Recently, I had the privilege to sit with our business development team along the sales journey of a new client. Our goals in the conversations that comprise these meetings are pretty simple: Remove barriers and get to the next conversation. The barriers are usually invisible constructs, present only in the prospects’ minds, but with the potential to block us from doing business together. So the art of the sale is really the act of throwing paint on invisible objects, making them visible only for long enough that we can smash them together.
After several years in the agency, I’ll admit these barriers show themselves in patterns. The team and I can pretty effectively predict, expose and answer questions like “What experience do you have in my category?” and “What is required from whom on my team at what time?” and “What, exactly, are the deliverables?”
"People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. The goal is to do business with those who believe what you believe.”
– Simon Sinek
Despite these patterns, I’ve always been surprised at how infrequently one particular question arises. Very rarely do prospects ask “What do you believe in?” or “What makes your people tick?” or “Where do your people turn to guide their actions?”
Until recently, I’ve seen our values as more relevant to employees than customers. But lately, although almost no one’s asking, we’ve included MindHandle’s values in our selling conversations, and I have been pleasantly surprised at the results. In fact, this week one of our prospects attributed her intention to work with us to our demonstration of “walking our talk” in the sales process.
Maybe that’s because “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. The goal is to do business with those who believe what you believe.” Simon Sinek blessed us with this adage in 2009, and yet many organizations still struggle to articulate what’s arguably the most important thing in their relationships with customers and employees: “Why?”
A brand is nothing more than a set of beliefs, communicated concisely to people likely to be moved by them. A sale is the result of someone moving from “I like that” to “I want that,” breaking barriers to get there. So why don’t more companies publish their values? Even in the age of brand transparency, when the public image of the company is in the hands of its employees, why don’t we publish those barrier-breaking terms?
Seriously… What’s going on, business leaders? Are we scared? Nervous that our values are some kind of secret sauce? That our competitors will rip us off and use our values to steal our people and customers? That our customers will suddenly see our values and reevaluate, “Wait a minute. That’s not what I experience with this brand!”
This is a call to all leaders in all categories of business. Stop what you’re doing, right now, and publish your brand’s values. In the name of walking the talk, I’m going to do the same on MindHandle’s behalf.
Who’s with me?
If culture is strategy and strategy is language, then a company’s lexicon should be an indicator of its belief system. As a storytelling agency, our values are rooted in narratives that drive our actions. In the paragraphs that follow, I’ll unpack the meaning behind these phrases to shed light on why we use the language we do.
These are the stories that guide our actions at MindHandle:
- “Playing with the Blood,” which means demonstrating Passion for the Craft
- “Pomegranates in a World of Apples,” or promising to be Unapologetically Unique
- “Make Glass Tubes, “or walking the line between Humility and Expertise
- “Strike the Bell,” which means to exercise Curiosity with Intent
1. Passion for the Craft (Play with the Blood)
“Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.” We have Henry David Thoreau to thank for this gruesomely uplifting statement of what it means to put every fiber of self into one’s work. It reads a little macabre, at first, yet anyone who considers him or herself an artist will experience an instant connection to this idea. At MindHandle, we believe so strongly that not only are we artists, we have a responsibility to keep each other focused on doing our life’s work.
We are in the business of art.
“They heard me singing and they told me to stop.” goes the Arcade Fire lyric. “Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock.” This song, like so many expressions before it and so many after, outline a familiar feeling to many artists. It hits home because for artists, the decisions we make about work can feel like binary choices: On the one hand, doing your life’s work means rejecting commerce, living off rainwater, creating above all else. And on the other, “selling out.” Joining the man in his mission to destroy the human soul by commercializing talent. Who wants to make a choice like this?
At MindHandle, we don’t believe it’s that hard of a line. We believe it’s possible to live and prosper from doing what we love. We thrive in the gray area where commerce and art intersect, and in order to do that, we need to create an environment of equilibrium, where creation is as important as business. Where taking risks is encouraged as much as measuring them, where pushing the envelope is as everyday an occurrence as planning, and where the pursuit of happiness is directly related to the spirit of innovation. Where regardless of department or tenure or title, we can all know our own bone.
It shouldn’t look easy, because it’s not.
In fact, sometimes it hurts. Or at least it seems like it hurts. In the 2008 rock documentary It Might Get Loud, there’s an amazing Jack White solo scene from a Raconteurs show in which he plays with so much intensity, he snaps a string, causing his fingers to bleed all over his guitar. But the show goes on, and White plays one of the fiercest blues solos modern music has ever experienced. Don’t all artists have moments like this? We embed ourselves so deeply in our work that sometimes it causes us pain. Or at least what looks like pain, but because it’s our passion, it feels like any other moment immersed in our craft.
In the Amazon Original Series Mozart in the Jungle, one of the lead characters, Rodrigo, explains what it means to “Play with the Blood.” As a child, he would practice the violin so much and so hard his fingers would bleed. Later in life, he recognized that level of dedication in the individuals in the orchestra, and the expression became a metaphor. In fact, the line was a result of actor Gael Garcia Bernal improvising to come up with a deeper, more figurative meaning than simply reading the line “with passion.” To play with the blood means to put your whole body and soul into one’s performance, to the point that what would normally be perceived as pain dissolves, leaving only your work behind.
At MindHandle, we are committed to not letting things be easy. That sounds strange at first, but as artists, we believe the work is its best when we suffer for it. In fact, the word itself, “passion,” is from the Latin root pati, which means “to suffer.” To have passion is to put our physical body second to the thing we create. To put more of ourselves into it than we may have expected. To bleed a little. Figuratively speaking, of course.
But it’s incredibly, deeply satisfying.
These references are mostly to music, but you can find examples of working through symptoms of pain to achieve stellar performance in any work of art. From ballet to basketball, from sculpture to spoken word, there’s a common thread among artists. We don’t necessarily see pain as a barrier, we see it as a requirement. It’s necessary, in order to come out the other side with something we can be proud to call our creation.
As an agency, when we discuss the projects that bring us a feeling of immense pride, they have several things in common. One of those is the “crispy” moment. That time when everyone’s senses are fried. When we’ve poured every ounce of our energy into this one thing for an extended period of time. When we’ve spent hours or days on end not settling, and it’s closing in on game time. Whether that be a presentation, a production or any other type of performance, we artists crave the crunch.
Because we know it will be our time to rise. Our time to put our best foot forward and connect our work with people in deeply satisfying ways. It will always be challenging, and if we continue to value the passion, to play with the blood, it will always be beautiful.
2. Unapologetically Unique (Pomegranates in a World of Apples)
“I'm not different for the sake of being different, only for the desperate sake of being myself.”
– Vivian Stanshall
Try as we might, humans cannot objectively assign a value to anything. Instead, all value is comparative, and that includes the value our clients, our coworkers and our competitors place on us. It also includes the value we place on ourselves as people. We’re constantly engaging in the delicate and intentional craft of positioning ourselves to align our actions with what we believe, on a personal level and in the groups to which we belong.
Our Clients Deserve Unique Talent
Odds are you live near at least two gas stations. And odds say you probably favor one over the other. While you may visit one from time to time, you likely have a favorite. Why is that? As one of the most commoditized products on the planet, it’s rare to see gas fetch high prices because of any meaningful differentiator from station to station. In other words, very few people shop gasoline on the quality of the gas. That’s ridiculous… Gas is gas, right? So why do you usually turn into the one you do? More than likely, it’s because there’s something about how that station fits into your life. It’s convenient to your commute home, or it carries the brand of slushie you like, or the coffee is better.
The people who hire us believe we are the fuel in their internal communications engines. And like gasoline, they’re not looking for something they can easily get anywhere else. There must be something about MindHandle, something that makes their lives better for choosing to align with us. Our product is incredible. Amazing, even. Award winning. Proven time and again to provide the fuel in marketing engines. But there are more award-winning agencies just down the street. And they might carry the right slushie.
So what makes the difference to someone choosing a marketing agency? And to the hundreds of people reminding themselves every day they made the right choice? What is the tie breaker?
That’s simple. It’s our people.
We Need Each Other to Think Differently
“Where all think alike there is little danger of innovation.”
– Edward Abbey
In 14th Century Italy, the banking family Medici would host regular gatherings of poets, artists, scientists, philanthropists, architects and financiers. These “salons” were not necessarily intended to be more than social mixers, but something amazing happened because of it. As all these individuals who represented unique skillsets came together, they began to innovate and create new solutions to the country’s problems. They innovated on the economy, the arts and public infrastructure, and they’re ultimately attributed with laying the groundwork that started what we know as the Renaissance.
One of our Promises is “to intersect.” That’s no accident. Like the Medici family, we know incredible things happen when people attack a common problem from diverse perspectives. Our business will supply the challenges… Plenty of them. That means it’s our responsibility to provide our version of the Italian salons. An environment where diversity is no accident, therefore intersections are more innovative, more productive, more meaningful.
How Do You Like Them Apples?
One summer, as the brand management team studied Blair Enns’ The Win Without Pitching Manifesto, a quote jumped off the page and came to life in our book club because it summed up this sentiment so well: “In a world where everyone is trying to compare apples to apples, let us be pomegranates.” While Enns seated this statement in the context of winning a new business pitch, it has a much broader implication on how we live our lives, at MindHandle and beyond. If anyone wants to compare apples, let them. If they choose to look inside, they’ll see the same old beige time and time again. This pomegranate is full of magically delicious seeds, each with its own personality and vibrancy.
If you feel a sense of belonging at MindHandle, that’s because we strive to create a place where the nonconformist can thrive. Where it’s encouraged to zag when others are zigging. Where black sheep can graze endlessly and square pegs happily go about their business next to round holes. As you endeavor to create a name for yourself – to assign value – please know that at MindHandle, you don’t just get to be you. You must be you.
3. Humble Expertise (Make Glass Tubes)
If you’ve never seen this scene from Sports Night, please watch it. Not only was this short-lived show from the 90’s arguably one of Aaron Sorkin’s finest creations, giving many great young actors their start and propelling Felicity Huffman to iconic actress status, it explored and attempted to resolve a lot of sensitive and controversial issues, especially those found in the workplace. While the production quality doesn’t necessarily hold, the writing and acting definitely does and it’s worth a binge.
In the “Cliff Gardener” episode, William H. Macy plays a producer, exploring what it takes to do his best, most creative programming. He knows “how to get the best from talented people,” yet he’s confronted with a collection of consultants intending to value engineer his show. And as you can see in the clip, the story of Cliff Gardener and his television-inventing brother-in-law Philo Farnsworth beautifully (and pretty aggressively) punctuate his perspective.
So why do we care about this story? Why are we looking to a 20th century TV show to define what we hold dear? Let’s dive deeper into the Philo and Cliff story to find the answers.
We already know how powerful empathy is. All great communication is rooted in this emotional state of understanding each other and where we’re coming from. In fact, the degree of empathy between source and audience largely determines the success of communication. But how does one strike that chord? How do we create empathy with one another? How do we get on someone’s level quickly, helping them understand we understand them?
The answer is right there in Cliff’s plea to his brother-in-law. Those critical seven words, without which, everything after would be inconsequential and unnecessary. “I don’t have your head for science,” Cliff declares. By humbling himself to Philo, Cliff has simultaneously complimented his brother-in-law, lifting him up by comparison, and framing his own contributions by the process of elimination.
To apply this to a MindHandle situation, please imagine yourself in an internal project kickoff. You’re joined by cross-functional team members, each representing a different facet of MindHandle’s offering. There’s work to be done and you know it can be great. You have an important role in it, and while you want to put your best foot forward, you start to feel it going in a direction you don’t care for. Maybe we could have aimed higher on the brief, or the idea territories leave something to be desired. Regardless, you’re compelled to redirect the team by adding your valuable perspective.
You start by saying, “Like all of you, I want to do my best work on this. I’m no marketing MBA but…”
You’ve humbled yourself, you’ve opened the lines for empathetic communication, and the next half of your thought will be pure magic.
“… but you’re gonna need glass tubes,” goes the second half of Cliff’s persuasion.
Have you ever heard of a more efficient sale? How could Philo reject Cliff when that’s how he landed the ask? Once he had properly humbled himself to Philo, he came around and landed the next line squarely, proudly declaring his contribution to his brother-in-law’s life’s work. In addition, Cliff claimed the expert role in the relationship by knowing what Philo would need. We all know how the story ended. Philo accepted Cliff’s proposition, set him up with a shed in the backyard, where he blew glass all day to make cathode receptor tubes for what would become the design of the television as we knew it for decades.
Cliff could have said “I’m here to help with whatever you need,” but that would have done absolutely nothing to help Philo understand how to put him to work. Many people at many agencies struggle with this. We live to create, to serve, but we often forget how we do it best. We let the generalist mentality take over and we offer to help with “whatever,” even though, deep down, we know that goes against everything we’ve ever learned about positioning. Like any great brand, an expert builds people’s perceptions over time, through a series of interactions defining one’s unique contributions.
When we operate with expertise alone, we risk coming across as overconfident or aggressive. When we operate with humility alone, we can be perceived as weak or under-informed. But when we embrace humble expertise, we open the lines of empathy and position ourselves to focus on what we do best.
You’re here because we all know what you’re capable of… Making glass tubes.
4. Curiosity with Intent (Strike the Bell)
“Make your choice, adventurous Stranger,
Strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder, till it drives you mad,
What would have followed if you had.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Magician's Nephew
To be Curious. It’s a Choice.
Every great hero’s journey has a call to adventure. A moment in which the main character has to make a difficult – and often binary – choice. To jump in head first, or take the easy way out. As if there was ever any doubt art imitates life, there we are on the big screen or in the pages of a novel, making binary choices (fight or flight) that help us stay alive. See how simple we humans are?
These choices are often the essential scenes of the story. In Star Wars, Leia pleads with Luke and Obi Wan, “You’re my only hope.” In Frozen II, the voice of the spirit Elsa’s been hearing becomes a patchwork of ice runes hanging in the air, begging her to lay a finger on one. In The Matrix, Morpheus presents Neo with a red pill and a blue pill, one which will make him forget everything and return to his normal life, one which will initiate the journey of a lifetime. This is a direct replica of Lewis Carroll’s infamous Alice in Wonderland “eat me” cake. The list goes on and on.
In the C.S. Lewis passage above, the tension – the very reason why we feel inclined to explore the more dangerous side of the choice – is spelled out very clearly. The children in the book, like us every day we show up to work, are making a binary choice. To either:
- Strike the bell,” initiating what could be the adventure of a lifetime, or
- Walk away, left with excruciating wonder if we could have been happier for pursuing that journey.
What Makes Us Strike the Bell?
There’s a restless, child-like curiosity in all creators. It stirs us, instinctively, to find a channel for the energy within us to escape, and to put it to good use. However, this value begs us to focus on more than curiosity alone. It also opens the door to WHY we are curious. Our inquisitive nature is not just for fun or frivolity. It’s neither for whimsy nor self-expression alone. In fact, there are usually some higher stakes on the line. Like the fate of the universe, in Luke Skywalker’s case. Or the fate of a project or relationship in ours.
Not for Curiosity Alone
What Lewis is describing, and what every classic hero must decide, is to what end will I explore? Much like Making Glass Tubes requires humility AND expertise, Striking the Bell requires curiosity AND intent. We explore with a purpose. We answer the call because we believe it will scratch an itch. Lewis says it so well… There’s a consequence for NOT ringing the bell (FOMO that could drive us mad), which means there must be a reward for diving in. We are curious because we believe it will lead to something, and we cannot ignore it. We don’t embark without that essential component, lest we risk meandering or aimlessness.
We’ve all had that experience, right? At some point in our careers, we’ve all looked back at the way we’ve spent the last six hours and asked, “What do I even have to show for that?” This is usually due to a lack of purpose when we began exploring. We didn’t know where we were going, so we got nowhere. Cheshire Cat, to Alice, sums up this sensation perfectly:
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
That’s why, when we describe what makes us proud, we report things like “asking questions to lead the client” and “seeing in the dark.” It’s more than aimless discovery… It’s knowing why and where to explore. It’s Curiosity with Intent.
At MindHandle, this is what we believe. This is what guides our actions. We hope this article inspires you to consider your values, and perhaps if they align with ours, we should talk.