How to Spot Talent and Tell the Future

Calling oneself a futurist can be an invitation to ridicule. But Rob Gonda, global head of innovation for SapientNitro, has the credentials to back it up. He started a bulletin board system way back in 1993 — “It was the Internet before the Internet” — an ISP in 1995 and a VoIP company in 1997.

“I’ve always been an innovator and tried to predict services that will be required, to get on the cutting edge of the tech-driven experience,” said Gonda. Ten years into his advertising career, Gonda is playing his favorite position ever — forecasting the tech trends of the near future and helping clients integrate them into successful campaigns.

Next week, Gonda will mentor our rising agency stars at Digiday’s Agency Innovation Camp in Vail, Colo., where he will talk to them about how to frame the future, set aside shiny-object syndrome and identify which emerging technologies will work for their clients.

Who were you at 25?
When I was 25 is when I started doing all my speaking engagements. I wrote a book on AJAX technology, back in the days when people talked about AJAX the way people talk about HTML5, everyone wanted to get into it. With that, I started getting insane media requests. My first-ever live interview was for Reuters. I had no prep, and they said to me, “In 3 seconds, you’re going live in front of a million people.” I totally froze, I freaked out. But I could only go up from there. By the end of the year, I was doing 20-30 speaking engagements a year.

Are there any drawbacks to early success?
The problem with early success is that you’re going to have early failures. As long as you learn from those mistakes. I don’t think that’s a problem. I don’t think I would regret having written books or worked 100-hour weeks when I was 25. That’s the time to do it, so you can enjoy the time with your family when you’re older. When you’re young is the time that you’re supposed to apply yourself.

There’s a high rate of young success in the tech space, where a lot of young people have the opportunity to invent their product and service and bring it to market. What they don’t have is the business experience … so most won’t know what to do once they succeed.

Do you think that’s what agencies bring to the table in the agency/startup equation?
I don’t think agencies bring business half. What they bring to that equation is the understanding of the consumer. The startup is a tech-head that knows the tech and the hacks inside out but doesn’t know what makes people tick, why they buy it or how to make them buy it. The agency’ role is that we understand people, and we know how to shift behavior. So bringing the product and service together with deep understanding of the behavior of the consumer, how to get in front of the right audience and [to communicate] the right message is where the agency excels. A good agency will have business sense, but not every agency out there has that.

How do you spot young talent?
It’s understanding how they tackle problems. You can give the same problem to five different people, and they’re all going to give you different solutions. But some of them will come back and ask you the smart questions. The people that try to understand deeply the problem are going to come out with the best solutions.

Any advice for future futurists?
You have to understand context. A lot of clients come in chasing the shiny object and throwing buzzwords around. They’ll ask you, “What do you think of QR codes?” But that’s not really the question. You have to put on a business hat to solve a business problem. You have to know how to build a framework on how to validate what’s around you, new passions, new tech. As long as you have the right frame and you understand how any particular ask affects the whole, you’ll always be successful.

I guess the advice comes down to, always try to simplify. Don’t chase the shiny object, find out how it solves a specific product.

What do you think is the most promising emerging technology in the digital advertising space?
I think Google glass is the next promising technology. Not so much the glasses but the glass. It’s going to be an interface that allows you to overlay context on top of your everyday world, feeding in info and images and feeding in your social network. I think its really going to go a really long way.

This is a bit off the wall, but are there any movies or television shows that did a good job of predicting how we live now?
Every other futurist on the planet loves sci-fi except me. I can only talk about the few I know. “Minority Report” is interesting. Steven Spielberg wanted to create a futuristic vision of the world, but it could not be too far fetched, so he hired some PhDs from MIT to come in. … So a lot of the movie incorporates gesture recognition, using gloves to interact with screens, video facial recognition. All that stuff was not on the radar.

How do you sell clients on an untested technology or strategy?
Clients love shared risk. So you can come in and try to sell them into something truly innovative, and they’ll say, “I love the idea but I’m not willing to take the risk.” If you can do an emerging lab or an innovation lab, they may be more willing to buy in. … Sapient is doing a co-innovation and co-working space with Target. If there is a shared risk, there is a much greater chance for any client to buy into something.

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