On this week’s episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Ty Montague co-founder and CEO of co:collective and author of True Story: How to Combine Story and Action to Transform Your Business. Ty and I talk about his career in advertising and his pivot to a new framework for how companies should be approaching a changing landscape, customers, competitors, talent, and more.
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Interview Transcript with Ty Montague of co:collective
Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger. And as always, we have another amazing guest. Today we have Ty Montague. He is the co-founder and CEO of co:collective, which is a creative and strategic transformation company. Serves clients like Google and YouTube and IBM and MoMA. And the list goes on and on.
Ty’s also been named one of the 50 most influential creatives in the past 20 years. One of the top 10 creative directors in America, as well as the top 10 creative minds in business. Ty, you also wrote a book called True Story: How to Combine Story and Action to Transform Your Business. So welcome to the show Ty
Ty Montague: Brian. It’s great to be here. Thank you for having me.
Brian Ardinger: Well, I was super excited to have you, because I want to talk about the transformation and the things that you’ve seen in this whole world of advertising. If I understand correctly, you’ve had an illustrious career in the advertising world, but about five or 10 years ago, you made a pivot from that world of classic advertising. And so maybe we can start there. Can you tell us a little bit about that shift from what you were doing in the past, in the advertising space, and where you are now?
Ty Montague: I used to call myself a storyteller for businesses, helping them craft their story, and then tell it using paid media 30 and 60 second television commercials primarily. But about 15 years ago, I started to notice that it was getting harder to tell stories using traditional paid media. And I also noticed what seemed to me to be a new kind of company being born. These companies had a story, but they weren’t telling it using paid media, they were actually doing it in their customer experience.
First one that I remember noticing because I was still in advertising at the time was Starbucks. You know, there’s a moment that all of us I’m sure had where you wake up one morning and suddenly there’s a Starbucks on every street corner in America, but there was no Starbucks advertising anywhere. And I couldn’t figure out, I was like all other things being equal, right, the Starbucks way of building a business has got to be more efficient.
So I looked into it, and I started collecting lists of companies that seem to be operating in this new way. And about 10 years ago, once I realized that they actually did operate in a very different way, I decided to leave traditional advertising. I was the co-president and chief creative officer of a big agency called J. Walter Thompson in North America. At the time, my partner and I decided to leave and launch co:collective. And what we do is we help more traditional companies begin to function in this new way.
Brian Ardinger: Talk a little bit about that thesis. Can you unpack this quest that you see companies going through and who’s good at it and let’s start there.
Ty Montague: We have two theses at co:. First to be successful today and increasingly in the future, companies need to be pursuing a higher purpose. We call it a quest. It is something that transcends merely creating shareholder value. Making money is a great result of having a quest, but it’s not the point of having a quest.
There needs to be generosity to a good quest. It needs to be something that inspires your customers and your employees to engage with and come along and try to achieve it with you. And so, we help leadership teams define and align on this quest, this higher purpose. And then we help companies actually enact that quest.
In other words, the quest isn’t a communication strategy. It’s an action strategy for the company. You take your quest and you put it to work in your customer experience. Defining innovative experiences that you make to make your quest real and tangible for people inside and outside your company. And 10 years ago, we had no idea whether that idea would float at all. And fingers crossed. It’s a much more popular idea today than it was 10 years ago. And we’re excited to see the world pet in our direction.
Brian Ardinger: Let’s talk a little bit about framework. Can any company embark on a quest and what’s that framework to do so?
Ty Montague: We have a process that we’ve developed. It’s been iterative. As you mentioned, I wrote a book and published it in 2013 that’s really about the process. And it hasn’t changed massively since then, but there’ve been a few tweaks to it. So, we basically look for four truths for a company as we look for inputs into how to develop your quest. We look for a truth about the protagonist and this is all story language, right?
Ultimately, we consider the protagonist to be the company itself. So, what is your true state of play today? And we do a lot of desk research. We do a lot of internal interviewing at these companies to define, like, what is the truth about your current state today? We then look for a truth about the stage.
And by that we mean the stage that the story is playing out on, what’s going on in culture. What’s going on in your competitive set, what’s going on in technology that you need to pay attention to. We look for truth about the participants, the people that you actually want to serve in your business. Your customers would be another way to put it. We think of them as participants though, because if you’re on a good quest, they want to come along with you and help you achieve it.
And then we look for a truth about the antagonist. So, it’s not enough and know what you’re for. We believe you need to know what you’re against. What is the dragon that you’re trying to slay when you get out of bed every day? And a good antagonist can be extremely motivating.
And then we take those inputs, and we work collaboratively with the client to develop their quest, usually with the whole leadership team. Often, including the CEO. From there, we take that quest and we put it to action both in again, four quadrants offer, your identity – so the products that you make and then, you know, your identity including communications, your community -internally like internal stakeholders in the company, and then capabilities. Because if you have a good quest, a good quest is ambitious over time it may require you to add capabilities to the company, which can be done through acquisition or by hiring new kinds of people.
Brian Ardinger: Is this something that pretty much any company in any industry can go through and take part in? Or are there particular industries or types of companies that, where the story model plays out more effectively?
Ty Montague: No, we are industry agnostic. Our belief is companies are at their base route, a collection of people and people always have, and always will respond to a powerful narrative. It’s what inspires us. It’s what attracts us to businesses. And companies that have a compelling quest are, particularly with young people, are particularly attractive. And in some cases, young people will decide not to do business with a company that doesn’t have them today. For a time, it has been a competitive advantage for those who adopted early Today I would say we’re moving to existential threat to not have some kind of higher purpose.
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Brian Ardinger: And it does seem that this ability to not only affect the market or your customers that you’re dealing with, but how you attract employees and how you maintain that relationship can come into play in a much more effective way than just saying here’s what we do. And let’s put advertising dollars behind it to tell that story.
Ty Montague: Absolutely great point. You know, in the war for talent alone, I think 85% of millennials when asked, would take a cut in pay to join a company that shares their values. And so, you’re getting better talent cheaper. If you’re a CEO, if you have a well-defined and inspiring purpose.
Brian Ardinger: We’re actually recording this the day after the election. Votes are still being counted and all that kind of stuff. As we get to more of a polarized place, where we have a protagonist and antagonist in the story. How do you see brands playing a role in that? And or do you see them taking sides and helping with that, or what’s your take on that.
Ty Montague: Great question also. You know, I would say again, back to millennials, right? If you want to do business with young people today, who are, by the way, as boomers age out, we’re seeing this massive shift in generational wealth. So, millennials are legitimate consumers today and will become the dominant consumers quite rapidly. And so, what we’re seeing is companies that are not activists, companies that do not have a point of view are increasingly rejected by consumers.
Having a point of view, it’s an odd thing because for years, I’m 57 years old, like, and in the advertising business companies were very reluctant to take any kind of political stand at all. But today it’s almost required to have a point of view. Pro or con like pro-Trump or anti-Trump or pro black lives matter or anti-black lives matter. You need to have a point of view and you need to be seen to then be acting on that point of view, as opposed to just saying it, you got to do it. You got to participate.
Brian Ardinger: You spotted this trend early and how’s this playing out now. How do you see things like COVID affecting the adoption or this way of positioning your company and moving forward?
Ty Montague: Yeah. Well, I think again, having an activist point of view as a company is a 10 or a 20-year strategy. This isn’t a short-term thing. Hopefully COVID is a shorter-term problem, but it is an opportunity for a company once again, to show what they’re truly made of, right. Consumers respond to companies that take action based on their beliefs.
And so this is a period of time when the best companies have seized the opportunity to show consumers that they are on the side of right. You know, they’re trying to take whatever capabilities that they have and put them to work in service of making sure that people are safe and healthy. And you see that happening in multiple ways.
One example, a client of ours Under Armour, you know, they took their know-how and capabilities, which are around making athletic gear and made a mask for athletes. Got it out onto the market. First, they made them freely available to first responders and people on the front lines. And then they started to sell them because they were proven to work really, really well. Under Armor did what they do best and put it to work doing good during the pandemic.
Brian Ardinger: So, let’s bring us back on the innovation front. How can companies start maybe using this methodology to rethink how they should position themselves and do business in a new and dynamic and disruptive world that they’re living in.
Ty Montague: One of the things that we have noticed is that the innovation space is full of smart, talented people. And design thinking is really well understood in that space. And our thesis is that design thinking is absolutely crucial, but it is also not enough. It is insufficient. That merely having a customer insight is not enough today. That companies need to step back and really figure out what they stand for overall in the world before they get into the design thinking process.
And so that’s what we would say is that design thinking is vitally important, but companies need to take a step back before they get into product innovation. They need to decide whether those products actually align with their overall thesis as a business.
Brian Ardinger: How do you actually then put that into action within your company to drive towards it, especially if you’re building products and that differently in the past, and now you’re moving to this new way.
Ty Montague: Absolutely. Well, once you understand the thesis, once you have a quest, then you unleash the power of design thinking and you go and look for consumer insight, you look for pain points and you look for ways to delight customers, but through the lens of your quest. And so, quest led companies often over time becomes slightly hard to categorize because they tend to burst out of the silo that we think of them in.
Tesla is a great example, right? Tesla is a company that people might think of Tesla as a car company, but Tesla does not think of themselves as a car company. Their enemy is the hydrocarbon economy. They are trying to disrupt the hydrocarbon economy. Trying to accelerate adoption of a new economy based on sustainable energy.
And they think of themselves as an energy and transportation company. So, cars makes sense, but also charging stations and also grid level battery systems and also battery packs for your house and also solar cells. And who knows what else in the future? Right. So, you take your quest and your enemy. You use that to then define your innovation roadmap and then at a product level, you unleash the power of design thinking to make sure that the products that you’re putting into market actually solve a pressing human problem. And the company said to do that best become disproportionately successful. They’re on a tear.
Brian Ardinger: And also, it seems to allow them to be more resilient and adaptive to change because they’re not tied to, this is the one product that we serve or the one particular vertical that we’re in. It allows flexibility in a ever flexible world that we’re living in.
Ty Montague: Exactly. Right. That’s another great point. We often say that a good quest is often the answer to the question what business are you actually in? Tesla isn’t in the car business, they’re in the business of accelerating adoption of an entirely new economy. And because they think of themselves that way, they’re very nimble and flexible, and they’re able to see opportunities where a traditional car company probably does not.
Brian Ardinger: So, we talked a little bit about Tesla, but I was wondering if we could use the last couple of minutes to maybe give any kind of other case studies or any examples of companies that are doing this well or mistakes, or things that you’ve seen along the way.
Ty Montague: We work with a lot of different companies. One of the really interesting case histories for us is Sallie Mae. And this is in progress, right? So, I’m not able to talk about everything that they have planned, but they came to us. They were defining themselves as a college loan company. And we said to them, if you took on the quest of equipping, aspiring minds to live the life that they imagined.
Rather than thinking of yourself as a college loan company, you’re in the service of helping people live the life that they want to do. Going to college is the gateway to that. But you can have a very long career, a very long relationship with them. So get into the credit card business because establishing a credit rating, once you’ve gone to college is a good thing to do. It will be helpful to them and potentially a good revenue stream for you.
So that’s an example of taking a quest and expanding it into a new category. One other thing that I wanted to talk about is just the future, because we’ve gotten to a point where being quest led is now de rigueur like a lot of companies understand that they need to have and articulate a higher purpose. I think we’re in a zone now where purpose washing is something that we need to be really careful about. Right. And holding yourself to account as a company to literally do what you say you stand for, as opposed to just say it is incredibly important.
Brian Ardinger: Well, it’s probably, if you take that quest on, it’s much more of a high profile, and if you don’t continue on that particular path, it’s very easy to see that transparency from a consumer or participant employee perspective.
Ty Montague: Exactly. You’re handing the world a stick to beat you with if you don’t live it. So once you do it, you need to really mean it because otherwise you’re going to get beat up a little bit, I think.
For More Information
Brian Ardinger: Well, Ty, I’d love the continuing conversation. If people want to find out more about yourself or co:collective or your book in that, what’s the best way to do that.
Brian Ardinger: Excellent. Thanks again for coming on Inside Outside Innovation. Look forward to continuing the conversation.
Ty Montague: Thanks, Brian. This was great.
Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.
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