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Episode 4

The importance of intuition and context in marketing

Joining us for this episode is one of our Marketing United 2018 keynote speakers, Jay Acunzo.

He's a veteran digital marketer, dynamic speaker, and award-winning host of his own podcast, "Unthinkable." In it, Jay explores examples of work that seem crazy – that is, until you hear their side of the story. Listen to this, and you'll discover why we're so excited to see him onstage in April.

Read Full Transcript >


Jay Acunzo


Hosted By

Jamie Bradley


In this Episode:

  • Why marketers should trust their intuition rather than being beholden to best practices
  • How to move beyond hard data to insights you can actually apply to your day-to-day
  • Why true success is built on self-awareness, not expertise


  • Because we have so much knowledge swirling around us, we’re told extremes: The how-tos start to sound like have-tos. But all you really have to do is think for yourself.

  • Put aside everyone else’s answers for a second, and start asking questions relevant to your own context.

  • Your context is yourself and your team, your audience, and the resources you have to connect the two.

Episode Transcript

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Jamie: Hey, everyone, and welcome to Emma’s “Behind the Glasses” podcast. This is the place where we bring you, the curious marketer, conversations with the latest and greatest movers, shakers, and, yes, I’ll say it, thought leaders in our industry today. I’m Jamie Bradley, Customer Marketing Manager here at Emma, and with us today is Jay Acunzo.

Jay is an award-winner podcaster, a dynamic keynote speaker, and a veteran digital and content marketer. He was a Digital Media Strategist at Google and head of content for multiple startups including HubSpot. Jay spent several years scaling a venture capital firm called NextView using content marketing and narrative storytelling.

And he is now the host and producer of several web series about the meaning people find in the work that they do. Jay’s podcast, “Unthinkable,” explores examples of work that seems kind of crazy until you hear their side of the story. The show is a journey to understand what it takes to break from conventional thinking and achieve more exceptional things in your work.

All right, so we are gonna start with an email marketing question. You know, obviously, Emma is an email marketing company so our audience loves that kind of content. So we want to know a little bit more, you know, you have this crowd on one end that says, “Email is dead.” Nowadays, you have more people that are saying, “Well, email’s not dead, but it’s, you know, it has to change. It has to evolve.”

We’ve actually done our own, you know, study at Marketing United last year, which is where you’ll be joining us this year, and we’re really excited. We polled the audience and 47% of that audience said that email was kind of the breadwinner in their marketing mix.

So where do you see email fitting really into the current marketing landscape? And what are your email opinions? Good, bad, ugly.

Jay: Let’s start with the ugly, which is anybody tells you anything with absolute certainty as being dead, or in, or you have to, or you must. There are options, right? There are options.

It’s like when you’re a chef. You have all sorts of ingredients. And someone says to you, “You know what? Tomatoes are dead, and you shouldn’t use them.” But he’s not a cook. Who are you cooking for?

Like I can’t possibly sit on a microphone and tell you that a channel, a tactic, a tool is dead. That’s ridiculous. And I think that’s what really underscores the dark side of the information age. Which is because we have so much knowledge swirling around us, we’ve so much hype, and with that, comes a lot of hucksters. We’re told extremes. Like, the how-tos are starting to look like have-tos.

But I think the only thing you have to do is think for yourself, right? Like, figure out if…does email work in your situation? Well, you need two bits of knowledge to figure that out.

Number one is you need knowledge of your own context, right? So like, “Well, what is my team good at? What are we skilled at doing? What is my customer looking for? What are my resources?” Right? So you need knowledge of your context.

And then you need knowledge of what the channel is kind of generically good for, right? Which is like, all right, talk to a couple experts, or read a couple blog posts, or, you know, go and read all of Emma’s content. And now you’re like, “Oh, great. I’m informed, and now I have to make a decision that’s right for me.”

Like, there will be big businesses build this year that don’t use email that effectively and there will be big businesses that use it really well. So it’s an option and I think the important thing is that you’re aware of that option, but only if it, you know, suits your needs. So don’t believe the hucksters that say X is dead.

Jamie: I love the term “huckster.” I’m like, “the snake oil salesman.” No, that’s a great way to put it and I think that really transitions well into sort of the next question that I have for you, which is, your personal brand, if you will, one of your core beliefs, according to the internet, is that you’re all about marketers trusting their gut, trusting in their intuition, not necessarily being beholden to what we would consider, you know, best practices, if you will. So what is your advice for marketers who are kind of stuck in that rut and/or, on the flip side of that, are facing internal pressure to sort of do this checklist of, “Here are the have-tos,” when they sort of, you know, wanna branch out of that. Like what is your advice there?

Jay: Yeah. So there’s a lot of meat right there on that bone. So there’s two things that I wanna take a bite into. So one is the idea of trusting your gut or intuition and the second is what if others, your boss or your client, for example, are saying, “Go down this checklist.”

So let’s start with the first one. It’s not that I think people should trust their gut, but I do think people should trust their intuition. And so what I’m trying to do with my work is make intuition practical and we do think of it as gut feel, but it’s just that, you know, guts don’t have thoughts. It’s your brain doing the work, but doing the work really quickly and I think the people we admire have honed their intuition over the years.

And so how do we get started doing that, too? Like, wouldn’t it be great if we could find clarity instantly like the people we admire? And so I think the key there is to basically put aside everybody else’s answers for a moment and start asking the right questions of your own context. And if you look at the root of the word “intuition” in Latin, it just means knowledge from within, right?

So root out the answers from your own situation. In other words, be an investigator, not an expert. And then if you need some kind of expert to say, “Oh, this is what email is great for, or Twitter, or Snapchat,”  great, employ them later.

And so what we’ve been doing with my podcast, for example, is telling stories of people who seem to do these crazy things instantly, but when you tell their stories it’s like, “Oh, okay. You were just critically thinking and asking questions of your own context.”

And I mentioned the three components earlier of what your context is. It’s just yourself and your team, your audience or your customer, and then the resources that you have to kind of connect the two.

And so if you understand those things way more intimately, the other stuff almost takes care of itself, right? Because you can say, “Well, the reason I should use email is x, y, and z.” And, you know, that’s the missing variable, when an expert says, “You have to drop email because it’s dead.” That’s baloney, right? They don’t know the details of your own context.

So that’s what I talk about when I talk about intuition. It’s the process of thinking for yourself and the way to do that is to ask the right questions in your own scenario. Unfortunately, we’re so obsessed with every expert’s answers today, and there are so many, that that ability goes away, right? We’re not critically thinking enough. So I try to…I wanna put the power back in your hands.

So that, hopefully, addresses the gut versus intuition thing. I don’t think it’s just relying on some empty feeling. I do think it’s a logical construct of here’s what we know to be true about the people doing the work, the customers receiving the work, and our resources for making the work happen.

Now that we know that, let’s vet that thing. Is email right? Is social right? You know, is the expert saying something that’s 100% true for us, or 50%, or 2%, or 0%? You know, you can’t really know that unless you know what you’re trying to do or what your situation is.

So I wanna stop there, because that was a lot, and see if you have any follow-up questions…

Jamie: Yeah.

Jay: ...before we move on to the second half of that. But, again, it’s not gut feel. It’s thinking for yourself.

Jamie: Yeah. No, and that’s an incredible distinction. And thank you for clarifying that because I do think we all think of that word, “intuition,” and we think, oh, it’s just a hunch that I have. And really, that sort of…my follow-up question would be, where does…you mentioned context, you mentioned the team, and the resources, and all of those aspects, of course, are gonna tell that story and tell us whether a marketer can or cannot do something. But where does or where do you see data really coming into play?

Because I feel like more and more as marketers, obviously, making data-based decisions is by and large a pretty good thing because data has sort come to mean the metrics that show our success. But when you talk about context, and when you talk about making decisions, or maybe breaking out of the mold, maybe not doing something that, you know, your neighbor or your competitor is doing, how much of that ratio, I guess, of where you trust your gut, and trust your context, and all that good stuff? Where does data come in to sort of inform those decisions for a marketer?

Jay: I think if you do something exceptional, you’ve probably found an insight from your data. If you do something commodity, you’re probably just obeying what the numbers say at face value and I’ll give you an example. There was a guy on our show that we told a story about. His name is Eric Siegel and he is a data analyst. I think he specializes now in predictive analytics.

And he was working with a big airline and the data said that, for whatever reason, vegetarians missed fewer flights. Now, like, that’s what the data said, right? On the outside, you’re like, “Okay, so I have this report, I have this chart or this table. It’s saying vegetarians miss fewer flights. We’re an airline, we wanna fill every flight. Let’s market to vegetarians.”

Like, that’s a poor insight because when you ask why, you’re like, “All right, well, why does a vegetarian not miss his or her flight?” You start to get to the insight. Okay, so what has a vegetarian done? They’ve requested their own meal. They’ve customized the flight to meet their own personality. They’ve personalized something about the experience.

Oh, okay. People who personalize the experience miss fewer flights. So now rather than spend all this time, and effort, and money on a misguided campaign, we can actually run our business correctly on a more foundational insight. And maybe others are gonna think we’re crazy by offering so many ways to personalize our flights, but we have this insight pulled out from the data that says, ” You know what?If the goal is maximizing your butts in seats, you wanna let people personalize,” right?

And so I think that’s where data fits. Data is at every step of the equation when you understand what you’re good at, when you understand what your customer is dealing with, and when you understand your resources. Again, the three parts of your context. Data can inform all of that, but the key is, don’t stop at the face value, right? You need an insight, which is something you can act on, not data, which is the kind of starting block, right?

So I think that’s the key. It’s just like with a best practice. I’m not saying a best practice is wholly bad. I’m saying blindly accepting it is, right? So it’s all just possibilities and it’s up to us to vet those possibilities in our own context.

Jamie: I love that. And I mean, you know, if you wanna eat a steak dinner, it doesn’t mean that you’re gonna miss your flight. So I like walking it back there.

So, you know, to the next point. You know, when we’re starting a project…and you kind of just touched on that with the last answer. You know, I think we’re sitting down, we’re looking at, what are our resources? Again, what’s that context? What metrics are we measuring? And what can we actually…what do they mean? What can we gather from that?

So what questions, I guess, should a marketer be asking themselves before they launch that next campaign or that next project? And I feel like you’ve touched on it, but do you have sort of tried and true advice where you can turn that finding that context into sort of a checklist, if you will?

Jay: Yeah, and that’s what the year and a half of running “Unthinkable” as a podcast has helped me and really all the listeners and subscribers do together. Which is we’ve told all of these stories, what seems to be the common questions people are asking, whether it was overt or implied, that led them to do that kind of great work? So not just a rote, repeated, you know, best practice-based thing, but something truly exceptional that got exceptional results.

And so if you…I want you to picture a funnel and at the top of the funnel, there’s like just chaos. Just all the information of the information age, there’s your ideas, your friends’ ideas, your bosses’ demands, your industry’s precedent. There’s just everything in the world. Experts and their thoughts.
And at the bottom is clarity, right? It’s like this thinner drip of exactly what you think you should do.

I think intuition is like that funnel. It’s like this instant clarity generator and so the funnel is basically like putting pressure on all those bits of information so that at the bottom you can make sense of it. And I think that the details of your context put pressure on all the information out there so you can vet it. And so we found two questions that you can ask about you, that first part of the context, the funnel, two questions you can ask about your customers, and then two questions you can ask about your resources.

And the most important part is you. Because if I pluck you out of your work…like this interview would go very differently if I removed you and replaced you with someone else at your company or you with a consultant. Because, let’s face it, we like the idea of building machines as businesses, but there’s humans involved and no two humans are gonna do the same things the exact same way.

So the first filter in all of this, the first step of the funnel to whittle down infinite options to at least a few, is to ask two questions about yourself. Number one, what is my aspirational anchor? In other words, like, what’s that blend of the intent I have for the future of my work and like a hunger or dissatisfaction I have today?

So, you know, a great example is Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. So, I don’t know, have you encountered Merriam-Webster on Twitter and how awesome they are?

Jamie: Yes, I have. They are hilarious. You should…

Jay: Right.

Jamie: ...follow them if you’re not. Yeah. No, and it’s so unexpected. It’s wonderful.

Jay: Yeah. So that’s a good example of an “Unthinkable” podcast story because it seems crazy and then you hear their story. Well, they were doing boring, best practice-based stuff on Twitter and then their leader, the Chief Digital Officer named Lisa Schneider, she created this aspirational anchor for her team. She said, “Let’s show the world how fun and relevant we really are.”

Now, most leaders don’t position their work to their teams that way. Most leaders would say, “Let’s grow Twitter this percent.” Or, if you’re a really bad leader, “Let’s go viral.”

Jamie: Oh. I…

Jay: Oh, my God.

Jamie: You’ve already skipped ahead to another question I had which…

Jay: Oh, my God, no.

Jamie: ...involves jargon. Yeah.

Jay: Yeah. Oh, gosh.

Jamie: It’s the worst.

Jay: You know, it’s such a simple thing, this aspirational anchor. This statement of your intent for the future and your hunger for today. Let’s show the world how fun and relevant we really are. You know, or there was a coffee brand that we told a story of, Death Wish Coffee, the world’s strongest coffee, and this guy turned around this failing coffee business by saying, “Let’s create the world’s strongest coffee.”

Like, so having this aspirational anchor, it basically elevates your gaze a little bit to solving a problem in the world or fulfilling your customer’s desire or your desire. And if you create this filter, this statement, you can kind of press somebody’s advise through that.

So if I were to say, “Here are the 10 tips and tricks for growing Twitter follows,” Merriam-Webster might say, “Thank you very much Mr. or Mrs. Expert, but that’s not for us because we’re trying to show the world how fun and relevant we really are. So rather than obey your automation tips, instead, we’re gonna do incredibly customized, original, you know, people-powered things to show off our personality. And those things can’t be repeated. We’re not gonna just automate.”

And it’s like, oh, okay. They did it that way because they articulated their aspiration. So that’s the first question to ask. It’s about you. What is your aspirational anchor? Does that make sense?

Jamie: Absolutely. Well, and I love the way that you framed that because I think so many brands would hear that Merriam-Webster story and think, “Oh, we’ve gotta be funny.” And that’s not necessarily the case. In their case, that’s how that panned out. But we’ve had that question a lot about tone of voice with email.

And Emma…you know, to the listeners out there, if you encounter any of our content, it’s conversational, sometimes it’s irreverent, it’s very…and that was something that the business tone and voice was built upon. But we’ll often tell people, “Yeah, if you’re a lawyer or you work for a funeral home, you know, that’s maybe not the tone for you.”

But I think you hit the nail on the head that it’s not about being funny on social. It’s about what are you setting out to do as a brand and are you meeting that?

Jay: Right.

Jamie: So I think that’s awesome.

Jay: Yeah, if your aspirational anchor is let’s increase the open rates of our emails, then you’re gonna look to every expert out there saying, “Do it this way.” And it’s not gonna be authentic to you, or it might not work, or you’ll get average results because everybody’s doing it that way and you’re not standing out.

And so, you know, if you can elevate the plane a little bit… And I think all it means… Elevate might be the wrong word. Go internal. Like why are you at that funeral home or building it? Why are you trying to create a coffee business in the first place? Why are you excited about working at Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.

Like, we draw such meaning from our work and it’s so personal. You can not remove you from the work you do. But then we try to operate in this hollow generality to get the best practice, or the tip, or the trick, or, you know, it’s some kind of absolute sense.

But that’s bull. That doesn’t exist. There is nothing that is a generality, it’s all specific to you. So you might as well start with you because I think if you understand what you’re all about, instantly you can make better decisions.

And so I like to say that, you know, we’ve kind of been sold this lie about doing work. We were told that it’s built on expertise. Like, if you want a great career or you wanna build a great team or company, it’s build on expertise. I think it’s build on self-awareness. Like I think if you know what you’re all about, and you can articulate that to yourself and your team and share that statement, you can make incredible decisions really quickly all the way down to the individual list articles you choose to obey or not.

And I just think that’s such a missing piece in our work and that’s why people are obsessed which each and every new best practice, or each and every new tip, or trick, or cheat, or hack, or guru. You know, it’s because we’re glomming onto the external answers instead of knowing our own.

Jamie: So you just inspired me. I’m sitting here and I’m like, “Yeah, it is about us. It is about me.” Which is great because I actually had a question for you because I think when there are, you know, people like you out there who are helping marketers and business people really approach their work in… I don’t wanna say unconventional ways but in a way that kind of breaks the mold a little bit. It’s always, I think, intriguing to hear where you draw your inspiration from. So who are, I hate to use the term, thought leaders, if you will?

But who are other marketers, who are other brands? You mentioned Merriam-Webster, and I’m sure you’ve heard countless stories because that’s kind of what you do, who are you driving the most sort of inspiration from in your day-to-day?

Jay: Yeah. No, that’s okay to ask. I’m sorry if I made you feel skittish about asking it.

Jamie: No, no.

Jay: But like I…you know, again, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with drawing inspiration or learning from others. It’s just that you have to mash that together with your own context.

Jamie: Sure, sure.

Jay: That’s the missing piece. So, for me, I like to do what I call an extraction. Which is I’ll observe somebody in the media or in content marketing who creates work I admire or that I’m jealous of and then I try, as I’m consuming it, to extract the framework for how they did it.

And so someone I really admire a lot, and if anyone’s ever heard me on a podcast, I feel like I talk about him too much. But, Anthony Bourdain and his great show on CNN called “Parts Unknown.”

And so here’s a guy that has this… The show’s name is “Parts Unknown,” but I don’t think it’s the physical spots in the world that he travels to. I think it’s the kind of emotional places he can get by telling stories of the day-to-day world people experience.

Like you reach this unknown place with a random food truck driver, and now all of the sudden, you’re like reinspecting your own life because of that conversation. It’s like, “Wow. I didn’t expect to get there. That was an unknown part of myself that I’m feeling.”

So Anthony Bourdain is incredible at pulling out meaningful stories from people in their day-to-day and I’m trying to do that in the working world, you know, the world of business. And so I’ll watch his show for fun, but I’ve also actually sat down and took a pad and paper and tried to see, you know, minute to minute what he’s trying to do here? Like, in the first opening of every episode, what’s the goal? You know, what’s he doing? And does that map to the other episodes that he has?

And now I have this like scaffolding for creating an Anthony Bourdain-like episode and then I can match that with the way I am. Like I’m a lot less sarcastic than him, and I’m a lot quirkier and warmer, and I have different subject matter, right? And now, all of the sudden, I’m like building something that seems original because I’ve just mixed together something that inspires me with something I know about my own context and my own self-awareness.

So he’s the big one, I think, is Anthony Bourdain.

Jamie: Yeah. No, I think that’s absolutely wonderful advice and I love that example as well. Because, like you said, it’s on the surface, a show about food and travel, but when you actually watch an episode, it’s so much more. And that’s a really amazing brand, I think, to emulate or at least a construct, so… Very good answer. I love that.

Jay: Oh, thank you. Yeah, I mean, that’s… If I’m building my career on anything, it’s not trying to explorer intuition. I think we should have shows, like podcasts and video shows, that match how you and I experience work. Like not boring tips and tricks or bland data and reports, but meaningful stories, and funny things, and weird and quirky things.

Because that’s how we experience our jobs. Like, our careers bring so much meaning to us. And then the content we consume is just not that good. It’s nutritious, maybe, but it’s certainly not delicious and, you know, I think we should have some nutritious and delicious B-to-B content out there.

Jamie: Well, I hope this was a tasty bite for everybody listening. Jay, we are out of time. You’ve been absolutely amazing. I’m inspired to go do some amazing work that, hopefully, is delicious and nutritious. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Jay: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be at the event and can’t wait to speak to people there, too.

Jamie: Absolutely. Thanks, Jay.

Jay: Thanks.

Jamie: If you wanna hear more from Jay, I encourage you to check out his website, And, of course, if you’d like to see him speak live, there’s no better place to do that than Marketing United. That’s our conference that we host every year here in the great city of Nashville, Tennessee. He’ll be one of our keynote speakers and tickets are available now at

Of course, if you wanna listen to more “Behind the Glasses,” including conversations with Jay Baer, Samra Brouk, and more, be sure to look us up on iTunes and stay tuned for future episodes. Thanks for listening.

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