As agency leaders, we’re as good as our last idea. So we’re always on the lookout for fresh thinking and emerging trends to take to our clients. But how do we do that in today’s overloaded information age where there is never enough time and so many other distractions? And how can we look into the future of business as it relates to the agency space?

“Open your eyes, get out of your comfort zone, and learn about the world around you.” These are the words of wisdom from my podcast guest, Rohit Bhargava.  

Rohit is a non-obvious trend curator and an expert in helping brands and leaders be more influential. He helps agencies re-think their role when it comes to what they’re supposed to be doing for their customers. In his mind, it all comes down to understanding a customer’s true business need, rather than what they think they’re asking for. It’s looking around, being curious and finding the non-obvious in the everyday.   

Some highlights of our conversation include:

  • Working as a solopreneur vs. working in an agency
  • Rohit’s trend report that started as a blog post
  • Habits for being a trend spotter
  • Big trends for 2016
  • What lies ahead for the future of business for agencies
  • VR: How Virtual Reality can become important to agencies
  • Data overload: what will happen when all the data available to different parties eventually gets pooled together?
  • Understanding your clients’ true needs and becoming their true partner
  • Architecting an Innovation Day to open up your clients’ wallets
  • How to teach trend-creating thinking to employees coming out of college

Rohit Bhargava is a Wall Street Journal bestselling author of five books on topics as wide ranging as the future of business, building a brand with personality, and why leaders never eat cauliflower. Rohit has advised hundreds of global brands as the Senior Vice President of Global Strategy & Planning at Ogilvy and with his own firm, Influential Marketing Group. He also teaches marketing at Georgetown University. A two-time TEDx speaker, Rohit has keynoted events in 31 countries and is regularly featured as a marketing expert by media such as The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, and NPR.

To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site ( and grab either the iTunes or Stitcher files or just listen to it from the web.  

If you’d rather just read the conversation, the transcript is below:

Table of Contents (Jump Straight to It!)

I.      Lessons Learned from Large Agency Life

II.     Tips for Seeing into the Future of Business by Spotting Trends

III.    Common Missed Opportunities in the Agency

IV.    Incorporating a Trend Spotting Mindset into Your Organization

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Build a Better Agency, where we show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invest in employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of expertise as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew: Hey everybody. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build a Better Agency. One of the things that agency owners and employees hear all the time is the importance of being an influencer, and tracking trends, and being innovative. And that’s why today’s guest is going to knock it out of the park for you. So Rohit Bhargava is a non-obvious trend curator. He’s the founder of Influential Marketing Group and expert in helping brands and leaders be more influential. He’s also a Wall Street Journal best-selling author of five books on topics that range from the future of business, building a brand with personality, and even why leaders never eat cauliflower. He’s advised hundreds of global brands and also teaches marketing at Georgetown University. A two-time TEDx speaker, he has keynoted events in 31 countries and is regularly featured as a marketing expert by media such as The New York Times, Harvard Business Review and NPR. Rohit, thank you so much for being with us today. Welcome to the podcast.  

Rohit: Thank you and thanks for having me. And thanks for that amazing introduction. Now I almost want to talk to myself.  

Drew: See? Well, when you do amazing things, it’s easy to do… I have no doubt there’s even more interesting things that I did not include, but we’ll let the listeners ferret those out for themselves while we talk.  

Rohit: Yeah, it sounds like a good plan.  

Drew: Yeah. So you come from a big agency background. Give everybody just a very quick picture of this, sort of your career landscape.

Rohit: Yeah, definitely. So I started in the agency world back when I was living in Australia, and I was in Sydney. And I landed a job with Leo Burnett in Australia.  And it was really running a new group for them at the time which was back in 1998 and it was called ‘iLeo’. And it was basically the first digital team as part of the traditional ad agency. And so, you know, my first role in the agency was sort of in the innovation side of the agency, in building up a new division. And so that was kind of where I started my career. And I stayed there for a couple of years and then I ended up moving back to the U.S. which is where I’d grown up. And I got a job with Ogilvy. And a couple of months after I started, we, the team that was there, ended up starting the first social media group at Ogilvy in 2004, which was, you know, at that time social media basically meant blogs.  

Drew: Right, the dark ages of social media.  

Rohit: Yeah.

Drew: Yeah.

Rohit: That’s right. That’s right. And so, you know, I stayed in that team for about four or five years and then I shifted into a global role at Ogilvy where I was doing more, kind of, broader strategy and planning type of stuff, a lot of pitching for new business. That was, you know, I was on the road all the time. And then eventually in 2013, I left and I decided to do my own thing. And so now I am independent and glad to be independent at this time. As opposed, you know, I’m not one of those guys who’s like, “Man I wish I did that earlier.” No. I’m glad I did what I did when I did it and I’m glad I left when I left, so…

Drew: So, yeah, I think we probably first started bumping into each other around ‘06, ‘07 with The Age of Conversation and some of those things. So, it’s interesting how…

Rohit: Yup.

Drew: …both our worlds keep circling around each other. Yup.

Rohit: Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean and I remember, you know, the early things like that where it was, it was really great, you know, not to be an old fart talking nostalgic about the old days, but yeah. There’s something nice about being a blogger in 2005 when people are coming up with lists of the 25 marketing bloggers to read and there really are only 25. And so like, you’re kind of…

Drew: It made us look very smart at the end of it.  

Rohit: …and hope you’re on the list.  

Drew: Yeah.

Rohit: Yeah.  


Lessons Learned from Large Agency Life

Drew: So, as you know, the listeners of this podcast are small to mid-sized agency owners and employees. So you know, maybe up to 300, 400 employees. And now you are in essence, a small agency. So what are some of the lessons you brought from the big shops into your own work?  

Rohit: Well, you know, the first one is that I realized I couldn’t be an agency. So, actually I think of myself more like a solo…

Drew: Yeah.  

Rohit: …guy. So I’ve really, I’m really not an agency. I mean I don’t really compete with any of the agencies. I can’t do a lot of the stuff that agencies do really well. And that’s actually been a nice sweet spot for me. So I just, on my path, I sort of carved it out so I would focus a little bit more on speaking.

Drew: Yeah.

Rohit: And I teach at Georgetown and you know, what I’m really good at is kind of the facilitation types of things. So I do tend, you know, I teach pitching, I facilitate, you know, things like that. And what I kind of took away from that and what I learned from that was that there’s different business models that will be helpful for making you successful.

For me, I spent a lot of time building up the research that I do. So you mentioned that I do this trend report every year. I mean that’s been a pretty central thing for me now. I mean, I’ve done it for the last six years. And so, really building around that, I find that for me, being able to move from one thing to another and not having the responsibility I once had of kind of leading a team has really freed me to focus on creating that content and then going out and speaking about it. So, that’s sort of how I structured my business for myself.  

Drew: You know, I heard you speak at Bolo 2015 and you were talking about how to be a trend spotter. And I thought the topic was fascinating because as you know, agency owners are, and you know, agency leaders are constantly looking for new innovative ideas to take to clients and they’re trying to stay on sort of the cutting bleeding edge of industries where they have expertise. Talk a little bit about how agencies can be trend spotters. But before you do that, tell them a little bit about your report and how they would go to find it because it’s a great resource and I know you do a ton of research. And you’re kind of researching every day as you build up the data for that annual report. So tell everybody how to find it and then talk to us about how agencies can get better at spotting trends in industries where they have expertise.  

Rohit: Yeah that’s a great way of describing and I do spend really every day collecting information. I think the theory and premise behind the report is that it’s based on curating ideas. And so rather than just saying, “Oh, there’s a trend. Oh there’s another one,” the principle behind it is if we’re always open to collecting these ideas, then really the art of turning them into trends is taking time to go back into the past and ideas that you’ve collected, and start to see the patterns between those and see the intersections between them. So that’s the kind of process behind how I do it and what started back in 2011 as sort of a Power Point presentation that I was trying to turn into a nice blog post, which was sort of the motivation behind the first trend report, really turned into something that a lot of people started paying attention to. So, that first year, I posted a presentation on SlideShare. I think I had like, you know, over a hundred thousand people view it and I’m like, “Oh, wow! This is more than I thought.” More than I’d thought would take a look at something like this. But then the next year, 2012, I said, “Why don’t I just try it again?” So I tried it again and you know, that year I think over 300,000 people viewed it. So…

Drew: Right, right.  

Rohit: …all of a sudden it was like, you know, starting to take off.  

Drew: Yeah, it was a thing.  

Rohit: Yeah…

Drew: Yeah.

Rohit: …it became a thing and then it became my signature thing that people would start to, not that many people, but at that time I mean I had a pretty popular blog built up. I’d already written, you know by that time, two books. So, on not trend related topics. So I was kind of building my following and this became the annual thing for me. And in 20…

Drew: Which led to a book right?  

Rohit: Yeah.

Drew: Yeah.

Rohit: Actually so 2013 and 2014, what I did was I did the presentation and then I did a companion e-book and I just self-published it and launched it onto Kindle. And that was more like a how to. So it was like, “Here are the trends in the presentation which was free and here’s the how to stuff, how to use the trends which you pay 99 cents or 2.99 for,” or something like that.  

Drew: Yeah.  

Rohit: And then in 2015, I decided, okay, well now it’s the fifth year of the report, so and there’s a lot of people asking me, “How do you do this? What’s the process behind it?” And so I decided in 2015 to launch a book, a full length book, around it. And I called the book Non-Obvious because the trend report had been called The Non-Obvious Trend Report. And so, you can really go back and look at the trajectory of all of those by visiting the website for that book which is Just all one word.

And, so in 2015 when I launched that book, that became really successful, hit the Wall Street Journal Best Seller List. A lot of people started reading and sharing it. And so at that point, I realized, “Okay, this should be a full length book.” And then this year, 2016 in January, I launched an update to the 2015 book which included 15 brand new trends as well as a 2016 perspective on all of last year’s trends. And so now it’s really an annual series for me. So every January, it’ll be a brand new edition with 15 brand new trends. And really it’s updated continually.  

Drew: So, first of all, listeners need to go and check out that website and the book because the book is fantastic. And I know the book goes into great detail in terms of sort of how you can do this and obviously we don’t have much time on the podcast, but give us a couple, I don’t want to call them skills because I think it’s really more about habits, maybe. Give us a couple of your habits that allow you to be a trend spotter.  

Rohit: Yeah, one of the habits that I talk about a lot is based around being curious, which I think we hear a lot as advice, you know. Be curious, ask questions. But we don’t really have a framework for how to do that. So one of the tips that I give to people is, you know, I travel all the time. And when I travel, I go into an airport bookstore and I buy a magazine that’s not targeted towards me. And by doing that, what I’m doing is putting myself into someone else’s world. And so now all of a sudden, I see what skateboard enthusiasts are reading and what celebrities they’re responding to. And what the language is it that they… that entices them. And what the visuals look like. And by doing that continually, whether it’s for a skateboarding magazine or magazine about hunting and knives, or a modern farming magazine, or a teen girl magazine, continually challenging my own assumptions of my own point of view. And I think that in the world where it’s very easy to just read media that we all agree with and not force ourselves to get outside of that world, as an agency person, I mean sometimes you’ll do that because you have a client in a certain industry. And so, of course, you’re going to get up to date on that industry. But without that motivation a lot of times, we just don’t take that time. And when we don’t, then we’re basically putting our blinders on to ideas. And so we’ve got to train ourselves not to do that.  

Drew: So if people see a guy on a plane reading Teen Beat, it probably is you is what you’re saying.  

Rohit: And ripping pages out of it and saving them, yes…

Drew: Yeah.  

Rohit: …that would be me.

Drew: Well you know, you make a great point because I think agency leaders understand that they have to continue to learn in their core disciplines and in the industries which they serve clients. But a lot of times I’ve found in my career that sometimes I’ll see something being done in something that has no relation to the work I’m doing, but it sparks an idea of how I could twist it this way or that way to bring value to this client. And so you’re right, we do have to start to read outside our own comfort zone.  

Rohit: Yeah. And I think what it does is it gives us something that’s a little bit outside of our normal routine.  

Drew: Yeah.

Rohit: Because we’ve all been in those situations where we’re like, struggling to finish a client project. We’ve got the brief and now we’re trying to come up with the right idea to present. And sometimes we just need to break ourselves out of that race.  


Tips for Seeing into the Future of Business by Spotting Trends

Drew: Yeah, yeah. I think so too. So give us another tip or habit to become better trend curators and spotters.  

Rohit: So the other one that I often talk about which is surprisingly tough, is being thoughtful. That’s one of the habits that I talk about. And by being thoughtful, what I mean is taking time to actually think. And that is the ultimate luxury, if you think about it, because we’ve all got stuff to do. We’ve got our families. We’re trying to struggle to finish all the things that we’re trying to finish.  

Drew: Right.

Rohit: So for me the way I force myself to do that is every year on January 15th, which is my birthday, I start collecting ideas for the next year’s trend report. So on January 15th of this year I started collecting ideas for my 2017 report. And what I’ll do is throughout the year, I’ll continually collect ideas and finally around about September or October, I’ll then go into my folder which at that point you can imagine with notes and people that I’ve spoken to, and articles ripped out of magazines and print outs of, you know, that’s a very physical process. I’m a digital guy, but I tend to save these things physically as artifacts.  

Drew: Sure, right.

Rohit: And around about September or October, that folder’s huge. And so now I have a moment in time where I go back and I start aggregating things together and start seeing the patterns between ideas. And so I can be thoughtful because I’m able to put all those pieces together and really, you know, think about the intersections between them. So that’s the way that I force myself to be thoughtful, but the tip there is take time to be thoughtful.  

Drew: So, I’m curious when you’re ready to sort of, I can picture you laying all these things out and then moving them around into different piles. Do you go away to do that? Do you sequester yourself for a couple days? How do you build in the thoughtfulness time?  

Rohit: So the time actually helps, what helps me is I do so much speaking, like keynote speaking and workshops and things, but that tends to as you know be very seasonal.  

Drew: Yeah.

Rohit: So round about sort of the end of October that really tapers down. And so November and December’s usually been the time when I get the chance to focus on this report.

Drew: Right. Yup.

Rohit: In terms of sequestering myself, I mean you know, being a solo guy, I have a home office. And you know, for the trend report, what I tend to do is I take over the room in our house that my kids call the Thanksgiving Room because we only use it once a year. And take it over for this because then I can spread out everything. And that’s kind of the way that I do it.  

Drew: Okay. So, what’s one of the trends that you curated or spotted for 2016 that you think is particularly relevant to agency owners and agency folks?

Rohit: Well I think one of them is everybody’s talking about… this probably a good example because everybody’s talking about virtual reality.  

Drew: Right.

Rohit: And the impactual reality, immersive experiences, and how do we create those. And virtual reality would never be a trend in my report because A: it’s not non-obvious and B:It’s just a statement of some technology that exists.

Drew: Right.

Rohit: Not really directional. And so instead of that, the trend that I have related to that for the 2016 report is something I call virtual empathy. And the idea behind virtual empathy is that what virtual reality is allowing us to do is imagine ourselves in other situations through the eyes of someone else. And by doing that, we actually have more empathy as a result. So there’s some fascinating stuff, like for example out of the Stanford human interaction lab where they did a virtual reality experiment where you can picture yourself as a cow being led to the slaughter. And it’s the emotions of that and then what they ask people afterwards is, “Are going to become a vegetarian now?”  

Drew: Right, right.

Rohit: Yeah and you know, not everybody becomes a vegetarian, but almost everybody goes through that and says, “Yeah I have more empathy now for the way animals are treated.” And it’s because of how they were able to experience that as a virtual reality immersive experience. You know there’s another called Clouds Over Sidra, which is a documentary film where you can experience what it’s like to be in a Syrian refugee camp through the eyes of a 15-year old Syrian refugee. So you know, imagine the impact of these types of experiences to really take people out of themselves and put them into another world and another situation. And, you know, the implications of that when it comes to marketing communications and behavior change. Yeah, I mean it’s huge.  

Drew: Yeah. Fascinating. So in other words, if you like steak, do not watch… do not go to find that first study.

Rohit: Yes.

Drew: Well, you think about the experiences that agencies are trying to create whether it’s at a trade show or online or whatever. And you can see how that trend could really play into the ideas that they’re bringing clients.  

Rohit: Yeah.

Drew: Yeah.

Rohit: And you know the idea that somebody has to create these worlds, right?  

Drew: Right.  

Rohit: I mean this is a creative exercise. And it’s fascinating how many different spaces it’s being used in. I mean there’s a VR game called Snow World for burn victims to allow them to picture themselves in a nice cool place so that they can reduce their pain. There’s virtual reality experiences for PTSD treatment, for military. I mean there’s so many examples of these. And so you know, this kind of highlights one of the things that I do with these trends, which is I have a lot of different stories and examples to bring these trends to life. And those stories tend to spark a lot of ideas.  

Drew: Yeah it really is fascinating to think about the possibilities that the future of business beholds. And as well, the book is packed with them, right? I mean that’s one of the things I loved about it was that there’s a lot of tales spun and examples. I think… I believe that we learn best through stories and I think that’s one of the reasons why you’re a great… I’m sure you’re a great teacher. I’ve not seen you teach, but I have certainly seen you speak. And I think it’s one of the reasons why you’re such a compelling speaker is because, you know, you have so many great stories to tell.  

Rohit: Well and I think that the agent… well first of all, I appreciate that. But I also think that, you know, that is a message that agency people in general know very well. I mean anybody who’s had to deliver a pitch, or come up with a tagline, or any of the sorts of functions that a lot of times we’re doing as agency people, even the owners… I mean, one point in your career, maybe you’re not actively doing that now, but at one point, you were actively involved in that. And so, I think that this is not a foreign concept for a lot of agency folks. The question is you know, what does that mean for the future of our business, right? I mean everybody’s focusing on the same buzzwords, whether it’s social media or content marketing, or…

Drew: Right. Big data.  

Rohit: …you know, digital transformation and or big data.  

Drew: Right, right.

Rohit: Yeah, I mean. But, you know, the question is like, how do we figure the nuance of that? I mean one of the other trends that I had in the 2016 report was something I called “Data Overload,” which is you know, probably something we can all relate to. But the message behind that was that there’s actually three categories of data. And a lot of times when we talk about data, we talk about big data. But that’s only one of the three categories. Big data’s the data that corporations are collecting and organizations are collecting. The other two are open data, which is government and publicly available data, which we often forget about. And the third is me data. It’s personal data. It’s the stuff that we’re generating about ourselves through our activity trackers and, you know, through our connected tea kettles and all that sort of stuff. And so, the overload comes from who’s going to figure out how to put those three things together.  

Drew: Yeah.

Rohit: And the me data for me is the most interesting one because now the idea is if I as a consumer have access to my own data, and right now on Facebook there’s a button where I can export my data. It’s not very easy to use but there is a button and more and more services have that. So, imagine if I could take all the data I have on Facebook, press the button, walk into a retail store, and choose who to share it with. And say to a retailer, “Hey, I’ll share my Facebook stuff with you if you give me some sort of benefit in return for it.”  


Common Missed Opportunities in the Agency

Drew: Right. Yeah. Fascinating, fascinating. So I know you work with a lot of agencies. I know you talk to a lot of agency folks. Where are agencies starting to fall behind in your opinion or perspective? Or what do agencies need to do to, you know we’re… I’m reading a lot of articles about how agencies are kind of behind the eight ball and they aren’t, you know, sort of not as advanced in digital or other places, but to me it’s more about the thinking than the execution. Where would if… if you were running an agency today, where would you employ your resources in terms of educating your people and sharpening certain skills?  

Rohit: I would… That’s a great question. One of the things that I would focus on is how do I get my people to understand a customer’s true business need, rather than the stated need for what they’re asking us for.  

Drew: Right.  

Rohit: And I think that if you consider how most agencies work, the wrong way of working is engrained into us through our deliverables. Right. I mean, what’s the first thing that a client gives us? A creative brief. And a brief is forcing them to figure out exactly what their problem is. Which is actually the toughest thing to do. And if you’re going to be a true partner, then you should be the one helping them figure that out and helping them write that brief.  

Drew: Right.  

Rohit: But what do we do as agencies? We say, “Hey, we need a great brief.” And when we don’t deliver great stuff, why was it? “We didn’t get a good brief.” 

Drew: Right, right

Rohit: Of course we didn’t. Cause we didn’t help them come up with it in the first place. So that, you know, I think the biggest missed opportunity is, you know, re-thinking our role when it comes to what we’re supposed to be doing for our customers. I mean, we’re supposed to be helping them figure out what their biggest problems are and figure out creative solutions to those problems and being partners and making that happen. And I think that, you know, when we force ourselves to start further down the line, you know, it’s like hopping on a train that has already been going for, you know, helping them be a sellout. You know, from D.C. to Boston. You know, if you hop on at one of those small stations, every seat’s already filled.  

Drew: Right, right. Well, and I think for many agencies, they struggle because clients are so budget conscious and so, they’re in such a hurry that a lot of times the clients are the one that dismiss the idea of sort of sorting all of that out. The clients want to get right to, “I need a…” fill in the blank whatever that is. So I think a lot of agencies struggle with how to convince clients to let them sit at that table and sort that out. Any thoughts about that?  

Rohit: Yeah, I mean what you’re describing is probably the challenge that I’ve seen 100% of agencies, including a couple that I work with, have, which is how do we elevate our relationship…

Drew: Yeah.

Rohit: …with the client?

Drew: Right.  

Rohit: How do we not get them and come to us so late? How do we become, I mean this is the aspiration especially for big agencies. You know, like bigger, not, I know you have small to mid-size agencie but mean like the bigger ones of those. Definitely, it was an aspiration at Ogilvy which was struggling with the same thing which is the PWCs and the strategic consultants are the ones who are mapping the direction and we’re just kind of getting the crumbs leftover.  

Drew: Right.