One on One

josh baze

This week we caught up with Josh Baze, evp strategy

Josh leads strategy across Public Label North America which includes brand, commerce, experiential and digital strategy. He touches just about every client at the agency to employ our PULSE process which uniquely marries cultural movements and consumer motivations to create specific behavior change that is accelerated by cultural currents.

Let’s go back to the beginning. What sparked your desire to get into account planning and strategy?

I was lucky enough to get an internship at an agency in Kansas City called Valentine-Radford when I was 19. This was in 1995 – the agency just got email, the first-ever corporate web site had just been published about 8 months prior (there were only about 2,700 websites on earth at that time!),there was one internet search terminal for an agency of 350 people. I thought I wanted to be a copywriter, but the last available internship was for something called “account planning.”  I had no idea what that was at the time but immediately said yes!.  After two weeks working with a team on a new product launch for Bayer, I knew planning and strategy is where I wanted to build my career. I’m very lucky to have had two great mentors there who were so willing with their time and talent – Brad Peak and Paul Hauser. I’ve always tried to pay their generosity forward.

You’ve worked at some powerhouse agencies like BBDO, Edelman, FCB and Ogilvy. What drew you to Public Label?

For most of my career I have gone from a large agency to a small one and back again.  Each have their advantages and drawbacks.  Before joining Public Label I spent almost 6 years at Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm.  I was lucky to be part of a great planning team there – fantastic and supportive boss and amazing colleagues.  But Edelman is nearly 70 years old – it’s a well-built agency already.  I wanted to go back to building something from the ground up. I’ve started and grown planning departments multiple times in my career. When I learned Public Label’s ethos was centered in “hacking culture to accelerate commerce” I was immediately intrigued. I was very impressed with the leadership team and convinced we could all build something unique and powerful together. Despite being an integrated “big idea” agency Public Label has a deep expertise in shopper and experiential marketing, and I liked the idea of working with experts who understand marketing from building brand awareness until the moment a product passes over a bar code scanner in-store. I believe we can create a new way of addressing modern brand marketing challenges that addresses all points of the consumer journey by leveraging cultural movements to amplify and accelerate brand bonding. .And we are well on our way to doing do.

CultureCasting and Indivisualizing are two of your innovations. What are they and why do they work so well?

CultureCasting is a way of predictively modelling a combination of search data, social data, and other data sources in order to accurately predict, within a few weeks, what trends are developing, and critically, when they are going to reach a scale that brands can activate effectively around them.  While I have always been impressed with the trend forecasting output of other agencies, I’ve always found their reports frustratingly unable to put into action. For example, “cool, we’re all going to start eating insect protein – but when? Where will this start happening first? Among whom?”  CultureCasting answers all of those questions – not only what’s coming next, but when, who it will affect first, in what ways it will first manifest, and how and where it’s likely to spread.

Indivisualizing is a way of taking consumer personae to a deeper level of behavioral understanding that pays particular attention to how consumers change behavior when they enter shopper mode.  23 hours a day we are human beings participating in, shaping and being shaped by macro and micro cultural forces.  But those just over 17 minutes a day we are actively considering purchase decisions, the ways those macro and micro cultural forces have affected us create specific effects on our brand consideration and purchase behavior. Indivisualizing imagines people from a more holistic point of view but adds a specific and precise layer of behavioral motivations around their shopper behaviors, beliefs, and needs.

What cultural movements are you particularly tuned into right now?

There are a few.  I’ll give you one at each end of the spectrum – a small one happening right now, and a large one with giant ramifications in the future.

The first – a small one – is a trend toward complete candor about our bodies that is changing the personal care category, among others. In the last 12 months we’ve seen Phillips’ laxatives come out with the tagline “You deserve a good poop.” Frida ran the first-ever television ad portraying mothers nursing (and the challenges and frustrations of doing so) during the Golden Globes. Kotex began using red liquid instead of blue (the standard for decades) in their feminine care ads.  People – women especially – are tired of being apologetic about their natural biological processes and are ready for frank conversations about and realistic portrayals of what their bodies do. It’s a long overdue and refreshing change. It’s a movement that is here now, here to stay, and ready for brands to embrace.

Something further over the horizon and far more complex is how we will reckon with income inequality.  As we tried to bring the pre-COVID “old normal” back online this summer, we’ve seen our lowest wage workers simply refuse to come back to work. We are seeing the acute effects of this, everyone from cashiers to factory workers, simply saying “ no – my labor is worth more than what you’ve been paying me – I’m not going to do it anymore.” This is a trend that has followed every major pandemic in history for hundreds of years –  from serfdom in Europe only ending following the Black Death, to early industrial workers demanding higher pay and better conditions following the Spanish Flu.  Globally and historically speaking, significant wage growth for our lowest wage earners has only ever followed the economic catastrophes brought on by pandemics.  So in the near term, brands will have to reckon with manufacturing delays, shipping delays, staffing issues, supply chain issues, etc. as low wage workers refuse to return to work under the current paradigm. But as they do so, brands need to begin thinking about an outcome 3 to 5 years from now when a more empowered customer (and employee) has better wages and a higher standard of living.

You stepped away from the agency world to spend some time at Google. What did you take away from that experience that you apply to your strategic approach today?

Many things, but most of all, that quantitative data is a means and not an end.

As you can imagine, for a strategist, being at Google was like being a kid in the candy store. The sheer amount of data at my disposal for research and modeling was nearly overwhelming. EVERYTHING at Google was quantified, often beyond recognition. Quantitative data has opened up all new ways to become better informed marketers, and those new ways can be very valuable, but we mustn’t ever lose track of the human beings we are trying to reach. Quantitative data can tell you how many organic cereal bars a family buys, how often, from where, what they paid for them, what time of day they purchased them, what else they purchased with them, whether they used a coupon, etc. But only qualitative data will show you those cereal bars end up in the kitchen trash can, unopened, because the kids won’t eat them no matter how many times you buy them. Human beings are limitlessly unquantifiable. You’re quite unlikely to change their heads without first changing their hearts. And not a single heart has ever been changed by a number.

Over the two decades you’ve been a brand strategist, what have been some of the most significant shifts in how you uncover insights and stay ahead of trends?

The biggest, and I feel it’s starting to shift back, is the outsourcing of insights from planning departments to technology partners. Many planning departments take “pre-processed insights” from Google, Facebook or the like and treat that deliverable as a final product instead of further interrogating what that data means. I saw it every day when I worked at Google. I’ve seen some of the departments I’ve been part of resting on their laurels a bit because so much intelligence comes through digested enough to be passed along or acted on as-is. I’ve definitely seen a weakening of the critical “soft skill” set of planners who haven’t been able to be exposed to how you do findings-to-insights planning work from the ground up. This has unfortunately and unfairly disproportionately affected younger planners who started their careers in this environment where qualitative inputs are dramatically undervalued at the expense of “data.” I feel that’s starting to change a bit and believe this change will be accelerated by the continuing trend of brands moving to smaller IATs and slimmer agency rosters. It’s a good time to be part of a planning department in an integrated agency.

This question is an interesting one because in some ways everything about “how” you do the work has changed, but “what” you do has remained exactly the same. What is essential about a strategist or planner’s job remains unchanged. We are here to extract signal from noise, to find those insights that most effectively unlock opportunities for human beings to connect to brands in new and unexpected ways.  In some ways digital technology has made it more efficient to do this, and in many ways less so. There is a literally infinite supply of data to consider, and there is a real risk of developing a saltwater thirst for it. You are always panning for gold as a planner. Knowing when to stop is at least as important as being able to tell pyrite from the real thing.

What do you think is the biggest missed opportunity that marketers should be taking advantage of right now?

It’s an overly-simplified answer, but if you’re not over-indexing on listening to your consumer right now, you are squandering a unique opportunity and will be starting the “new normal” far behind, whenever that arrives and whatever shape that takes.  Disaster accelerates the inevitable, as we have plainly seen over the last 2 years.  It takes approximately 66 days to change a behavior – we’ve been living in a pandemic almost 11 times that long now: Your consumer has changed dramatically, if not fundamentally, whether you know it or not. Whole categories have been born and others are relevant for the first time in decades.  No matter who you are, odds are almost 100% you are not listening to or closely enough watching your customers during this radical evolutionary period.

Looking into the future, what do you think marketers should be doing to ensure they’re prepared and poised to continue their brand’s success?

Brand marketers must become more agile. As consumers have moved more and more of their purchase consideration and shopping online, the demand for fast responses and rapid action from brands has increased dramatically. This will only continue.  Twitter is now a primary customer service channel for many brands, and even that isn’t fast enough for today’s consumers.  All parts of a brand organization need to be asking themselves how they can become more nimble. This goes beyond marketing – to R&D, legal, and retail teams. Brands have to remove all the friction they can in order to adapt to the impatient modern consumers expectations.

Over the course of your career, what has been your proudest accomplishment?

I’ve contributed strategy to several Effie-winning campaigns over the years and I’m very proud of those wins because the facilitation of behavior change is implicit in winning those awards.. But honestly – and at the risk of sounding like a brat – I am maybe most proud of being asked to leave a meeting mid-presentation to Papa John’s.  This was a few weeks before John Schnatter’s first personal (and thereby, brand) implosion. I had proposed a strategy that recommended the urgent need to put some space between Papa John “the brand” and Papa John “the man.” I’d done the analysis and knew disaster was imminent. And it was – and right on the schedule I’d predicted. Anyway, as I’m presenting Papa John himself comes in to say hello to our team, glances at the screen, and doesn’t like what he sees. Within moments of him leaving the room our client gets a text and we were asked to leave. Two weeks later John commits a series of very public gaffes and their stock price craters. Three weeks after that, they called to hire us, admitting we’d been right, and wanting us to work on urgent crisis comms for them. We declined.

What five songs would you put on a Josh Baze playlist and what do they say about you?

Oh man – this is the toughest question yet!!!  Let’s see…

“Higgs Bosun Blues” by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. Nick Cave is one of my favorite creators and I’m as fascinated by his creative process as I am his output – from songs to screenplays to advice columns to visual art. This song is a strange stream-of-consciousness fever dream that somehow perfectly encapsulates life at the beginning of the 21st centuty… The title is also the best “blues” song title I’ve ever heard in my life.

“Hotel In Brixton” by Baxter Dury is the song I’m most likely to catch myself humming at any given moment. I really love Baxter Dury. Even though he doesn’t sing the lead vocal on this one it seems like one of the most “Baxter Dury” of his songs to me…

“Here Comes The Night” by Augie March is about as perfect a song as I can think of. Glenn Richards, songwriter for the band, has a better and more poetic command of the English language than anyone else stringing words together in any medium for the last 150 years (with the possible exception of Kaveh Akbar). Every song he writes is tiny miracle. Or, often, a large one.

“True Happiness This Way Lies” by The The.  I will never understand why Matt Johnson (songwriter and only mainstay of the band) isn’t as widely known and devoutly worshipped as John Lennon.  His songwriting is impeccable. He does not make aesthetic mistakes. He’s been 15-20 years ahead of his time consistently since 1979. His songs tell the future. This one condenses the entirety of the human condition into 3 minutes and 11 seconds.

“I Dream A Highway” by Gillian Welch & David Rawlings.  Gillian Welch is one of my favorite living songwriters.  Her songs are perfect – they have to be, as her songs are so sparse, there is nowhere to hide anything that is not excellent or essential. It’s hard to pick a favorite of hers/theirs but this song seems like a neat bookend to “Higgs Boson Blues.”

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