industry is in crisis. The Automotive industry is another that is having a really hard time right now. Jobs are cut, benefits are being peeled away, and salaries are frozen. Do you have advice specifically for leaders who are trying to challenge conventional thinking in these industries? When their team is under so much stress, how do you challenge thinking, inspire them, develop them, and challenge them during a crisis?
Mark Stevens: Well, let’s take the automotive industry. I have strong feelings about the US automotive industry in particular.
Here’s what I would do if I was appointed CEO of GM tomorrow, which is something I would like. I wouldn’t like to do it for the rest of my life, but I would like to do it only because I believe I know the path to success:
- The way I would demonstrate my leadership is gather everyone around virtually and actually. Obviously, It’s too big to bring everyone together all at once. But I would hold town hall meetings across the country. I would bring one of the GM cars with me and I would put it down in Yankee stadium, which I would rent and put all of the GM workers into the stadium and talk with them.
- I would say “This is our Pontiac, Chevy, whatever car, Malibu…. This car is a piece of junk. What do I mean by that? Let me show you the fit and finish of this car.” and I would run my hand across and say…“Can I get somebody in the bleachers to come down with me. Okay, you do it with me…run your hand along the side of the car where the trunk lid touches the body of the car. See how there is too much space there and where water could get it? This is called the fit and finish, you all know that. We don’t do a good job on that. Now I am going to show you a Toyota, which I brought with me also and show you the difference. Now there is absolutely nothing complex about making fit and finish it’s just a matter of caring, it’s a matter of doing it right.”
- I am starting off by telling all of you, as one of your team members, that we do a terrible job. The world hasn’t been cruel to us, we have been cruel to ourselves. The basic thing of fit and finish, there is nothing sophisticated, no sophisticated technology anything, just caring enough to make the component parts line up right, we don’t do. So we don’t deserve to be successful.
- So starting tomorrow, I am going to join the assembly line. I am going to work a week in this one, a week in this one, and I will stop everyday at 1:00 so I can do my CEO duties but I want to be part of the fix.
The reason I say this Regis is for a number of reasons.
- All these beleaguered industries have been beleaguered in part because management is stuck itself into a bunker and said: “the world is unfair to us, we are fine, they are wrong, we are right and we don’t want to hear anything.” So, I would go out by admitting to my team we deserve this, but now we will go back together and fix it.
- I think a great leader can’t fight the war from the rear guard. They have to go out in front. So I will work on the assembly line and I will figure out why we don’t have good fit and finish as a starting point, cause it’s a very easy thing to fix.
- I think that coming clean – admitting mistakes – is a very big part of leading. We all respect that so much! Whether you liked Ronald Regan or not, the country was down on itself and he came in and said “We shouldn’t be down on ourselves. We should be proud of ourselves. We should be proud to be Americans. We have always been a proud nation, so we are going to be proud again.”
Going back to FDR, when he became President during the Great Depression, he said “I am going to ride around this country – a man with polio – but you’re not going to see that, you’re going to see me defiantly smoking a cigarette through a cigarette holder and wearing a cape…and I am telling you better days are here again. “
People don’t know this, but in one of FDR’s first fireside chats, after he had closed the banks, when he reopened them he said “okay I want you to start bringing your money back to the banks.” Now, we never lived in a time when you had to worry about the banks. Neither you nor I. Why would you bring your money to a bank if you were afraid it could go into a black hole? You wouldn’t! But if you look at the newsreels, people listened to Roosevelt, and they started to bring their money back. That was a tremendous sign of confidence in a leader.
So you admit it, and you act. Closing the banks was an act of leadership. You act, you don’t act beleaguered, you act like you are confident, which you are, and you back it up with your actions.
Regis: Are there two or three leaders who have consistently challenged you and your thinking?
My Dad. He was a salesman. He always told me not to believe anything anybody tells me, just because they are telling me. And, [he taught me] to stop and say “well now, is that actually true?”
He taught me that the higher up the totem pole the person is, in terms of power and authority, the more likely we are to believe at face value what they have to say.
- Mark Stevens
That is really where he would turn on the skepticism jets: he’d say “wait a minute, you are believing that person simply because they have the titled of Senior Vice President or Czar of the Americas?” Ask yourself Mark, “does that really make sense to you? And, what is his or her reason for saying it?” He taught me that.
Carl Icahn. I’ve spent a lot of time with Carl Icahn. He never took a business course in his life, and yet he is the smartest guy I have ever met. I have met a lot of really smart, successful people that we have worked with at MSCO. Carl was the smartest.
Instead of looking at business through the eyes of famous business leaders – Carl was a chess champion at Princeton and a Philosophy major – he looks at business through the eyes of a chess player, and through the eyes of the great philosophers. We would be talking, and I would ask him a question about some deal he was working on, and he would say, “this is what Socrates would say in this case.” He never said, “this is what Alfred Sloan would say.”
So, I learned and understood that greatness often comes from looking at things through a prism, your own kind of prism. Carl looks at life through the chess / philosophy prism.
- Mark Stevens
I think the reason that Carl wins so often is because he was used to making eleven moves in advance. The average CEO he goes after now, even somebody as smart as Jerry Yang [CEO of Yahoo!], thinks two or three moves ahead, four maybe. When you are a competitor, Carl is thinking eleven moves ahead. He is always going to win.
I gave a speech in Berlin this past October. Every year, Siemens invites 180 of the most important CEOs in the world to Berlin for something they call Ascent, which is the premiere CEO conference in the world. After I spoke, we all went on a boat ride and to dinner at this unusual warehouse that was turned into a restaurant. The former world chess champion, Vladimir Kramnik, was talking and he said “You know, when I was going up the ranks of Grand Master, in the middle of a match I used to – and I would plan this – I would make a really stupid move on purpose, and it would completely throw off my opponent. I had to already have my plan for extracting myself from the problem I created for myself, but the [opponent] would be so stunned, that it would throw him back on his heels.” He used this as his strategy for becoming the champion of the world. I found that to be fascinating.
So, Carl taught me that look at things through the prism that you really find helpful, not the common one, necessarily.
Sir Issac Newton. There are two things that Newton taught me. He didn’t mean it for business, but he said, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction [and a body in motion stays in motion].
For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction.
You know, on your job Reg – and anybody else that reads this interview – someone is going to have a great day, one day next week, or the week after. They are going to sign a big deal, they are going to have a promotion, something is going to be great. I always say to my clients, my team members at MSCO, and my sons. Watch out for Newton! I don’t want to damper your spirits today, but Newton’s coming.
A body in motion stays in motion.
Leaders are driven. They don’t look for balance. They stay in motion. They are not liked by the lowest common denominator. You can’t stop them. You can’t pin them down. You can chop their legs off, and they will crawl through the ground. They are not stopping.
A body at rest, does it stay at rest? You know some people like that in your job, and I know them too. You can’t rouse them. Nothing will rouse them because they don’t have the drive. You can’t rely on them to forge any of your projects, because they won’t carry the ball. I don’t wish them ill will. But, you have know that as you figure out your own success equations and who will actually support you in any project, or dream, or passion that you have.
We only have one life Reg, one life, one life – and we should strive to achieve something significant in it. We should have somebody look back and say, “I learned something from that guy or that women.” He or she left a stamp – something that changed people’s thinking. Something that changed the way they do business. Something that changed the way they do parenting. Something!
Just don’t go through this life from cradle to grave going to work, going through the motions, watching television, eating a piece of pie, and going to sleep.
- Mark Stevens
And that is what most people do. Sorry to say, but that is what it is.
Regis: I couldn’t agree more. And I think that drive is what separates leaders from people who do not want to lead. Do you feel like there are ways to bring people across that gap? Can that be learned?
Mark Stevens: No, you can’t learn passion. It’s impossible. There is a way to bring them across the gap, and that is a leader. A leader inspires. People who do not have the DNA to be driven will ‘take the hill’ when inspired by a leader. They will never do it on their own. They will say “that’s a nice hill.” They will never do it on their own. That’s exactly what a leader does, that’s a great question, because our whole conversation boils down to that.
A great leader, without threats and without bribes, gets people who are not driven on their own to effectively accomplish a mission.
- Mark Stevens
That is what a leader does, and [the people being lead] feel good about because they did it effectively. They never would have taken the hill on their own. They would have looked at the hill. They would have sat on the bench, with a sandwich, looking at the hill. But the leader is so dynamic, and because he or she wants to take the hill, that they want to go take it.
Great leaders don’t have to pay people lots of money. People should be rewarded for what they do, but when you are working with a poor leader, you want to get paid a lot because it’s the only reward you have. When you are in the company of somebody amazing, the amount of pay you get becomes minimally important.
- Mark Stevens
If they are making some dumb-ass movie, the check can’t be big enough. You do not have to bribe people or threaten people if you are a leader. If you bribe or threaten them, It doesn’t really work anyway.
It’s so magically wonderful to watch a leader work. I believe in things that are greater than some of their parts, so you start to go into another dimension when somebody is a great leader. And people want to – for some mystical, chemical, magical reason – want to do something with that person, and that’s extraordinary.
Regis: Why is it so difficult for many marketers to understand that advertising and marketing is suppose to drive sales?
Mark Stevens: A lot of people just don’t “do marketing.” First of all, a lot of them don’t know what marketing means unless they go into advertising. They go into it because they think it’s creative. Finance is ugly, marketing is creative. That is what they think. Actually finance is extremely creative i.e. the mortgage, the lease, etc.
Regis: Exactly! I have a finance degree so I couldn’t agree more (laughs).
Mark Stevens: But there tends to be the feeling that marketing is creative, so “creative” means: “I should be able to do creative things. What does that have to do with commerce?”
It’s really amazing – you get people who think a marketer can be a creative person, yet most people who go into marketing really don’t like business.
That is the thing: they really don’t like business. They don’t consider themselves business people, they consider themselves creative people. They say “don’t weigh me down with those financials, I don’t want to see a spreadsheet. I don’t want to know about it. And, I don’t ever want to talk to a sales person because a sales person is a low life.”
They think a sales person is a low life. I mean that is what they think! That is so obnoxious to me.
- Mark Stevens
You get CMOs who have no connection to the sales force. “We’re the Marketing Department. The sales morons go out there and sell the shit and we tell them how to sell it.” It’s terrible!
Great sales forces – and there have been some in this country’s history – founded the great companies:
- When IBM was in the early days of selling hardware, it had an amazing sales force.
- When Xerox was a truly great company, they required that its sales people fly first class, because they called them the “Princes of the company.” It was a rule. It was a rule! Why? Because they’re the “Princes of the company.”
So that is what I think it is Regis. They say “I am not in business! Don’t bother me with finance guys like Regis, because he is an ugly finance guy. He is not ‘creative.’ Why would I need to know anything else as long as I am creating cute campaigns?”
Regis: It’s interesting to go back to what you were saying earlier about business school. Do you think that maybe the way business schools segment paths for being in “business” is the tipping point (for this thinking)? Because you have to pick: Accounting? “Oh no, that’s really dry I don’t want to do that.” Finance? “No that is scary and ugly.” Management? “Well, I am not really sure what that means.” Marketing? “Oh, that’s creative and cool, I will do that!”
Mark Stevens: Absolutely. I think that is a big part of it. Unless you came to school with a mindset that told you you wanted to be an engineer, or doctor, or in finance. The menu of choices if, you came (to college) uncertain, drives you towards the less, it drives you toward what people can view as “gut” (must-have) courses and those with more “creative elbow room” etc.
I just think that business school, for the most part, is counterproductive for most people. It just keeps you out of the workplace longer…where you really learn. You know you learned a lot more when you started working than you ever learned in school.
Regis: Oh, absolutely.
Mark Stevens: Now in finance, you certainly have to have the building blocks. But then again, Carl Ichan never took a business class in his life. One of the first things he did when he got out of undergraduate school was to create the first options exchange. There was no options exchange and he did it by himself.
I am a big believer in — and you do it through your blog and your relationships and your thinking about unconventional stuff — the idea that people of like minds are continuing through a liberal arts education their whole life. And in a liberal arts education, you are exposed to Newton and Niche, to the Rolling Stones, and to every possible piece of information.
You never know where your idea will come from that will be the thing that will drive you.
- Mark Stevens
I am writing music right now, popular music. I am working with a composer. It’s amazing to be doing this now because when you write music, you have to be in absolute tandem with the person who is writing the music. You have to weave and knead your art together. I write lyrics and he writes the music. But they can’t sit apart, they have to be making love at every single moment.
Yesterday, I had a song that came into my mind. You see, I write everything out, including my books, in my Blackberry. So, a flash came to me and I wrote another song. One [song] I had already written and it was in the can. The second one is written and being composed now. But, I had a flash from nowhere and I wrote the third song in ten minutes. I know it’s a really good song, but I will learn from that song. I had an idea that “God’s a salesman.” So I write a book. Where the hell did that come from? It’s a complete learning process.
The great things come to you out of nowhere and come to you really fast.
- Mark Stevens
By doing something new, like writing music for me, it opens up a whole new card of thought or action that I know I will apply on many different ways beyond just music.
Now, the proudest moment I have in my life is when I was in a restaurant in Greenwich, CT. I asked if they would play my song while everyone was eating. They played it, and I watched people listen to my music. It was just…I can’t explain the joy of that. You have to do it. You never can hear people reading your books, although I love to hear people who have read the books and are using it in their companies. Watching people listen to you music, and not even knowing you’re there…god it’s great!
Regis: That’s fantastic. One question about social media. In general, social media or social networking is in its infancy. A lot of companies are trying to figure social networking/social media out as a marketing channel. Some companies are “touching the stove” and getting burned. Some are figuring out how to leverage it successfully. Do you think social networking is at the point that it can be a profitable marketing channel in an integrated plan (like a “Your Marketing Sucks”-style plan) or do you feel like it’s something that is still too unproven?
Mark Stevens: No, I think you can definitely look at it as a profitable channel. A successful social network that gets enough of a following is an extremely viable business model because of two things: traffic, but more important than traffic, intimacy.
So in a social network, if it is a successful one, you belong to something. It’s almost like an affinity group. The two largest affinity groups in the United States are AARP and the Catholic Church. A social network will come along that will be bigger than both of them. One of them may be already [bigger], I don’t know what the numbers are now. So I think that absolutely can be [a viable marketing channel], it’s just a new way.
You told me you reached for questions for this interview on LinkedIn. What social media does is so interesting because it takes a lot of the old behavior models and makes them unnecessary. A lot of people never wanted to network, because they would have to show up and talk to people. Now, you don’t have to be outgoing; you don’t have to work a room. So the people who used to be successful in networking, the guys that could “work a room” probably aren’t successful in working LinkedIn. It’s a different mindset. It just changes everything.
From a financial perspective I think that the true profitability is yet to come but God, they are just like gigantic networks with intimacy. Nobody feels intimate with NBC. But people feel intimate with their various circles in Myspace, YouTube, LinkedIn, etc. So I think that adds a very important component to the equation and that can be leveraged.
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