Ad Age Ad Lib: Jonah Disend Says, 'We're Data-Rich, But Insight-Poor'

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Jonah Disend.
Jonah Disend. Credit: Jonah Disend

Jonah Disend is CEO and founder of Redscout, a branding and product development company with clients like Gatorade and Domino's that he founded in his New York apartment in 2000. In this episode of Ad Age Ad Lib, Disend talks about how his love of theater informs what he does, how the advertising industry has not especially embraced the LGBT community—and a certain bar mitzvah that he threw his company when it turned 13, four years ago.

Disend, who started as a planning director, says he quickly became disenchanted with the lack of real innovation in the agency world. "Our whole thing is that innovation is your most powerful form of marketing," he says. He described traditional advertising as "yell about what we're doing and hope someone is interested."

His approach to brands—which he applied to Domino's core product, its pizza, and to Gatorade when he helped launch the G series—is to ask "How do you behave differently, do different things, make different products or services?" he says. "Then use marketing to amplify. Instead of trying to convince the consumers you're different, actually be different. the marketing goes so much further."

Get to know your clients—really well
"The CMO turnover trend has actually been really good for our business. For some others it's not," he says. "It's easier to bring us in than an agency of record." To that end, Disend has a word of advice for agencies: Get to know everyone at your client's company.

Agencies "maybe work with the CMO but really they work with the directors of advertising or marketing or whatever. They don't build relationships with HR, with R&D, with finance with legal," he says. "I used to say that we would measure or success by how many holiday cards we send to individual clients and one year we sent over 200 cards to Pepsi."

How a love of theater has guided him from an early age
When Disend was in third grade, his mother bought him a leather-bound collection of Shakespeare's plays. Though he says he probably didn't understand half of it, he decided to launch a production of Hamlet—in third grade. His friend Kenny's mom wrote up a slightly more accessible version of the play. His friends took time during their recess to rehearse.

"I thought I was so edgy," he says. "I had the one Korean girl in our class as Hamlet. And I play the ghost of Hamlet's father in a sort of Hitchcock moment." But it was not meant to be. "The school shut it down because it was a little inappropriate. I feel like my entire life in the theater has been trying to do things where people didn't want me to."

On data vs. insights
"The thing that makes me sad is that in the early days it was about insights. And I feel like we've gotten to the point where we're subsumed in data—we're so data-rich but insight-poor. That's a dying art," he says. "I don't think people know what an insight is anymore. If I tell you an insight you will feel it. Physiologically you will feel it. If it's not an insight you won't feel it."

On being gay in advertising
"I think we've come a long way but not that far," he says. "There's a lot of talk about women on the outside and I see it everyday. But we don't talk as much about being gay in this industry."

This manifests in subtle ways, he says, suggesting that the culture of advertising is at least a generation away from a more widespread and natural acceptance. "Just the way people engage is still gendered. A lot of our clients are straight white men. Which is fine. Some of my best friends are straight white men," he says. "They just take it for granted. It's like, 'Oh, are you going to bring your wife? … There's still a lot of golf and scotch drinking, some very not-very friendly places for women or other folks."

The secret to success (and failure)
The best—and possibly hardest—think Disend has learned to do over the course of his career is learn to be more himself. "When I was working at DDB, I wore a suit every day. I tried really hard to play the game," he says. "I needed to build a company around who I was and work on that process of being more myself."

By not trying to live up to someone else's expectations, Disend says he was able to thrive. "The only way to not get fired is to not care if you get fired. If you care if you get fired, which most people do, then you're not going to be successful … You're trying to please your boss. That game will never work because you stop thinking."

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