An Interview with Ignite 360’s, Nate Depies
It is not enough for businesses to be profitable. Today, businesses are expected to break free from limitations and be a transformative force. Businesses seek to offer and be known for creative expression, diversity of thought, complementary skills and passion. In short, a successful business must exude the soul of an artist. It is a moment of irony – the artist struggles to be profitable, and now the profitable business struggles to be an artist.
This notion is perhaps even more relevant for insights and brand strategy professionals whose very purpose is to connect clients to their consumers, to build intuition. The work is filled with art; it’s far from linear. It can be complex and often nuanced. It involves the art of story and narrative, the art of conversation, the art of the possible.
To be sure, the intersection of art and business can make some uncomfortable. It is often dismissed by those who prefer their spreadsheets printed and their data undisputable; those who insist on quantitative measurement for validation of each business decision. But for others the art of it all is pure necessity. They are working under pressure, under resourced and underfunded. They have to get into the heads and hearts of their customers and feel their way through. Art has a lot to do with the business of building a business.
Few embody the intersection of art and business better than Nate Depies, the most recent insights leader to to join Ignite 360. Experienced and business savvy, Nate draws from a blend of complementary skills bringing together the science of consumer research with a love of, and personal connection to, the arts. Prior to joining Ignite 360, Nate held insights leadership positions with Fortune 500 companies such as Unilever, Kraft and ConAgra Foods. And, while working to build base business for Oscar-Meyer or driving innovation to extend the Dove brand into new, adjacent categories, he also tapped into his creative side through music and art. Each fed into, and off of, the other to give Nate a unique perspective and skill set. I love this intersection of art and business and believe there are some great lessons here for all of us to draw upon.
An avid guitar player and amateur painter, Nate finds inspiration in the creative process and a welcome escape from the often systematized corporate world. “Playing guitar and painting,” he comments, “taps into a different side. It is very cathartic and different from my day to day. In business, we deal in a lot of process and it is very data-driven. Bringing in the creative side provides a different perspective that numbers alone can’t offer.”
Identifying the parallels between music, business and, in particular, qualitative insights is something Nate sees very clearly. In all of these, you need to understand the basic fundamentals and yet mastery comes from both practice and bringing your own unique perspective, your heart and your passion. “In guitar, you need to learn the chords and those chords don’t really change. The unique aspect is how you play them and the emotion you bring. This is similar to what we do as insights professionals. We have standards and guidelines but there is flexibility and emotion. The emotion comes with how you are connecting with consumers and what they are sharing with you. But also, the emotion of communication. How are you conveying the story and with what conviction are you telling it? We need to make that connection and bring that emotion so our clients can feel it too and move forward with conviction.”
So, what advice does Nate have for those of us who don’t feel particularly creative or those of us who are challenged to find the soul of the artist within their own role and company? How can we all bring a bit more artistry and soul into our business? Nate offers the following ideas:
Rely on Your Curiosity and Know Nothing is Too Trivial
“My underlying curiosity is what gets me excited. I’m naturally curious and I try to foster that by approaching each situation or project as a blank slate. I try not to assume or pre-determine what I think I know, but instead ask all of the questions to find out what people do and why they do it. I’m also a fan of collecting information and learning a little about a lot of different topics. I love Trivial Pursuit. I’m a good person to have on a trivia team.”
Paint with All the Colors in Your Palette
“In my career I’ve been fortunate to have worked on brands and at organizations that place a high importance and value on consumer insights. And some of these took a much more quantitative approach to insights. I’ve led segmentation and market structure analysis to determine the role of brands and products for consumers within various categories. In other roles and at other companies, the value may have been on gaining the rich qualitative insights to provide greater meaning to why consumers were behaving a certain way in the marketplace. I think you really do need both, quantitative measurement and qualitative depth, to fully answer the big questions and needs for the business. The key is integration of all the available data. The unarticulated and observed as well as Big Data … this is how you really get to the driving forces. And, it is also what adds color—language, emotion, mood—to the story. It is what provides the connection for our clients.”
Find Joy in the Practice
Ask any musician what they must do in order to gain mastery of their craft and chances are they will tell you it’s all in the hours and hours of practice. We refer to our work as a practice in a similar vein. And, sometimes, it is easy to focus so exclusively on the outcome that we fail to see the lessons learned in the practice of it all.
“When I led innovation work at a large manufacturer, I would struggle to see the value in what I was doing as ideas would die and not make it through our stage gate process of review and assessment. Many did not see the light of day and that can be frustrating for a team when you spend so much time and energy on it. During that time, I found myself re-calibrating what success means. Although exciting, my success was not solely tied to the launch of a new product. I found enjoyment in the victories along the way such as developing different ways-in on positioning our product or identifying new RTBs to tap into the consumer mindset. It was the joy in writing a killer concept or discovering a new or different customer need that had previously gone unnoticed or unarticulated. True success is not always or only tied to in-market success — although that was great — it is the success of new territory uncovered that we could leverage for the iteration of an idea. It was finding joy in the practice and the journey.”
You’re Not Laying Bricks. You’re Building a Home
What we do is truly collaborative and so connecting with our own humanity and the humanity of others is what really matters. We can easily fall into the trap of creating barriers between ourselves and our clients or ourselves and the customers we want to engage. These are false barriers and can lead to unintended adversarial dynamics. It can become an “us versus them” mentality and it is neither productive nor enjoyable. Nate’s simple advice is to “think of clients as people and not clients. Treat and engage consumers as people first. As people, you want to help and solve problems they are struggling with. Considering them to be extensions of a corporation or merely buyers creates a distance that is far less inspiring.”
“After all, we are here in service to solve people’s problems and unlock possibilities. We are not just producing a deck of information or data. I’m reminded of the parable of the brick layer. An apprentice and rather poor performing brick layer is asked, ‘What do you do?’ His response is ‘I lay bricks.’ When asked the same question, a more experienced worker replies ‘I’m building a wall.’ The high performing, super star performer is asked the question and responds ‘I’m building a home.’ That’s what we do. We are just one part of this for our clients but we are building a home. We are creating something new and different. We are artists.”
Interested to read more about bringing greater creativity and inspiration to your own work? Check out these previous posts to spark your inner artist.