How do you stand out? How do you get your ideal customer to remember you? Humor and creativity can be powerful tools in marketing, but these tools scare many companies. How to take some creative risk but not get yourself in hot water? Saul Colt has a history of memorable marketing moments and he’s here to share his approach.
Rich: My guest today is the founder and creative director of the Idea Integration Company. In his career he has been named as one of the iMEDIA 25: Internet Marketing Leaders and Innovators, as well has been called one of Canada’s Best Community Builders and Experiential Marketers. New York Times bestselling author and internet pioneer Chris Brogan, once referred to him as exactly who you want representing your company. And that message has been echoed by media properties ranging from Inc to Forbes Magazine.
He has had many career highlights, including being selected as the first international employee of Zipcar, and the person responsible for launching Zipcar into the Canadian marketplace. Was the first marketing person and a key part of the growth of freshbooks.com, the number one cloud accounting service for small business owners, as well as leadership roles at Rogers Communications and the first chief evangelist of xero.com. That’s zero with an X.
If that wasn’t enough, he’s also a professional speaker and consultant, specializing in word-of-mouth marketing, stunt marketing, social media, customer experience, community building, and business courage. Today, we’re going to be talking about the role of being creative and business courage in your marketing and advertising, with none other than Saul Colt. Saul, welcome to the podcast.
Saul: Well, thank you very much. That is such a wonderful introduction. You’d think that I wrote it myself. It’s crazy.
Rich: Right? But I have a team of researchers and they just really work hard for me. I am curious about the stunt marketing. Do you have a stunt double for your stunt marketing, or do you do all your own stunts?
Saul: Ha! Not only do I do all my own stunts, I do all my own nudity as well. So I’m committed.
Rich: I see. All right. Excellent. One of the things I remember most about you is your work creating buzz for FreshBooks, when they were relatively small. It was a business expo that you were at. Can you share that story with us?
Saul: Yeah. So I did so many things, I assume you’re asking about the banana stand?
Rich: It’s always about the banana stand.
Saul: So the early days of FreshBooks were really fun, because it was a smaller company that it is now, a little hungrier than it is now. And the world was a different place. So we had a lot more freedom to take risks and to really do things that stood out.
So, I was given like 10-15 days to come up with an idea, a last-minute decision to exhibit at a financial services conference. And sort of I’ve got a process where, I already mentioned, I do my own nudity. I come up with my best ideas in the bathtub. That’s just one of the many things that Tom Ford and I have in common. But I love thinking in the bathtub, and I usually do it outside of business hours, but that’s a whole other conversation. And I love watching TV in the bathtub, Anyways, long story short, what we did was instead of having a booth – I’ll spare you the boring part of the story – we created an exact replica of the Bluth banana stand, and we branded it for FreshBooks. And instead of giving out mouse pads or whatever the cool kids give out at conferences these days, we gave out 2,000 bananas. And each one of the bananas had a unique scenario sort of sticker on it. Instead of Dole or Del Monte, it had the FreshBooks logo and shortened URL code to drive people to a landing page. And we got a lot of attention for this because one, it’s unusual to see a nine-foot-high wooden banana at a conference, but also we were literally giving out bananas. And so people were very much curious about what the connection was. Of course the connection is, there’s always money in the banana stand and things like that.
But it really goes to show that, there’s a through line in my entire career for every company I’ve ever worked for as an employee or as a consultant. And it’s really about the importance of standing out. And when you do stand out, when you do take chances, you’re always rewarded. It takes a little nuance to figure out the right way and the wrong way to stand out. But we’ve never been punished for standing out, because there’s so many benefits that come from it.
Rich: So there’s a lot to unpack here. And before I go on, now if anybody has no idea why we keep on talking about the banana stand and that there’s money in the banana stand, you have to go watch some of the early episodes of Arrested Development. It’ll all make sense, but we don’t have time to explain that joke now. But again, it was a relatively low-cost way of generating buzz and getting people talking about FreshBooks when they were fairly small.
Now you said something during that description where it was like the early days when you were small, it was a little bit more fun, they were willing to take risks. Do you think that is something that’s just inherent in the system that the larger or more established a business gets, the less likely they are to take risks?
Saul: No. And I think that it’s all on a case-by-case basis. There’s a lot of companies that take great risks, and they do it as giant companies. And, I personally think you should never stop taking risks. And I don’t speak for FreshBooks, so I can’t speak for them. And I don’t really pay that much attention to what they’ve done in the last few years, so for all I know they’re still doing outrageous stuff. I don’t believe they are. But that just also comes from different management. You get to a certain size, and you bring in different people. Mike McDermott isn’t the CEO of the company anymore. So it’s different viewpoints, different things. But I truly believe no company should ever stop taking risks.
One of my favorite brands is Nike, and Nike is one of the biggest risk takers. They stand behind campaigns, they take a stand on issues. And they’re a publicly traded company, they have just as much to lose as a small company. I think that the appetite for, I won’t say risk, but I’ll say the appetite for… the word coming to my head is ‘desperation’, but I don’t think ‘desperation’ is fair. But let’s just say the appetite for growing in multiples, 10x a year and things like that. Though that’s slows down once you sort of grow to a certain size and realize what it’ll take to grow another 10% or 20%. And the way you grow is always by taking risks. The way you stay top of mind is always by taking risks.
When the beginning of the pandemic started, my company really struggled and suffered greatly, because a lot of people were just like, “Well, we can’t take a risk right now. We’ve got to take a wait and see attitude” and things like that. And I kept pushing. This is the exact time you should be taking a risk, because you may never have such high internet engagement ever again in another time in history. You will never have this many people giving you their absolute full attention than any other time in history. Hopefully we’re not heading into a war. Hopefully things are going in another direction. But there was a moment in time where brands could have really stood out positively. And instead, the approach a lot of people took was, “In these unprecedented times, we’re all in this together. And since we’re in it together, why not be in it together in a Toyota?” Like that was the campaigns of a lot of people where they really, there was an opportunity to do some real good.
Rich: So if it’s not size, what do you think it is that’s keeping people from taking these risks, or how would you get business owners and marketers to stop doing same old same old, and start taking some risks?
Saul: So I’m gonna share a story, and I’m paraphrasing. But I pitched a crazy idea to a Fortune 100 company. And I was on a zoom with their CML, and the guy said, “This is the greatest idea anyone’s ever pitched, and this is exactly what we should be doing, but we’re not going to do it.” And I said, “Why?” And he, in a very long-winded sort of way, told me that he makes about $350,000 a year, another million dollars in bonuses, so why would he ever take a risk. So it was not about what’s best for the company, it was a bit of a cover your ass mentality. The only reason people, I think, don’t do this stuff is out of fear.
But you know, and I will say again, the companies that take risks are rewarded. The people behind the companies that take risks are rewarded. Because, what’s worse than being mediocre? Brands die because there’s something shinier that comes out doing the same thing, maybe even not as good, but it’s got a little bit of a cooler sort of presence to it or something. And cool is a subjective thing and stuff like that. But like, man companies should always be evolving.
I’ve been talking for a couple of weeks now where I say that, the type of brands that should work with us are brave brands or brands that want to be brave. When I talk about business courage, like Rich, if we were working together, I don’t think we would, because you’re very good at what you do and you don’t need my help. But if we were working together, I would say try to pull you along a little out of your comfort level, not too much out of it, but a little out of your comfort level. And I would shoulder the risk.
When I talk to big companies, I say, “You’ve got a built-in scapegoat. If this doesn’t work, just fire me. But I know it’s going to work.” I don’t buy into fear because it’s silly. I’ve been doing this, I’m old. I’ve been doing this more than 20 years now, and no one’s ever lost a job because of anything I’ve done. Like I say, we’ve got like a 90% success rate. Not everything’s perfect, but we’ve never ruined anything for people. And the people who work with us – I don’t want to turn this into an infomercial, I want this to be educational for people – but one of the proudest things in my career is I’ve worked for three different people, six different times. So people keep bringing me back. They go to a new company, they bring me along. You know, people sort of change jobs at a yearly pace now, pseudo- yearly pace. I’ve had people who trust me so much that they’ve taken me on every stop on their resume, and I’ve always done a good job for them. So that does speak to a lot. But you know, I truly believe that we are in a time that is as noisy as it’s ever been. And if you’re not making an effort to cut through the noise, your company’s just going to get a little stagnant.
Rich: Absolutely, a hundred percent agree. We talk about that quite a bit on the show. You mentioned something I want to come back to. You mentioned how critical it is to stand out, but there’s a right way and a wrong way. And can you give us any examples or any advice about how do we know if what we’re thinking of doing to stand out is the right way or the wrong way?
Saul: So I would say, talk to your customers. I think the biggest mistake people make is they make decisions based on their own personal gut. When all the answers are right there for you if you have a good relationship with your customer base. I’ve lost jobs and in the pitch room or in the board room, whatever you want to call it, where I’ve maybe been a bit too blunt. But I’ve said, you’re going to hate this because you’re not your target audience, but your target audience is going to love it.
We used to say, you should know at least a hundred of your customers by their first name. And I truly believe that if you’re a big company, your customers are invested in you. They like your product. They like you, probably. And people love being able to share their opinion. You should be regularly talking to your customers, sending them surveys, asking them. Create a customer advocacy group where it’s like, “Hey, we’ve got six ads coming out. Can you just take a look at them?” First people feel rewarded. You know what people like more than free stuff? They like status. It’s the basis of all sort of influence and influencer marketing and stuff like that. You can create great loyalty by giving people status. Like I collect air miles with my airline of choice. I don’t really care about the miles so much, because for the most part, clients are paying for my plane ticket. But you know what I really do love? I love being the first one on the plane and getting the overhead compartment. That’s way more important to me than the miles. So you find status is a very powerful thing that I don’t think enough companies actually use to their benefit.
Rich: That’s actually awesome. That’s an amazing takeaway. So, I love that. And I’m already thinking about ways that I might implement that with my own client base.
You said something else that kind of caught my attention. You said, ‘cool is a subjective thing’. And this has got me wondering, because I have a client who has been for a long time, the only choice in their particular industry. And they’re known as being a little bit stayed, a little bit traditional. And this a young upstart came along with the name. And I won’t say the first name, but the last name is ‘bitches’, just to show you how hip and cool they are and how much of a reaction they are to this original company. But like you said, cool is a subjective thing. Would you tell these people that they should compete using that kind of language, or would you suggest that they try and be cool in their own way? Is there a right answer here, or is it being about true to who you are, or is it about making sure that you’re continually evolving?
Saul: It’s all about continuously involving and changing, but also being true to who you are. So when I work with clients, my level of risk and what I find funny is probably way on the other end of the spectrum of a lot of people. But my job is to figure out what your company can get away with, what your customers will allow you to get away with, and then keep pushing it just five or six baby steps. So would I say should this company all of a sudden use slang or swearing or whatever. Not if it’s the opposite of what anyone would expect of them. But you can make such an impact by just making an incremental change and people go, whoa, I didn’t expect them to do that.
Like, you don’t have to go to such a length where, if you were like a religious organization, all of a sudden your logo is half dressed people or something like that. That’s going to shock too many people and stuff like that. But again, it’s about knowing what you can get away with with your customers, and then give them just a little bit extra. Never be racist. You should be shock funny, not shock offensive kind of thing. But it’s really about making those little baby steps. Because if you go too far, people are going to be like, well, this isn’t the company I’ve worked with for all this time, they’ve lost their way. But it’s really about showing change, showing thing, and having some fun.
Rich: Absolutely. I couldn’t let you go without talking a little bit about your latest venture and the people that you are working with. So talk to me a little bit about this team that you’ve assembled of late.
Saul: Yeah. So, and it’s funny, you might have a world exclusive. I got a call with the lawyer that might be telling me I can’t use this word anymore, but anyways. We have brought into our company the entire former creative team from Mad Magazine, as well as a couple people who’ve worked on The Simpsons, including Bill Morrison, who worked on the Simpsons for 20 years as their co-creator and creative director. And so Bill is now leading our, he’s our head of creative team lead, whatever we want to call it. And this is his team. Bill was the final editor in chief of Mad Magazine. These are the people he’s worked with, they are a well-oiled machine. And our goal is to really, like I said, push some brands out of their comfort level. It doesn’t have to go the length of like a Mad parody, but it does make a difference when you have professionally entertaining people and professionally funny people working on your brand, as opposed to ad people and traditional content people.
So like I said, we’re looking to work with brave brands and brands that want to be brave. We want to do some really interesting things with brands. We closed our second project the other day, so we’re very happy. And I think there’s a lot of people who have heard the announcement and are paying attention, but they’re waiting to see some output before they dive in.
So three, four weeks from now, we’ll have a lot of case studies to show and we’re very excited about it. I think when you talk about an industry that’s sort of rested on its laurels for a long time, advertising is really there. A lot of agencies don’t really have, and I’m speaking generally, but don’t really have the client’s best interest at heart. They’re trying to win awards with the client’s budget and make some sales at the same time. I will make people on your show a promise. I will never submit for an award ever. I couldn’t care less about awards. It’s about, for me, the whole impetus of this project of working with the Mad team was to get some of the comedic and creative minds back working on really interesting projects.
And the first thing you said to me was about the banana stand, and I love telling the story of the banana stand. It’s something I’ll be proud of till the day I die. But, I also feel like the last two years I’ve been spending a little too much time in my house and not creating new stories to tell. So I’m looking to spend the next two years, three years, creating a whole bunch of even better stories than the banana stand. So if you bring me on the show in three years from now it’s like, holy mackerel, I saw that thing you did, instead of talking about a story that’s a couple of years old.
Rich: Absolutely. So have you had the opportunity for all of you to sit in the same room together? Or has this all been virtual?
Saul: That’s all been virtual. It’ll probably mostly be virtual until we sort of hit a certain point in the growth. But it’s been such an exciting experience for me. And it’s funny, the more I pitched this, I realized that Mad maybe doesn’t have the same cache as The Simpsons, and people get more excited about the Simpson’s side. But Mad was such a key part of how I built my sense of humor as a kid, and I really just love everything about Mad. So even just being able to say, “I work with these people”, never mind the fact that I’m the boss or whatever. Just as equals being able to spend some time with them and get some mindshare that they even know who I am is really exciting. And the fact that all our names will be on some projects is very exciting.
Just really quickly, we created a three-page comic book to announce the partnership and everything that’s going on. And I wrote the first draft of the comic just to move the project along, and we handed it over to Ian Boothby, one of the writers from The Simpsons. And when it came back to me, there was maybe about 10% of what I’d written was still in the script, and it was about a hundred times funnier and a hundred times better. So, I have to sort of put my ego aside a little bit. I used to think I was the funniest guy in the room, but these are really professionally great creative minds, and it’s an honor to be able to work with them.
Rich: Yeah, that sounds like an awesome group. And I’m old enough to remember Mad Magazine and growing up with Mad Magazine. And I remember the fold-ins, and Spy vs. Spy, and all the parodies and the musicals that they used to do. It definitely influenced my sense of humor. And of course, I also grew up with The Simpsons, although I was a little bit older then. Love that sense of humor. And I always remember the episode where Bart snuck into the Mad Magazine offices in one of The Simpsons episode. So those two worlds coming together. I always feel like I should go back and see if maybe you’re doing a cameo in that particular episode. I don’t know.
Saul: I cannot confirm or deny.
Rich: Saul, this has been great. If people want to check out your new company or anything else, where can we send them?
Saul: Well, it’s not the new company, it’s just added people to the team. But it’s still theideaintegration.com. And it’s not only about the new team, of course we want to keep the new team busy, but we do marketing consulting, marketing stunts, brave and courageous content. And as long as it doesn’t overlap with what Rich does, I don’t want to be hyper-competitive, we’d love to hear from you guys.
Rich: I’m sure that many people would love to work with you, Saul. And you do great work. So thank you so much for coming on the show today and sharing your expertise, and I look forward to hearing about your next adventure sometime soon.
Saul: Thank you. I appreciate it.
Saul Colt has been called a “mad scientist” in the marketing world, because of his unconventional and outside the box ideas. If you want to learn more about why brands trust him to help them stand out from the competition, check out his website. And absolutely be sure to follow him on Twitter for humorous and creative content.
Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.