Mark Barden has the answers.
This must be true, because it costs $25,000 to him as a speaker. And that’s a lot of coin. And experts get lots of coin. So, hey.
But there’s more. Mark Barden has the answers because, truly, answers are his thing. As one of the managing partners of eatbigfish, a strategic brand consultancy, he has consulted such brands as Audi, Pepsi and eBay. He’s also helped in the launch of such entities as Own (skincare) and Lark (personal technology). Last year he made his literary debut with the book, “A Beautiful Constraint: How to Transform Your Limitations Into Advantages, and Why It’s Everyone’s Business Now.”
Mark Barden, welcome to the land of answers—the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Mark, you’re a problem solver, as well as an inhabitant of earth, so I’m gonna throw this out you: Climate change scares the living shit out of me, and I feel like humanity is too stupid and self-absorbed to do anything about it. I worry that my kids, or grandkids, are going to live through hell because we were unwilling to do anything but take selfies and watch the Kardashians. So is there a solution? And are you as hopeless about this as I am?
MARK BARDEN: Nice softball to begin with. Thanks! This is a serious question and I’ll provide a serious answer. Yes, you’re right to be freaked out. I am, too. But no, I’m not as hopeless as you are. And yes, there may be some solutions.
There are two parts to the long answer below. The first has to do with how we change hearts and minds and mobilize people. Any debate on climate change has to address this. Most politicians and business leaders will follow public opinion more than they will lead it, and people must send a stronger signal that they want change. As a marketer, I see “selling” climate change as a critical issue in how to fix it.
I’ll start with a little story about seeing Ira Glass live on stage (which is as odd as it sounds, but very compelling). The latest IPCC data had come out that day, and in an apparently unscripted moment he referenced it. Just as the audience was riding a wave of enthusiasm for all things This American Life, he stopped the show, and with barely contained emotion said, “I just don’t understand why this isn’t the ONLY thing we’re talking about as a society.” In that moment it all seemed so desperate. He left us hanging in total silence until he composed himself, and then continued with the show. But I feel the same way, and have thought hard about why we’re not all talking about it.
The situation is desperate. If you’re not freaked out, you’re not paying attention. Scientists are certainly freaked out. If what’s known as a “positive feedback loop” kicks in and a steady warming trend suddenly “tips” into runaway warming (which is a distinct possibility if large areas of permafrost melts, releasing huge amounts of methane, for example) then it’s even worse than it looks today. The time to start changing things was 20 years ago.
However, social scientists have learned that shouting about the increasingly dire news won’t to change attitudes and behavior, as it makes people go into denial mode. The same social scientists have been saying for years that our own biology works against us when it comes to making changes that benefit the long-term, because we’re wired to pay attention to immediate threats of the saber toothed tiger baring down on us, not the dangers a decade or two from now. And now the message that too much “crisis messaging” stops people from engaging!? Oy. This is complicated stuff. Add to this your notion that we are “amusing ourselves to death” to use Neil Postman’s phrase, and it becomes apparent why so little is happening.
What I’d love to see is all of the knowledge base—all the social scientists, some of the best marketers, and policy makers—come together, learn from all of it, and start creating a set of best practices that can be 10x as effective in creating attitude and behavior change. Marketing science has come a long way in the last decade, with the likes of Google analytics and the understanding the Facebook guys have about what drives clicks and sharing. If these groups joined hands, pooled knowledge, and gave up some of their considerable real estate (ad space) to campaigning on this issue, we could accelerate change. And I think we’re closer than we think on this. There’s already a great infrastructure of change agents out there who’ve been mobilizing. Change often seems like its not going to happen until it does, and then it comes fast. Remember how quickly the Berlin Wall came down? How quickly attitudes toward gay marriage have changed? The same thing is poised to happen on climate change, I feel, but needs a really smart effort to create and harness the groundswell that’s already there.
If that groundswell grew, we could create pressure for some of those nudges. For example, a carbon tax creates the kind of short-term “threat” people will notice and respond to now, reducing carbon use, further incentivizing the growth of alternative energy. It may not be popular, but a more switched-on public could accept it. Carbon tax revenues could be rebated to the poor (so those who can ill afford it are not penalized by a carbon tax), as well as fund the continued search for solutions, which can be part of the policy agenda.
You can probably tell something about my politics from this last paragraph. I believe the government has to provide some big “nudges” to speed the process of change, not just in tax policy but in funding R&D. Steven Johnson makes a compelling case in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, about how important the kinds of non market-driven, but highly connected liquid networks of academia (he calls this the “fourth quadrant” of innovation) help fuel the innovation of free markets, which then feed back money and ideas into academia. Google is a great example of this. Born of Stanford CS labs, it changed the world, made loads of money, and is using its wealth in the private sector as well as feeding funds back into more fundamental academic research. We need innovation everywhere to crack climate change. There are many solutions already but much more to be done on, say, algae and the mythical cold-fusion. So tax carbon to make us all pay attention now and take action short term now, and use the money to drive research and funding for longer-term solutions. A carbon tax is just one idea that’s been proposed, but it seems to me to have many benefits.
And, quite honestly, we need to address the doublespeak and shameless cynicism of the oil companies—and the politicians they fund—who’ve been lying about climate change for literally 35 years. I just don’t know what to say about people who would knowingly sacrifice civilization for the sake of profit. Is there any other word than evil? We need to punish people for this kind of corporate malfeasance in the courts. Fines can go to funding the alternative energy development those companies could have been profiting from if they’d had the values and vision a few decades ago. And putting the lies and liars on display for all to see would help drive the change agenda. If there is one thing that we know drives behavior change, it’s the feeling of being duped and treated unfairly. Revealing the manipulative agenda of the tobacco companies, for instance, did more to drive down smoking amongst teens than any pictures of black lung. The same could work in the oil arena.
And we need more strong leadership in corporations. We’re starting to see it more and more from CEOs like Paul Polman of Unilever, Elon Musk, and the likes of Google who are working hard on sustainability issues. These people seem to care personally, as well as know they have to fix the issues if they want a future in which they can continue to sell what they make. We should do everything we can to support them, as governments and consumers. A lot of consumer spending is moving toward companies that are doing the right thing and it will continue.
And despite the doom and gloom we need leaders to paint a positive picture of what society can look like in a zero carbon world — jobs, life, health, and a thriving economy driven by cheap and abundant energy. This is a time for leadership. Provide a positive vision, paint the picture, lead people toward what is possible, with optimism, hope hope and ingenuity, and create a huge appetite and mandate for it. The dystopian future narrative is far too strong in our culture and we need an alternative. The ideas in The World We Made provide a start. Read it.
Despite how things look today, it’s worth noting that on just about all the important metrics—literacy, deaths by warfare, decline of fatal diseases, and so on—we are doing far, far better than what we might think from looking at the world through the lens of what Peter Diamandis calls the Catastrophy News Network (CNN). Relatively speaking, the world is in good shape and making progress, and the future can be even better. Although his notion of abundance can all feel a little techno-utopian at times, the idea that the convergence of so many world-changing technologies is happening today gives a certain amount of credence to the notion that our economy, and how we power it, will be wholly different in just a few years.
What really seems to be at the heart of many of our troubles at the moment is our delusional sense of separateness. This may be the bigger crisis that must be addressed. It amounts to a transformation of consciousness. We see ourselves as separate from nature, something we can control, when we are but a small, integral, part of a massive whole. We see ourselves as separate selves, when clearly our flourishing is wrapped up entirely in our connection to other people in our families and our communities. We see ourselves as separate nations, when clearly what happens over there has dramatic influence on what happens over here. Some of the “blame” for this must lie at the feet of modern consumer society which so powerfully associates happiness to our actions as consumers, and has come to define us too much. We love our stuff, but stuff’s not making us truly fulfilled. We love our social feeds, but the way we’re using them today is turning us into hollow narcissists. Those of us lucky enough not be distracted by the daily struggle to make ends meet are beginning to realize this. Part of the transition to what’s next must involve a post-capitalist, post individualist world; an evolved set of values about what success, and growth, and meaning, are derived from. I realize this is the height of irony coming from a marketer, but being so close to it, I think I’ve been able to start seeing it for what it really is.
But back to the core question: whether all of this change can happen in time. It will be very tight. On the climate, we may well have to resort to some of the more crazy geo-engineering solutions (giant mirrors in space to reflect some of the sun’s heat, for example!) to mitigate our worst impacts, and that will not be easy to do, or to build global consensus around. These will be challenging times for humanity even if we get our act together soon. But on balance I think I’ll back us. Just. We have a decent track record of not wiping ourselves out, and what it will require to beat climate change — huge collective action, massive innovation, the complete transformation of our values and economy — is the biggest opportunity we’ve ever had to prove what we’re capable of.
What if it’s not enough? Or we can’t move fast enough? Well, it gets really ugly for a while. But I draw just a little solace from the fact that humanity is just one of millions of evolutionary experiments taking place across the universe, and though we have produced more remarkable ideas in a very short period of time than we could have once imagined, if we fail as an experiment, life goes on. The planet will be fine. Within a thousand years it will be hard to see any visible trace of people.
J.P.: Your bio says, among other things, you “played a Buddhist monk in a Kleenex commercial.” Can you please explain this one for us?
M.B.: Wow! This is going to be a tough transition, but here goes. The Kleenex commercial is one of the few good things that have happened to me as the result of being bald.
The commercial in question was promoting anti-microbial tissues that kill 99.9% of germs. The “star” of the commercial is a Buddhist monk opposed to killing in any form. But unknowingly he uses the tissue, is horrified at killing germs, and his serenity is transformed into a guttural scream.
One of my former partners at an ad agency I’d started (Black Rocket) had become a director of commercials, and for someone bizarre reason had found himself unable to cast the monk. Evidently he had a picture of me in his mind, and so he just called out of the blue, ran over with his hand held camcorder and shot a quick demo. I’d never acted before in my life, so how he sold this to the Kleenex client I’ll never know. It was a huge shoot for them, so surely this was risky? But it happened. And I loved it.
At the time I wondered if this was all some way for Bob, the director, to make up to me a little. He was a spikey character, and we’d had a tempestuous working relationship that resulted in me leaving my own agency before the other partners sold it for a lot of money. Maybe Bob was turning the karmic wheel a little by providing me with some residuals from the shoot. There’s nothing quite like popping out to the mailbox every few days for a few months and finding a check for $26.72 one day, and $13.43 the next.
The best part was sitting on the sofa back home in the UK with my parents when the ad came on. We watched it in silence, then there was a pause, and then my dad said, without any conviction, “he looked a bit like you?” Hysterical
J.P.: You’ve co-authored a book, “A Beautiful Constraint,” that calls for something you refer to as “constraint-driven problem solving.” I have no idea what this means. Please explain.
M.B.: So much problem-solving is driven by the fabled “blue sky thinking” where there are no limits placed on the ideas people are allowed to have. There’s some evidence to support that this is an effective way to generate ideas, it’s just that so few of them are implementable because they are often ungrounded, disconnected from the realities of the business. At the same time, there’s an assumption that more resource, know-how, money, power, and so on is better. If we had unconstrained resources we could solve all our problems, right? Yet the concept of The Resource Curse in economics shows that’s not always the case. Nigeria has tons of oil revenue. But what kind of economy and society have they built as a result? One more corrupt than before and not much less impoverished. George Lucas had progressively more money to make each subsequent Star Wars movie, but did they get any better? Not according to ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. And in our own work with challengers—the “little fish” handicapped in some key way—we found that the constraints were often the very source for inventiveness, and not an impediment to it.
Our book proposes starting at the other end then, with the constraints and limitations not without them. We ask people to embrace them as the source of solutions. This is not a new idea, but it felt like one that needed a champion, especially given the times we live in (see above). And it turns out there is a ton of evidence that constraints can be powerful stimulus for creative thinking. Dr. Seuss wrote The Cat In That Hat when he was challenged to produce a book first graders cannot put down, drawing only from a list of 225 CVC words (consonant, vowel, consonant). At first he thought it impossible, but of course it created the unique style the world knows and loves, and made his books best sellers.
We see this general idea playing out again and again.
It was the lack of water in the Israeli desert that forced the invention of drip irrigation, and wars with their neighbors that forced the same Israeli farmers to export their abundance to Europeans—who paid them higher prices. It was the lack of natural resources on the island of Taiwan that forced the government to develop human capital through education, creating one of the most affluent countries on earth. And it was the imposition of a time constraint—the shot clock—that made the modern NBA into the high-energy run-and-gun game of today.
These stories of “beautiful constraints” are everywhere, and yet most people, if asked, would prefer to not be constrained. In fact, many people find it really hard to get started when the appearance of a constraint seems to make things impossible. So the book is a manifesto for constraint-based ideation, to make visible to people that constraints can be allies.
And it’s a how-to book that gives people just enough process to get started. Most of us understand “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade” but there’s very little written about the recipe for lemonade making. We drew on the academic literature, our own work, and dozens of personal interviews with all kinds of people—school teachers, healthcare professionals, military leaders, video-game designers—to prove that this capability is widespread and not the special domain of the creative geniuses of Silicon Valley. We’d like as many people as possible to feel more comfortable about the idea of finding beauty in constraints.
J.P.: So you’re probably the 7,654,333rd human to present himself as having answers. I don’t say this snidely—from Wayne Dyer to Dr. Oz to Dr. Phil to Vince Lombardi, Jr., the world seems overrun by people who serve to tell other people how to better themselves. So why should we listen to you, and not Wayne?
M.B.: I won’t suggest that anyone should listen to us over Wayne Dyer, or Oprah, or Vince Lombardi. I’m familiar with at least some of their advice and a lot of it seems very good. I don’t see advice as a zero-sum game. There can never be too much good advice in a world that seems to need plenty of it.
But we felt that our book needed to be written because we live in an age of constraints, and most of us don’t have a healthy relationship with them. We wanted to provide a tool kit for people to use. Like many advice books, A Beautiful Constraint has lots of inspiring stories, but it also lays down just enough process that anyone can use it to get started making constraints beautiful.
J.P.: As a partner at eatbigfish, you consult with companies, devise ideas to improve their productivity, efficiency, etc. I know this is a broad question, but what are most people doing wrong? Is there a common thread of screwing up?
M.B.: That is broad, so I’ll go broad with my answer about the common thread: the crisis of meaning in the modern workplace. People often don’t care enough about what they’re doing. They are not motivated enough to succeed, and the places they work for aren’t doing enough to help. People’s work is disconnected from the larger purpose, and/or there is no meaningful larger purpose for them to connect their work to in the first place. When failure happens, it’s very often to do with that: a lack of connection to why we’re doing this.
The best companies are addressing this issue today and working hard to define a mission that people can really get and get into. Not the dire nonsense that resides in most corporate mission statements, but a real purpose. If you’ve flown Virgin America I think you can tell that the crew feel like they are there to “put glamor back into the skies,” which contrast mightily with the way one feels on United. And most of my friends at Charles Schwab really believe in the power of investing to change fortunes, and will work hard to bring that to more people in a more fair and transparent way.
This idea of companies with a purpose to believe in is a huge idea in business today, and many of us are working to address it because it’s a winning strategy. Consumers want to know about purpose and will spend money on it. And employees want it. If we can find more meaning at work, we’ll have happier, more satisfied workers, keen to be more productive with less turnover, more loyalty, better day to day engagement, and better long term health outcomes, too. And then those firms will be more profitable. So there’s a virtuous circle beginning to spin around this idea. Daniel Pink has reviewed a lot of the data on this in his book Drive. It’s more complicated than this, but not much.
J.P.: You work with a lot of companies. A lot of companies as seen as these evil entities by private citizens. You know what I mean—tax break-seeking, union-destroying, minimum wage-paying monoliths out to slice the heads off the lower and middle classes. So … is there anything to this?
M.B.: That’s another doozy that would take an entire book to even try to answer properly, but yes, I believe there is something to this.
First, I want to say that the vast majority of people I have met in my work have been honest, fair, hard-working people. It doesn’t help much to stereotype all business execs as villains, as it sets up yet another us vs. them distinction that immediately separates humanity in yet another way at a time when we should be doing far less of that kind thing. There are sometimes bad actors, of course. I already made my point about Exxon, and one could point to Enron, too. Goldman Sachs hardly cover themselves in glory, do they. There are nasty, corrupt people everywhere and sometimes they run powerful organizations.
And it has to be said that the idea that a corporation’s sole purpose is to maximize shareholder returns and drive the stock prices has become a dangerous idea that we must reexamine. The need to maximize against the one metric puts executives in a tough place when it could be odds with their role as employer, global citizen, steward of the environment and so on, and it reinforces the short-term thinking we see far too often in the corporate world. Steve Denning has written a brilliantly insightful piece on this, and it is well worth a read if you want to understand the roots of the problem.
We’re beginning to see strong benefits of triple bottom-line thinking (putting people, planet and profit on an equal footing) and the idea of the B-Corp is a move in the right direction. As discussed above, it helps some consumers and employees decide to whom to give their energy, and I hope it continues to sway the market. But there may be legislative change that’s needed, too.
Look, I’ve always felt that business is a game played by a given set of rules. The contest between players separates the good from the bad, as it’s the best way to make the system as a whole work better. Your basic Darwinian survival of the fittest is a dynamic that it is essential to protect. So if we don’t like how the game is being played, we should change the rules. For example, we have dramatically increased fuel efficiency of America’s cars by imposing higher CAFÉ standards on all automobile manufacturers. Car companies wouldn’t do this voluntarily because it is hard and expensive, but as they’re all under the same threat, they have responded. That was government setting rules and creating a level playing field for all players.
Tax rules are just a different set of rules. You can’t really blame corporations for finding and exploiting tax loopholes, can you, if they know there competitors are going to do it? But you can blame legislators for not closing them. Of course many of those legislators are in the pockets of the corporations who lobby for rules to be twisted, so that fix would probably require a larger fix of campaign finance reform first. If I were to identify a single issue that would help solve many more issues in the U.S. it would be money in politics, which corrupts absolutely. I’m with Lawrence Lessig and MAYDAY.US on that one.
J.P.: How’d you get here? I mean, I know what you do—but what’s the life path? When did the light bulb appear? Why?
To mis-quote Lemony Snicket, it was a series of fortunate events. I have never had a long-term life path, I’ve always followed my nose, and my nose is usually sniffing out adventure. Everything good that’s ever happened to me has come as a result of taking a small, but calculated risk that the choice I was about to make would be more fun and open more doors to more opportunities. I wasn’t always right, but that’s what’s driven me. I moved to the US when I was 28 because I sensed it was a big opportunity. I worked at the best ad agency (Wieden & Kennedy) on the best client (Nike) without really knowing it. I’m still connected to a lot of those same people today, and those relationships have opened dozens of doors for me.
I started my own agency because it seemed like the next obvious step. We won the Yahoo! account in our first week, and it put us on the map. But within months I realized I wasn’t going to be at my best at that place, so I left. When I came back from a year of travel the first dot-com boom was underway, and that felt like the obvious next step. That was PeoplePC, which flamed out after opening on 3 continents, going public, and blowing $500 million. Not an entirely happy experience, but guess where I learned the most about running a business?
That’s why I enjoy working with challenger brands. It’s just good to be around people who sense possibility and then go after it. I like that mindset, and I like being around entrepreneurs.
So no “light bulb” per se. In fact one really dreadful piece of advice is this “follow your passion” idea. If you have a passion, that’s fine. You’re blessed and you should go all out. But what if you don’t have the one thing that drives you? I didn’t. Must you feel really bad about it and conclude your life has no direction? I suspect that’s the impact this advice has on most people. I was always just intrigued by what might happen if I did X. No path.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your life? Lowest?
M.B.: Greatest is watching my wife give birth to our two girls. Lowest is losing two very dear friends in separate incidents, one not yet 40, one just turned.
J.P.: I hear people say, “In America, anyone can make it!” I have been to Gary, Indiana, where almost no one makes it. What thinks you? Are we the land of “anything is possible” or the land of “anything is possible—but more possible for some than others”?
M.B.: This would take longer than my climate change answer to do justice to, so I’ll duck it with this: It used to be “anything is possible,” and now I’m not so sure.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MARK BARDEN:
• Would you rather slice off your left arm with a rusty butcher’s knife or devote yourself to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for the rest of your life?: Lose the arm. I figure with a few years I can get an ever better one thanks to robotics. Everyone WILL be doing it. (With huge apologies to all the amputees out there. Jeff made me say it.)
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Kelvin Bryant, University of Southern Mississippi, Martha Stewart, cucumbers, Denver, Laura Linney, “Remains of the Day,” Chaka Kahn, Entourage, Magic Johnson, MacBook Pro: Cucumbers — ever had a fresh one, right off the vine from your own garden?; Laura Linney — have you seen P.S.?; Remains of the Day — I like me some Merchant Ivory if only to remember how stuck up my fellow countrymen can be; MacBook Pro — I can’t believe what this thing is capable of; Chaka Kahn — 1984, college, and the surprise some time later that Prince wrote I Feel For You; Magic Johnson — he’s still alive!; Entourage — douchey Hollywood types; Kelvin Bryant — who dat?; University of Southern Mississippi — all is forgiven, but hard to get off the bottom of this list.
• Celine Dion calls. She offers you $25 million a year to be her personal advisor. You have to move to Las Vegas, work 360 days a year, shave off all your hair and change your son’s middle name to RoseDawson. You in?: I have no son and am already bald, so this one’s a no-brainer. Sure. What a tale it would be.
• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you and Pink? KO or decision?: Pink in 4. I see her as Marvelous Marvin and me as Ray Leonard after he got all old and dopey. I’d spend a good deal of the fight running away but be too slow to avoid the shots in the end.
• Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?: Just do It!
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Nope
• The worst movie you’ve ever seen is …: Star Wars. The Phantom Menace
• Who’s the most famous person you know?: Robert De Niro. He and I once had a diving contest off a boat in the Galapagos Islands. Huge overstretch to say I know him. He probably doesn’t remember me now.
• The people at my gym never clean off the StairMaster after sweating all over it. Give me a creative idea how to get revenge …: Really, just wipe it off yourself and get on with it. Take the high road, dude.
• One question you would ask Steve Grogan were he here right now: And you are …?