Talking Marketing with Ethan Decker

INJ 34 | Marketing Sciences


Ethan Decker is the Principal at Fractal Strategy. He is a strategic marketing consultant who sits at the intersection of creative arts and brand science. He’s been a strategic planner and market researcher at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Integer\TBWA, and 72andSunny. His clients have included Domino’s, Hotels.com, P&G, Kellogg’s, PepsiCo, Discovery Channel, Nike, Intel, Unilever, and others. Ethan has a BA in sociology and a PhD in urban ecology and human evolution, and he studied complex systems theory at the Santa Fe Institute.

Listen to Episode #34 here

Talking Marketing with Ethan Decker

Our guest is Ethan Decker. He’s been a researcher, an editor, a journalist, an improviser and a teacher. He has a PhD in Urban Ecology and Human Evolution. Welcome, Ethan.


If you weren’t working in marketing, what would you be doing?

Long ago, I wanted to be on Broadway. I used to write musicals. I was in musicals. I loved the theater but for some reason, I thought I couldn’t handle the big drug habits that seem to come in the Broadway lifestyle.

Is Broadway heavy on drugs?

Medium-heavy, yes. At least in my adolescent mind, it was. It was a hard and fast lifestyle.

When you were in grad school, were folks using Adderall?

Not intensively. Not yet.

When I was in my postdoc, I was starting to notice those kinds of things. You strike me as being tall for the theater. It’s a pet hypothesis. I wrote a blog post a long time ago about why Hollywood actors are so short.

What was your theory?

Because of who I am, I put four different hypotheses. I’ll leave the one last that’s related to my observation of you. The first one is that there’s something about proportions that short people look better on screen than tall people. I’m a lot of arms and legs, like a Tim Robbins kind of person. That was one is that there’s something about the beauty that fits into in the screen in that way. The second one is that they’re not any shorter than the average person. They just seem shorter when you meet them in person because you’re used to seeing them.

They’re larger in life in your imagination.

They’re even portrayed larger than life. Big name actors will have in their contract that they need to be the tallest person on screen. There’s a story in this blog post about the movie, Tropic Thunder, as Ben Stiller who wrote and directed it and then Robert Downey Jr. in it who awkwardly plays an African-American character. There’s a scene in there where they’re walking through the jungle next to each other talking and Ben Stiller is clearly taller than Robert Downey in the scene but he’s not in real life. Robert Downey might be slightly taller. They’re short people. What they did was they dug a trench that Robert Downey walked through for the appearance of this. The third one is that there’s something that happens early in life that puts people into different paths. In America, sports are so prominent and so celebrated that kids naturally want to be athletes. If you’re not a great athlete, you’re not that tall and you’re not that big which a lot of athletics rewards, you go and do something else that you can be good at. In theater, that’s more the petite diminutive kind of people.

If you’re built like Ben Stiller, you don’t go out for rugby. You do drama. That fits me for sure, not height-wise but skill-wise. I’m thin.

You’re tall.

I’m 6’1”. I didn’t hit puberty until I was about 22. All this time when I wanted to be in theater, I was small. I was a small kid and I couldn’t compete athletically. There might be another theory. I don’t even know if it’s right because you’ve got The Rock. He’s a big superstar and he’s a WWE wrestler. Vince Vaughn, he’s 6’8’ or 7’5”. He’s pretty big. The other theory I have comes from having done a little bit of spring dancing and ballroom dancing, which is eye contact. It’s hard to have good eye contact and make that connection if one person’s 1.5-foot taller than the other person.

You’re talking about love stories and for conversations.

Film is very much about that intense human drama. The personal connection is a big deal. It’s the biggest difference in casual life between couples figure skating and couples ice dancing. In the couples figure skating, the guy towers over the woman. She’s petite. In fact, the size difference is great. You want 5’2” ex-gymnast to be the person you fling through the air. Whereas couples ice dancing, they’re both about 5’6” or 5’7”. The guy does have to be probably on the smaller side so that they can look each other eye-to-eye and the dance posture feels much more natural.

You started out doing theater stuff in high school and then Broadway. At what point did the drugs scare you off?

I was a pretty straight-edge kid. I was never into drugs and alcohol.

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Were you in the whole straight-edge music, goth stuff?

Not intentionally. I liked all kinds of music. The heavy-duty Sid and Nancy stuff had a dark and foreboding angle to it that I wanted to avoid. I did a lot of music and a lot of musicals. I went to college, which had a music conservatory attached to it.

Where was that?

Oberlin. They were professional musicians, real musicians as well as a bunch of us hacks who were enrolled in the college but couldn’t help ourselves. We were in bands or we were in choruses or magical groups or all kinds of things.

You think the academia world is competitive.

It’s hardcore. We had a building that had something like 300 Steinway pianos in it because each one was in its own little practice room and people were in there maybe twelve hours a day practicing their heads off.

I saw Whiplash. I know how this works.

It’s an accurate portrayal of all music.

That’s based on Berklee, in Boston.

Whiplash was. Berklee Music School.

It’s notorious for being cutthroat.

Oberlin was pretty tough too but it didn’t have the same reputation as the Berklee Music School.

Sometimes I go down the YouTube rabbit hole watching music videos and then sometimes other things. This is how it happened. I got back into listening to a lot of ‘70s disco and soul music. I watched this documentary about Nile, the guy from Chic who then became a producer for all these bands in the ‘80s, Duran Duran and David Bowie and so on. He’s this genius that no one knows in America. He helped produce one of Diana Ross’ big albums. You can find people doing the bass lines, playing the bass lines on YouTube.

Are these the original performers?

These are just bassists. What I realized was that although I never could be a great musician, for some people, it’s not that hard. There’s this weird thing in the world of people who could never be good musicians. Then there’s a ton of people who can. I was like, “Maybe it is harder in some ways.” It’s easier to become a musician than it is to become an academic, but it’s harder to become an elite musician than an elite academic.

Because there’s a lot of talent.

There’s so much competition in that pool.

It’s a big pool and I would think the draw is bigger. That’s academia in a nutshell. There is a lot of talent, especially with the Internet now. You might have seen things like the Internet Orchestra. Some guy put together his own orchestra based on casting people on YouTube. He is saying, “Why don’t you do this?” He put out the music and people rehearsed their parts. They filmed it and recorded it themselves and then he stitched it all together digitally. I want to say there are a thousand people in the orchestra. That might be an overstatement but it’s in that range. That stuff has made people realize how much talent there is in the world and so much of it is untapped based on luck. Luck of your circumstances, luck of your upbringing, luck of whether or not your parents gave you an instrument when you were four.

Luck of being a male versus a female.

Luck of being an American versus an Iraqi.

Given the other discrimination that happens.

What do they call it? The ovarian lottery. Which ovary are you lucked into? That determines so much. You’re right, there is this massive pool of talent in music. We’re seeing so much of it now that people are self-producing whole albums.

I went and saw YouTube’s 30th Anniversary Concert for Joshua Tree. What was amazing is you can go online and relive the concert with better seats on YouTube, where people edit together hundreds of different shots. I don’t know if these are professional editors or not but you can find dozens and dozens of high-quality concert footage from people’s phones stitching these things together. Stephanie Johnson, she’s an upcoming guest. She talks about blinding these decisions when it comes to music in order to level the playing field, even having the performers besides not only just auditioning behind a screen but they ask them to take off their shoes so they walk barefoot.

That was a big deal when I was in college when they started doing that because there was still such a massive discrepancy between the number of music students who were female and the number of professional musicians who were female. They weren’t getting the parts. They weren’t getting the seats in the orchestras or symphonies. When they started auditioning blind, it was pretty instantaneous that women got all of these positions as they should.

INJ 34 | Marketing Sciences
Marketing Science: Other animals will advertise things like their social status, too, but genetics and diet are core for almost every animal on the planet.


You’re a group strategy director and head of the marketing sciences practice at Crispin Porter + Bogusky. This sounds like a job you made up. Did you make that job?

I did make up the second piece. The first piece they put on the business card. The second piece is a piece that I added but I’ve made it come true. I did it first of all because it’s a bit of what I do when I do marketing. I blend art and science. I am one of two PhDs in our company, one of two PhDs I’ve ever met in advertising effectively. There are not many of us and so there are a lot of people who run on instinct, gut, and belief. I bring in a lot of the science. I get known for that and I had done a fair bit of trying to understand the real science of marketing and advertising with my previous roles. I’ve added that moniker to what I do. It’s an informal thing but it ties people.

You’re not going to get fired for saying it. You have a TEDx Talk on what evolution can tell us about advertising. This is you bringing this science together with the practice. What you do in that talk is you show how animals are like advertisers. What’s your favorite example of animals as advertisers?

One of the ones I used in the talk, which is one of my favorites is the elk because elks are here in Colorado as well. You can hear them giggling. see them running, see them sometimes even fighting. The example is the bull elk. The mature male grows 40 pounds of antlers each season. The immature males can only grow ten pounds or so. That’s a lot of bone to be growing in one season of your life if you think about it. Those enormous antlers are mostly for display. They rarely fight. They do sometimes get into a little tussle with another male if they’re fighting over a harem or fighting over females because that’s what it’s all about. It’s advertising to other males how strong and virulent they are and how much you shouldn’t mess with me if I’ve got the bigger antlers. It’s advertising to the females how strong and virulent you are and yes, you want to be part of my harem and mate with me.

The classic example is peacocking. That’s what we call it. I like the antlers because you grow them every year and there is something pretty dramatic about that. That’s a great example of an animal marketing itself to others. The way I talk about it and the way I’ve been thinking about it is, what they’re advertising is their genetics and their diet. Other animals will advertise things like their social status, but genetics and diet are core for almost every animal on the planet. How do you advertise genes? You advertise it through the visible things that you can display that are driven by good genes like strong healthy antlers and a nice pelt and a big bugle. That’s the call the elk makes. All of those outward symbols and signs are to show off to females that you’ve got good genes and that you’ve had a good diet. You’re not sickly, coughing, hacking, and wheezing when you’re supposed to be bugling to attract all the female elks.

You also talk about false advertising, too.

That happens at times.

These things are automatic associations. The female elks are not consciously thinking, “That guy’s got a great rack.” Animals are associative creatures. Even we are associative creatures but they’re more so because they don’t have that system of thinking as we do. They can’t correct in the same way. How does false advertising happen?

False advertising happens a ton as well. The easiest example, the local one is the rattlesnake. The Western diamondback rattlesnake has a rattle. That’s at the end of its tail and then it bites you and it has venom. The rattle warns you that it will kill you if you step on it. That’s the truth in advertising. Then the deception in advertising is the bull snake, which is very similar looking. It has evolved to mimic the look of a rattlesnake, but it also has evolved to mimic the sound. It does it with its mouth. It makes a rattling sound with its mouth to copy a real rattler to avoid getting stepped on or eaten by predators or other creatures.

Let’s step back. What is urban ecology and how do you make the transition from urban ecologists to a strategy director?

There are two ways I think about urban ecology. One is looking at ecology in an urban place. Counting butterflies.

What’s ecology then?

Ecology is looking at the system of plants and animals, fungi and bacteria and all the critters in a specific place like in a city.

Like in rain forests.

Or in a pond. You can have a whole ecosystem in one pond.

An urban one is to look at it within a city.

Humans have brought so many other creatures in. There are a bunch of creatures attached to us like mice, rats, fruit flies and pigeons. There’s a whole ecosystem in a city that doesn’t exist just outside the city. In the West, we add tons of trees, moisture, and we bring in other critters. We are these little oases in an otherwise arid environments without these critters, trees, and its dry grasslands.

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For our audience, if you’re in Boulder, you get used to the fact that sometimes a bear wanders into town or a mountain lion comes down and snatches some dogs or whatever. The prairie dogs that create problems, half of the people want to get rid of them but half of the people want to pet them.

2018 has been a real weird bumper crop of rabbits in our town in Boulder. It’s probably way up the food chain that the rabbits’ predators have been the coyotes and they might have been removed either because wolves are back. The wolves are scaring the coyotes away or because we’ve overhunted the coyotes or maybe they feel sick and they got decimated by a virus. That’s one way people do urban ecology. They look at the critters and count them and see how they interact. The way I look at it is more like a chemist. Assume the whole city is a big sphere or a big blob. There are materials and energy coming in and materials and energy going out. Net how much carbon is coming into the city and out of the city. Net how much nitrogen or oxygen or water comes in and goes out. This ecosystem level measurement also gives you a way to understand what the ecosystem is doing. In our case, in humans with urban ecosystems, we bring in tons of water. In a lot of cities, we purify before we spit it out. We bring in tons of carbon in the form of building materials and fuel. A lot of the building materials gets built into the city in the form of aggregates and concrete. A lot of that carbon gets burned in the form of fuels, especially gas and that goes up in the atmosphere. If you look at the world from way up high, you’ve got all these dots of gases coming out of each city. Each city is belching these fumes into the global ecosystem. I was measuring and examining how energy flowed in and out of cities.

It sounds like the kind of work that needs Adderall. A lot of spreadsheets, a lot of modeling.

It’s very quantitative. That’s one of the reasons I decided to jump ship and get the advertising.

I live in a world where we’re focused on training people to be academics. It would be unpopular to be a graduate student in my program and be like, “I’m going off and doing consulting,” or “I’m going off I’m going to work in marketing.” This program is designed to create little professors who grow up into big professors. When did you decide that? Was it welcomed? Did you hide it? How did this happen?

It was certainly not fashionable to leave academia and this was the turn of the century.

Most people can’t leave academia. Congratulations on your ability to do that.

It wasn’t fashionable. I was antsy and itchy to look at other things because I had studied culture, identity politics, society and things like that in undergrad. I was into that. My major was sociology. Then I was lucky to have a professor who was open to doing things outside of the normal academic track. He was not as motivated as most. He started to realize the world is bigger than publishing and teaching. A lot of academics don’t realize that because that’s how you’re judged. You think of the world in the way that you are judged on the metrics you’re working against. He was more open to it. I looked under the sheets a little bit and saw that roughly half of academics don’t stay in academia. Roughly 10% of them get professorships, which is the pinnacle and ultimate thing you’re supposed to get because they’re in high demand.

You are good at looking ahead and you’re like, “This doesn’t seem as good at it does at first.”

I didn’t know enough about what other opportunities there could be in the world of academia or science to stay in it. To think that maybe I could be a communications expert when it comes to math or I could be a policy person. Maybe I could help run labs or run organizations that are related to science or affiliated with science or publishers in the world of science. I love ecology. You have to like something a lot to do a PhD in it. I didn’t love all of the computer codings I was doing and thinking that my track was more and more analytical and more and more quantitative. At some point, I said, “Maybe I should see what else there is out there.”

One of your first jobs was with 72andSunny, the ad agency in Southern California. It’s an LA-based ad agency.

That was my first advertising gig.

How did you get that?

I got that because I had been doing marketing research, which I fell into through The Fancy Pants Skate Night. That’s how these things happen. It’s not résumés in Monster.com. It’s going to The Fancy Pants Skate Night and drinking at Connor O’Neill’s pub. That’s how you get a job.

It’s an Irish bar here in Boulder. This is the second story that’s come up from someone in this world who got a job because he was drinking around a campfire.

It’s networking. It’s learning about the people you don’t even know exist. Through The Fancy Pants Skate Night, I got this gig as a market researcher doing qualitative research around the world, interviewing people, focus groups, and in-home interviews. That was fun. One of my projects was for 72andSunny, which was a fledgling agency with about twenty people at the time. My client was the head of strategy over there, Greg Perlot. The project went well. It was super fun. I got to use my theories of society and culture from my undergrad, a little more than my theories of biology and evolution. We came up with some neat things and Greg said, “Do you know any strategists who might want to work at 72?” I said, “No. Do you know any strategist?”

INJ 34 | Marketing Sciences
Marketing Science: Networking is learning about the people you don’t even know exist.


Is that frowned on to hire someone as a consultant and then steal them away from their company?

No, that’s quite common. It’s most frowned upon when it’s a complete direct competitor or someone you just left. Greg said, “Come to LA and work for me.” I said, “I don’t think we can move out of Colorado. We just got here and my wife likes it.” He said, “Do it from Boulder.” I opened up 27andSnowy, the cold research arm of 72andSunny. I made t-shirts for the whole team and I got into advertising. I got a great lesson in advertising from some of the best in the industry.

I’m not going say anything that disparages Crispin Porter + Bogusky, but these ad agencies rise and fall. They’re the hot agency and everybody wants them. Then everybody realizes that there’s a commoditization of advertising and you go, “There’s someone else.” It’s like moths to a flame trying to find the magic, yet the magic doesn’t always last.

It’s a mix of trends in what people think advertising should do and how they think it works. It’s like, “We need the crazy madman of Madison Avenue. I need outsiders. I need jugglers and people who used to be street magicians. I need those people. I need traditionally trained MBAs.” Then sometimes there’s a trend of, “We need all the quants now because it’s all big data and advertising is all quantitative and digital now.” There are trends in marketing but connected to that, it’s a lot like sports, like football. It’s about fielding the best team and that’s a talent game. To some extent, advertising has different flavors but for a lot of the same stuff. Let’s say you’re doing big TV spots for the big marketing firms. You want to fill the best team and which agency has the best team at any given moment. That comes and goes and you’ve got some dynasties and some dark horses. Once in a while, some agency comes out of nowhere and suddenly they’re the next big thing.

It takes a couple big wins to become the hot agency. You worked at The Integer Group, which is down in Denver. They specialize in shopper insights, which is rather interesting especially nowadays. People have opinions about retail, the death of retail, the mall is dying out and all these things. As you think about retail, what are your thoughts? What do you think is happening? If you were forced to make a prediction, what does it look like?

Retail is definitely in a weird spot, but I don’t think it’s dying. It’s morphing. As an ecologist, this is another piece of it. I take a long view. We’ve only had stores for the past 200 years. As species, it’s not like 200 years is a long time. 200 years is barely a blink of an eye when it comes to culture, much less the species. Stores have taken all different forms in the past 200 years. We might think, “They’re dying,” but they’re going to morph because we had the era of the mall. That’s the most recent death, the indoor mall. We have plenty of outdoor malls all over the country now and it’s called new urbanism. You’ve got the same stores. It’s Guess, Foot Locker, Dick’s Sporting Goods and J.Crew, but you’re walking down a street and it feels like a street. The only way you know it’s a mall is it’s the same stores and they’re piping music into the sidewalks. It’s not a street.

The principles are the same. It’s just whether it’s covered or not covered.

For the malls, yes, in this case. It’s the notion of retail changing. That’s the bigger picture and retail isn’t going away. Stores aren’t going away because people still like to touch and feel things. It’s hard to try things on and all the shipping. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s a pain in the ass.

When I have comedians, they say much worse things.

Things are changing. Warby Parker has stores.

Right on Eastside of Pearl.

Right here in town, they have one. Amazon bought a major grocer and they want to have brick and mortar. Walmart is one of the biggest eCommerce players because they have this amazing physical distribution network called stores.

Also in urban centers that are easy to get something from point A to Point B. Walmart’s are close to where houses are.

People who have more money and they know what to do but they have no time to do anything with it, they’re going to probably shop everything online from the comfort of their fenced community. A lot of people like to go out. They like to shop, they like to see the city, they like to get out in the evenings and stores and commerce are a big part of that. I don’t think they’re dying as much as they’re morphing and they’re changing.

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I talked about this in my class a lot. It comes up naturally. I’ll give you my big prediction. Retail is going to get better as a result of all of this. It’s going to become more experiential. It’s going to become more fun. It’s going to become more enjoyable and easier. If you think about the 200 years, the model is not that different. There’s a cashier at the front of the store. There are shelves and aisles and so on.

The old Woolworths store so to speak.

The big one is grocery stores. I worked in a grocery store when I was thirteen. It was one of the first jobs as a stock boy. Whole Foods is not that much different. You can grab food ready-to-eat. That’s the major one and it’s faster to check out. The layout of the store and the experience, the store is more or less the same.

It’s still about moving inventory. It’s funny that you would say entertaining because there are two aspects of that. One of them is can you be fully entertained. Can it have full-on recreational entertainment in the store? In some places, you can for sure. The other piece of it is, is it easier and more enjoyable because there’s less friction and less frustration? Is there someone to talk to? Is there a way to check out? Do you have to stand in line? A good example is Nordstrom Rack. They’ve got the checkout lines and they’ve got the usual people running around helping you. When the checkout lines get big, their sales associates are empowered to just check people out in the middle of the aisles, at random places. They can use the little handheld device to scan your three or four items and then run your credit card right there and let you shoo out the door so you don’t have to stand in line behind 30 other people. It makes it a little easier, more frictionless and those kinds of things. Maybe you don’t want to stand in line. Maybe you know what you want, you’ve picked it out, can you ship it home for me? I want to put it in your arms. You take all of the stuff, bag it up, pack it up and ship it to my home. I don’t need it until this weekend anyway. That’s easy. It’s not necessarily entertainment but it makes it more enjoyable.

It does make you feel important. There is something about regular everyday people trying to feel important in the world because the world regularly makes them feel unimportant. Brands help you make you feel important, makeovers help you make your own important, and driving a nice car makes you feel important. Being treated like that makes you feel important. That’s not entertainment per se but that’s the value add versus the removing the negative.

It’s where it should go. I don’t know which retailers are going to do this the best. When you automate things and the robots come to take the lowly retail jobs like a stock boy or a checkout person, checkout people are disappearing as self-checkout machines are installed. Those people should be moved up the chain of value to do more for. My favorite example of automation is the airport check-in kiosk. It was a 30-person company that built those and started to do that for 30 million people a day. Imagine 30 people serving 30 million a day and no one needed an instruction manual. There was no training for how to use those damn things. You walk up and it tells you how and you touch some things.

Those things are better than supermarket checkout.

They are seamless. Granted there are fewer SKUs at the airport. You don’t have to know if it’s Meyer lemons or organic lemons. Is it a twelve-count of mega rolls or a sixteen-count of jumbo rolls of your toilet paper? All the folks at the airports thought their jobs are going to be displaced. To some extent, yes. If a company can save costs on labor by using machines instead of people, they’ll probably cut some people, which is unfortunate because those people could go around sprinkling travel pixie dust on people by saying, “Hi, can I help you? Can I fill out that bag tag for you? Where are you traveling now? Sonny, here’s a lollipop for you.” They can move up the value chain, offer a more personal service and make travelers feel more important. They can make them more human and leave the basic checking in and counting how many bags and whether or not you have any explosives to the robots.

The reason this is top of mind for me was I spent some time in Dubai. If you spend any time in Dubai and you go to the Dubai Mall, the Dubai Mall is an experience. There is an aquarium in the place and there are water and light shows outside of it. People need that third place in Dubai because it’s 105 degrees a lot of the time. You go to the mall as a family. You go to a mall on a date and very clearly, there’s an entertainment component. I want to do some things more rapid fire because there’s a lot of things I want to chat with you about. What are you best at?

I’ve been told I take a lot of info and not only do I somehow have it on hand and squeeze it out of my brain at the right moment, but I can do it in a way that is friendly and gentle enough not to scare people off. I can take complex things and I can score them out in a simple way.

I’ve had you speak in my class half a dozen times. One of the things I like at what you do, not only in your performance as a speaker, you might be my top speaker in terms of theatrics.

That’s a pretty high praise.

Theatrics matter quite a lot. You’re very good about keeping your material simple. You bring this energy and entertainment but then you also have very strong takeaways. That’s consistent with this. I’ve noticed it with your writing. Your writing has a punch to it, even the bio that you gave me. You’ve given me edits on things that have raised the energy of the writing, which is not easy to do.

Being in the world of persuasion, whether it’s persuading consumers to buy a razorblade or persuading your clients to buy an advertising idea, we’re slow on the uptake if we don’t realize all those people on the other end would rather watch Game of Thrones or The Ellen Show. Stuff that’s got punch and stuff that’s entertaining. Stuff that shocks the shit out of you or stuff that makes you laugh or cry. Why do we suck all of that out when we educate people? Whether that’s educating our consumers about the latest benefits of our bottled water because it’s PH balanced, whatever the hell that means or whether we’re trying to educate our workforce or educate our students. The spoonful of sugar metaphor is as massive and way underused.

INJ 34 | Marketing Sciences
Marketing Science: Retail isn’t going away. Stores aren’t going away because people still like to feel things.


My teaching got way better when I double the energy that I brought to the teaching.

I do a lot of workshops and work sessions and instead of being Masters of Ceremony, the MC, now I say, “I’m the ME, the master of energy,” because ceremony is a dorky word. I don’t know what that means anymore. ME might be to, “Me, me, me,” but the notion is I manage the energy in the room and that means putting on music during the break time, making people laugh or handing dark chocolate.

What are you working on right now that you are excited about?

I’m working on some new ideas for a new restaurant client. It’s TGI Friday’s.

You’ve talked to me about this. I love this idea.

I don’t want to tell the whole idea, but I do want to say that I’m excited because the problem is juicy and we feel like we’ve hit on a way out. The juicy problem is chain restaurants are sucking it right now. They’re the butt of all jokes whether it’s Applebee’s or Chili’s or the Endless Apps or the Breadsticks. All these places that are chain restaurants that brought a lot of energy to the malls in the ‘80s are not as cool as your local place opened by the new winner of Chopped who came back home and all these celebrity chefs.

Even these places that are quasi-chains. I’m going to dinner with a friend at a place here in town called Bar Taco. Bar Taco feels like an independent restaurant, but it’s part of a larger group of them. It has the benefits of a chain but it doesn’t have the stigma of a chain.

People don’t hate chains. McDonald’s is the number one restaurant in the world. Even hipsters go apeshit over Chick-fil-A or In-N-Out Burger or Smashburger. Whether it’s a doughnut chain or a burrito chain, hot new chains happen and cool people like them. That’s still a thing. It’s just old dated chains are old and dated like old dated brands are. This is a brand that’s got 95% awareness and Friday’s was the original singles bar in New York City where it started because people were having house parties and trying to meet each other as singles in the ‘50s. The inventor said, “Let’s make this public so people can mingle.” Then they got taken over by Flair, consumed by their own deal with the devil with that. The problem is a juicy problem. How do you reinvent a story or a 60-year old brand that’s known now for crappy food and Flair as opposed to being an exciting place to go and meet people? We think we’ve got some ways through it. We launched a neat little program for them for their new burgers. They are launching some tasty new burgers. We’ve tried them and they’re good. The new idea is that we admit that a lot of burgers are bad including ours and that’s why we’ve reinvented our burgers. For one week only in some test markets, you bring in your crappy saddle burger from some other place and we’ll trade you free Skyhigh burger. It gets a little notoriety and it gets a little attention.

You’re cutting through the clutter. You’ve adopted two children.


Why? How?

We adopted two children for lots of reasons. One of them was my wife had breast cancer. The chemo made it hard for us to grow our own. We looked into different options and the medical options seemed pretty intense laborious and then looking at the numbers again, there are 500,000 legal orphans in America at any given day. They come in and out of the system but roughly 500,000 children don’t have any legal parent or guardian.

I have no idea it was that many.

Then you add at least another million on top of that who are still legally connected to a parent or guardian but those parent or parents or guardians beat them or abuse them, neglect them. They’re separated from them because they’re not good parents or guardians. There are a lot of people in need of a home and my wife and I were two people who had a home to give. It’s one of those cheesy stories of we have a home, we wanted to have a family, and so we chose to do foster care adoption through Boulder County Social Services.

Not to be crass, but do you try out a bunch of kids? They come through, you care for them and then if it feels like there’s a connection, you go.

They call it respite care, which is like babysitting. You meet them and you figure out whether you’re up for that because some kids are big challenges. Some parents aren’t up for those big challenges and some are. We are pretty open-ended and we ended up with two little kids who are full siblings, one and a half and two and a half. That was eleven years ago.

You have tweens. It’s always a hard time to be a tween, but it seems like especially hard to be a tween nowadays.

Now, sex and drugs are two of the three or four topics and screens is another big topic. They’re addictive. They plug you into things that are unsafe. They connect you to anonymous strangers. There are all kinds of drama. It exacerbates and amplifies drama.

Being twelve or thirteen is already hard enough.

Then trying to figure out what people mean over text when you can’t see them in their faces.

I’m 48 and I have this problem. I knew you had kids, but I don’t think I knew they were adopted. Two questions. What are you reading, watching or listening to that’s good and that stands out to you? Not just the normal good but you’re like, “Wow.”

We don’t watch a ton, but one thing I’m watching which is well-done is Grace and Frankie. It’s a Netflix original series.

I know Baron Vaughn who plays the adopted son.

I don’t know him by name but there are two sons. One is black and one is white.

The black one. I know Baron. He’s on our show.


Is that what he goes by?

It’s fabulous writing. It’s like Modern Family for the geriatric set. Grace and Frankie is great writing. It almost has whiplash between poignant moments and hilarious moments.

I’m going to try the premise. You tell me if it’s correct. Two couples, they’re friends. The men end up being gay. They fall in love and leave the women behind. Are these two women who are finding their way as 60 or 70 something?

Then it’s the whole extended family. The two men and Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston. They were law partners for decades. They finally came out of the closet. They divorced their wives and got married. You follow them. You also follow Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. They are the wives. Lily is a totally new age hippie and Jane Fonda is an uptight bitch essentially. They are suddenly the odd couple because they’re living in the beach house. They are thrown together dealing with the aftermath of having their husbands leave with each other. Then both families have kids and you get to know those kids as well. It’s super fun. I’m watching that. That’s great.

I’m reading a neat series. It’s a comic book series. I love graphic novels. It’s called The Unwritten and it’s by Mike Carey. The Unwritten is a fun take on Harry Potter you could say. This author who does a wizarding story except that the son is the Harry character, the author. It turns out that the magic comes to life based on how much people believe in it. It’s a very fascinating story about the power of story going back to Goebbels in Nazi Germany Propaganda. Moby Dick and Herman Melville and the Bible and Cain and Abel and the stories that continue to persist, how is belief a binding part of the culture and makes things real. It makes things as real as magic. It’s funky and intellectual but it’s also a great page-turner.

Is that the kind of comic book that’s written both for adults and kids? You could read at both levels?

Absolutely. People think of comics equals superheroes but that’s like saying movies equals superheroes.

It’s just a medium.

Those are two things.

Also, you just delivered to me as a gift a book that came by way of a colleague of yours, a friend of yours.

INJ 34 | Marketing Sciences
The Humans: A Novel

The book is called The Humans.

It’s a novel by Matt Haig.

My colleague, Kelly McCormick, she’s a brilliant creative. She was written up as one of the top creators in the country to watch for. She’s great. Our company, as part of getting her written up in the Ad Age article or at Adweek, played a trick on her and said one of the questions from the interviews was, “What’s your favorite book? What’s your most inspiring book?” Not a business book but just, “What was your favorite?” She said this book, The Humans by Matt Haig. That wasn’t a question for the article. That was a question for our company and we bought a ton of copies and gave it out to everyone in the company. I asked Kelly to sign it for me. She was like, “I’m not the author.” I was like, “Yes, but you are 30 Under 30 or whatever they call you.” She signed it, not the author. It’s supposed to be a great book according to Kelly.

I look forward to reading it. I don’t read much fiction so I’m excited about that. The last question, I ask everyone this. What’s the secret to success that everyone knows but can’t seem to do?

Working when you don’t want to.

That is so fitting for me now.

It’s simple. I heard it once and I can’t remember who said it. The quote I heard was something like, “The difference between an amateur and a pro is a pro still works when they don’t want to.”

I’ve heard that quote.

That’s true in sports when you don’t want to get out of bed.

Those kids at Oberlin thumping on those pianos.

Academics working on their next publication or marketers who have to come up with another idea to sell to a client. The hack only does it when they feel like it.

When they’re inspired.

The pro says, “No, I’m going to do it. I’ll keep doing it even when I don’t want to.”

I was thinking about that because I’m working on a paper that I’ve been working on for too long. The excitement is gone, the thrill is gone. The academia rewards closers. I was working on that paper and I was thinking about how there are other things I want to do but this paper is closest to publication. It’s the one I should be spending most of my time on and not falling in love with these baubles as I call them. These exciting shiny things, these new ideas.

I usually have to trick myself into doing stuff I don’t want to do because I don’t want to do it.

Here’s my half for that problem, which is habits. I have a habit. I get up in the morning and I write. My rule is I work on the thing closest to publication. It becomes more automatic. I don’t have to make the choice. The thing that I don’t want to work on is the thing that I have to work on first. Then I can release myself and later in the day work on the more exciting kinds of things.

I’ll try and do that. I have not developed any good habits. I do have my back, which is social binding. I read an article about this that the reason willpower is seen as so ephemeral and so hard to come by these days. There are so many articles about grit, like all of Angela Duckworth’s work and willpower and how you can deplete your willpower if you use it in the morning trying to exercise and then you don’t have any later to avoid eating the cupcakes. The notion is we’re social animals, we’re not individual animals. The easiest way to do stuff when you don’t have the willpower is to get into a pack that’s doing it and they’ll drag you along. Whether it’s in the peloton and you’re biking with a group, you’re going to bike as long as they bike. If I’m with a team that’s working on a campaign like, “It’s Sunday and I don’t want to be in the office. It’s now 6:00 or 7:00 or 8:00 and I don’t want to be here,” but the social binding keeps me going.

It’s interesting you say that about Sundays. I stole this idea from Darwin Metzger and Sarah Zurell, his partner. Darwin is a previous guest on here. They call it schmonday. It’s like this dirty little secret of academia. You come into the office on Sunday night and you take care of all the shallow work that has been accumulating, the emails, the getting organized and the light tasks that you can hit the ground running on Monday. One thing that helps me do schmonday is I know that Darwin and Sarah are doing the schmonday. I often will tweet schmonday and one of them will like it.

The social vine has created a habit.

They live in Los Angeles.

I hate schmonday. To me, that’s like you’re working before you’re working. That’s like the people when you say, “Do you have anything else to add?” and they say, “No,” but they go on and on. Why don’t you just say yes or, “Before we begin, I have a couple of things.” No, you’ve just begun.

I’m not advocating schmonday. I like schmonday, but it is not for everyone because it is. Also, I like the idea of working when other people aren’t and I like the idea of not working when other people are. Ethan, this was great. I knew it would be great. Thanks for screwing it up. It was very good. We talked about lots of things. Thanks so much.

Thank you.

Resources mentioned:

About Ethan Decker

INJ 34 | Marketing SciencesEthan Decker is the Principal at Fractal Strategy. He is a strategic marketing consultant who sits at the intersection of creative arts and brand science. He’s been a strategic planner and market researcher at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Integer\TBWA, and 72andSunny. His clients have included Domino’s, Hotels.com, P&G, Kellogg’s, PepsiCo, Discovery Channel, Nike, Intel, Unilever, and others. Ethan has a BA in sociology and a PhD in urban ecology and human evolution, and he studied complex systems theory at the Santa Fe Institute.


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