Introducing Jason Mlicki, co-host of Rattle and Pedal, who speaks about his role as Principal of Rattleback, how it came to be and what he’s learned as a recognized leader in the professional service marketing industry.
Jeff McKay: So we’ve been doing these podcasts for a couple of months now, and listeners continue to grow. They’re probably wondering who these yahoos are, these talking heads, so we’re gonna get to know Jason Mlicki today.
Jason Mlicki: Alright, let’s do it! What do we want to know?
Jeff McKay: First question, and this comes from my kids. Would you rather be an ant, or a bee?
Jason Mlicki: A ant or a bee? So that’s a tough one right, because I don’t think I’d want to be a bee in 2018 with the declining bee population, right? So bees are sort of … seem to be dying a slow death of a thousand cuts, so that seems like you’re teetering on the edge of extinction. So I don’t like that. But on the other hand, then you’re stuck in a colony, right, so you’re just kind of a mindless, surrounded by billions and billions of ants. I imagine the giant ant hill in one of those African ant hills that are like seven feet high or something like that.
Jeff McKay: As opposed to a crowded beehive?
Jason Mlicki: As opposed to a crowded beehive. So I guess, I’m gonna go with bee but I wanna be the bee from the Bee Movie, because he’s pretty funny. And he’s independent!
Jeff McKay: Alright, alright. So our very first listener, one of my kids, is now happy and they know you a little bit …
Jason Mlicki: If he hasn’t watched it, tell him to watch the Bee Movie, because it’s pretty funny!
Jeff McKay: Yeah. They like the Bee Movie. Alright Jason, let’s get serious. Because our listeners want serious, hard-hitting content. So tell us who Jason is? Let’s jump into that silly name you have for your firm, Rattleback. How did you come to be … it’s actually a really great name. So tell us how you came to be at Rattleback?
Jason Mlicki: Alright, so what’s a rattleback, and where did a rattleback come from? So years ago, this is an interesting story. There’s a couple layers of this story, I’ll tell them both, but there was … I got hired by a client about eight or 10 years ago to launch a new product that they wanted to launch, and they hired this, you know one of these really kind of high end naming consultants in San Francisco. And they brought me out as part of this team to do naming on this product they were developing. And there were some well-known namers in this room, and they made this kind of relatively brash comment, that you cannot create a name out of a real word in 2008 or whatever year this was.
Jason Mlicki: And of course, now, being the competitive person that I am, I took that as a personal challenge. Right? I didn’t take that as a comment, I took that as a personal challenge. I said, “Well, of course you can create a name out of a real word. It’s just really hard.” Anyway, when we were choosing to develop a name for our agency, one of the things that I set up as the goal was to identify a real word name. I feel like agencies sort of make up these, “Pocket Spaceship” or “Big Stuff” or whatever they come up with. They come up with all these kind of kitschy names and I wanted something that was tangible and real. And so my joke was that we scoured every single corner of the English language for the course of a year, in which we finally stumbled upon this thing that’s called a rattleback.
Jason Mlicki: And a rattleback is a real thing, it’s a top, it’s been around for centuries. It’s sort of a long, thin, off-center object that only spins in one direction. So when you spin it, if you spin it the right way, it spins effortlessly and quickly. If you spin it the wrong way, it literally rattles, and stops, and changes direction. And we just loved that as an analogy for what we hope we can bring to our clients, is to sort of get them on the path to success that they want, and if they’re off that path, naturally direct them to the right path.
Jason Mlicki: That was the question, wasn’t it? What’s a rattleback? Or no?
Jeff McKay: Yeah! And how did you get to it?
Jason Mlicki: How did we get to the name or how did we get to the agency?
Jeff McKay: Well, we got to the name, now how did we get to the agency?
Jason Mlicki: Alright, so that’s another interesting … so I went to business school at Ohio State, I got my MBA from Ohio State, and when I left business school, I kind of really wanted to go into some place at the intersection of brand strategy and digital marketing. And as it sort of happens, at the time, my dad owned this design practice here in Columbus, and he was sort of looking for an exit, and I was sort of looking for my next thing. And so I came to work for him, and then eventually bought the agency out from him after when he retired, about seven or eight years ago.
Jason Mlicki: And the agency at the time was sort of what I would describe as generalist design agency. So we worked kind of mostly with companies in and around central Ohio on design work. So visual brand work, typical things that you would imagine that any creative agency might do, and somewhere along that journey, I made the decision that we were going to become an expert agency, and really take a vertical proposition, a vertical disposition of the marketplace. And we’re gonna pick out a very defined niche, and we’re gonna endeavor to be the best or one of the best in the world at servicing the very specific needs of that niche. And of course that nice is professional services. Which brings us to this podcast, I guess.
Jeff McKay: Hmm. So what was the name of the agency before you changed it to Rattleback?
Jason Mlicki: So it was actually Mlicki Designs. So my dad started this business Mlicki Design, in fact he loves to make the joke that the technical, legal definition, or the old name for the firm was Mlicki Advertising Designs Associates Incorporated. And if you strip out the acronyms of it, it’s MADASS. So you know, he loves to say it was the perfect name to describe it. But we operated under either Mlicki Design or Mlicki for many years, before we made the name change.
Jeff McKay: Hmm. So why did you choose professional services?
Jason Mlicki: You know, I would love to say that there was some grand strategic plan. Whenever as a business you set out to build a clear and coherent strategy on what you’re trying to do, you want it to be some kind of grandiose vision for, oh rapid growth in the sector, or we just saw untapped potential, or those types of things, and I think for us, it was really a combination of about two or three things. One was, I was always fascinated with services marketing as a concept, so when I was in business school, one of the classes that just connected with me most was a class on services marketing. It was taught by a faculty member who’s now the Dean of the Kansas Business School. And in that class, we talked a lot about sort of service mapping, and experience design, and I just remember thinking that was a really cool class, and just always wanting to kind of work around that concept.
Jason Mlicki: And then once I was in the agency environment, and then eventually once I was in agency leadership and ownership environment, and I had the chance to sort of take a niche and carve in a direction, I think I came back to that for that initial reason of sort of intellectual curiosity that it brought me 20 years ago, roughly. And then for whatever reason, when I had come out of business school and entered into this agency, the clients I was bringing aboard fit that mold, right? Management consulting firms, commercial construction companies, architecture engineering firms, so firms that were professional services firms. So we had sort of built up a pretty good client roster of work in that defined niche. So you have sort of interest, intellectual curiosity, paired with I guess portfolio would be … you know, most agencies sort of think about what they do for a living.
Jeff McKay: It’s interesting how that area of expertise evolves. It is one of … you know, gravitational pull or attraction on one side, and market opportunity on the other, but they tend to converge and all of a sudden, you find out that you have some deep expertise that you can actually build on. And the better you get at it, the more you enjoy it, so it just becomes kind of a flywheel.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. I think when you think about the positioning conundrum, which I think we’ve talked about on this podcast, if we haven’t we should, I think that the fascinating thing is when you make the move from generalist to specialist, I don’t think you always recognize how … how blind, maybe, you were as a generalist? I see this in our clients, a little bit. I mean I don’t want to state it overtly, or to an extreme, but sometimes I think when you’re a little bit more of a generalist, what you value is your ability to sort of come into a situation, and because you’re smart, figure things out. Right?
Jason Mlicki: And as a result … but because the situations you’re seeing are different over and over and over again, you’re not building up any pattern recognition. And you don’t even really know you’re not building up pattern recognition. And so, once you start building up pattern recognition, all of a sudden you go, huh, it feels a whole lot better to actually have seen this situation … you know, over and over and over again. So I don’t know if that … add any light to what your comment was, but-
Jeff McKay: I think that’s spot on. And it is, it’s interesting that you see that, because I think the people that achieve that pattern recognition, once they’ve achieved it can to some degree take it for granted. And it’s the tension that exists between pattern recognition and generalization, because you don’t want to fall into that proverbial … we’re a hammer looking for a nail, and everything’s a nail, but what fits the pattern what doesn’t fit the pattern, and I think best consultants are able to discern the difference between the two. But like you said, most people don’t even know what they don’t know, so I like the way you’re articulated that.
Jason Mlicki: Well I think that I probably can’t put my finger on this real well, the curse of knowledge, right? The notion that the deep subject matter expert forgets what they know. I think that that’s part of that pattern recognition story, on some level, where you suddenly … you find yourself at this place of knowledge, and you actually forget how much of what you learned along the way. I mean all of a sudden, you don’t actually know if what you know actually has any value.
Jason Mlicki: I’ve experienced that on both sides. I’ve experienced that in hiring firms, where I’ve hired consultants who blew me away with new knowledge that I didn’t have, and they did it in a way that was almost so flippant and easy that I was like, I was shocked, right? I was like, oh my gosh, how did I never know this before? And to this person, this is just a side tidbit that’s not even part of the work that I hired them for. And then I’ve also sort of seen it on the other side, as a specialist now, where you know, there’ll be something that I’ve … some piece of information or knowledge that I’ve acquired or built over time, and to a client, it seems like this incredible nugget of advice. But to me, it’s just something I picked up. Five years ago, somewhere along the way. I have no idea what that had to do with what we’re talking about, but …
Jeff McKay: Well, it’s a great segue for my next question for you. You know, you’re kind of picking this stuff up through osmosis, right? It just kind of coming … throughout your experience. But when you look back, over the years you’ve been doing this, is there a particular person or school that really influenced your thinking? On professional services, or marketing, or branding, or technology?
Jason Mlicki: I mean, I think that, I think there’s so many it’s almost hard. It’s hard to pick out just one thinker, or one writer, or one speaker, or one voice. I mean, I can think of specific faculty members in business school that helped me learn how to structure my thinking, right, and they were highly influential people in sort of how I do what I do, or how what I try to do what I do for our agency and our clients. I mean I think if I were to think about the one person who’s had the biggest impact on my professional career, it’s a guy by the name of Blair Enns who is a sales, or actually a CEO of a sales advisory company that we’ve worked with over the years. He helped sharpen our positioning in the beginning, and his thinking on pricing has been instrumental to me, and his thinking on just positioning in general has been pivotal. I could credit him with multiple points in time of opening my eyes to aspects of marketing I hadn’t previously considered, or just even aspects of business I hadn’t previously considered.
Jason Mlicki: So I can’t even comprehend our business being where it is without his influence along that journey, either directly or indirectly through his thought leadership.
Jeff McKay: Yeah I think-
Jason Mlicki: I bet there’s other people, as well.
Jeff McKay: Yeah, I think he has some good thinking, as well. Are there any others?
Jason Mlicki: Bob Buday , I mean we’ve been … I’ve been a business partner of Bob Buday’s at the Bloom Group for the last … five or six years or more. We’ve done thought leadership research together, we’ve spoke together, we run an event together, we’re on our third year doing our Profiting From Thought Leadership event, and I can’t begin to thank him in terms of his … just the way he’s helped me open my eyes to understanding kind of just the incredible layers of complexity and nuance to successful intellectual property development. And thought leadership development. Just fabulous wealth of knowledge on that topic from his years in the field.
Jason Mlicki: And again, a great guy to work with. Just a great business partner on that event. We’ve had a lot of fun doing that event for the last three years. So it’s a really great business relationship.
Jeff McKay: Yeah, Bob’s a great guy, his thinking has influenced me significantly in my years as CMO, and he is a really good guy.
Jeff McKay: So now you’re more of a seasoned veteran in this space, do you have a chance to work with younger people, and what kind of advice are you giving them now that you’re the veteran?
Jason Mlicki: Well, I don’t know that I would ever consider myself a veteran. I always feel like there’s so much to learn, and marketing is moving so fast right now, and business is moving so fast right now, that if you’re not sucking up knowledge as fast as you can get it, you’re making a mistake. You’re missing the mark, you know, so I know for me I never feel like I’m a veteran, I just feel like I’m on a path. I’m sort of on a quest to learn, and learn new things, and learn new ideas, and figure out how to apply them. I mean I think about the younger people that we bring into our agency, and I can’t say that I sit down and have these direct conversations with them all the time, but the one thing I try to impart on them is just, you know I think that the benefit of working in a narrowly focused agency like ours, or any other agency that’s chosen to be kind of expert in niche, is that notion of pattern recognition that we talked about earlier.
Jason Mlicki: And I think that that’s so valuable for them to get the chance to work with clients that have similar problems, similar situations, and similar scenarios again and again and again. And I kinda, I try to encourage them, I say, “The best thing you can do for your career is to kind of pick out some niche within that, or niche within the marketing universe that you want to go deep on, and you want to learn a lot about, and you want to write about, and you want to talk about, and you want to speak about. I can only say what that’s done for my professional and kind of personal fulfillment is tremendous, and so it’s sort of I guess that message of just jump in. I mean we’re at a, we’re in a whirlwind, it’s become so easy to publish original thinking on a topic and to not participate in that when the path is so easily accessible is just pure folly.
Jason Mlicki: I mean one of the things, whenever I get a young person who’s looking for a job, let’s say, I mean one of the first questions I ask them is what are you reading and what are you writing? You know? And so when they bring me a resume, if they’re out of work, I’m thinking, well why aren’t you blogging, why aren’t you writing to express your thinking? Because that’s gonna make you so much more attractive to an employer, because they can see how you think and what you’re thinking about. So … again, I don’t know if I answered the question or if I just meandered down a side journey once again. What was the question?
Jeff McKay: Well, I’m gonna ask you that question one more time. I think you answered it well.
Jason Mlicki: Did I? Did I answer the question you asked?
Jeff McKay: You did. But I’m gonna ask it another way. If you were to give advice to your 22-year-old self, what would it be?
Jason Mlicki: Move to Hawaii and never look back! Are you kidding me?
Jeff McKay: Become a surf bum?
Jason Mlicki: Absolutely, absolutely. Professionally, I guess I would say, yeah, I would say pick the niche earlier. Any niche. And start the pattern recognition process earlier. But actually, that would definitely follow move to Hawaii.
Jeff McKay: Okay. Hawaii’s a beautiful place. So, are you an introvert or an extrovert?
Jason Mlicki: I don’t know, you tell me. You know me pretty well.
Jeff McKay: Oh, I would say you tend toward introvert. You are definitely a thinker in the world of ideas, thoughtful, analytical, but I think you can flex. I’ve seen you, as a matter of fact, I met you at an Association of Management Consulting Firms meeting, and you didn’t hesitate to stand up and share your opinions and express yourself. Which is one of the things I think that drew us together, because I was in a similar vein, and we love discussing the ideas and our experiences. So I’d say you’re an introvert with an extrovert flair.
Jason Mlicki: It’s interesting, Jeff, because you know I didn’t list you among the influential people. But I can actually remember the first thing I ever heard you say.
Jeff McKay: Oh, boy.
Jason Mlicki: Which is really weird, because I was at the AMCF event, I remember I’m sitting in this audience listening to obviously some of the world’s smartest marketers, in my mind. I think some of the smartest marketers are in that consulting industry, just when you think about what they’re marketing, just really thoughtful people. And you stood up and you made this comment, and it just stuck with me forever. And I wrote about it, actually at one point. You said, “I think most management consulting firms know why clients hire them, but very few know how.” And as you know, we did a podcast about that, and I’ve spent, I don’t know, years thinking about that, since you made that comment. Trying to build an all-encompassing model for how clients hire firms. And so I … I guess I should just take that moment and thank you for that kernel of insight that had drove me for at least two to three years or more of my life.
Jeff McKay: That’s wonderful. I look forward to that first royalty check.
Jason Mlicki: It’s gonna be a long wait!
Jeff McKay: I don’t know what prompted that but thank you. That’s nice, and I think that’s still the case for most firms.
Jason Mlicki: Well I think it was an incredibly thoughtful comment, and just so spot on. So yeah. I thought it was tremendous insight.
Jeff McKay: So, I think it’s important for our listeners to know. You were the impetus behind getting Rattle and Pedal started. Maybe you should share with them how this podcast kind of came to be.
Jason Mlicki: It’s not as elegant a story as you might imagine. There’s a handful of podcasts that I listen to religiously that I just love. It takes me about 20 minutes to walk to work each day, and so there’s a couple of podcasts I listen to that are basically 20 minutes. It fills the void in that walk and it gets me thinking. And one I love is Planet Money, one of my absolute favorite podcasts, I just love their, NPR’s bend on the economy, and just they introduce new insight and new ideas to me all the time.
Jason Mlicki: Another one I love is the podcast called The Two Bobs, which is actually one that Blair Enns did, and I just love the model. I love the model of having a conversation with a friend about some shared topic and exploring ideas, and so I think I just … I heard that and I guess they say imitation is the highest form of flattery, and I thought to myself, “Well, I’d like to do something like that.” And I got to thinking, well who do I know that I’d like to do that with?
Jason Mlicki: And then … and I thought of you! And I thought, “You know, Jeff and I have worked together on a couple clients, I just, and every time I talk to him, I love the conversation.” I thought, “I wonder if other people would enjoy being a fly on the wall in that conversation as well.” And so, to my pleasant surprise, some people have. So I think that’s all I ever wanted, was just to take the conversations that I enjoy having with you, and turn them into something useful for other people that can gain insight from that dialogue that otherwise just dies away on a cell phone somewhere. Maybe to be logged in the Library of Congress along all of the dozens of dumb tweets. Stored away forever.
Jeff McKay: Oh, maybe it’ll be sent into space on a Tesla.
Jason Mlicki: There you go! There you go.
Jeff McKay: And when you reached out to me, and pitched the idea, the thought I had was, all those conversations we’ve had on the phone and at the end of them I go, “Man, I wish we had recorded that.”
Jason Mlicki: Well, I think what’s funny is I have another friend that I talked to about, well this guy Chris Parsons, so some of our listeners I’m sure know Chris, he’s an expert in knowledge management. And one of his sayings is something along the lines of, ideally you want to capture and codify as much thinking as you possibly can, because if it’s only shared once to one person, nobody ever hears it again, it’s lost forever. And so on some levels, I think that that’s what I’d like this podcast to be, is hopefully capture and codify all of our inspirational new thinking.
Jeff McKay: Alright, so I have one last question for you. And I think this is important, in modern business times. I mean, in podcasts, or in blogs, and all this content that we’ve talked about, there’s such a low barrier to entry of throwing this stuff out, and there’s so much noise, and you know the podcasts that I really enjoy offer provocative thinking, a new way of looking at things. But the reason I listen to a lot of the podcasts I do is kind of like you said about Blair, is you just like him. You just like the personality, I feel like he’s open and shares stuff. So in that vein, when you’re not doing all this professional services, and marketing and digital and intellectual capital development, what are you doing? How do you spend your time?
Jason Mlicki: What am I doing? Alright so I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. So as you know, I own and operate a largely digital marketing agency, and despite that, in my personal life, we have worked very hard to essentially be almost digital invisible. Meaning that I have four kids that I absolutely adore and a wife that I love very deeply. There is scant evidence that my kids exist in the digital universe. So we … in fact, for years I never shared, I never made a birth announcements, I never shared anything about them on Facebook, because I kind of felt, one, I’m not a really big Facebook user, but two, I just kind of felt like … you know, this is my kind of personal relationship with people that I enjoy the most.
Jason Mlicki: And so I remember a neighbor of ours, they have four kids as well, we went trick or treating one year. And the mother took a photo of all eight kids and posted it on Facebook, and I was … at the time, I mean my kids, I have four of them, right? So the youngest was already four, so the oldest had to be seven or eight. And I thought, that’s the first public, social evidence of my kids. Which is what I’ve always wanted, because I kind of felt like there’s just no need for the world to be kind of brought into that kind of personal side of my life.
Jason Mlicki: So to answer the question though, is obviously I spend every second I can with them. I mean, I coach baseball teams, I run cub scout dens, I coach softball teams, I play tennis with the kids, we travel a lot, so it’s just … as many interesting experiences as we can create for them just brings so much more interesting experiences to our lives. And yes, of course, we do, like every good parent we fair amount of quality time and money at wonderful, magic place in central Florida.
Jeff McKay: Man has to have his priorities, and those sound like pretty good priorities to me, for sure. So. Well, it’s cool, Jason, thanks for sharing a little bit of yourself with me, but more importantly our listeners. Now they know a little bit about the guy on the other end of those wacky ideas that you throw out there.
Jason Mlicki: The wackier the better! Alright, well …yeah, thanks for doing it, Jeff!
Jeff McKay: Alright, thanks Jason!