Sam Ford: An interview by Bob Morris


Ford, SamSam Ford is Director of Audience Engagement for Peppercomm. His 2013 New York University Press book, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture, was co-authored by Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. The book was named one of the best business books of 2013 by Booz & Co.’s Strategy+Business and was voted one of the “Top 10 Best Marketing Books You Read This Summer” in a reader poll at Advertising Age. In 2011, he co-edited the University Press of Mississippi book The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington. Sam is a columnist with Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Inc. He is a research affiliate with the MIT Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing, an instructor with the Western Kentucky University Popular Culture Studies Program, and co-chair of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s Ethics Committee. Sam was named a 2014 Social Media MVP by PR News and was Bulldog Reporter’s 2011 Social Media Innovator of the Year. In the past two years, he has written pieces for The Wall Street Journal, Advertising Age, PRWeek, CMO.com, and other publications and presented at events like South by Southwest, Social Media Week NYC, Planning-ness, and the Front End of Innovation.

Here is an excerpt from my interview of him. To read the complete interview, please click here.

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Morris: Before discussing Spreadable Media, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Ford: It’s tough to narrow down who has had the most significant impact on my personal growth, since it really was a village. My wife’s constant feedback as a partner these past 14 years to help me figure out what it is I want to do in my life, my dad’s consistent work ethic and drive, my mother’s deep attention to detail have all been key. But one person who helped set me on the path I’m on early on is my grandmother, Beulah Hillard. One of our favorite pastimes was sitting on the front porch swing and sharing songs—trading around a mix of gospel, old country/bluegrass tunes, and anything else we could think of.

Her passion for “her story,” the soap opera As the World Turns, helped shape my interest in the intersection between immersive story worlds and the social relationships that build around them. She and my mother talked about the lives of the residents of Oakdale, Illinois, almost every day by phone, interspersed with conversations about friends and family in our little town of McHenry.

And my grandmother was also a society columnist in the local weekly newspaper, covering specifically what was happening in our little town of 400. She wrote about the babies that were born, the old man down the lane who had passed away, the church potluck next Sunday, the visitors from all the way in Michigan who had come to town last week. Her phone would ring regularly with people in the community who had something for her to share in the paper, or she was calling them because of something she’d heard that was going on. And she always had her police scanner on, to keep up with anything going on with the law enforcement, the fire department, the EMS, the school bus system, etc. When I was 12, she had some health complications and asked me to take over the column. There I was, writing alongside the blue-rinse set in The Ohio County Times-News as a pre-teen. But it invigorated my love of writing, of being part of the community, of telling human stories…and it had a really significant impact on the direction I’ve headed since.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Ford: Again, there have been many. It’s been an honor working with Henry Jenkins, who was the most generous grad school mentor I could hope for and who has been a true partner and friend on various projects along the way. Steve Cody and others at Peppercomm provided me the opportunity to translate my work to the world of professional communication and marketing, in a way that has been greatly instructive. And Grant McCracken, the cultural anthropologist, has been a key figure throughout the past decade for me—inspiring me and challenging me to think in new ways as only he can do. But, before all that, I have to give great credit to Dr. Karen Schneider and Dr. Ted Hovet at WKU. I entered college planning to be a professional journalist. I ended up with a journalism degree but knew fairly early into my college career that my interests were in studying culture. My first semester at WKU, I had Dr. Schneider for an introductory English class—and the questions she asked of us, the intense discussions she directed, and the way in which she used studying literature to get at the heart of important questions about life inspired me. Karen and Ted Hovet were both key figures in WKU’s English Department and in launching their Film Studies program. They became great mentors for both me as well as for my wife, and remain good friends. And they were key coaches in driving me to go to graduate school and in making sure I was more than prepared when I arrived there.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Ford: There’s been much more serendipity than there has been epiphany for me. For me, it has been having the great opportunity meet many interesting people along the way, learn from them, and make sure that I’m listening when new career turns might pop up. At one point, I knew I was going to attend graduate school, but I didn’t know where. I thought American Studies would provide me the best way to study culture, storytelling, and active audiences in the way I wanted to. An academic named Henry Louis Gates came to WKU. I had a question I was trying to ask him, and I never could get through. Finally, I was up to him in line after his public talk, and they told him that he needed to stop and go to dinner. He looked at me and said, “Why don’t you come with us to dinner?” And my dinner with him that night inspired me to definitely attend graduate school and to consider going to Boston (as Skip is a professor at Harvard) for grad school. Then, my wife and I took a visit up to Boston. I remember passing MIT’s campus several times, and my wife would try to bring my attention to it. “That’s a science and engineering school….” I told her.

A few months later, while doing my honors thesis at WKU on the world of professional wrestling, I came across an essay that Henry Jenkins was working on but that hadn’t been published yet. In fact, it was coming out as part of an edited collection called Steel Chair to the Head that was set to be released right as my thesis was due. I didn’t know who Henry was, but I reached out to him to see if I could get an advanced copy of my essay. In the process, he told me about the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT he was running with Dr. William Uricchio. I ended up getting to know Henry a bit and found that the focus of that program completely matched what I was interested in studying. In the end, I applied to that science school—and it was the only one of 6 or 7 programs I applied to that accepted me.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Ford: My formal education has been extremely important to me. I’m a first-generation college student and product of the public school system. My life was shaped by a series of important teachers I had along the way who passed along to me less specific knowledge and more the critical thinking skills and passion for learning that drove me to seek the next level. My time at WKU fundamentally reshaped what it was I wanted to do in my career. MIT did that once again and provided me with the skill set, the peer group, the connections, and the validity I needed to move forward—and move into areas I would have never expected and into a job title and job description I wouldn’t have even understood a short time before.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Ford: You should always be able to put yourself in the shoes of the person you’re consulting, working with, or seeking to reach. Don’t underestimate their intelligence, but don’t overestimate their knowledge. Find the meeting place between what they want and need to know and what you feel it is important to tell them. And don’t just reactively respond to what they are asking you to do; trust that you are providing them with strategic guidance, not just responding to their queries. That’s been the difference in being able to be a consultative partner to the companies and colleagues I’ve worked with, rather than a vendor, executing requests.

Morris:
Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Ford: There are many great lessons learned from films. One that I wrote about for Fast Company a few years back was a thrilled named Buried, starring Ryan Reynolds. In it, a U.S. civilian contractor working in Iraq has been captured and wakes up buried under the ground. He’s being held for ransom. And he has a cell phone with him in this small space he’s buried alive in, in the ground. What is remarkable about the film is that the whole movie—which is quite suspenseful—takes place with the camera inside this tight box he’s buried in underground. We don’t see flashbacks. We are stuck in there with him. And we go through what is, in effect, a series of extreme “audience experience” failures as he tries to navigate communicating with a range of entities to be rescued. I found the film a great illustration to the extreme of being able to empathize with an audience member and see/feel the pain from their perspective.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Ford: Perhaps no “genre” of book is more insightful about the art of consciously building one’s character and of understanding and communicating with one’s audience than the “pro wrestling memoir” genre, of which I have read many books. Anyone looking to understand how to connect with audiences, how to tell stories that connect, and so forth might do well to read Mick Foley’s Foley Is Good…and the Real World is Faker than Wrestling, as well as Foley’s other books, as well as Ole Anderson and Scott Teal’s Inside Out, among others.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Ford: I love this quote. Truly inspiring change within an organization, a community, or a client you’re working with is getting an idea so ingrained within that people start taking ownership of it and living it themselves…and requiring the old academic (Ford 2014) when doing that won’t make cultural shifts truly happen within an organization. The more you demand to “own” a concept or initiative, the less you allow others to really make it their own—and to take it in their own directions. To allude to the conversation that is to come about the book, content can’t become spreadable if you don’t provide ways in which people can make it their own. I’d counter with a paraphrase of fellow Kentuckian Robert Penn Warren, who once said that many of the most insightful ideas are ones that, when you read them, you realize you’ve known all along.

Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Ford: I can’t remember who said it, but I heard recently on the radio that someone said our time is one in which those who know the most are more uncertain than ever about their opinion, and those who are willing to state things definitively are those who know dangerously little. And it reminds me of something I once heard wrestler Shawn Michaels say to fellow wrestler Chris Masters—to extend on the pro wrestling example used above: “You don’t even know enough to know what you don’t know.”

Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Ford: One of our favorite initiatives at Peppercomm is to put our teams, our clients, and other leaders through stand-up comedy training—in part because it helps them not just learn to read their audience but also to understand their own unique charisma, and how their presentation of self is so deeply determined by understanding and being true to who they are.

Morris: From Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Ford: This is a problem we run into constantly, particularly in the business world—where (to draw on work that Dr. Amanda Lotz has done in the past) industry lore and accepted logic often takes on a life of its own and where companies forget that they ever created it in the first place. One of my favorite examples are market segmentations, which create constructed profiles which people ultimately forget were fabrications of their marketing department in the first place and which, like Frankenstein’s Creature, starts terrorizing its creator.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Ford: A really shrewd soap opera writer once said of a television executive, “She was a very hard worker. I sure wish she didn’t work so hard.” We have to be careful to be sure that all that creative energy is going toward something that will ultimately benefit the publics a company is looking to serve. I find Carol Sanford’s “pentad” useful here—that any business decision must serve the customer, the co-creator, the earth, the community, and the shareholder…in that order. If organizations made all their decisions along those lines, I’d have to imagine their decisions would look quite a bit different.

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To read the complete interview, please click here.

Sam cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Spreadable Media link

Peppercomm link

Twitter link

HBR blog link

Fast Company link

Inc. link

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