The AdPulp Interview: Bob Knorpp

As editor of AdPulp, I get to meet a fair number of smart and talented people (which helps explain my long term commitment to the project). In the best cases, these people become friends and that’s what happened last October in Boston when I met Bob Knorpp, host of The BeanCast, the finest marketing podcast in the land. Bob and I had been talking on Skype, and I’d appeared as a guest on his show a number of times, so it was like meeting an old friend again. Odd how that works. Anyway, Bob was on the floor of the exhibit hall with a group of DMA conferees gathered around him. After approaching and calling him a hippie, or some such, he introduced me to his peeps, and I got a kick out of hearing Bob describe AdPulp to them. Soon, we were off to a tequila bar with the Geekend crew, and then onward to a fancy pants dinner with Joseph Jaffe and John Wall. Bob’s a connector, a hub. That he’s using this skill to connect industry people with one another and with his listeners is a gift. That he also has the chops and drive to do so is also a gift. So many presents.

Q. How did you get interested in the ad business as a career?

A. Not to be contrarian, but I never went into the “ad” business. I’ve always been more of a marketer than an ad-guy. It’s been more about moving the product and convincing the buyer to purchase for me, than about establishing the brand or solidifying the identity.

You see I’ve always loved sales, but I was a terrible closer. I loved the process of convincing a customer to buy, but when you put me in the position of negotiating the deal I would fold. So when I found marketing I suddenly uncovered a world where all of my selling strengths could be applied in a non-confrontational way. I loved it!

Over the years, of course, I found my outlook emerging and I’ve come to realize what an important component branding and advertising has to play in the art of the selling. And as a result I’ve built a name for myself in brand planning and identity work as well as the promotional and response side of the business. But at my heart I’m still a sales guy trying to move product, in a business where effectiveness is often a dirty word.

Q. What kind of radio experience did you have prior to starting The BeanCast?

A. I really had very little experience. I did the obligatory radio shows in college, but never really received any training. And my only gig in “radio” was selling ad time at a couple of local stations in Richmond, VA, where I would occasionally get to record an ad here or there for a client.

Even when I started my first real agency gig and did some radio work, it was only for a few months. We would write and produce and even voice most of the spots ourselves, so I got a fair amount of studio experience. But other than that, my natural talent largely lay dormant for years. Clients would always say I should be on radio when they’d hear me on the phone for the first time, but I saw little opportunity in pursuing it.

Then podcasting hit big. I tried for a few years to convince my agency at the time to back me on a show, but I could never seem to convince anyone that it was worth it. Until finally, I decided to start my own consultancy and it seemed like the perfect time to jump in and try my hand at producing something. Luckily people weren’t just blowing smoke up my skirt and I WAS actually good on air. Or else this whole thing would have been pretty darned embarrassing.

Q. Podcasting is a unique form of media. What kind of skills does it take to put together a successful podcast?

A. I wouldn’t call it unique. I mean, it is unique that anyone can have a show and many of the formats tend to be more transparent and personal. But if you look at all the most successful shows, they are well prepared, loosely scripted and highly produced programs. Essentially they are the same as a typical NPR program, only without the usual restrictions on the length of the show.

If anything, the only truly unique element is that the run-and-gun nature of the medium makes it so that you need to wear many hats. Most podcasters need to be more than just talented voices. They also need to know about audio production, have a working knowledge of website management and be conversant on technical issues such as handling their RSS feed or patching in audio from Skype.

They say necessity is the mother of invention. I’d say it’s more like lack of money is the catalyst.

Q. How does the weekly format, versus the daily needs of a blog like AdPulp, help shape your show?

A. For one thing I don’t have to fight for breaking news or website hits. The success of a podcast isn’t based on immediacy, so I certainly have that advantage.

But more importantly the weekly format affords me the opportunity to look back at all the stories of a week and identify the patterns and trends that have been emerging. It’s not necessarily more interesting than the news itself, but it affords my audience perspective that they wouldn’t normally see just by reading the individual stories.

Q. You were hosting a podcast for Ad Age too. Tell us about that. Did the magazine support your contributions, or were they just dabbling in the next new thing?

A. In many ways Ad Age Outlook was a success. Even today, a year after we mutually decided to pull the plug, it still trends in iTunes. But you need the perspective of what was happening. Ad Age had tried audio and video podcasts before. They had tried promoting them in all of their media and put some serious budget behind them. And it all failed. So when I proposed to do a show they were already gun shy about the whole thing.

Along the way we had lots of technical difficulties that lost us the huge audience we gained at the beginning. And when it came to promoting the show to get the audience back, there was little impetus to do so because of the previous struggles. Everybody loved the program, but it was clear by about 8 months in that none of us were getting what we hoped we would get from it. So I’m the one who called them and suggested that we stop the show and they agreed it was time.

All in all it was a great experience and I made some incredible friends at Ad Age. They compensated me and even give me priority for article contributions, so all in all I’m happy with the outcome. Yes, I wish we could have made the show a long-running success like The BeanCast, but in the end I think it just wasn’t the right time for a show like that to happen.


Q. You moved from North Carolina to New York City a few years ago? How important is it to be located in New York City when you work in advertising?

A. To be honest, I still struggle with that decision. I love living here, but I don’t see the huge benefits of being close to the center of the agency world. The New York ad community has a tendency to live in a bubble when it comes to effectiveness, which drives me crazy. And to be blunt, it’s like a hardware shop leasing space next to a Home Depot.

Having said that, everyone gets to New York. Sooner or later, every one of my clients passes through this town. So it is a value nexus of commerce that can’t be ignored. I could probably do what I do for a lot less rent if I lived elsewhere. But it’s doubtful I could do so as efficiently.

Q. You’re a strategist by day. What kind of projects have been keeping you busy and what are you working on now?

A. Dave Gray, the founder of Xplane, thinks I shouldn’t call myself a marketing strategist anymore. He told me, “You don’t sound like a marketer. Wherever you open your mouth you talk about business process.”

So while I do provide strategy for agency clients and craft social and digital insights for big name brands, my heart is in helping start-ups and B2B brands examine the way they do business. I help them craft an identity that permeates everything from product design to messaging strategy. I believe that a brand is not what we say, but how we do business. So I’m at my happiest helping a client fix their internal operational strategies as much as helping them get their next ad campaign out.

Q. How do you select guests for The BeanCast?

A. It’s mixture of factors. Obviously having your own audience helps. My audience has been built on the backs of the audiences of my guests. But that’s not the final determining factor. I often have people on the show who aren’t even connected to any online communities or have little exposure.

If I have to nail it down to one thing it would probably be chemistry. I like to know and interact with a person before I “cast” them for a panel. I need to know not just that they are interesting, but also how they sound and how they interact with others. This composite helps me envision with whom they would mix best.

I’m also very slow about introducing new talent into the pool. I like to have lots of regulars and will only introduce one or rarely two new voices on a program. It helps me to get that chemistry just right for an interesting conversation.

Think of the opening chapters of Anna Karenina and the arranging of the party guests and you’ll get the picture.

Q. You’ve had a lot of heavy hitters on the show. Does The BeanCast open doors for you on “Madison Avenue” and tie back into your day job, as it were?

A. Actually, Madison Avenue has been the least receptive to my show. Very few senior ad executives listen. And even if I do get a big-time ad executive on the show, I’ve essentially given them what they wanted (exposure) before I asked for anything, so I can’t really expect any favors in return.

This may sound bitter, but it’s not. The ad business is what it is. You are only as important as the “next” thing you can do for me. Once I’ve got it, you are not important. It’s simply the nature of the beast.

Ted Rubin once told me, “The reason that agencies are so bad at social media is because relationships are not billable.”

There’s so much truth in that. But it’s also a reminder to me that doing the show was never about changing the ad industry or getting favors, but rather it was about giving the ad world a voice. And the results for me have been great. I’ve given myself stature with clients, I’ve gotten a better education than most universities could offer and I’m happy. Sounds like a good deal to me.

Q. What’s the best BeanCast program ever recorded?

A. Next you’ll ask me to choose my favorite finger to keep. Some are better than others, but I can’t single out a single episode. There are so many good ones!

But if I need to choose one, there was an episode two years ago that involved a two hour offline discussion with Bill Green, Angela Natividad and Kelly Eidson that still cracks me up. A whole bunch of that conversation ended up on our outtakes show that year. But much of it will go to my grave. Such great fun!

Q. What advise to you have for other podcasters?

A. Be consistent. Consistent schedule, consistently good audio and consistently good content. If you do choose to podcast, know that your audience is making a commitment to you. Do the same back.

Q. Yankees or Mets?

A. Phillies.

Q. You don’t attend SXSW, but you do go to a fair number of industry events each year? Which is your favorite and why?

A. Anything by MarketingProfs. What a great organization! Awesome content and great people to work with. If I have to choose one event to go to, it would be definitely one of their programs.

Q. What’s the biggest misconception in the industry right now?

A. That social is a discipline. Social is a media. End of story.

I hate hearing PR practitioners say that social belongs to them or ad folks launching their social practices. It’s digital all over again!

We do three things in our industry: Advertising (building the brand), Direct Response (selling stuff) and Public Relations (managing the message). Everything else is a media. And while each media may have unique rules, we can still use it to build a brand, sell some stuff and create relationships through messaging.

Digital went through this phase already and you’d think we’d have learned our lesson. Digital shops were all about measurement. Then they realized they could do more than sell stuff. Now they are in the process of becoming AOR contenders. There’s always room for media specialists. But this pervasive thought that all social media must be managed along a certain set of rules is completely ludicrous.

Q. Will you continue to produce the program for years to come?

A. Ha! The more bored I become with the show, the better it gets and the more sponsors I attract. I don’t think it’s possible for me to give it up now.

Q. You’re an excellent moderator and a master at keeping the conversational flow moving down the proper channel. How does one learn that skill?

A. I don’t know that I can codify that for you. I don’t know that the skills are teachable to just anybody. Certainly I needed to fine-tune my listening abilities. (I knew those years of failed marriage counseling would eventually pay off.) And I also have the will to stir the pot by posing contrary or even ludicrous positions to get my panelists riled up.

Obviously, I wasn’t always as good at it as I am now. But I also recognize that I had an innate talent for this that just needed the right venue to blossom.

Q. Would you consider selling The BeanCast someday?

A. That’s kind of an odd question, mainly because the show is me and my connections. I’m not sure it even is sellable. But I would certainly accept a big contract and take this act to a major network. Send all lucrative development deals to beancast@gmail.com.

About David Burn

Fired up to write it down. Co-founder and editor of AdPulp. Chief storyteller at Bonehook, a guide service and bait shop for brands.