Be humble. This isn’t a competition. This is about empathy and gratitude. Be thankful that anyone is paying attention to you at all. There are nearly eight billion people on the planet. You’re just one of them. Too much value is being placed on “being famous” these days, and those who ascribe to infamy will most likely be sorely disappointed. Go out and make or do something as well as you possibly can.
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew Eklund, founder, Ciceron.
Andrew Eklund is founder of Ciceron, a 26-year-old digital agency based in Minneapolis. As you can imagine, he’s been a part of every single moment of the Internet’s evolution, from the invention of the Internet browser to widespread TikTok addiction. For most business people, the Internet continues to be a spell-binding disruptor. To Andrew, it’s all just part of the evil plan to consume the world through highly targeted digital advertising, only to move to Mars with Elon Musk and a pile of Dogecoin.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
My professional backstory is largely consumed by Ciceron. I started the agency when I was 26 years old, having spent a good part of my early twenties being exposed to the early World Wide Web/Information Superhighway. I caught that bug hard, believing the Internet was going to provide a much more equitable world for people and brands. I still largely believe that to be true despite continued societal and economic challenges. In 1996, I also started a company called IndiSonic which provided independent bands, artists and labels with direct access to consumers. We threw a whole lot of new tech at people — streaming radio shows, music downloads and ecommerce. I started the company simply because I needed to prove people would consume content and transact online when skeptics were still hugely in the majority.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are a thought leader in your industry?
Potentially attrition. I may be one of the last “originals” of the digital agency world, considering I started Ciceron in 1995, a year-and-a-half after the invention of the web browser. As a result, I’ve seen it all, and history repeats itself over and over again. I can recognize trends quickly, determine what is real and what is not, and have a very sober approach to latching onto things that are relevant vs. shiny.
For example, the issues surrounding the market moving cookieless is a much bigger issue than whatever ad platform TikTok moves to. But privacy and tracking issues are much less sexy. At Ciceron, we are squarely focused on the ideas and issues that are intensely real, making decisions that will actually drive tangible business results vs. those that are headline grabbing.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
There are so many interesting stories that it’s difficult to pick just one. I think one of my misses — and I’m not even sure they would have gone for it — was that I subleased office space to the founders of ExactTarget. They were and are friends of mine. In 2013, they were acquired by Salesforce for $2.5B. I feel like I could have traded out office rent for equity, and perhaps I wouldn’t be talking to you right now.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This isn’t a mistake but perhaps the funniest story in the history of Ciceron. When we were developing first-generation websites, we had a client who called us in an absolute panic. The poor account person from Ciceron was trying to decipher what he was hearing. Apparently, the website we had built for this client several years earlier was “fading.” And she was pissed. “I can’t believe you guys would build in a feature where the site would fade, and we’d have to pay you to ‘unfade’ it.” The account person couldn’t understand what she was saying, so he went to her office to see for himself. And yep. Her monitor was dying.
How would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?
I’m not sure I like either the term thought leader or influencer, especially the latter. A thought leader is a person who not only can predict the future and provide excellent counsel through real-world expertise and application but has done so over and over again, thereby earning and instilling trust in the subject. A typical leader may be excellent at leading people but may not be the expert or innovator in the field. Think Tim Cook of Apple. Cook is not nor will ever be Steve Jobs or Jonny Ives. He’s not a visionary. But he’s a badass leader of people and the company, and therefore is 100 percent one of the greatest leaders in the world. But he’s not necessarily a thought leader on the future of design thinking or product development or even the future of technology.
An influencer, on the other hand, may not be any of those things. Influencers are, unfortunately, often self-anointed, can talk a great game, but don’t have any actual experience leading teams or successful businesses. I’m specifically talking about marketing influencers. They are the worst, and they’re all over our industry. You see them frequently on the speaking circuit, and their networks are very heavily indexed towards other influencers who perpetuate the network effect of noise. And they’re also very happy to sell you their book. But look behind the curtain. Have they ever actually practiced their pontification for real? Have they started a company and had it thrive? Did they influence teams of direct reports to achieve a profitable outcome? Rarely.
There is an entirely different category of influencer I am particularly fond of, and those are the people who represent voices who have traditionally not had access to media because of their race, sexual orientation or even specific points of view. They represent unique life experiences that speak directly to others who either share similar experiences or to the rest of society who, perhaps for the first time, are hearing these stories and are compelled to listen. Dare I say, they’re influenced by their stories. These are powerful people and are changing society. It is our never-ending quest at Ciceron to include more and more people within our company community who have these life experiences in order to shape who we are as a company, our culture, and, frankly, the true societal accuracy of our work.
Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?
We live in a time of gross misinformation led by charlatans and zealots. Millions of people fall for their antics. But in the real world of performance and authenticity, these people can be sniffed out or ignored. In their place are people who have authentic expertise, practiced over time, and whose pedigree is measured in results, improvements, life-changing events and trust. A true thought leader combines expertise with human vulnerability. They exhibit human qualities of empathy and understanding. They relate their expertise to real human experiences. When you can accomplish this balance, you achieve long-term trust, and that trust can be translated into outcomes for yourself that are worthwhile and fruitful.
Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?
A great example for Ciceron is our launch of Atlas, an extension of our Ciceron brand as “trusted guides” in the world of digital. We were made for this time. A great leader makes vision scaleable, and that’s what Atlas is all about. We’re looking into the future of the industry and surgically unpacking which ideas warrant incubation and growth, and which are just pretty distractions from the truth.
The ad world is about to be turned upside down with Google’s removal of cookies, the standard on which so much ad inventory and targeting has been based. The market is confused about how to address it, so Atlas is meant to provide current, accurate, and unbiased information about new technologies, new legal rulings, and, most important, hedges brands can take to mitigate risk. From this work, Ciceron is now introducing new services like our Vulnerability Studies to assess a company’s exposure to risks associated with the market moving cookieless.
Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.
You can’t implement anything that will make you a thought leader. Leaders aren’t made; leaders are earned.
- Be true to yourself. Know your lane. Know your expertise. Own your expertise. Speak to that and stay there.
- Don’t go in with some expectations of short-term performance. This is a long haul. I’ve been blogging since 2003. If I had high expectations, I would have quit long ago.
- For the vast majority of people, being a thought leader isn’t your job. I’m CEO of Ciceron, an agency that needs to be profitable to survive, offering real solutions to real companies and organizations. That is my job. Having a POV that I share is a byproduct of that work.
- Get out of your bubbles. We protect our thoughts and ideas by surrounding ourselves with like-minded people. They give those ideas strength. But are they accurate? Have they been influenced by people with different worldviews? Read Medium articles on similar topics from Black or brown leaders. Or find a group of women creative directors and listen to their challenges breaking new, important perspectives and ideas through the hardwired, male dominated culture of advertising. Whatever you do, be a liberal consumer of information from people not like you.
- Be humble. This isn’t a competition. This is about empathy and gratitude. Be thankful that anyone is paying attention to you at all. There are nearly eight billion people on the planet. You’re just one of them. Too much value is being placed on “being famous” these days, and those who ascribe to infamy will most likely be sorely disappointed. Go out and make or do something as well as you possibly can.
- Turn off your tech. Get out into the world. Go into nature. Explore. Meet lots of people. Discover new talents, new music, new art, new passions. If you’re sitting around hitting refresh on your influencer metrics, I promise you that you’re probably failing at living.
In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.
I am deeply encouraged by the strong voices from women and people of color who are breaking down barriers created by millennia of white men. They aren’t just earning “places at the table” but building whole new tables at which to sit, gathering increasing influence in culture, business, technology, and politics. It’s terribly exciting and long overdue. I don’t think of them as influencers. I simply think of them as powerful people who are finding their platforms, voices, and audiences. I’m a huge tennis fan, and what Naomi Osaka has done to elevate mental health this year through her own experiences and, of course, last year when she quietly wore on her face masks the names of Black men and women who have died at the hands of the police is quite remarkable. Almost at odds with the loud cacophony of the social media space, Osaka has breathed life into these topics through her silence as much as her voice. She’s like an antidote to our loud world.
And now for something completely different. I have been following the crypto world for many years but never made the leap into truly understanding it. In May of this year, I just couldn’t get my head around all of the various crypto projects and what problems they were trying to solve. I found James from InvestAnswers and now watch his daily videos religiously, and his thoughtful insights (not financial advice!) have largely shaped my crypto understanding, why it’s important, and I even bought my own “bag” of crypto assets. He explains what’s actually happening in revolutionary ideas like decentralized finance (defi) as well as asset classes like bitcoin in ways that help mitigate risk while providing a freeway towards long-term growth. I think he’s an amazing example of selfless leadership.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
Just like the term “influencer”, I don’t believe you can describe yourself as a thought leader. You can participate in the creation of content just like everyone else, but I believe the market of ideas selects the winners and losers, measuring success over a long period of time through consistency, audience growth, and audience sentiment. Thought leadership is earned — not manipulated.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
What kind of team have you built around yourself to maintain your peace? Ciceron is a unique place, especially in our industry. In many places, the “corporate grind” still exists. Not here. We are values- and strengths-based. We’re anti burn-out. And we’ve just moved into a new open office space with a huge garden that supports calm and peace, too.
Have realistic expectations. Are you trying to be the next Seth Godin? Or are you simply bringing your point of view to the world? Who knows…maybe you suck! Don’t worry. I think about that a lot, but I certainly don’t obsess over it. Sometimes I write a blog post that I’m proud of and can’t figure out what it didn’t take off. Well, you know what? That post competed with the entirety of the Internet that day. Are you that special? My best advice? Limit the extent you place your ego into this journey. Find your value elsewhere. If you’re a business leader, lead a business to profitability or exit or a lasting legacy. Being a thought leader may or may not have anything to do with that. Your leadership in the world comes from what you’ve done, not what you say.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I got into this business — the Internet, not particularly advertising — to help bring about the democratization of information. I still pine for those years. I wish I could influence the transition and decentralization of advertising dollars away from bulk-flavored content to spread to high quality journalism from the kaleidoscope of our human experience. And if “high-quality” infers the need for some sort of super AI that’s truly groundbreaking in its ability to understand real human desires, then so be it. I know that sounds Orwellian, but I assure you that the current model couldn’t be more so right now. I have a real patent on a financial model for advertising that I believe will happen because it could solve the financial migration part of the equation…I just hope I can find the time to pursue and address it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” — Hunter S. Thompson. I’ve used this quote for essentially my entire life. The modern world is incredibly weird and dynamic. Social media, crypto, Tesla, the democratization of music and art, virtual reality, space travel, genomics; all this disruption is fundamentally changing how and what we’re going to be like in the future. All of it is incredibly weird and wonderful, and I highly recommend you lean waaaaaaaaay into all of them.
Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have lunch or breakfast with?
Trey Anastasio of Phish. He’s one of the most prolific and creative people on the planet, if you ask me. Plus, his story of finding sobriety was highly influential on me when I chose to become sober in 2013. There are so many questions I would like to ask him. It would need to be a weekend breakfast bender.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.
Andrew Eklund of Ciceron: 5 Things You Should Do To Become a Thought Leader In Your Industry was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.