There I was in the dead of night, in the fall of 2011, staring at the ceiling of my New York City apartment experiencing what I now refer to as my ‘Jerry Maguire’ moment. Although I never worked as a sports agent, the metaphor still holds up. I was a newly hired executive at an advertising agency where I was tasked to build and lead its social media marketing practice. At that moment, however, I realized I knew nothing about ‘social,’ despite my past experience working in social media at Apple’s iTunes, running digital strategy for Beyoncé, and leading accounts for a pure-play social media agency. Perhaps knowing nothing is a bit hyperbolic, but at the time it certainly felt that way. A more accurate statement would probably be that my understanding of ‘social’ was grossly incomplete. Until that fateful night, I thought about social media as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Foursquare, and all the other fast-growing platforms of the time. I held a technology-centric perspective on this phenomenon, and evangelized its benefits to clients and teammates alike. But something became irreversibly clear to me. ‘Social,’ by definition, is all about people. Much like social work, social welfare, and social justice are focused on people, social media is all about people.
I laid awake that night feeling like a fraud. I was hired to be a thought leader in social media marketing, tasked with the responsibility of building a social media practice to serve clients like State Farm, McDonald’s, and Anheuser-Busch. Yet, I realized in that moment that I knew nothing about ‘social,’ because I knew nothing about people. I had no understanding about human behavior — why people do what they do. My knowledge of human cognitions did not extend much further than the term ‘freudian slip.’ I felt equal parts illuminated by this new epiphany, and terrified by the fear of being found out. I decided to lean into this revelation. In the days and weeks following, I began investing myself in the social sciences to learn about people. I started with Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, and I could not stop reading. I found its exploration to be nothing short of fascinating. In it, Ariely proves that the cognitive biases which sway human behavior are so strong that they are partially predictable, despite how illogical they might be. I read the book twice and, in my second pass, I highlighted the research which I thought was most interesting. More importantly, I noted the researchers who were referenced, and whose work I began to read shortly thereafter. Ariely led me to Kahneman, and Kahneman led me to Loewenstein. I detoured to McLuhan and then turned to Berger, who led me to Watts and Thaler, and soon after to Asch and Milgram. My curiosity was insatiable and, as a result, I read broadly and deeply. After about a year of discovery, the research started to became self-referential. And then something amazing happen. This research grounding began to manifest in my own work.
With my new grounding in ‘social,’ I found myself challenging the long standing conventions of traditional advertising and marketing. If a colleague suggested an influencer program based on the number of followers a person of interest had, I relied on network theory, whose dynamics inform the propagation of influence, to guide my approach. When another colleague recommended a tactic to help increase the likelihood of a behavioral adoption, I recalled the importance of creating defaults in the design to act as a nudge. And so on, and so on. The more I applied theories from the social sciences to my work, the better the outcomes were. This was evidenced in my work launching the Cliff Paul campaign for State Farm and the Brooklyn Nets’ “Hello Brooklyn” campaign when the team moved from New Jersey to Brooklyn, for example.
Since that late night in 2011, I have embraced the world of academia. The more I learn about people, the better my practice becomes. The better my practice becomes, the more curious I am about people. Maintaining this balance across academia and practice has become my career’s North Star. I am so passionate about this intersection that I now teach it in classrooms around the world, to undergraduate and graduate students and executives alike. And this is why I’ve set my sights on a pursuing a doctoral degree, to bring the worlds of academia and practice even closer together. This is the road to Dr. Collins. Let’s get it!