As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Adrian Ho.
Adrian Ho is CEO and founding partner of Zeus Jones. Founded in 2007, Zeus Jones is a design and innovation consulting firm that helps all kinds of national and international organizations, brands and businesses solve complex, and often unique, problems Zeus Jones provides experience design, organizational and workflow design, product development and branding as well as deep and immersive partnerships that help organizations imagine a new world through the lenses of environmental, human and societal impact. Clients include leaders in the fields of technology, sports apparel, food and beverage and many others.
Under Adrian’s leadership, the agency’s work has been recognized by the AIGA, Jay-Chiat Awards, Communication Arts, New York Times, Fast Company and a variety of other programs and publications. Zeus Jones has also been featured in a number of books on design and marketing including Communication Design: Insights from the Creative Industries, Paid Attention: Innovative Advertising for a Digital World, Brandstorm: Surviving and Thriving in the New Consumer-Led Marketplace and Connecting With Consumers: Marketing For New Marketplace Realities.
Adrian’s work has received many awards, including an EFFIE for United Airlines and Dyson and an IPA for BMW Films, which was named as one of the top 10 most innovative digital marketing programs of all time. He served on the AAAA Account Planning Committee, co-chairing the creation of their international awards program; and as a judge for the One Show jury for IP and Products categories — created specifically to recognize digital innovation in marketing. He is also a sought after speaker, presenting on modern, digital branding and marketing at APG conferences worldwide, SXSW, PSFK and the AMA.
Prior to starting Zeus Jones with his partners Adrian was Director of Planning at Fallon, then one of the largest agencies in the United States. He also held various planning roles with JWT, Anderson Lembke and Goodby Silverstein & Partners.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I spent the first half of my career in advertising working on global brands like HP, Microsoft, BMW and United Airlines. I ended up as head of strategy at Fallon — then one of the best advertising agencies in the world.
Through my journey I started to believe that advertising was not the best way to solve the most interesting and pressing challenges facing business. At Fallon, I met (my now) partners who also shared this view.
We tried to start a new division within our agency but the business models were incompatible. So we launched Zeus Jones because we wanted to prove that we could generate enough client demand to build a business around our beliefs and change the way our industry solved problems for businesses and organizations.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Our first website in 2006 was just a series of links to social media sites where a mysterious character named Zeus Jones was posting blogs, recipes, artwork, music and all kinds of creative content. It was based on our belief that participating in new media was the new way to get famous (rather than the traditional 15 minutes on mass media).
Of course we broke one of Google’s central rules to detect spam websites — i.e. no original content. They de-listed our site for a few days and we had to go back and forth with Google engineers to get it re-listed.
But they restated it and more! For about a week, the search “best advertising agency in the world,” had Zeus Jones as the first listing.
I think this profoundly impacted our thinking. We realized that digital and social media were still about ideas and people. It reshaped our approach to technology and led us to making sure that technology at Zeus serves people and ideas first.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
There are two: Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken and Hunter and Amory Lovins came out just a couple years after Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte. Both shaped my thinking about how business systems could be re-aligned to do more good for people, the planet and the financial community. And that we were (and are) entering an era of incredible malleability and flexibility brought by digital technologies which could enable that re-alignment.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Fundamentally we saw that marketing reimagined (and by extension business as a whole) could perform useful services for people (like the early Nike+ for example) while also being more efficient and more effective than traditional marketing. That framed our belief that actions speak louder than words — a driving principle for the way we still work and think today.
Our purpose was and is to help companies succeed through making life better for all the people they serve.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
For every challenge, there is always at least one solution that aligns doing the right thing with business success. It’s almost certainly the most beautiful and elegant solution as well. You feel it when you uncover it. This principle gets applied to every aspect of our business and it’s the filter we bring to all our client projects as well.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
My wife suffered a Lisfranc fracture, one week after we started our lockdown in Minneapolis. It’s a really severe injury that means she can’t put weight on her right foot (or drive) for at least eight weeks. At the same time my daughter was going through the most intense period of high-school/AP finals as a junior. This put me in the role of primary caretaker/caregiver for the family on top of my CEO duties.
I immediately checked with my wife to make sure I captured everything typically managed by her and then built new schedules for my days and weeks ahead. I’ve continued to remind myself and my family that kindness is the most needed resource today. And I’ve leaned more heavily and openly on my wife and daughters for emotional support.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
It’s a challenging time for leaders across the board. You feel the pressure to help sustain the emotional energy, confidence and optimism of all your teams and employees. There’s very little that holds a dispersed and remote company together other than belief, values, ideals and faith in each other. Often the weight of it is paralyzing.
The challenge is that this can leave very little room for your own feelings which is draining and unhealthy. It’s important to find outlets and ways to work through, and express, what you are feeling as an individual. This often simply requires processing those feelings faster.
The other challenge is that business has become a transaction and productivity-focused environment with the need to keep things moving and make the most of everyone’s time. There’s little time for the lateral, oblique, meandering and human interactions that are the basis for creativity and invention.
We’ve made this a central pillar for our “return to work” plan. We may not actually go back to the office for a while but we believe there are other ways to re-introduce humanity in ways that are natural and not forced. And our team has been putting in place ideas and a process to help replicate things like organic interactions between colleagues and unexpected touch points and conversations even when the work is done remotely.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Like many people we stopped watching so much news after the first period and actively worked to bring better inputs into our lives.
Beyond that, the two biggest concepts that we’ve kept front and center are that kindness and compassion are the only things that can cancel out hate and fear. And that creating is the way to mend ourselves and our communities. It’s also the only thing that makes you feel good at the moment.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
We’ve often heard reasons for why we can’t change. They typically follow the same themes: “our people won’t change,” “we’d have to shut everything down and start again,” “we’re too invested in way things have been done before,” etc. None of those reasons are valid now, and, it’s pretty clear we can’t go back to what it was before. So I think many things are ripe for reinvention from what we do, to how we do it, to the financial and social underpinnings of business as well.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Absolutely, but I don’t think it will be in all the ways we are seeing as a response now. People need people and humans have always explored so I think that physical proximity/contact and travel probably won’t change (in the long run) as much as we think. However, I do think that consumerism will be affected as it was already trending downwards prior to COVID. I think there will be new formulas for “value” that emerge which will not simply be about cost and convenience.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Even before COVID we believed that the future of business would be built around cooperation more than around competition. This is about new ways companies can work together and form systems or ecosystems as well as new ways for people to work for and together inside of companies.
We think COVID has accelerated this and we’re currently developing and piloting new, more cooperative systems in a number of different areas.
We also think there will be demand for programs and solutions that make a real impact on lack of diversity, inequality and other areas of social good. We believe this is a real strength of ours and we plan to be more aggressive about identifying and creating those opportunities.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I think, and the World Economic Forum agrees, that this is an incredible opportunity to re-examine the fundamentals of your business. Many of the processes and systems we have, work at the expense of people rather than for the benefit of them. This isn’t because we’re malicious, it’s because they are optimized and measured around the wrong things. I think we are starting to see that optimizing around what’s good for people is also what’s good for business success. We would advocate starting small with re-designing how the work gets done inside your company first and moving on from there.
Secondly, and this should be an extension of the above, businesses are far too rigid because they are built for efficiency and predictability. This means they handle volatile change and uncertainty really poorly. The future is very likely to be as volatile as the past and we believe businesses can be (re)built to thrive and succeed in that kind of environment. This involves planning against longer time frames and building more flexibility and adaptability into your organization (something people excel at vs. computers or machines).
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Vladimir Ashkenazy was once asked how he managed to get his hands from one end of the piano to the other so quickly and so gracefully. He said, “Getting to the other end is not difficult, what’s harder is forgetting the end you were at before.
There are so many lessons in this for me, but I think it’s mainly about letting go of the past very quickly so that you can really get where you want or need to go. I think we sometimes hold on too tightly to the things we know; or the ideas we’ve had; or the expertise we’ve built, and those become paralyzing and stop us from moving ahead.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Athena and social channels overview