Trailblazers is our series where we catch up with active creative leaders and innovative thinkers to learn more about their out-of-boardroom adventures, expertise and passions.
For August, we catch up with Faris and Rosie Yakob, who co-founded innovation agency Genius Steals, believing ideas are new combinations and that nothing can come from nothing. Finding copying lazy, they advocate the best way to innovate is to look at the best of that which came before and combine those elements into new solutions.
Faris and Rosie are award-winning strategists and creative directors, writers, consultants and public speakers who have been living on the road/runway for 3 years and counting, working with companies all over the world. Being nomadic allows them to go wherever clients need them to be, and to be inspired by the world in between.
ATHLEISURE MAG: You are such a cute couple, how did you meet?
ROSIE YAKOB: We met in the fall of 2008 at a party in New York City. We say ‘party’ because it involved test tubes of absinthe and an awesome DJ, but it was also an art project called Urban Rabbit Hole by a woman named Samina about stories and the places in which those stories took place.
FARIS YAKOB: Later we found out that I went to high school with Samina’s brother, and the post we both saw that led us there was written by someone who ended up being Rosie’s boss. The stars were aligning us it would seem.
AM: How did you come about your decision to travel abroad, consulting and speaking at global conferences along the way?
RY: The last year we lived in NYC we weren’t in NYC for a consecutive 30 days, so it’s fair to say travel already played a pretty big part in our lives. Faris was getting asked more frequently to speak abroad and it seemed a shame to fly to beautiful places for a day or two and then have to fly back to NYC just because of the poor vacation polices that exist in America.
FY: I had been working in NYC for five years. At the point I had started a digital agency and was in a place to sell my stake in it, which gave us a bit of money to lift off. I was also concerned with the crazy level of busy people seemed to operate at in NYC. Years were passing by in a blur.
AM: So looking back on the ~ 175 weeks on the road so far, what are some of the favorite places and moments you've enjoyed?
RY: I loved diving in Southeast Asia. Getting my PADI certification off a tiny island in Cambodia was standout. Snorkeling in the Maldives is up there as one of my favorite experiences. We were in the water for hours every day, just fascinated with the ridiculous sea life. The Gili Islands off the coast of Bali frequently come up: removed from the party scene in Kuta, no cars on the island, and generally very peaceful.
We both loved Angkor Wat and Bang Malea. Siem Reap frequently gets overshadowed by Angkor Wat, but we really enjoyed wandering around the town itself, too.
The hotel we stayed at in Sri Lanka, Ulagalla, was one of my all-time favorites. It was part of our honeymoon, so our budget was a bit higher and the property was just gorgeous.
We spent a big chunk of this year in South America and Buenos Aires was hard not to love: lively, artistic and super friendly.
Stateside, we loved visiting the Grand Canyon. For a friend’s birthday, several of us visited distilleries along the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky, and the 21 C Hotel in Louisville is probably our favorite hotel in the US.
FY: Hiking the Inca Trail, traveling around New Zealand, diving in the Maldives, speaking at some of our biggest events, Disney World is awesome - heading back there after a gig in Orlando tomorrow! Shopping and cooking from the the markets in Aix-En-Provence, spending time on trips with friends in Chile, France, Italy, and Kansas.
AM: What activities do you do for fun (both as a couple and personally)?
RY: We both love diving and snorkeling. We do a lot of walking city tours and cooking classes when we can to get a vibe for the places we’re in.
FY: We don’t do many things separately, but occasionally I’ll go for a walk or sit quietly in a pub while she gets a manicure. I tweet a lot.
AM: What was the ratio between planned and spontaneous activities and how much do you factor randomness in your lives (and people generally)?
RY: We plan where we’ll stay, but rarely plan what we’ll do in a place until we get there.
FY: I’m a big fan of randomness, and we often use zen navigation to walk around new places.
AM: We are constantly delighted by the pictures you take in your adventures! What camera(s) do you use? Do you largely manage to capture great visual and stay in the moment, or find it somewhat interruptive?
RY: We both use our iPhones and only our iPhones! We’re only casual photographers and definitely not travel bloggers so we don’t really feel the need to get the perfect shot.
FY: As our mate Chase Jarvis says, the best camera is the one you have with you. And the new iPhone camera is pretty impressive.
AM: You advise to travel to other parts of the world, especially places harder to get to. Why is exposure to diversity so important? How innate is our curiosity to explore?
FY: It’s a quote from a speech Bill Murray gave at a random bachelor party he crashed on life and love. “Buy a plane ticket for the two of you to travel all around the world, and go to places that are hard to go to and hard to get out of. And if when you come back to JFK, when you land in JFK, and you're still in love with that person, get married at the airport.”
In general, I worry about removing too much friction from our lives. If everything is easy, you don’t learn anything, you don’t have to grow as a person. I don’t mean the commercially created friction of dealing with customer service, I mean navigating unknown spaces, languages and cultures, being in new situations, not just another meeting in another office.
Confucius — 'The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials.'
AM: Why do Faris and Rosie cross the road?
RY: To talk to strangers.
AM: So your company is named Genius Steals, proclaiming nothing is new and ideas are largely remixes. What are some unlikely and unusual places you had magic happen?
RY: We had a great brainstorm on the beach in Bali, and recently wrote a presentation from Aix en Provence.
FY: Ideas come from everywhere. Rosie will point out a brand burn on a menu in Bolivia and it becomes the topic for my next column. Our luggage gets lost and we get ignored by the terrible airline Vueling about it for nearly a month. It helps inform a consulting project we do with Air New Zealand.
AM: Your tagline for Genius Steals is searching for awesome, how often do you find it? What is the importance of awesome?
FY: You can’t ever find it. It’s a pursuit, like the one for happiness enshrined in the US constitution. The importance of awesome is that the emotion awe is what reminds us we are part of something larger. Awe is when you see something that forces you to adjust your model of reality. Habituation erases time, awe creates the world anew.
AM: How often does awesome and popular overlap? How affected are we by social proof in this digital interconnected age?
RY: It’s such an interesting question. There can be videos on YouTube that have had tens of millions, or even hundreds of millions of views, that neither of us have seen. More and more, we live in a distributed world. We use TripAdvisor quite frequently, but recently when we were in Nashville, where I’m from, we had a look at TripAdvisor and I realized that very few of the places I love were in the top 20. And the places in the top 20 really weren’t the best. It was a clear example of a path that became beaten, and everyone followed along, and then those restaurants got more and more ratings, but not because they were the best, just because they were recommended.
FY: We leave these digital scent trails and cumulative advantage kicks in, carving traveler lines through the world. Awesome things tend to be very shareable - so that means they often become popular. But popular isn’t the same thing as awesome. What’s most popular may also serve other social and personal functions. Stirring anger seems to be very popular in the USA in the Age of Outrage, which in turn seems to affect journalism and what content is produced and paid for.
AM: 'Optimists are more fun' is one of your business cards. Why, and does that have limitations?
RY: Traveling can be stressful, especially when stuff goes wrong and you don’t speak the language. Even when you’re a frequent flier, it’s annoying when planes are delayed or buses are canceled or the cab driver rips you off. But at the end of the day, we rarely have control over these situations. What we do have control over, however, is how we react to them. You can laugh and have a sense of humor or you can get upset.
FY: I’m probably more of a skeptical meliorist. That is to say, I think things generally get better, mostly. I try to have an open mind and let it change, but I require strong evidence to believe something. When dealing with large companies I’ve learned to lower my expectations, frankly, because customer service has declined across the board as growth in USA slows and pressure to put on margins by Wall Street. I’m trying to become more patient because yes the only thing we really can control is how we react. Rosie is more of an optimist, and I believe they are more fun.
AM: We loved your book Paid Attention, it's a fun and insightful read. As a post-modernist advertising philosopher, do you always see the world through mad man lenses?
FY: Thanks! In some ways. Whatever we do becomes the metaphor for how we understand the world. I pay far more attention to ads as we travel than real people do. That said, the longer I’m outside of advertising agencies, the broader my lens has become, I think. You unconsciously absorb the values and ideas of the people and culture around you, and that changes a lot for us now.
I never felt very comfortable watching Mad Men, despite being named one of the 10 modern day ones by Fast Company. Sexism seems baked into the name and the program seemed morally bankrupt in a way I saw glimpses of in agencies in NYC and found repellent.
AM: Why is attention the scarcest resource in the 21st century?
FY: Capitalism needs constant growth. The growth used to come from taking over new countries, through creating a middle class and products for them. The wave of capitalism that powers Google and Facebook is the mining of attention at a global scale. Now thanks to smartphones we spend most of our waking lives immersed in media. There is less and less attention to go around, making it more and more expensive and harder to mine.
AM: Are people generally more emotional, than rational? What does that say about people?
FY: It’s a false dichotomy. Famously, a construction worker called Phineas Gage had a railroad spike blown threw his head. Amazingly he survived, but his amygdalae, which appears to be wear your brain does a lot of emotion stuff, were destroyed.
When people lose access to their emotions, they are no longer capable of making decisions. This is because if you were literally to try to apply pure logic to every decision, you're brain would freeze up.
We like to think of ourselves as rational beings and we are, to a certain extent, but without the heuristics of emotion to help us, we'd never be able to decide anything. We almost never have the perfect knowledge required to make truly rational decisions. Life just isn't like that. Hence we evolved emotions.
So it's not that there are emotional and rational side pulling us in different directions but that emotions are the "lubricants of reason" - we can't think without them.
Jonathon Haidt uses the elephant and rider metaphor, to emphasize which bit seems more impactful on behavior. The rider is rational and can plan ahead, the elephant is driven by wants and instincts. Importantly there is a third element - the context, which dictates possibilities and which of the two tend to be more in control.
AM: What are some attention hacks you can give our community? Why is attention so slippery?
FY: Attention is triggered by patterns, specifically the modulation of them. So your brain looks for patterns in the noise, seeing faces in clouds, the face attracts your attention [this is called pareidolia]. It also looks for disruptions - loud noises disrupt the pattern and pull your attention.
Curiosity triggers it- creating manageable gaps in the pattern, in knowledge. It’s slippery because it’s part of consciousness, the most complex thing in the known universe, and it’s not a binary on-off thing, but more of a spectrum.
AM: Do we still have your attention? :)
FY: So far, so good.
AM: You gave a quick pre-talk at PSFK urging people not to take advice from people and instead to make a list of what makes them happy and another of what they do everyday; compare and adjust. OK.. makes a lot of sense, so is the good life that simple?
FY: The simplest things are often the hardest to implement. There are many, many contextual factors that stop us living our best life, some real, some imagined. Alan Watts said a long time
ago that life is a hoax, we are pushed through life from kindergarten to prepare for the next stage, to get to school, get qualifications, get a job, so we can finally enjoy ourselves when we retire. We are conditioned to constantly be in need of the future, which is the hoax because when it arrives, we can’t enjoy it because of the conditioning and because we are going to be very old. Life is short and how you spend your days is how you live your life. If you are unhappy, make a plan, get to an end point, make some kind of change. Don’t get trapped in a single conception of success, of progress. Try a few. You get one go at this. Many people get trapped by poverty. Certain decisions, like having children, have very long consequences. Nothing is simple.
AM: Your newsletter, Strands of (stolen) Genius features curated recaps of interesting news, events and books. What are some books that have recently hit the shelf that you are excited about. What sorts of music gets you in the groove?
RY: I listen to country music and tropical house. Remember, I’m from Nashville ;)
FY: I like grunge from 1990-1995, jungle and drum and bass / jungle from 1996-2000, and some more recent pop rave stuff.
RY: We both loved reading Night Circus. I’m reading the first book Perdido Station, which Faris got for his birthday from a friend and loved. Alex vs the Universe was great.
FY: The World Beyond Your Head - Matthew Crawford. The Drunkard’s Walk, Leonard Mlodinow. What Money Can’t Buy - The Moral Limits of Markets - Michael Sandel. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal Mary Roach. Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind Yuval Harari. Station Eleven Emily Mandel. The comic book series Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples.
MORE ABOUT FARIS & ROSIE YAKOB
Faris Yakob has an extensive background in advertising and communications strategy. He was EVP Chief Technology Strategist at McCann Erickson NYC, tasked with ushering in their digital transformation, which led to them wining their first ever Cyber Lion at Cannes. Subsequently he was appointed Chief Innovation Officer of MDC Partners, a network of best in breed agencies, including CPB, Anomaly, 72 & Sunny and kbs+. Prior, he was former global head of digital for Naked Communications and co-founded creative technology boutique Spies&Assassins.
Faris was a founding member of the IPA Social Committee, is on the global advisory board of Social Media Week, and has judged numerous award shows, including the social category for the Effies. He helped the London International Awards to create and define the NEW category to reflect and highlight innovation in the industry. He has written about social media and marketing for Campaign, Fast Company, Forbes, Contagious, Canvas8 and Age of Conversation books. Faris is the author of Paid Attention, co-authored The Digital State: How The Internet is Changing Everything [Kogan Page], and speaks on social, digital and innovative marketing all over the world. His thesis on the future of brands won the inaugural IPA President’s Prize.
Rosie Yakob began her career working with hip hop moguls Jay-Z and Steve Stoute at their entertainment branding company, developing non-traditional ways for brand like Altoids, Target, Wrigley and Samsung to connect with their fans. She joined Cake Group’s newly founded New York office in 2009 where she launched Motorola’s global social media presence and helped brands like Havaianas, Sears and Oppenheimer navigate the world of social and digital media. In early 2011, Rosie joined Saatchi & Saatchi’s New York office to lead social and emerging media, advising brands including P&G’s Pampers & Olay and General Mills’ Cheerios amongst others.
Before co-founding Genius Steals with Faris, Rosie was most recently at 360i, an award-winning digital marketing agency, named by Fast Company as one of the world’s most innovative companies. There she and her team helped brands like Bravo, Dentyne, NBCU and Oreo navigate the world of social and emerging media from creative ideation through to activation. This included being the lead strategist on the Cannes Grand Prix and Facebook Best in Show winning Oreo Daily Twist campaign. Rosie has written for publications including Fast Company, Digiday & SocialFresh.com and her presentations on social have been featured on the front page of Slideshare. She is passionate about moving the industry forward and has served on the Jay Chiat Social Media jury and taught at Miami Ad School in addition to speaking at conferences around the world.