It’s the end of the line. You either adapt or you die. You’ve got to keep up with the trends or you will be swept away by the storm of disruption.
Talking to Igor Beuker will make you feel a profound sense of urgency as a marketer or a business owner. The speaker, serial entrepreneur and trendwatcher tells it like it is, straight to the faces of big brands and traditional Mad Men. And that’s why, when seeing his name in the list of speakers of this year’s Webit Festival, I jumped at the opportunity to interview him.
In our talk, Igor talks about the pace of innovation and the methodology that can help us stay relevant but also goes into his personal journey and how he became the trend expert he is today.
Igor Beuker is an international speaker, serial entrepreneur and publicist specializing in trends and technologies that impact businesses, digital transformation, and trend-driven innovation. However, he doesn’t only talk or write about trends, he coins them. His radical strategies are backed by a multi-billion corporate track record as CMO at listed firms. Next, as an entrepreneur, he founded 3 multi-million-dollar marketing companies from scratch, which leading media network WPP acquired in 2008. Since then he’s made 2 other exits and is an angel investor in 24 start-ups.
Disruptive innovation – from the dawn of civilization to present day
As an interviewer, I always try to think of an opening question that will set the interview apart. So instead of looking at future trends, I decided to take Igor back in the past. I asked him about his take on the most ingenious and most disruptive innovation in the history of humanity.
Igor started off by taking us way back:
“Humanity’s first disruptive information technology was developed around 200,000 years ago: spoken language created nomadic society. It enabled us to survive the lions in the savanna.
Next came written language, around 5,000 years ago in modern Iraq. Reading and writing suddenly enabled us to store and share crucial information.
This was the warming up, and context, for my real answer. The most ingenious and impactful invention in our society is the printing press. Developed by German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg, circa 1439. It introduced the era of mass communication and our knowledge-based economy, which permanently altered the structure of our society.”
We moved through mankind’s timeline, inch by inch, to present day, where the pace of change becomes much more rapid:
“The most shocking, revolutionizing, disrupting innovation in human history is most definitely the Internet. It operates at zero cost (Gmail, Facebook, a blog, etc). It has shifted controlled communication to power of the people.
Now, we have entered the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It is a more powerful and disruptive force than three previous Industrial Revolutions combined. It even degrades the revolutionary force called the Internet to ‘just the warming up’.”
Adapt or die
So what challenges does this new era bring? The main one is Digital Darwinism – the phenomenon in which trends, technologies, consumers, and society evolve faster than established brands can adapt.
“It’s a fate that also threatens governments, institutions, and all other corporate organizations. We all seem to severely underestimate the speed and impact of these changes.We are in denial or delusional, and we go through a long, painful process before we really accept it’s adapt or die.Click To Tweet
That’s why we see so many powerful traditional companies fall (BlockBuster, Kodak, Nokia, ToysRUs etc.).”
A stark contrast is drawn between these corporate dinosaurs and the nimble newcomers, who are ready to hunt for trends. Igor pointed to the other end of the spectrum with brands like Airbnb, Amazon, Google, Netflix, and Tesla.
“[They] all realize that trends are now more valuable than ever before. They have contracted dedicated trendwatchers. That’s why they keep coining the limitless business opportunities of the 21st century.
Their ROI? They are innovating on a scale that we have never seen before, embracing exponential growth that is unprecedented in human history. They don’t rely on advertising, because it might win them a few quarters. They rely on their trend-driven, opportunity-seizing innovation culture, that’s why they are disrupting and demolishing incumbent brands.”
Mad Men vs. Math Men
Igor has spearheaded the use of the term “Math Men” – an antipode to the traditional “Mad Men” of decades past. To become a Math Man, a substantial shift in mindset is required. We need to move away from traditional marketing approaches, wishy-washy branding approaches, and backward-looking research.
“In the last 20 years, I’ve discovered that advertising may win quarters, innovation wins decades. So I invented a theory and a story called Mad Men vs. Math Men.Advertising may win quarters, but innovation wins decades.Click To Tweet
It’s not only a theory or storytelling. I developed a Math Men trend framework. It has helped many traditional corporate brands to survive and grow. It not only helps a Mad Men generation, to change their mindset, culture and business strategies. It also helps to coin the social and business trends of this 21st century.
Over the years, I’ve tried to reinvent old habits and methodologies into a framework powered by advanced technologies, algorithms and AI. [But] the model is built on mindset, culture, willingness, and DNA, not on technologies. Customer centricity and challenging the status quo. We all have access to the same technologies, that is not the true differentiator.
My methodology looks at innovation, but also at the Risk of Inaction. What if you don’t coin the trends from Industry 4.0? What will be left of your business in 1, 3 or 5 years?
But timing is everything with trends. AR and VR – and all other disruptive trends – will have its tipping point. Or they will move to the innovation graveyard. Most trends are being denied or smeared, because of the money and power a traditional Mad Men generation wants to hold on to. But trend-driven innovation is imperative for acceleration.”
Later in our interview, Igor pointed at the urgency of adopting this method once again with a crystal-clear metaphor:
“I really hope brands will realize that this era is about Noah’s Ark, not some local ferry. It is now or never.”
Do new dogs need to learn old tricks?
I love the Math Men concept. It’s focused, data-driven, and agile. But whenever we focus too much on algorithms and exponential growth, I get a bit queasy. I feel that we might be missing out on proven “old world” marketing strategies and be too quick to forget soft marketing skills that work.
So, I asked Igor if there’s anything from the old Mad Men era that we need to take into the new Math Men world:
“I was a Mad Man once. I believe in AIDA. I believe in data-driven, personalized and relevant content, CRM, and marketing.
Consumers demand brands who they can trust. Brands who are customer centric and brands who have shifted their strategies from promise (pre-purchase) to purchase and post-post purchase. Brands who actually solve our problems. Brands who we can count on. Brands that are still there for us, after we have ordered their products or services.
I believe in the Amazon strategy. A brand who knows me better than I know myself, based on my preferences but with respect for my privacy. Advertising is just a promise, I want brands to deliver on that promise.”
These are brands Igor calls “Trust Networks” – “Brands that have the ethics to care for next generations. Brands who facilitate and add meaningfulness to our lives.” Working with algorithms is good, but actually building a customer-centric culture within the company is a recipe for long-term success.
Igor’s personal journey
To be frank, I was expecting Igor to talk about the Math Men framework and his work. What I didn’t expect was to hear his personal journey in the disruptive innovation field. And that one, as many successful people’s stories, starts with self-doubt.
“When I was younger, they told me to shut up. Who the hell are you? You are young, lack experience and track record. So, I wanted to forget about my sixth sense. I too started to believe I was an idiot. The line between street smart and insanity is incredibly thin.
Until I consulted for Amazon. One day I heard Jeff Bezos say these magic words: “Often times invention requires a long-term willingness to be misunderstood. You gotta have thick skin.” I was done whining and feeling sorry for myself. I went back to work fully charged and motivated.“
That was part of the events that took Igor to his role today as “a misfit”, as he puts it, with incredible track record behind his back. But he’s now narrowing his focus – using speaking and writing to explain those ideas to a big audience, but working with few smart disruptors:
“I’ve finally learned to focus on the 2% of the brands with the willingness to change. That took me quite a while. And I sometimes I felt really alone, misunderstood and frustrated. It takes a lot of energy and combustion power, to keep breaking through the atmosphere.
I still care a lot. But when I got older, I finally learned the ability to smile to the CEO and say: “Hey, it’s your company. You will do the Nokia-like press conference. Not me.” I really needed to develop this skill, so I could focus all my energy and power on the people and brands with the willingness. My problem, I’m not just a storyteller. I need to see results as well.”
Start-ups and giants on the way to innovation
There are general stereotypes that we all follow. Women are bad at parking. Asian people are good at math. Dogs love us and cats are a-holes. There’s also a favorite of mine which is that big companies are bad at innovation and startups are great at it. So I fished a bit about Igor’s opinion on the topic, really hoping he will claim the opposite – but that didn’t happen. However, he did raise some interesting points on why exactly corporations are disruption-averse.
“Most big brands have a buy, not a make mentality. But big is only good when big is smart. Acquiring start-ups can help, if the mothership’s culture doesn’t kill innovation. Nike, Starbucks, and L’Oréal have embraced corporate and trend-driven innovation. They acquire start-ups strategically, they partner with start-ups and they create start-ups on request: their own ‘Greenfields’.The number one rule for big brands is: Innovation is a culture, not a department.Click To Tweet
Big brands need to understand that disruptive innovation always comes from outsiders and outliers. Never from within the industry. So that’s the answer to the balance.
Big brands are risk-averse, cover-my-ass, delusional and in denial. Retail like it’s 1999. They talk about ‘their omnichannel strategy’, while they only know around 30% of their customers. Bull shit bingo and Mad Men mindset.
Same for example at travel and tourism. Most airlines can’t even bring us Wi-Fi on board. While a generation of Math Men is flying back-to-back with Nasa. Branson and Bezos invest billions in Space Tourism.”
As for start-ups, Igor is evaluating newcomers by their disruption potential and their sustainability:
“I only invest in start-ups with a rock-solid business model. Hybrid or beyond advertising. I know my kids are addicted to Snapchat. But their business model is ‘Snapshit.‘ Old school eyeball advertising. I invest in start-ups that can shake-up markets and can disrupt markets.”
Looking at my interview notes, there are a couple of things that jump to me.
All throughout our history, we’ve witnessed changes and disruption. However, its pace is getting much quicker and the stakes are getting higher. Before brands that weren’t willing to change would be kicked to the curb. Now they will become instant roadkill.
The answer to this does not necessarily lie in the latest tech – it lies in customer empathy and true values. And in the willingness to trust your gut and take risks with a potentially huge payoff.
To hear more from Igor, follow him online and join me and 7,000 other attendees at Webit Festival in June. I promise you it’ll be not just educational, but incredibly fun – here’s a sample to prove it: