One of the best parts of being a writer is meeting entrepreneurs and thought leaders who blow you away with their insights about the way people behave and their vision to use technology to transform our daily lives for the better.
Cindy Gallop – a former chairman of leading advertising agency BBH who left to start If We Ran The World – is one of those people.
In this interview, I explore with Cindy the questions that motivate her as a social entrepreneur and that drive the thinking behind her latest venture: How do we close the gap between good intentions and actions? What is “emotional software”? How can gaming principles be applied to leverage ‘competitive collaboration’? How can we design cool platforms for meaningful community participation?
Rachel Botsman: For more than twenty years, you had an illustrious career in brand and advertising. In 2003, Advertising Women of New York voted you "Woman of the Year." The following year, you voluntarily resigned as chairman of the ad agency BBH. Why at the pinnacle of your advertising success, did you make the leap into social innovation?
Cindy Gallop: Actually, it wasn’t quite as well thought through as that! I turned 45 back in 2005 and had my very own personal mid-life crisis. I’d always thought of 45 as a mid-life point, and felt that on one’s 45th birthday would be the time to pause, take stock, reflect and review. I duly did that on February 1 2005, and went, ‘Good grief, I’ve been working for the same ad agency for 16 years!’ BBH is an absolutely wonderful agency which has been absolutely wonderful to me, and I can’t say enough nice things about them – but I felt it was time to do something different. The only problem was, I hadn’t the faintest idea what. So I took a big leap into the unknown and resigned without a job to go to, to find out what that should be. I then found myself on a serendipitous exploratory journey that ended up with my "next big thing" being IfWeRanTheWorld – an idea I had completely accidentally three years ago, but then felt, "This is one of those ideas I have to make happen or die trying."
RB: The easiest way to explain IWRTW is…
CG: It’s a radically simple web platform designed to turn good intentions into action, one microaction at a time.
RB: The biggest misperception about IWRTW is…
CG: That it’s a destination website. IWRTW is a web utility. It deliberately doesn’t look and feel utilitarian, but it’s simply a web-meets-world tool designed to do one thing and one thing only – turn intention into action in the real world. We designed it to plug into anything and everything where someone wants to make something happen. We have no competition, only partners. Our objective was, if we get this right, IWRTW should feel virtually transparent – you should hardly notice it’s there, it just makes it a lot easier to do the things you want to do.
RB: You talk about IWRTW closing the gap between “intention and action.” Can you explain what you mean and how it plays out for the IWRTW user?
CG: IWRTW is designed to make it extremely quick, simple and easy to act on intention – whether that is by starting up your own actionplatform to achieve your goal of your personal answer to the question, “If you ran the world, what would you do?"; joining someone else’s actionplatform operating in the same area; or just picking up one little microaction that contributes to that goal. Every microaction you complete dynamically generates your actionprofile, so that you identify quite literally as "I am what I do; I am the sum of my actions," to create Action Branding – personal Action Branding for individuals, corporate Action Branding for brands and businesses.
RB: There are other sites out there such as dosomething.org or socialactions.org that use the power of online to motivate people to do good stuff offline. How is IWRTW different from these existing platforms?
CG: It’s not – in the sense that there are many, many wonderful people, organizations and websites all tackling this same very big, very difficult, very complicated area of how can we turn good intentions into action. But what I wanted to do with IWRTW was focus in on the one thing I felt could best help everyone else – that single point where the rubber hits the road: how do you turn intention into action, at the very moment of intention? I decided to tackle that one very specific point, using my experience and expertise born of 25 years working in brandbuilding, marketing and advertising, in a way that would make it entertaining, engaging and compelling. So I guess what’s different is that IWRTW is not a specific destination like other sites, but a collaborative tool designed to help everyone.
RB: What is your opinion on how virtual platforms can be used to dramatically change daily behaviors offline in the physical world enable us to make our communities a better place? What are some examples (outside of IWRTW) where you see this happening?
CG: IWRTW demonstrates my belief that the future is about Technology + Psychology = "Emotional Software."
Current examples of virtual platforms which understand basic human needs and instincts and leverage them through technology to improve communities, are Meetup (slogan: "Use the internet to get off the internet"), and Etsy, which enables the commercialization of creativity and artistry so that people can earn a living in a way that was less easy previously.
RB: Real-time apps such as FourSquare are showing how people like to complete tasks and are innately motivated by good old fashioned points and badge system. How are game mechanics at play in IWRTW?
CG: We deliberately designed IWRTW on game theory and gaming principles, because we wanted to leverage the human competitive spirit to act – we call it "competitive collaboration." So we are tapping into the same emotional dynamics as massively multiplayer online games. The more you act, the more you increase your superpowers and elevate your status within the community. We have a number of features coming in that will make this aspect of IWRTW more evident – and as with all games, there are also elements that only become apparent as you go deeper into the experience.
RB: For me, the power of IWRTW is that it breaks down an action into micro-actions in a fun and easy way to enable you to achieve things you could not achieve on our own. What is your take on this?
CG: That’s absolutely right, and we particularly liked the way Bruce Mau Design’s blog summed up IWRTW: ‘Beautiful design + social engagement + fun to use = awesome!’ But there is more to it, in that we designed IWRTW to show you to yourself, and others, in a way that may come as a revelation even to you. Answering the question, "If you ran the world, what would you do?" forces you to stop and think about what you believe in and value enough to do something about. Your microactions build up your superpowers and your actionprofile to show you what you are truly capable of in a way that you may never have realized previously.
RB: IWRTW depends to a degree on users collaborating with people they don’t know to get something done. How does the platform effectively build trust and relationships between strangers?
CG: Obviously, at 14 weeks old in beta this is something that has yet to be demonstrated fully – especially as we are only just about to bring in the capability to browse IWRTW by user (what we’re calling the Wall of Hotness!). Essentially, every relationship on IWRTW is based on action. Your tribe, which builds up on your profile and can be found behind the heart icon, is those people whom you have helped and who have helped you – people to whom you are bonded by action, not just "click of a mouse" friends or fans. IWRTW is built around my belief in "communication through demonstration" – particularly true for brand and business users – and trust is earned through actions, not words.
RB: I think we have entered an age where we want to show status, group affiliation and belonging by the communities we are apart of as much as the physical things we buy and own. As an advertising and brand guru, what are your thoughts on this? What do you think is the role of brands moving forward?
CG: The new marketing reality is complete transparency. Everything a brand does today is in the public domain, courtesy of the internet. And the answer to that is exactly the same for a brand as it is for a person – if you know exactly who you are and what you stand for, and if you only ever behave in a way that is true to you, then you never have to worry, because you are never caught doing anything you need be ashamed of. That’s why IWRTW operates in exactly the same way for brands as for individuals, and why I believe Action Branding is the advertising of the future – brands will be judged by their actions just as people are; people will be drawn to brands who share the same values as them and are acting on those values; and those are the brand communities that will be the most powerful and meaningful.
RB: What other brands do you love that have a soul and rallying cry, and are built for meaningful community participation to serve an important purpose in our lives?
CG: I love eBay – because it was founded on exactly the same thing I founded IWRTW on: the belief that human beings are fundamentally good. eBay has built up a system of trustworthy relationships to transform the way people buy and sell things and in doing so, the way people are able to earn a living and build businesses of their own.
RB: What has been your biggest learning since IWRTW launched in February?
CG: The amazing diversity and complete unpredictability of what people want to use it for! (One of the reasons we decided to opt for real-world testing alongside our own development timeline, and why we are now so glad we did.)
RB: The best moment for IWRTW so far…
CG: The quite extraordinary level of positivity of response to date, and how forgiving our users are being about the general clunkiness and beta bugs as we build the platform out!
RB: What is the next big hurdle for IWRTW to overcome?
CG: We have to prove the business model. I deliberately designed IWRTW as a for-profit venture, because I observed that non-profits often get marginalized, in the same way that CSR divisions within businesses can get marginalized – "Oh, those are the chaps who give our PR folks something to talk about, while we get on over here with the hard-core day to day business of making money." Until you demonstrate you can integrate the two things successfully, nothing’s going to change. We want to help drive and create the businesses of the future; we have to be one ourselves. I have to prove my own business model, in order to convince anyone else. So we are currently fully focused on rounding out our user experience and then on showcasing how IWRTW works for brands and businesses. We do already have small businesses signing up and paying through the site; we have brand founder members signing up at a higher level of investment to work with us; and we want to prove that it is possible to do good and make money simultaneously.
RB: What is your sage soundbite of advice for other social entrepreneurs with an idea or just getting started with a venture?
CG: The only person who can make things happen for you is you. By all means network, get as much advice as you can, get as much help as you can, but you are likely to run into exactly the same syndrome as I have done over the past three years, which is ironically exactly why I started IWRTW – lots of good intentions, very little action. Lots of people who say they want to help, only a few who actually follow through. So take all the help you can get, but at the end of the day, know that the only one who can really make your venture happen is you. Which, ironically, is very reassuring – because that way you know the future of your venture is in very safe hands, and the hands of someone you can rely on 100 percent.
RB: Fast forward to June 2015, what has IWRTW achieved?
CG: Whatever anyone wants to do, wherever, it starts with a microaction. Which means it does actually start – and happen.