Emma's "Behind the Glasses" podcast features one-on-one interviews with some of the very best minds in marketing.One of those very best minds? Allen Gannett, founder and CEO of marketing analytics service TrackMaven. He's been on both the Inc. and Forbes "30 under 30" lists and is the author of an upcoming book called The Creative Curve. So yeah, he's a sharp guy. We cover everything from making the most of your marketing data, to one thing you can do to be more creative every day, to the advantages of having your logo be a Corgi.Be sure to catch Allen in person at our Marketing United conference April 9-11, 2018 in Nashville, TN! Learn more at MarketingUnited.com.
I think most marketers have been going through this existential crisis, where for years now at digital, they've been told, ‘Well, prove that it works.
I found that over and over again, what you find is every single study shows that creativity is something you can improve.
You have to break things down to small elements and be curious about how to improve those small elements. Otherwise, you'll just do the same thing over and over again – you won't actually become better at it.
Jeff: Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of Emma’s “Behind the Glasses.” I am really excited about our guest today, Allen Gannett. He is the founder and CEO of TrackMaven who’s a marketing analytics service, whose clients have included Microsoft, Myriad, Saks Fifth Avenue, Home Depot, and Honda, just to name a few of them.
He has been on both the “Inc.” and “Forbes” 30 Under 30 list and he’s a contributor over at fastcompany.com, and if that is not enough, he also has a new book coming out in June called “The Creative Curve” which explores the disciplined pursuit of creativity. I can’t wait to dig into that with him so, Allen, thanks for joining us man.
Allen: Yeah, thanks so much. I’m glad you still invited me because I’m getting lasik next week so I don’t know if I could be on this in a couple of weeks.
Jeff: Very good, I’m glad we’re catching you now. Awesome. So let’s first start off by just telling folks who might not be familiar with TrackMaven, about the services that you guys provide and how you’re helping workers out there.
Allen: Yeah, totally. So I used to be a disaffected marketer, and so that’s five and a half years ago, I started TrackMaven with the idea that all marketers want to use data but we grew up wanting to tell stories, wanting to be creative, wanting to make that next great campaign, not up to be a data scientist or data junkie.
On the other hand, I personally really liked that stuff and I was with a lot of people who liked that stuff, and so my whole vision was, you know, can we be that expert that data analyst, that person who you look to when you need that advice, when you need those insights rather than trying to have your marketing manager trying to figure out how to also become your analytics person. And so the company is about five and a half years old, worked with a lot of big brands, mostly consumer but also some B2B, and we have served two functions in the business.
One, we have a platform that brings in all your marketing data from about 22 different channels and allows you to build dashboards, reports. You can sort off think about it like a Tableau, but for marketers with superpowers. And then we also have a consulting services team that are basically data experts that can help you figure out your data strategy, what it means, you know, actually run reporting for you if you don’t have someone in-house. So, you know, basically, we’re full-time data geeks.
Jeff: That’s awesome and I love that it’s not just software where you are just kind of handing the keys saying “Good luck with it.” You also have that team of experts who really help marketers, too. We kind of have that similar format here at MS because that’s very important. I think too often, you get, like as a marketing manager, you get handed this software and you’re like, “Okay, figure it out.” So, I think it’s awesome.
Allen: I only have so much time in the day.
Jeff: Right, exactly, exactly. Very important follow-up question though, what is the story behind the corgi in the logo?
Allen: Oh my God. So, our logo is this very silly Pembroke Welsh corgi, and what happened was when we first started, we basically have come out with broader and broader analytics solutions, like, different modules.
The first module we launched with was competitive intelligence, and I thought that sounded kind of scary, so I was like, “Well, we should make the logo something really cute.” And so I always wanted a corgi and I figured that if we made the logo a corgi, I eventually have to get one, and so we made the logo a corgi. And then a year and a half into it, it just got weird not having an actual corgi, and so I set a goal with our team, I said, “If we get to a certain revenue goal, I would go out and get a corgi.”
And as a result, we hit that goal so quickly and I went out and ended up finding this very adorable little boy who is named Victor as a puppy, who looks exactly like the logo, who is now the real-life maven, who happens to actually be a year and a half younger than the logo. So it’s a little bit of, like, life imitating art, and people sort of, you know, thankfully assume the opposite.
Jeff: And that’s genius, too, because, I mean, who doesn’t love a corgi, you know.
Allen: Who doesn’t love a corgi? You know, they’re cute.
Jeff: Exactly. So, listen, you guys are obviously serving a very important place in the market right now because, like, in marketing with how fast things are moving, digital, you know, seemingly transforms every day, we have that data coming at us from all directions. So what is your advice to marketers, to really just…how do you guys stop from becoming overwhelmed? How do you hone in on the data that truly matter in most of your business?
Allen: Totally. So I think most marketers have been going through this existential crisis, where for years now at digital, they’ve been told, “Well, prove that it works.” And so as a result, marketers have become very obsessed about ROI data. Are my marketing investments paying off down the funnel? Am I getting leads, sales, e-commerce transactions, whatever it is.
The issue is that most marketers are also finding that they’re getting worse and worse results over time. We’ve done some studies that actually show that most marketers are creating more content but the content average is less effective and the reason why, in our opinion, is that marketers have stopped measuring top of funnel analytics. They stopped measuring anything that are leading indicators, you know, signs of community, audience engagement. In fact, I’ve gone to marketing conferences where they say things like engagement is a dirty word. The problem is that you can’t get ROI from an audience if you don’t have an audience. As marketers, we can’t just give up on this idea of building a brand or building audience if we ultimately want to have sales, customers, you know, leads, whatever it is that you are trying to get.
So, for me, the big thing that marketers need to do is start focusing on what I call leading metrics, these top-of-the-funnel metrics that give you a sense of, am I building an audience? Am I building a community? And these bottom-of-the-funnel metrics have ROI conversions. You can’t just do one or the other. Otherwise, you’ll end up over-optimizing on something.
Jeff: I think it’s really interesting because you’re right. I think there was that shift in marketing where before, it was all about top-of-the-funnel metrics. And then you know, CEOs and CMOs were like, “Well, wait, you actually need to prove the ROI. What’s the real impact, what are the dollars that you’re bringing to the business?” So then everybody went down there and said, “Okay, we need to really focus on these real business results.” But you’re right, like a blend of the two is what’s important because you need to know what is actually working from a content perspective, what is actually bringing your audience to you, what’s attracting more people to you, so that you can then go ahead and produce those “real business results” that folks are going to care about in a board meeting.
Allen: A hundred percent.
Jeff: Yeah. So, all right, as a writer myself, I’ve been dying to ask you about your new book, “The Creative Curve.” So first of, what’s it all about, and really, what was your inspiration for writing it?
Allen: Oh, yeah, great question. So, we work with a lot of marketers, and I’m a big believer that based on everything I’ve seen, that, like, creativity is something that anyone can learn, anyone can get better at. But, you know when we talk to marketers, oftentimes, what I’ll hear is that they’ll say things, “Well, I’m just not that creative,” or, “I need to hire an agency to figure out something that exciting or that different.” And this was like, sort of like, really bringing me down because, you know, we work in a lot of brands, a lot of brands that people really look up to, and I was really getting sad of hearing the story because I just don’t think that’s how human potential works.
And so, what I did is, this is about three years ago now, I wanted to understand what does the science actually say about creativity, right? Is it actually a skill or is it this, you know, divinely-inspired trait that we sort of think about it as? And when I started digging into it, I found that over and over again, what you find is every single study shows that creativity is something you can improve. And in fact, when you think about the different aspects of creativity, whether that’s a eureka moment or just finding new ideas, science shows and tells us that actually, those are just normal biological processes. Those are our brain just doing things that are different than our typical conscious and logical thought.
So, I got into that and I realized that there is a book here that needs to be told. There’s a, you know, too many people whether it’s a marketer or an entrepreneur or anyone, they stop way too early because they say, “Well, that’s not me,” right? “I can’t be a painter, I can’t be creative, I can’t do these things.” So basically, the book has two sections. The first half of the book is explaining the history of the creative myth, like this idea that creativity is this divinely-inspired magical thing, where did that come from and the science of why that’s wrong and how creativity actually works.
The second half of the book, I interviewed about 25 modern creative geniuses. This is everyone from the team behind “Dear of Evan Hansen” to your billionaires like David Rubenstein to even startup founders like Alexis Ohanian from Reddit. And I interviewed them about the creative process and what they do to actually come up with these ideas. And across all these interviews, I found four patterns, four things that they all do to actually be intentional about their creativity, and I explain those four patterns in the book. I tell stories about how they use them, and I ultimately also explain the science of why they work.
Jeff: That’s awesome. I saw the list of folks that you interviewed for the book and there are some serious heavy hitters in there, and I’m curious. I mean, without giving away everything in the book, was there kind of a common thread? Or like what was your single biggest takeaway from talking to all these folks from a variety of different industries?
Allen: The thing that I thought was most interesting was that in all of the stories, you know, I basically became like a creativity therapist for a while. Like I would do these direct calls, I would get lunch with people. It took a long time. But what I found out was that the stories were very similar, and I’ll give you an example of one of these.
Every single creative genius I talked to, every single one had some period of intense consumption where rather than being a creator, this is usually before they start creating, but sometimes, it’s in parallel, they start consuming huge amounts of content. You know, I talked to a lead songwriter from Incubus. He spent six years basically holed up in his room just listening to Metallica music over and over again.
I talked to Ted Sarandos, the chief content officer of Netflix. He went and worked as video rental store clerk, and rather than do his homework, he decided he’d watch every single video in the rental store, every single one, literally. I talked to a famous novelist, Beverly Jenkins. She used books as an escape. She grew up in relative poverty, and so she would go to the local library, and by the time she was high school, she had read every single book in this local branch library.
And so, over and over again in these stories, what you find is there’s an intense period of consumption, and I talk about it in the book. The consumption is so important because our brain is wired to be creative but it needs the long gradient. You can’t just magically have creativity that is something you don’t know anything about. And so I talk about it a lot more in the book, the mechanics, how to do it properly, how much to do it, but this idea of consumption, I just thought, was so interesting because it so goes against this idea that these people were just born with like great new ideas. And the more you think about it, it makes sense, like, of course, they don’t just come up with stuff. Like, if you don’t know anything about music, you’re not going to come up with a great symphony, so.
Jeff: Yeah, that’s really funny because, like, I’ll talk to writers out there who want to start writing and the first question that I’ll ask them is what are you reading? Because you have to have that background, you have to feed your brain in order to get those ideas out of it, so I think that’s really interesting that…go ahead.
Allen: It’s such a common pattern. I mean, J.K. Rowling talks about how she had this really hard childhood, she had this very strange relationship with her father, and how she would escape was she’d go into her room, lock the door and read, right? And this pattern is just over and over again. She says that’s how she learned how to be a great writer was by reading, right? Because you start over time, like these people were very good at observing pattern. And so, subconsciously, you start to realize these patterns. You start to realize like how do you tell an interesting story? How do you write a cliffhanger? What is a good character development? It’s really, really powerful.
Jeff: You’re internalizing all of that. That’s like when your gut tells you something, the reason it’s telling you that is because of all the things that you’ve already consumed that you’ve internalized. Whether you realize it or not, you start to develop that kind of…your own creative sensibility, of like, “I find this good,” or, “I don’t find this good.” I just love that. I’m super excited to read it.
So, I’m curious, so of all the people you talked to, who sort of surprised you most when you talked to him or wasn’t what you expected when you went into the interview?
Allen: This is a great question. So, Kevin Ryan is an entrepreneur who has a ridiculously high hit rate. So he started, he was the co-founder of “Guilt,” MongoDB, “Business Insider.” He also was like employee 25 and became CEO of DoubleClick, you know selling it for a billion dollars to Google. He also has like five other companies that have been successful so this guy is like a consistent hitter.
Like, he is not lucky. Like clearly, there is something going on. And what he told me that was so interesting was he is constantly surrounding himself with people who are less experienced than him or that know stuff about other fields. So he is constantly consuming information from other people. And something he said that I thought was really powerful, like, this is a guy who has tons of experience, tons of knowledge, and he is someone who is constantly getting emails saying, “Can I pick your brain?” So what he told, that in any conversation, he doesn’t want to speak more than 30% of the time, right? He wants to learn. He’s highly, highly curious, and that’s what he feels gives him the ability to come up with new ideas, to be creative, to do these things. And so I just thought that was so fascinating. The people who you would think maybe have the biggest egos or most have the stuff to talk about or most want to talk about themselves, I found that actually, they want to talk about themselves the least. They want to learn the most.
Jeff: Yes, you are right. I think there’s probably a stereotype there that people who start businesses are like serious type-A personalities, who might believe they have all the answers but when you’re talking to folks it’s…
Allen: The opposite.
Jeff: They’re curious, right. They want to know. Yeah, that’s what’s kind of interesting. So, full disclosure, I was doing a little LinkedIn stalking prior to talking to you and I did notice that in your bio, you have a single line there that says “Focused on helping the world be more creative.” And it’s something that you’re obviously passionate about just from talking to you a little bit here.
So, I’m curious what is one thing that people can do every day to be more creative?
Allen: So, I think that it comes back to what Kevin Ryan did which is I think, every day, be curious, ask people questions, right? This is…your living one life, you have to be intentional, you have to be thoughtful. If you’re just passively going through your day and going through your routine and not learning, like, it is such a waste and an example of what I mean by this intentionality, let me just give you an example. You know, there is this notion of the 10,000 hours principle, it’s actually it’s wrong, it’s false. I talk about it in the book. The study that it’s based on, that Malcolm Gladwell used to base it on, the scientist who actually did that study told me, and I quote, “Malcolm basically read our paper wrong.” And the reason why, this is really important, is that, think about a task you’ve done for 10,000 hours, like driving, right? You’ve driven for 10,000 hours, you’re not a race car driver. You’re not because how our brain works is that we actually get to this point, what’s called automaticity, where we actually just start doing things in almost a sort of muscle memory.
It’s why sometimes, when you’re commuting, you just lose sense of time. So, if you want to be a really great race car driver, you’d have to be curious. You’d have to be thoughtful about, “Okay, I want to get better at turns, I want to get better at accelerating, I need to ask people who have experience how to do that.”
That same thing is true across any task, whether it’s a physical or a mental task. You have to break things down to small elements and be curious about how to improve those small elements, otherwise, you’ll just do the same thing over and over again and it will just become more automatic, you won’t actually become better at it. And so that little cognitive switch, for me, that is the most practical thing anyone can do, any day. Avoid becoming automatic, right, just avoid it.
Jeff: That’s almost like a concept, really, in exercising, right…
Jeff: Because if you just do the same thing every day and you don’t push yourself to, like, you know, exceed that weight limit or run an extra mile than you’re bio just becomes used to it, you’ll never get better. You’ll plateau.
Jeff: So, this is like exercise for your brain.
Allen: Oh my god, I mean, you’re hitting on…I have a section in the book on neuroplasticity which is this…I mean, it’s just amazing. But basically, your brain generates new brain cells all the time, and how these new brain cells work, which is very much like your muscles, is that they will go the parts of your brain that are most active.
And so what they’ve found is that there is like these amazing studies of about how our brain structure actually changes over time. So there is this one study I use in the book, which is comparing cab drivers, this is all pre-Uber, cab drivers to bus drivers. The big difference between a cab driver and a bus driver is the bus driver drives the same route every single day. On the opposite hand, a cab driver is exploring an entire city. This is, you know, cab drivers in London. They’re exploring an entire city, they’re finding new places to go, new ways to get there constantly. What they found was that the part of the hippocampus that is tied to your navigational and your visual-spatial memory, with cab drivers, it’s usually large compared to bus drivers. More so, the longer they’ve been cab drivers, the larger that part of the brain is.
So our brain actually is like a muscle. It actually does change based on the task we’re doing. It is adaptable. I think that is just such a powerful statement to our bodies, to our own humanity. We have this incredible ability to change for the better, most of us just don’t even acknowledge it.
Jeff: That’s fascinating stuff. That’s so cool. So, we’re super excited to announce you’re going to be joining us here in Nashville for our Marketing United conference here. It’s upcoming April. Please tell me this is what your talk is going to be about.
Allen: Yeah, you guys are going to get the sneak peek of the book. The book doesn’t come out till June 12. So I’m going to give a sneak peek at the conference and I’m super, super excited because I love this stuff. And I think, for marketers, like, this is a job where you have this amazing opportunity, right? You are literally paid to be creative, but we’re getting so bogged down in tools and software and data and all these things that we aren’t actually exercising those muscles, and worse, most of us don’t actually think we’re creative. There’s this study by Adobe, they found only 25% of people think they are living up to their creative potential. Like, this is incredibly sad. And so, I really hope that the talk makes it clear to people that, no, you can actually do this. This is within your realm of possibility.
Jeff: Very cool. I can’t wait to hear it in person. Oh, have you been to Nashville before?
Allen: I haven’t been to Nashville in like 10 years. I’m so excited. I’ve heard there’s lots of new stuff. I’m excited to, you know, walk the main strip again. I’m super jammed.
Jeff: Yeah. Awesome. Oh, yeah, it’s a different city. If you haven’t been here in 10 years, you’ll be surprised when you get here so, yeah, we’ll give you some good recs when you get here. So, all right, one last thing, tell folks how they can find the book. Where can they pre-order it?
Allen: Totally. Anywhere books are sold, obviously Amazon, Barnes and Noble, all those places, Kindle Paperback. The audiobook goes on pre-order May 22nd, but right now, you can pre-order all the other versions.
Jeff: Awesome. Allen, this was a real pleasure, man. Really, really appreciate it. I can’t wait to see you in April.
Allen: Thanks so much. Bye, guys.
Jeff: All right, take care.
Loved chatting with Allen there. As you heard, he’s such a sharp guy. So if your marketing team is in the market for a new analytics tool, I definitely encourage you to check out trackmaven.com. If you want to see Allen in person alongside some of the smartest, most entertaining thought leaders in the industry, check out marketingunited.com. The conference is going down April 9th through the 11th in Nashville. Early bird tickets are currently on sale for a ridiculously good price. Seriously, I go to a lot of conferences every year and I cannot believe ours is so affordable compared to some of the others. The quality, the experience, the content for the price is absolutely unmatched. So, I’m obviously biased but I cannot wait for it to get here and I really hope you can join us. So I have rambled on long enough, so we will see you next time on “Behind the Glasses.”