John Roberts, CSO of Truth Collective, was interviewed by Kage Spatz for this feature in Authority Magazine published June 29th, 2021.
Imagine what we could all achieve if we all committed to one full hour a week helping someone who needs it. Sure, it can be connected to your business expertise or company offering.
As a part of my Marketing Strategy Series, I’m talking with fellow marketing pros at the top of their game to give entrepreneurs and marketers an inside look at proven strategies you might also be able to leverage to grow your business or career. Today I had the pleasure of talking with John Roberts.
John Roberts is Chief Strategy Officer of Truth Collective, a creative company based in but not bound by Rochester, NY, and a champion of curiosity, enthusiasm, and grit.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
After graduating from UK college with what seemed a major in soccer, beer, and friends, with a minor in English Literature, I smartly chose a valuable business qualification to launch myself into my business career. Sadly for me and my employer, that qualification was Chartered Accountancy.
As a trainee, it was the most miserable nine months of my life as my colleagues and I realized on day two that this really was a gross error in judgment for all concerned.
Then two friends independently suggested I try this thing called marketing and I’ve been learning and loving it ever since.
Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting and what lesson you learned from that?
As a baby account executive, I was responsible for sharing the budget with our largest client. I nervously handed out the hard copies to the eight or nine people in the room and started to walk through the costs, when my creative director (and company owner) tapped my arm quietly and showed me his random copy. It had all my working notes with all hand-marked (very large) markups next to each line item! Imagine if that random copy had been handed to one of the clients!
So lesson learned — measure twice, cut once. Or just don’t be a fool and take your private notes into a public forum. My marketing career could have been even shorter than my accounting career!
A ‘tipping point’? When I got fired.
See, I grew up in this business as an agency account man, from a young pup working 24/7 to then running the UK sales promotion for Hasbro out of a small agency in Oxford, to eventually being one of just a few Worldwide Account Directors for Saatchi, moving to the US to run a global account when I was just 30.
I had an amazing career trajectory with so many opportunities created for me and by me and surrounded by really talented people above and below me. But I became me, became fulfilled and happy and flourished after I was fired from an agency I’d just joined to return to the UK.
Sure the pain, worry and indignity, the feeling of inadequacy hurt so much. But as I used my new free time to start working for myself, I realized that deep down I was more of a planner than an account man. I cared more for the incessant challenge and excitement of learning and creating opportunities for brands to thrive, much more so than managing the accountability of the team, the agency and the client.
So a lesson learned the hard way for me — it’s not about the title, the straight-line velocity. Push yourself to be brutally honest about what you really love and follow that: make that the core of your working life, not the assumed expectation or the thoughtless career track. Don’t track, explore!
I was immensely lucky to have a kind boss encourage me, by suddenly withdrawing my income and desk, but perhaps find a way that suits your family commitments a little better!
Follow your passion, not your payslip.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
From the very beginning, we wanted to be clear and wear our hearts on our sleeve (or on our shingle at least) — the truth is our lifeblood, distinction and attraction. As one honestly creative company, we feel liberated to avoid the age-old BS dance between agency and clients, the lack of transparency, dueling agendas and success criteria based on billing or efficiency. When did business become a blood sport?
We are built to be productive, open, ambitious, and generous. And that has an amazing impact on the creativity of our teams, our culture, and our client relationships.
It means we say no fairly often, as we realize that we are just not the right people for the job — sure we can say yes and then we’ll be miserable and the client will not benefit at all. But when we say yes, we say yes with our heart, heads and guts. That yes turned into a pro bono commitment for our local Domestic Violence organization that has lasted eight years, and won national recognition, as well as helped our community open up to the challenges of DV. It turned a digital ad brief when we would have been outspent a cajillion to one, into a crafted content storytelling platform for Genesee Cream Ale that drove 18% sales.
We’re not interested in being big, we just want to be really, really good and in doing so benefit our clients and our community.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re working with a regional college that historically provides opportunities for the academically overlooked. People for whom the school was not a joy, people who are today working really hard and realize that to really get more, a career qualification will allow them things their families and community have historically struggled to achieve: money in their pocket, healthcare, and immense pride in their self-sufficiency.
So that’s exciting — helping our student base get more from their lives and helping a Higher Ed brand learn to define and appreciate this amazing, purposeful role they have to live up to.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have worked for myself, for companies large and small, and for giant, global teams. But none of today would be possible for me without my two partners Bob and Jeremy, my soul-brothers and comrades on our shared quest. It’s happenstance that the three of us make up the core of an agency team in an account leader, creative firepower, and strategist.
There’s a magic in a trinity, three people as a force united (usually), who care more for the other two than themselves. The best magic is that we laugh. Often and loud.
Is there someone you consider to be your hero?
My mother. She died brutally young at 58, but her light lives on in her family and friends daily. Not a businesswoman at all, but a graceful, unassuming force for good: she was renowned for making everyone feel better about themselves just by being in her company.
It’s an amazing skill I wish I had. Imagine that — making someone feel better, happier, flourish, just by being with you.
Wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?
Go forest bathing.
The Japanese coined the phrase ‘shinrin-yoku’ or forest bathing back in the 80s, when we had mullets and burnout. Well, the mullets thankfully have gone but we’re still creating the same stress and misery as before. When will we learn?
So get outside, please.
Forest-bathing is an amazing physiological and psychological washing of your heart and soul. And the expertise level is crazy low — basically, if you can walk outside, you can be a shinrin-yoku Jedi in 20 minutes.
No phone, no chatter, no destination. Just breathe deep and look, feel, sense the world.
I realized a few years back that I am truly happiest when outside, but still created a division between work-self and outdoor-self. What a fool!
I promise you making the time to get outside and really allow yourself to disconnect will work. And if not, what have you lost, if not yourself?
There are hundreds of memorable marketing campaigns that have become part of the lexicon of our culture. What is your favorite marketing or branding campaign from history?
Continuing my theme today, I am a huge fan of the REI campaign #optoutside, as are 17.2 million other Insta posts and counting. I believe that a brand is your central organizing principle of business, and this campaign exemplifies just that. It’s work I admire, engage with, share and am jealous of — a perfect campaign!
It began way back in 2015, as a request. To create a notification to benefit their employees, that REI would close on the forthcoming Black Friday. And how it’s grown and grown. It’s more than a notice of opening hours, more than a commitment to their values — it’s become a social anthem to define and celebrate yourself — Together, we believe that a life outdoors is a life well-lived.
If you could break down a very successful campaign into a “blueprint”, what would that blueprint look like?
Look above! And also:
We believe that the very best work has five common criteria:
Humans have to feel something before we do something. Emotion leads to action and there’s a reason we never pre-rationalize.
Too often communication overcomplicates, becomes unclear.
Stand out don’t fit in. Think of any campaign you’ve admired and it’s different. If you want to do the same as everyone else expect to be the wallpaper that no one notices.
Creative ideas are never constrained by a single execution — if they are it’s likely you have a tactic, not an idea. Look at #optoutside where the messaging, tactics and campaign has morphed over time.
Soccer would suck if there’s never a winner, so measurement matters. We and our marketing efforts have one purpose — to build commercial value. That may be needed fast or it may be building stronger value over time. But we can measure how we’re doing and improve.
Consumers have become more jaded and resistant to anything “salesy”. In your industry, where do you see the future of marketing going?
We have staked our lives in this — my company and our offering is based on the resurgence of an insignificant element that’s free and yet absent today — truth.
It’s time for brands to become more honest, to avoid the hype and really understand what role they play for people — to become more purposeful. That doesn’t mean suddenly claiming your product or service will change the world but recognize just what real value you can offer people and then live up to it.
What 5 things do you wish someone told you before you started?
1. Enjoy the journey as there is no destination.
Too easy to forget to celebrate the small moments and the big, and really appreciate the steps along the way.
2. Buy shares in this Facebook thing.
As a young account guy, we explored this student directory face booking but thought it was too niche to have value as a medium.
3. Don’t always be the last to leave.
If leaving. The office (*when we could) meant turning the lights out, then my friend you are working hard not smart. Smart wins. And has more friends.
4. This will not make it onto your gravestone.
What are you going to be remembered for? What light will you bring in this world to leave it a better place? Few of us will either qualify to justify having our commercial career as an epitaph. And fewer of us want that.
5. Help people flourish, and you will too.
What books, podcasts, documentaries or other resources do you use to sharpen your marketing skills?
Try Planner Parley podcast. As the creator & host of #plannerparley for 4As, managing the guests and the conversation is a joy and a sharpener for me every single time. Give it a listen and let me know what you think. The podcast is available where most people find their pods.
One more before we go: If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Pay it forward hour (a.k.a #Generosixty).
Imagine what we could all achieve if we all committed to one full hour a week helping someone who needs it. Sure, it can be connected to your business expertise or company offering. But it can also be what someone may really need — food deliveries, yard work, helping kids read, a smile.
I am sure we’re all really busy running our companies, our lives. But I am also sure we can all find 60 minutes if we really wanted to.
This past year has I hope reminded us all about the fragility of humanity and how we are social animals — we need people and their company as much as they need help from us.
Surprise yourself — do something unusual.
Help a stranger.
I promise you it will make you feel better.
Thank you for sharing your story with us today!