An interview with Mark Pollard
Let's start at Mighty Jungle. Tell me about this new gig of yours.
I sat on the name for seven years but I wasn’t sure I wanted to create an agency. Everything is getting commoditised. But then I realised that the businesses I'm attracted to - businesses built as acts of self-expression - need brand strategy and that doing brand work for them helps the founders understand themselves better.
It feels like deeper work to me.
So, the way I describe it now is that I help founders who are heartfelt and headstuck get out of their heads and into the wild.
I work into agencies and do training as well.
When we first met we swapped stories about strength training, mindfulness, manhood and strategy. How do all of these things come together to make you a better, strategic thinker?
Whether it's these specifics things or just a painful yearning to unify all things about myself into how I spend time is hard to pry apart.
Everything we do in life introduces us to new ways of seeing the world. We are chaos - humans in general are exactly this, but people who do what we do are chaos in spades!
All the connecting of things that don't seem connected - there's not much of an off-button is there?
And while not all of us in this industry are identical, many of us feel the world in much deeper ways than other people we know. Small things can feel radical. So the things you mention - they give frameworks through which to make sense of the world. That is all.
I know I'm more of a contributor when these things are in my life - when I move, when I pause, when I empathise, when I strive to find that sharper word. But, if strategy is the act of seeing things differently, then strength training, mindfulness, and manhood ideals are just tools to do so and are no more or less important than ballet, knitting, fishing, woodworking, or singing.
You've had an interesting career, starting in Australia and now New York. Do tell.
The CV includes stops at K*Grind, Leo Burnett Sydney, McCann, Big Spaceship, while making a rap magazine and doing a lot of other things. I've had times where I've found it painful to look at my CV because it reminds me of how much change I've gone through and how bad at stability I can be but now that I'm closer to doing my life's work I can use those dynamics in an honest way.
Variety and change are fine when you have more control over how it happens.
What were the last three books you read?
I've been bouncing through a few different books lately and I have to tell you - moving to New York woke me up to books again.
Strand Books near Union Square is an oasis.
I'll kick myself for leaving out a book but these three books have made a dent on me in recent years:
"Shogun" by James Clavell (I'm about halfway through - I love Asian historical dramas)
"A Brief History of Seven Killings" by Marlon James (the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Jamaica is the keystone to this book and each chapter is in a different voice)
"The Orphan Master's Son" by Adam Johnson. George Eliot's "Silas Marner" also stained me a few years ago - her insight melts me.
What were the last three websites you visited?
I was just going through all my files on my Google Drive. I'm running out of space but, having made a magazine and having written and researched a lot over the years, I have files everywhere.
I also had a quick trawl through Dribbble and double-checked a link I wanted to share (The Neuroscience of How Personal Attacks Shut Down Critical Thinking). The article is about how shame doesn't change people. Shame is something I've dealt with a lot so when I came across this while researching it poked my brain.
What do you listen to whilst you're working?
I'm back on Spotify. I paid for it from its first day in the States but, after a couple of years, the recommendation engine, radio, and interface didn't improve much so I found myself lurking more on Hype Machine and Soundcloud.
But now Spotify is back.
I listen to different stuff when I'm working. Tomas Barford's Happy (on down days, which accrue in New York's winter, I feel this in a strong way - I've lost people along the way and have an excellent capacity to feel sadness but this song is still a happy song to me), Justin Carter's Leaves, and Mura Masa. Sango, Anderson .Paak, Bonobo.
Plenty more. I love a primal beat and a steel drum. I'm tropical on the inside.
What is the last TV Show you binged?
Flea Bag. I wish I could take it there. I mean, I could.
At Big Spaceship you built a really interesting culture of cross-functional teams. Did it work? How?
Getting people to work porously across each other was the way the CEO, Michael Lebowitz, intended the company. The idea of it is beautiful but you're often still working into corporate America. It's hard to say whether it worked better than any other way of working.
The other ways of working have more waste built into them but, as I've come to understand in this massive market, waste makes more money if you charge head hours.
What makes a good strategist?
A desire to be a good strategist, an environment riddled with high expectations, time spent developing the craft, a team that wants you to succeed, and clients who want what you do.
Do you take your own advice?
I'm pretty good at it these days, yes. And, if you're referencing things I've written, then many of those things - written often in the middle of the night and not sub-edited - were part of my journey to work out what I thought and how I worked.
If you're talking about the more philosophical and spiritual stuff, then I'm a majority taker of my own advice. If I'm around certain people or certain types of people, I can easily trigger.
By myself, there are certain things I say to myself. For instance, a few years ago, I messed up my thumb while trying to get back into martial arts so I said farewell to the powerlifting and jiu jitsu and took up yoga and meditation.
When I travelled, I'd meditate on the plane before takeoff and, in-between meetings on the road, I'd ask myself, "What's the best way to spend my time right now?" and I'd do yoga under a tree somewhere. Right now, I'm trying to get better alignment between what makes me come alive and how I spend my time - this is harder and takes work but I'm getting there.
Other than all of that, it's complete internal chaos.
What does good creative leadership look like?
I'm not sure there's a monolithic set of traits but these things tend to come together in people I respect: the person is creatively exceptional, they don't talk over people all the time, they are mostly consistent, they set and articulate high expectations, they are off-centre, they lead the entire company not just their department, they can get people working together.
In New York - yes, this is throwing stones - a lot of leadership just looks the part, like that chapter in Blink about the American presidents. It's a tough market to do good work in, and there's a huge market for mediocrity so people can climb through dominance, extraversion, and sycophantism.
How important is being able to 'make stuff' for people in creative industries?
It's the entire point.
What does a normal day look like for you?
Now that I'm doing my own thing, a typical week will involve calls and meetings with clients, research interviews (I've gone back to my rap writer roots and do this all by phone now - it's much more intimate), writing discussion guides and debriefs, and strategy stories.
I started writing these one-to-two-page stories about 8 years ago. They are the thing before the brief. I found a lot of thinking raced into a brief template or presentation without letting itself bake.
I don't sell hours but I do sell these stories as a key output - I tend to do 1 to 3 of them per project but I did have a client who needed 13 for two brands recently.
If the weather's good, which it is now, I go for long walks - sometimes I'll do a series of interviews then walk Central Park which is about 11km around.
I'll listen to podcasts (Joe Rogan, Alan Watts, Sam Harris, something about soccer) and a ton of ideas will sew themselves together. Then I'll go write or eat Kimchi Sundubu first. I'm doing a lot of fasting these days - love love love - so I walk and do yoga fasted.
I'm also trying to get more active on social media again. I really lost my voice in America working for other people. But I'm back to myself, drawing, provoking, experimenting. I'm about to launch two email lists - one email is a bit more of a psychological experiment and will only get sent to 10 people at a time. I'm calling this The Depths. The other will be Sweathead - practical strategy tips because... ideas take practice.
What are you most proud of?
Tell me about one of your failures — how did you deal with it?
After six years in New York, leading teams, working on hundreds of projects, my biggest failure is being able to point to how I work, things I've written, things I've presented, pitches I've helped win, and team members who've gone on to bigger and better things but to not have much work to point to.
First, all those other things I mentioned, they are successes but I came here to do good work at scale. That was my go-to reason - to do good work at scale. At this, I have failed.
So I'm changing tact.
Now, I want to work with founders who are building businesses as acts of self-expression, and help them succeed. That is how the ripple effect can happen. At the same time, I'm going to train as many people as I can (paid and free). That is how I'm constructively dealing with it while trying to get a hold of all the self-destructive stuff that befriends this kind of journey.
How did you overcome it?
I had to stand up for myself, to myself.
On a temporary visa in a foreign culture - yes, you will have culture shock working in New York - I gave away too much power. And I'd say that I did so in my family and in my relationship. Moving here allowed me to recalibrate - I could press pause on many of the dysfunctions I was around in Australia, but I still needed to recalibrate who I was in America and within my family unit.
This involved paying more attention to what makes me come alive and what drains me.
What did you learn?
I need variety, I need speed, I need compassion, I need to move.
I need to make, I need to forgive, I need to love myself.
I don't need contempt, I don't need judgement, I don't need to be in environments where people are robots.
I can contribute by seeing things some don't and by helping people improve at their craft.
Who are you inspired by? Why?
Alan Watts. That guy is everything.
Louis CK. Ditto. Both totally flawed - Alan Watts died from alcoholism.
George Eliot - her insight.
Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsay became something of spirit animals once I knew more about their stories - they take risks, they are theirs.
The boxer Vasyl Lomachenko - creative.
My kids, at 9 and 11, hug each other. This inspires me.
What are you inspired by? Why?
People knowing themselves and taking risks to be themselves. That's a common theme.
How do you keep your skills sharp?
I write a lot and the way I work now is all about doing things how I practice them. You know the saying, "train how you fight".
Taking in interesting things and analysing them is important. And I preach "Write, teach, talk - choose at least one."
They all help you get your ideas together.
How do you ensure you keep learning?
I don't know who I'd be if I didn't, which perhaps is a problem.
What does the Agency model look like?
Waste makes money. Waste happens client-side. Waste is the business model. I half-joke. There won't be one model. There will be many because... evolution.
Hopefully all models will give more of a shit about the people in them.
What are you doing to invest in your growth as a Strategist?
I invest in long walks around Central Park. I invest in reading and watching things. I invest in having a life although I'm not sure how good at this I am.
Tell me something about mentors and mentorship. Yes? No?
So, moving to New York, everyone starting a job has this moral panic about having a mentor, learning leadership, and getting a promotion.
At Big Spaceship, I spoke to my team about self-development not simply 'development'.
You can improve at things by putting your back into it, by reading that book late at night or writing as soon as you wake up.
Mentors - whatever works. A peer group is probably more powerful.
What are the key traits you look for when hiring new talent?
I believe the best books on strategy are books on writing because writers have to notice things others don't and express what they notice in compelling ways. This is also what I look for when hiring.
I haven't done any marketing for Mighty Jungle yet but am working with Ben Funnell from April77 on some artwork for it.
He's designed a lot for the Aussie rap world and worked with me on my magazine Stealth.
My aim is to continue working with founders and agencies while taking more creative risks with what I do and steadily launching some training stuff, taking care of myself, and enjoying a lot of time with my family.
Move fast. Stay wild.