No Risk, No Romance!
Leading Turkish marketing magazine Campaign interviewed Tim Leberecht on the occasion of his speaking at TEDx Istanbul
You were a guest speaker at TEDx Istanbul. What did you focus on in your session?
I spoke about what I call “business romance” and argued that we are entering a new romantic era in business and tech – as a countermovement to the pervasive use of “smart” technologies that now allow us to connect with, measure, and optimize everything. Because of this we seem to only value what we can measure, and I’m worried that we engineer the romance out of our lives: moments of unexpected beauty and wonder, encounters with strangers and strangeness. In my book, The Business Romantic, and my TEDx talk I proposed “Rules of Enchantment” to inject mystery, surprise, and delight back into our workplace and customer experiences. Furthermore, I make the case for poetry and vulnerability as key success factors of innovative organizations. There is no innovation without imagination, and at the heart of imagination lies the perhaps naïve or foolish hope that another world, another life is possible. Steve Jobs knew this, and every visionary entrepreneur or business leader does. It’s a fundamentally romantic proposition.
What are the trends in marketing world that concern or excite you?
I’m both concerned and excited about the rise of data-driven marketing. Marketers are forecast to spend more money on technology in 2015 than IT departments. There is a risk that we overstate the importance of data analytics and insights and forget about the value of intimacy, about the beauty of genuine human connection, the small moments amidst all the Big Data. Our obsession to quantify and optimize every aspect of our transactions and interactions with customers might get in the way of creating lasting impressions and brand or products that people truly love, and not just “like.” But this also presents a unique opportunity: With so much data at our fingertips, we can now not just target our audiences with more precision, but also cultivate what I call “smart romanticism”: using data to enable serendipity, surprise, and delight, not just comfort and convenience.
You’ve been in the marketing business for 20 years. According to your observations, what changed since the beginning of your career? And what remained the same?
In the marketing profession, the pendulum has always swung back and forth, from marketing as an art to marketing as a science, as an exercise in precision and responsiveness. But the tension between these two poles — between the left brain and the right brain, analytics and imagination, clarity and ambiguity — is perhaps more palpable today. Big Ideas are still paramount, but they now increasingly need to be proven by data and “hard metrics.” Moreover, the customer experience has become critical: a more holistic understanding of the entire customer journey and a growing appreciation of design as a strategic asset and key differentiator.
They say that the business world is like a war field of modern life. You just work hard to beat the others. But in your new book “The Business Romantic” you say we can pursue our dreams while pursuing a meaningful life. Is this even possible? In a business world, in marketing?
I hope so! We are in dire need of transcendence, of reconnecting to a sphere that, in the “second machine age,” seems buried underneath a flood of data as well as the corporate logic of ROI and profits, the “destructive destruction” (Douglas Rushkoff) of solipsistic start-ups and an economy that exponentially rewards exponential earnings. When I was doing research for my book, I met many Business Romantics: they are entrepreneurs and CEOs, but also corporate rebels and other misfits who operate either on the fringes or at the heart of our knowledge economies. I realized that we are all craving romance, constantly. Not in the sense of polygamy at work or in our relationships, more in the sense of seeing the world with fresh eyes, and never giving up the need to find or create wonder. We’re all longing for a transcendent experience that’s so powerful precisely because it remains inexplicable. The little distortions of reality, the things that break our mental models (like chatting up a stranger during our commute), the unexpected drama, these are the “cracks through which the lights get in.” But in business we usually do everything to prevent these cracks, to avoid vulnerabilities and imperfections. We minimize risk; we strive to be consistent, fully predictable, to be in control, anywhere, anytime. It doesn’t have to be like that though. Like no other discipline in business, marketing has the power to be the great enchanter, a modern medicine man, a magician rather than a data scientist or spreadsheet bureaucrat.
What made you want to write this book? And why romance? It’s an extraordinary title for a business book.
The inspiration for The Business Romantic goes back to 2004 when I was serving as an advance press chief for the Athens Olympic Torch Relay and experienced my own business romantic epiphany moment. As part of our six-week trip around the world, the flame touched African soil for the first time in Olympic history. I remember being in Tahrir Square in Cairo and feeling a sense of awe when I saw the pride and joy of thousands of Egyptians around me. It was one of the most romantic moments of my life and the best job I’ve ever had. I realized then that this intensity of emotion was exactly what I wanted to experience for the rest of my career. I then looked to business for a sense of adventure and meaning far beyond profit and productivity. Years later, as I was working on a proposal for my book, I had this epiphany: the principles of meaning-making are the characteristics of romance! And so I zoomed in on romance and began to study the historical context, realizing that romance was the exact term for the kind of re-enchantment I envisioned in business. Romance was the best way to describe a profound desire for the world’s beauty that cannot be captured in quantitative terms. A mindset that explores without exploiting. A lifestyle and leadership style in business that maintains a sense of wonder, doubt, and vulnerability as the basis for the ability to appreciate and manage complex relationships and contradictions.
In your book, you present 15 rules to become a business romantic. One of them is: Invite a person you want to do business with to meet with you on April 1 every year. This sounds risky, doesn’t it?
No risk, no romance! Meeting strangers makes us vulnerable for a moment, pushes us outside our comfort zones. But think about the most meaningful moments of your private as well as your professional life: Weren’t these moments when something unexpected happened, something that made your heart beat faster and your adrenalin rush? Romance is what is not predictable, not explicable. It is the opposite of convenience and efficiency. It means losing control a little bit. Only when we lose control we truly fall in love, with a person, a brand, a company, or the whole world around us. My “15 Steps Toward Becoming a Business Romantic” presents concrete small actions – from rearranging your workplace to inviting strangers to lunch to creating and cherishing moments solitude at work – that will make you first feel like a romantic and will ultimately help you build the courage and capacity to act like one.
And another one is: Pretend to be a Business Romantic. How? Could you please explain this for our readers?
In our modern work lives, we are expected to be flawless, consistent productivity machines. We are mostly rewarded to show up as the one same self. Surprises are unwelcome, and extreme emotions taboo. As a result, we have narrowed our work selves to a narrow slice of our humanity and divorced many of our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs from business. The first escape path from this stifling reality is to try out another identity, to wear a mask. Masks allow us to be a stranger for a limited period of time. By faking it, by pretending to be a Business Romantic, we can test the boundaries of our own self-image and how our colleagues perceive us. At low risk, we can experiment with a romantic persona and see what it feels like to act like a romantic in business: to make decisions in defiance of data, for sentimental reasons, because of the need to create something beautiful, not just something useful. At NBBJ, the design firm I work for, for example, we created a secret society to explore romantic behaviors in business. It was of course a fake secret society, but it was symbolic for the bolder, more daring culture that we wanted to become as an organization and as such highly effective.
Becoming a romantic organization… How does that benefit employees?
As modern knowledge workers we spend up to 70 percent of our waking hours at work. That is a strong incentive to create and find meaning in what we do for a living. I think we all want material gains and social security through our work, but we also all have an innate desire to connect with something greater than ourselves and to believe in something. This quest for meaning, beyond our individual pursuit of self-realization and happiness, is an incredibly strong driver especially for millennials. Romantic organizations recognize this and allow their employees to bring more of their full selves to work, to have richer, deeper experiences, and to get to know themselves and their colleagues in a new way every day. Studies show that employees lose their initial enthusiasm on average after six months on a job. Romantic organizations create space for adventure and mystery because they know that romance is the antidote to boredom and cynicism.
What do you think about the Turkish market?
To be honest, I don’t know much about the Turkish market. TEDx Istanbul invited me to speak at their event, and it’s my first time in Istanbul and in Turkey. I’m here to learn and soak it all in. That said, I understand the Turks are avid book readers, and Turkey is reknown for a long tradition of widely acclaimed authors such as Elif Safak, whom I had the pleasure of meeting once, or Orhan Palmuk. I also of course have been following closely the rise of the Turkish economy, with local brands earning global admiration and market share. I’m truly delighted to spend a few days in Istanbul for TEDx, and then again in September for another conference. So by the time my book, The Business Romantic, comes out in Turkey early next year, I hope to know much more about the Turkish market!
This interview was translated into Turkish and appeared in Campaign Turkiye.