Living Through Our Zeitgeist.

Creative Business Design Has Never Been More Relevant.

Lauren Wright - 29 April 2020

Longer Read - An interview with Ruben Smit, the founder and brains behind Phenomenons, by the consultancies new Business Director, Lauren Wright

“We’re on the lookout for first movers that believe creativity can help purpose-driven business to give shape to a new decade”

We’re living through an unprecedented time right now, any reflections?

There’s so much to say. On the one hand we are witnessing monumental human progress. On the other, we’re in a period of extreme inequality, toxic politics and a systemic ecological climate emergency. Add to that the recent global COVID-19 pandemic and the picture becomes even more complex.  I think we can agree that there cannot be, and should not be, any more business as usual. We see a great opportunity in the necessity to accelerate positive change. Change is being adopted lightning fast - distributed working, humane tech, educational reform, circular economies. People are looking for deeper meaning to regain a sense of purpose to deal with the deeply complex problems we’re facing today. People demand and embrace business with a progressive agenda. The desire to participate in the movement towards a new status quo is getting stronger every-day: from sustainability to activism to culture.

Going back a bit - what’s your background Ruben, your personal story?

A friend once called me a punk philosopher. It kind of sums me up. Going against the grain, stubborn, philosophical and fascinated by human behaviour. The world is full of peculiarities and people are complex beings. It’s just extremely fascinating and energizing to push yourself to get of this. I studied cognitive neuroscience and economic psychology at Tilburg University and The University of Hong Kong. My big obsession is the interaction between human behaviour and society and how this sparks creativity and shapes culture. This passion launched my career in advertising, but I became frustrated with the lack of substance and rigor. Ad agencies are so strongly connected to paid media and the creation of pointless content. But the economical landscape became so much more complex, that there is no way it will ever play a role in the shaping of anything bigger that short-term commodity sales numbers. Which takes me back to my punk alter ego. I decided to reject that model and start my own creative business. We want to help create new models that move the world forward.

You tend to partner entrepreneurs and help them to achieve their North star vision. Why are they choosing Phenomenons?

It’s a good question. In general, the world is getting so complex. You need thinkers who can mine through the complexity of all the available data to identify the right human insights to drive big transformative ideas. Looking beyond the superficial to find the real human motivation. Then again, the problems and opportunities have in some ways gotten so complex, that you need serious creative thinking to solve them. Our clients recognise the power of this paradox: solving complexity through rigorous creative business design. We want to bring our intelligence to the level of the large consultancies, working with big data and AI, but morph the data in to something fresh and new, and much more actionable and solution-driven. Executing it into a culturally resonating business. That’s something the big 5 don’t know how to. We do.

Also, our clients like the fact that we take a stance and have the confidence to genuinely spar with them. We can be a pain in the butt sometimes. We have a blind drive and ambition to achieve the very best outcomes. It takes a healthy dose of bravery and tons of resilience. It’s all about co-creation, iterations and longevity. Asking and testing of ideas: “Is there a different way? Can we take this idea even further? Can we make a more enduring impact?”.

Is Phenomenons living through its own zeitgeist?

Yes, perhaps it is! We cannot solve deep-rooted problems with the thinking that first originated them. We work with smart entrepreneurially minded people to lead the change and build better alternatives. We build transformative businesses with positive-purpose woven in to their fabric. We tend to think big and think future. We’re experienced in building new mental constructs that break boundaries and lead the kind of change that society embraces. Our mission is to contribute to the bottom line of business, people and the world.

The consultancy was born out of very personal deep-rooted principles. They inform all the choices we make throughout the strategic and creative process. They also connect us to like-minded collaborators. It’s a combination of taking a stance for what you believe in, fostering diversity of thought, championing emotional intelligence and taking responsibility for the positive long-term outcomes of our work.

Phenomenons talks of the power of cultural strategy sitting at the heart of creative business design. Demystify this for us Ruben. 

Cultural strategy is a big topic. As big as culture itself. Which is alive and organic and constantly in motion – acting and reacting and shifting.  Besides that, purpose is something that needs to be played out at the level of culture.  

At Phenomenons we apply cultural strategy in two ways. Firstly, it is about creating something that resonates within the existing culture. We build Creative Business Narratives that do this and we validate them through cultural testing. Secondly, and very interesting for progressive start-ups, cultural strategy can build on and innovate the existing culture. Creating something new from ripples of social disruption. This is real cultural innovation. Offering a new set of values and solutions that move culture forwards. This is more of an ideological opportunity. It’s harder to get there, but also much more rewarding, especially when combined with a strong purpose, you’re halfway towards a movement. Patagonia did a great job at innovating culture in this way. Nike is a super obvious example as they really executed the cultural strategy phenomenally well. They apply a level of craft to their execution that we as a consultancy seek to emulate. Oatley did a really good job more recently, entering the consciousness at a zeitgeist moment and offering a new normal.

“Talking about brands is like talking about an outdated mental construct - It assumes simplified positioning grids, facades and fake identities. This doesn’t rhyme with purpose-driven business.” 

Is it as relevant for established business as start-ups?

Yes, for sure established businesses could pause and take a breath, and figure out their renewed cultural relevance and cultural opportunity. Phenomenons can partner established businesses that recognise the potential and want an external consultation partner. So many brands should dare to do this, to take this leap. Recognising that we are living through an era of accelerated change and that they can – or must – reinvent or innovate for the future.
Phenomenons also works with R&D/Innovation teams, to look outside of the business as usual and innovate. Experimental projects with task teams that are given some time and commitment with the brief to “surprise” and come at the business opportunities from a completely different angle.

Any closing thoughts on trust and leaps of faith in times of accelerated change?

Something on our minds, particularly right now with so much disruption, change and uncertainty, is the simple yet vital theme of trust. It can be hard to build trust around new ideas and innovative constructs as you have no historical precedent or benchmark. This is as true for Phenomenons building trust with new clients, as it is for our clients building trust with new audiences. However, taking a step back, unprecedented times call for leaps of faith. The world is changing at lightening speed and it’s actually a lot scarier to think of the consequences when we’re trying to ignore the possibilities and keep practicing business as usual. Short term: end of business. Long term: end of well… everything. If you’re reading this and it’s resonating, let’s talk. Right now, the world desperately needs some visionary Future Phenomenons.

Lauren Wright, new addition to the Phenomenons team as Business Director, has years of experience in strategic brand thinking, driving business results through creativity. Plus a recent study at Cambridge in Sustainable Business Leadership under her belt.

"Phenomenons lives in that powerful interplay of creativity and rigour. We're passionate about helping to build purpose-driven businesses that matter."

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