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Non-obvious trends and thinking for agency leaders (featuring Rohit Bhargava)

Insights from a decade of uncovering what's really going on in business and society

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For the past decade, Rohit Bhargava has written about non-obvious trends in an annual book series. He recently capped it off with a final volume: Non-Obvious Mega Trends. A self-described “reluctant futurist,” Rohit went from working in agencies to examining the trends that impact business and society.

In this episode, he and Chip discuss some of the observations, as well as an approach to looking at trends that may help agency leaders be more effective. One of the best pieces of advice he offers is this: “being more observant really is about paying attention to detail.” Sometimes it takes the realization of the obvious to discover the non-obvious.


About Rohit

Rohit Bhargava is a leading authority on marketing, trends and innovation. He is the Founder of the Non-Obvious Company and previously spent over 15 years advising large organizations on digital and marketing at two respected global agencies: Leo Burnett and Ogilvy. Rohit is widely considered one of the most entertaining and original keynote speakers on marketing disruption and innovation in the world. He is the Wall Street Journal bestselling author of six books on topics as wide ranging as the future of business, building a human brand with personality, and why leaders always eat left handed. He has been invited to deliver sold-out keynotes and workshops to change the way teams and leaders think at the World Bank, NASA, Intel, LinkedIn, MetLife, Under Armour, Univision, Disney and hundreds of other well-known organizations. Rohit also teaches a popular course on marketing and storytelling at Georgetown University in Washington DC and writes a monthly column on trends for GQ magazine in Brazil.


CHIP: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Chats with chip Podcast. I’m your host Chip Griffin, and my guest today is Rohit Bhargava. Rohit is the author of the just released Non-Obvious Mega Trends: How to See What Others Miss and Predict the Future. He describes himself as a reluctant futurist. And he is the founder of a company that is rather obviously named the Non-Obvious Company. Welcome to the show Rohit.

ROHIT: Thanks, it’s a great to talk to you again,

CHIP: it is great to have you it’s been a few years since we last had a chance to connect, but I’m looking forward to you being able to share your latest book with the audience here because I think there’s a lot of trends that you’ve observed that are relevant to agency owners and execs, but there’s also a lot of thinking that you outlined in the book that I think can be helpful as they lead their own businesses.

ROHIT: Yeah. Great. Looking forward to it.

CHIP: So before we jump into the actual substance, you know, what else should people know about you?

ROHIT: You know, I think it’ll probably come out in the conversation. I mean, I you know, I think the biggest thing is, I am a long time agency guy, and you know, it’s been years of my life working at Ogilvy and Leo Burnett. So, you know, I came from an agency background. That’s me.

CHIP: Yeah. And there’s there’s a lot here that’s relevant. And, you know, before we start talking about some of the trends, I think one of the interesting things that you do in the book is you outline your thought process and how others can take advantage of that to identify their own non obvious trends and ideas in their own businesses or in the things that they’re working on. So let’s let’s take a minute to talk about some of that. And in particular, I really appreciated how you talked about how folks can be more observant and you had three particular tips for that starting with explaining the world to children, which I think is is a great analogy having having raised kids myself and I often think of agency clients and employees sometimes as children in a good way, you know to not well most most days the good way

ROHIT: sometimes age wise they are you know, compared to us, they probably kind of our children,

CHIP: right? That is true the the The older I get the the scarier it is. And I see an agency employee and I’m like, oh, there must be someone that’s, you know, son or daughter just visiting for the day. No, they’re there. They’re an account executive. Okay. I’m feeling old. Anyway. So, you know, let’s talk a little bit about some of your tips regarding the process and how people can make some of these observations themselves.

ROHIT: Sure, yeah. I mean, I think it’s useful to, to kind of mention that, that a lot of the inspiration for this whole non obvious process that you mentioned, sort of came from me working in the agency world, but not being a quote unquote, creative. Didn’t say creative on my business card, right. And one of the stories that I talked about in the book is how that used to bother me because I felt like when I went to work for the agency, that I was creative. But then I was in these situations where it was continually reinforced and kind of drilled into my head that actually that’s not your job, man. Like your job is to make the clients happy. Your job is to keep the train running. Your job is not to come up with the awesome stuff. That’s someone else’s job. And for me, I wanted that to change, but I couldn’t change the title on my business card. So the only way I could get that to change was to have better ideas, in brainstorm situations, then other people as we in the agency world, it’s, it’s sort of becomes merit based at a certain point, right? I mean, if you go into the brainstorming, you’re coming up with great ideas, guess who gets invited to the next brainstorm, but, you know, that’s you. And so for me, my biggest shift in my thinking came from this realization that in order to be respected for my creative ability, I had to come up with better ideas. And the only way I could think of to do that wasn’t to just rely on being naturally brilliant at coming up with creative ideas, which would have been awesome if I could do that. But uh, I figured I actually need to have better input. And so your point about being more observant, you know, that was kind of one of these five things that I eventually landed on and started describing in the book that was habits. They were habits that I started incorporating into my daily life, to start to see ideas and to seek out stories and to read different things. Because the more I could get different sources of input, and then have different sources of output and come up with ideas that nobody else and, and that’s what eventually started to happen. That’s kind of how I built my, my career and my reputation within the agency world.

CHIP: And this is I think it’s just the 10th book, or you’ve been doing it for a decade. I can’t remember this is the 10th book or not. Yeah,

ROHIT: this is the the 10th and final book chip. You know, it’s, it’s a little bit bittersweet, I gotta say, but it’s been a 10 year project for me, starting with, really what was a trend report, published on on PowerPoint, still at Ogilvy, and eventually evolved in 2015, the fifth year into a full length book, which hit the wall street journal list. And then every year since then, there’s been a new updated book. And so as you can imagine, like writing a new book with 15 new trends every year, that’s a lot of work. And so this year, being that it was the 10th year was kind of my chance to have my I call it my Seinfeld moments, right my moment where I could walk away when people were still like what’s, you know, we want more like us more. How can you walk away now?

CHIP: You walked away in a much better way than Seinfeld did. So

ROHIT: yeah, you know, wanting more Seinfeld when he walked away.

CHIP: But that last last episode was just terrible, whereas

ROHIT: Superman

CHIP: teach their own. Yeah, but this is this is this is a great 10th edition, but you were talking about the habits that folks can develop. So let’s talk about what those habits are.

ROHIT: Yeah, so you mentioned one of them, which is be more observant and being more observant really is about paying attention to detail. And you know, there’s a really simple way to do this. Put the phone away. Because we’re really good at walking down the street, holding that phone, getting that last message out and paying attention to nothing and barely avoiding getting run over by bikes right on the street. Or maybe cars And when you do put that phone away, like you can start to look around and and, you know, there’s so many stories of the benefit of doing that. And it sounds like a dumb thing. But I mean, think about like Howard Schultz, right founder of Starbucks, when he came up with that concept to create what eventually became called the third place, right? Not home, not work. But the third place that you could hang out at it. He was inspired to do that by walking down the street in Milan, while he was at a trade show for something else entirely. And seeing all these cafes and thinking in his head, why do we have that in America? And you know, here’s a guy who was just walking down the street, paying attention. Imagine what you could come up with, if you just did that. Right. And that’s like, the easiest thing to do. You don’t have to be gifted in creative and any of those things. You just have to pay attention. Right. So that’s one, a couple of the other ones are, be curious. Right, you know, pay attention to the world, like ask bigger questions, you know, you know, be thoughtful is another one. So take time to think don’t just tweet The first thing that comes into your head. I mean, I think we do Especially in marketing, right? We live in this world of real time creative jealousy. Right? We see like, what, what aviator gin does, or we see Oreos dunking in the dark. And we’re like, oh, man, we got to, like, do everything faster. We got to like, not think about it, just go on gut instinct and do it. And we’re frustrated, because our clients don’t let us do that. Right. They need approvals. And they got legal people and all this stuff. And so we blame the client. We could only be we can be creative, if it weren’t for these crazy clients to hold us back. Right. And, you know, that’s it. That’s a cop out. I think. I mean, I’ve had my fair share of great ideas shut down my clients. I mean, probably more than over, you know, more than a decade. Right. But I mean, you keep working, you come up with something else. And I think that the resilient ability to do that comes from this curiosity and always having ideas and having this kind of fountain and being able to continually Give that back.

CHIP: And one of the things you talk about in the book too, is in a couple of places is embracing serendipity and I am a huge fan of serendipity. I think it is something that as we’ve become much more technological and how we consume content has been lost a bit, you know, when you, when you read a paper publication, whether it’s magazine newspaper, you would often run across stories that you wouldn’t see otherwise. Whereas now we’re all taking these, you know, search refined feeds and looking at people curating content that you know, are think like us and are like us. And so we’re not having that serendipity. So finding ways to embrace it and being curious, I think really helps, doesn’t it?

ROHIT: Absolutely. You know, I, I have benefited from benefited from that, as I think maybe we all have in our careers just responding to serendipity. Right? I mean, I tell a story at one point about, I got my first book deal back in 2008. That was my first book, it was called personality not included. It was all about why brands need to have a personality and be more authentic. And it was kind of in the midst of when social media was, you know, people were really starting to pay attention, but it wasn’t the way it is now. Right. I mean, it was still real people. There wasn’t all this fakes. As much they were fake people, but they didn’t tend to have much audience. Right, right. And and that was the moment when I realized the power of serendipity because I remember I was at South by Southwest and this random dude reached out to me and said, Hey, you want to grab breakfast? I’ve been reading your blog. I love it. I’m, I’m launching a book. And I just wanted to pick your brain about what I could do. And I said, Sure. And we went met up for breakfast. Nice guy. And you know, he had some cool ideas, and I stayed connected to him. But he ends up launching his book. Finally, after getting rejected by 20 plus publishers, he finds a publisher launches this book, it becomes a mega bestseller because the book was the four hour workweek and the guy was Tim Ferriss. And so, you know, I stayed connected with him. And eventually when I was ready to launch my first book, I went back to him and said, Hey, can I pick your brain now? which I did. And one of the keys that he told me to his success when he found a great agent, and he sold the agent on taking him on as a Client once that agent believed in the book, he was going to get a book deal because the agent was vouching for it. So I went with the same agent who’s a great guy. And he ended up helping me get that first book deal as well. He believed in the book and the idea of the book.

CHIP: And that’s, that’s a great reason why people want to take pick your brain meetings, lunches, coffees, those sorts of things. Yeah, and it’s a, I’ve talked about it on my show before, but I hate the people, particularly in the consulting space, resist them and say, well, you need to pay for my time and all that, you know, it

ROHIT: could use it, but you need to be on these. Look, you know, I I am a big proponent of that, but at the same time, you know, I will tell you just to be totally honest, I mean, I get way more asks for that than I can deliver. Right. So, you know, now the challenge is, look, I mean, I’m a nice guy, I try and be a nice guy, right? I want to help people but I can’t have I don’t have time to go to coffee with everybody. Right? So you know, I’ve shifted my thinking from Yeah, take all those meetings, and be helpful to Just be helpful not to take the meeting. But find a way to be helpful. Just be kind be helpful. And sometimes that can be just with an email. And I find that when you’re straight with people, and you say, look, I’d love to get together but launching a book right now I like hanging out with my kids. I’d rather do that. Right. And you know, but here’s something to be helpful, like, people get it, right. It stuff like most of them, and if they are pissed off, they’re probably not the kind of person you would have wanted to help anyway.

CHIP: Exactly, exactly. Well, let’s, let’s pivot a little bit and make sure we spend some time talking about the trends that you identify the mega trends that you’ve identified here. Because, you know, there are certainly some in here that are particularly relevant to the agency space. So I’m not sure if you have one that you’d like to start with that that you think they should focus on.

ROHIT: I have many I think would be relevant for the HR space. Let me maybe one to focus on it is a trend I called attention well. If only because most of us in the agency world are tasked with capturing attention or earning attention in some way, right? Sometimes it’s through ads, sometimes it’s through PR and earned media. But whatever it is, I mean, we’re, we’re trying to get attention. And it’s hard. And we know it’s hard and we know it’s getting harder. And what attention wealth this chapter talks about is, how do we as individuals, treat our attention? And what do we pay attention to? And how is that changing over time. And I very intentionally use this framing of attention wealth, because in the past, wealth was financial, right? You either had wealth and you were wealthy, or you didn’t. And now your attention is your wealth in some sense. And the more we embrace that and understand it, the more savvy we need to become about not giving it away to people who yell the loudest, not giving it to people who create the biggest spectacle or who created the most outrage for us. And instead saying, Look, I’m going to think for myself and if you’re trying to make me outraged, like who’s probably From that, and how do I get smarter about not falling for that? Right? And I think that that is where we are right now, where people are, maybe they don’t necessarily know how to do it, but they’re starting to figure out that look, you know, these people are, are making money off of me that just making me angry and making me hate anyone who doesn’t think like me. And that’s not a fun, emotional experience.

CHIP: Yeah. And and in that section, you also talked about, I think, the, I think it was this chapter where you talked about the importance of people trusting those who communicate authentically. And and that authenticity is something that is is easily lost these days. And so, you know, trying to find ways to make sure that those of us who are in the agency space of working with clients are making sure that not just that, it seems like people are communicating authentically about the brand or product but that they actually are communicating authentically.

ROHIT: Yeah. And look, I know authenticity is a total buzzword, right. But at the end of the day, I mean part of it is being transparent and being Willing to show your flaws, right? I mean that the Tower of Pisa would not be nearly the attraction it is if it wasn’t leaning. So I mean, we find humanity in in things that are a little bit screwed up, and things that are a little bit wrong. And so like this book is a great example of that. Because at the end of the book, there’s this detailed appendix with over 100 has trend predictions along with grades for every single one and not every great as an A or B, I’m telling you, because some of the trends just weren’t that good, right? And being able to go back and say, Look, we talked to people and we did more research, and we’ve uncovered that this trend actually wasn’t as good as we thought it would be. A that’s a lot of trust building right there. Because we’re not, we’re not afraid to say where we didn’t get things quite right.

CHIP: Yeah. And I think your book does a very nice job of laying out you know, how you arrived at the mega trends, sort of the family tree almost, if you will, for each of the mega trends and how its evolved over the 10 years and, and so there’s, there’s the the way the book is laid out is it’s really Easy for folks to digest. And so I certainly encourage people to pick up a copy of it. Because it’s, it really takes that 10 years of knowledge and condenses it into, you know, one really relevant book today.

ROHIT: Yeah, thank you. I mean, it is, I will say that, that what I found from I mean, I still have a lot of connections in the agency world and, and when I give it to agency leaders, or even anybody who’s working these agencies, like, the nice thing is that it’s sort of this little grab book of interesting, authoritative ideas that you can use to support the thing that you’re trying to sell or the thing that you’re trying to pitch. Because it’s much more powerful. We all know this, right? It’s much more powerful when you’re in that PowerPoint deck to be able to say, Oh, and by the way, the other supporting reason why my ideas awesome is because of this trend by this random Professor guy, right? Well, you might not have heard of, but at least somebody said what I’m saying, and therefore you should believe it much more readily. Right? And that unlocks wallets that unlocks emotional connection. I mean, we need that sort of backup research and instead of just googling for Pew Research Report that was published 10 years ago and slapping that into PowerPoint. I mean, why not use something where someone spent all this time finding 30 or 40 sources per trend, and put that into the guides. And so that’s what I think we agency people love about these trends that they can support the ideas you’re already pitching.

CHIP: Yeah. And a couple of your trends really go to something that is, you know, really at the heart of a lot of agency activity today. And that is data privacy and technology. And so, you know, how do you how do you see that from a trend perspective, what, you know, what’s going on there? And how can we learn from it?

ROHIT: And there’s, there’s a ton of trends around those elements. So there’s one trend called protective technology, which is all about how our expectation is that technology will protect us in a proactive way. So the best example or one example of that, are those fraud alerts that pop up by text message on your credit card, which like Hey, did you really charge 300 bucks at you know, the Chanel store or whatever it is,

CHIP: I find the more of a shaming thing rather than … guess I did by that.

ROHIT: But it’s you know, I mean, it’s proactively looking out for Absolutely. We increasingly expect knowledge to do. So that’s, you know, that’s just one example. So how would that change the way that if you have a technology client, how does that change the way that they need to position what their technology does for people? There’s another trend all about data abundance, which is, in a world where we have tons and tons of data. There’s a lot of ways that this data is, you know, misleading us. And so I actually talked about like, in that chapter, I talked about five types of data pollution, as in like, we have all this data like data sabotage, sabotage is like, okay, you’re asking for my email address to get the discount coupon, guess what my email address is Bob and bob.com. There you go with that, and that’s data sabotage, and we’re doing it to each other. Because we don’t want to give our details right. And so how do we deal with that as marketers, right? So there’s a lot of applications of these sorts of things.

CHIP: You know, the other thing that that that struck me was that, you know, on the flip side of technology and all these cutting edge things that there’s still a desire for nostalgia. And so you talked about that, I think in the revivalism chapter.

ROHIT: Yes. Yeah, revivalism is it was that one of the most fun chapters to write? I gotta say, because there were just so many examples from like artists and umbrellas to the resurgence of board games, to people listening to music on vinyl to like me being able to find my Nintendo classic with all the games I used to play when I was a kid. I mean, you know, all these examples and the common theme behind it. And really what what a lot of the trends do is they try and elevate the thinking, right? So the lazy way of doing it would be that the trend is everyone’s playing board games. So the trend is the revival of board games. But that’s just so minimal, right? It doesn’t encompass all these other things. When you put all these other things together, you landed a bigger idea, which to me was revivalism and revival ism was a trend. That said in a world where we’re increasingly skeptical of all the things that we see and Read, we start to turn the clock backwards to things we trusted from when we were young. Therefore those things become more appealing. And that’s what’s driving this trend of revivals.

CHIP: And I think one of the things that you’ve done nicely here, too, is, you know, you look at the sort of the top line things that folks are talking about, but then you keep asking why and drilling down on the Y to understand sort of, in your example of the board game, you know, you, you don’t talk about the board game, but you said, Hey, why are they interested in board games? And you know, what, you know, and as you get to that, that then helps you identify these trends that you talk about?

ROHIT: Yeah, it’s exactly that. And I think I mean, if anyone goes, goes online and looks at some of these videos of this method that I have, which I call the haystack method, and the reason I call it the haystack method is because it turns that cliche of finding a needle in a haystack upside down and says, If you spend enough time gathering ideas, which is the hay, then you can take your own needle, which is a trend and stick it in the middle and say this is what it all means. And there’s some video from time lapse videos of exactly what you said online where it shows my visual process moving stories around, please things together. Is that whole way that that process comes to life?

CHIP: Yeah, I remember seeing this a few months ago yet the post it’s on the dining table, I think that we’re, we’re moving around sort of in a very old fashioned style to arrive at modern trends. It is it is indeed, yeah. So as we as we sort of creep towards the end of our time together, are there any mega observations on the the mega non obvious trends that should, that you think would be helpful to make?

ROHIT: You know, there’s one trend we haven’t talked about, which I, which I wrote extensively about across multiple years, which was what I call the human mode. And really what it was about is this new found importance and appreciation for the human side of things in a world where we’re automating more and more. And I think that that has big applications, if you think about it from an agency point of view, because we’re still choosing who we work with and our teams based on the people there. What they’re able to create and the ads that we love, and the ones that stand out and win awards are the ones that make a human emotional connection. The more we talk about, you know, programmatic and how we can increasingly personalize and the role of data and data driven marketing and all those things, I think we’re risking losing that awesome emotional storytelling appeal that we once had. And I think a lot of people in the agency world kind of feel that way. And what I hope is that some of the trends and some of the insights here, give them that ammunition to convince that super data heavy centric client, that those things still matter to

CHIP: what I think the you know, the these trends are things that can help agency folks in all aspects of their business. So it It helps with figuring out where to take your own agency, it helps to figure out you know, how to develop better strategies and campaigns for your clients. And it’s, it’s really, you know, to me, all of you trends here and all the thinking that you put into your books helps folks just frame their thinking and make their own observations going forward.

ROHIT: I certainly hope that, that that it does do that. Now. That was the intent for sure.

CHIP: Yeah. And so, you know, this is this is the last book in the series, you know, what’s next on the horizon.

ROHIT: So, anybody who’s in the agency world will appreciate this I am, I’m expanding the brand. So, you know, the brand of non obvious is no longer just this one book. We have a Book Awards Program, we have a guide book series that’s meant to compete with these guys. And we already have five different guides out for things like that learning motional intelligence and employee engagement and, and being creative, being more creative. So the guidebook series is a piece of it and then there’s going to be a podcast and some learning stuff next year and so there’s there’s a lot of pieces of this non obvious brand that will be out there. So that was the other reason why I wanted to not just focus on doing this one trend book, but rather take this brand and make it even bigger.

CHIP: Well, it’s great and it’s a real asset to a lot of people. And if folks are interested in learning more either buying this book which they ought to do or learning more about what you’re doing, where can they go?

ROHIT: You can easily go to my personal site, which is my full name. So Rohit Bhargava calm or you can learn about the full non obvious platform at not obvious calm, which I managed to get the URL for awesomely

CHIP: congratulations on that.

ROHIT: Yeah, well, you know, somebody was squatting on it and I did the whole thing, but I got it. And specifically about this book, you can go to non obvious comm slash megatrend.

CHIP: Excellent will include all of those in the show notes here. So if you’re listening to this on the treadmill or in your car, no need to stop and pause and write it down. It’ll be right there in the show notes. So, Rohit. This has been a fantastic conversation, lots of useful nuggets here. I encourage folks to pick up a copy of the book and read it. It’s both enjoyable and you Full and I really appreciate you taking the time to be here today.

ROHIT: Thank you. Thanks for inviting me and thanks for the awesome conversation to

CHIP: Great. Thank you my guest again today has been Rohit Bhargava.

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