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From Hip-Hop to Geek Wisdom

A couple of weeks ago I attended Advertising Age‘s The Idea Conference, the ad trade’s respectable attempt to bring together a mash-up of interesting thinkers. The one day brain dump began with an exceptionally freestyle monologue by hip hop mogul Russell Simmons, the urban analogue to Richard Branson. Amid his ramblings on meditation, creativity, and name dropping some half dozen of his percolating new businesses (intriguing ones at that: i.e.

A couple of weeks ago I attended Advertising Age‘s The Idea Conference, the ad trade’s respectable attempt to bring together a mash-up of interesting thinkers. The one day brain dump began with an exceptionally freestyle monologue by hip hop mogul Russell Simmons, the urban analogue to Richard Branson. Amid his ramblings on meditation, creativity, and name dropping some half dozen of his percolating new businesses (intriguing ones at that: i.e. a financial services company and bank card for the 70 million consumers who don’t have bank accounts), he also dropped some street wisdom on how he’s achieved maverick status:

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“Speak with a new voice. My job is not to repeat.”

“Every idea I’ve ever come up with, no one liked. Anything they did like I knew
was a bullshit idea.”

“I have faith in silence. You ain’t gonna get shit from the noise.”

After Simmons came an impressive lineup ranging from Barry Diller to Jeffrey Hollender (founder of Seventh Generation) to the earnest Utah marketing dude from BlendTec, George Wright, who dreamed up the campy YouTube extreme blending viral sensation “Will It Blend?” (yes, some poor marketing chap in the audience actually donated his BlackBerry for a live blender obliteration, as the rest of the marketing folks in the audience drooled with envy).

But the most unexpected breakout star of the day was by far Robert Stephens, the black-and-white clad (think Revenge of the Nerds) founder of Geek Squad, the VW Beetle-toting tech fix it company he founded in 1984 with 200 bucks. Stevens, who was clearly born with mic in hand and should probably have his own Comedy Central special, enraptured an audience filled with ad agency and marketing folks who are trapped on the treadmills of reports, metrics, focus grouping, bureaucracy–not to mention obsessions with the marketing panecea of the minute, be it MySpace, Second Life, blah, blah, blah (yes, the air left the room when GE’s Judy Hu did a tense PowerPoint where “SixSigma” was mentioned at least a dozen times).

Stephens cut through all of that–as Simmons would put it “noise”–with his own story of how he has built a thriving business (now owned by Best Buy) with over 11,000 employees on a very simple premise: the love of geek culture and making every touch point of the droning tech support experience fun. Where did he look for inspiration for the company logo? Old gas stations, to tap into the embedded emotional associations. What industry did he model his business on? Forget the tech industry–the hospitality industry. “We’re a service.” Where does he recruit talent? He throws Kung Foo Film Festivals–to attract the geeks. How does he advertise? Branded the company’s inverted logo on his agents’ shoe heels, so when they walk it makes an imprint in the dirt. Here’s some of his geek wisdom worth passing along:

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“Ramen Noodles. This is why startups are so innovative. Large companies want
to be nimble, that’s why they go to “idea” conferences. I suggest starve
departments of money.”

“If you look for ideas in your industry, you’re stealing. If you steal ideas from
other industries, that’s innovative.”

…And my favorite one that every marketer should tape to their MacBook:

“I believe advertising is the tax you pay for being unremarkable.”

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About the author

Danielle Sacks is an award-winning journalist and a former senior writer at Fast Company magazine. She's chronicled some of the most provocative people in business, with seven cover stories that included profiles on J.Crew's Jenna Lyons, Malcolm Gladwell, and Chelsea Clinton

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