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Alumni Interviews: Bringing the Humanities into Business

Photo of Clive Veroni in a suit -- his arms are crossed and he's in front of a grey mottled backgrounfClive Veroni (BA English Literature) is a leading marketing strategist, media commentator and author. After a successful advertising career with Stringer Veroni Ketchum Advertising, he founded the management consulting firm of Leap Consulting and wrote the book, Spin: How Politics Has The Power To Turn Marketing On Its Head. Spin was a finalist for the 2015 National Business Book Award. Arts & Science interviewed Veroni to learn more about the book and how it relates to the polarization of opinions in the post-truth world, especially in the wake of the 2016 US election.

The Virtues of Humanities

You were born in South Africa. What was your experience growing up there, and what brought you and your family to Canada?

I grew up in South Africa during the apartheid period. It deeply affected everyone’s lives, so the opportunities for those who were not white in South Africa during those years were very few. It was a pretty harsh social climate in which to live. I was raised by my mom who was a single mother. She decided that the opportunities for us would be greater if we left that environment. We arrived in Canada with less than no money because my mother couldn’t even afford the airfare to bring us here. She had to borrow that from my aunt. I can say that Canada has been an amazing place for someone coming from the South African environment to an open society, a welcoming society and a place where people of colour and other people could live and have opportunities. My life is an example of that.

How was your experience as a student at U of T?

The university, Victoria College, in particular, gave me a great education. I always felt, when I was an undergraduate, that I had a wonderful experience living on campus and studying English Literature. I got a great education there and I’ve always felt a tremendous amount of privilege being a student, because all I had to do all day along was read and think and formulate ideas. I was conscious, as a student, about the privilege of that.

Is this why you have volunteered with your alma mater?

I feel that because of the privilege and education that U of T gave me, I should somehow repay it in some small way. But also, I do believe that humanities education is really important for a healthy society, and I will do whatever I can to encourage people to study the humanities.

How did your university education prepare you for a career in consulting management?

I provide business counsel to large corporations. But I’ve never studied business. My only academic studies have been English literature. I believe that that has actually given me an advantage in the business world. As someone who comes with a humanities degree, I have different skills and different ways of approaching problems and finding solutions than colleagues, who typically have MBAs, do.

There are certainly a lot of valuable skills that the humanities have to offer. Do you think that business firms today are getting better at seeing that?

I think academic institutions have not done a great job of persuading people in business that there are values in the humanities. We actually have a great deal to offer in business. On the flipside of that coin, I think businesses haven’t done a really great job of embracing people with arts degrees and bringing them into the conservation. If you hire only people with the same kind of training, background and method analysis, you’re going to get one kind of solution. Having diversity in your workforce is a great benefit.

A Bell Curve That No Longer Rings True

Your thesis in Spin is that in the social media world today, mass-marketing is dead. As a result, marketers are finding new ways to connect with consumers, and the more innovative markers are turning to the political world to do that. So how do you rise above the “noisy public square”?

The best they can hope to do is to be the loudest voice in the square when it comes to talking about their brand or their business. So in this environment, what marketers need to do is engage with people in such a way that makes them want to say positive things rather than just negative things. There are many ways of doing that, but the main thing is that you need to be on equal footing with the people.

How would you describe the political discourse created by the public square, now that discourse is more accessible and common due to the rise of social media?

I think political discourse has become more polarized. There is the notion of how in the old marketing world, mass-marketing was perceived as a giant bell curve. The goal of the marketer was to get the middle of that curve as high and wide as possible without paying much attention to what’s happening at the fringes of the curve. What’s happening now is that the bell curve has actually become inverted, and so opinions have moved to the edges.

How does this inverted bell curve affect partisan voters and undecided voters, and how does it relate to the Trump victory in the 2016 US election?

I think that the number of undecided voters is probably shrinking, and partisan political discourse is going to become much more polarized. I also think it’s a very delicate moment in history right now where people’s views are so extreme. Previously, people could agree on the facts, but disagree on the causes and the solutions. Today, people don’t even agree on the facts. It is a post fact world where facts are malleable.

The Trump victory should not be overstated. He won, but he actually lost the popular vote by a significant margin. Let’s begin with the fact that he got lucky. I think that this campaign really highlighted this idea of a polarized debate and the idea that you can actually take extreme positions and still win support. This is really playing out the notion of the inverted bell curve idea.

Speaking of elections, Spin provides examples of using big data to target key demographics. One of these examples is the 2012 Obama campaign where targeting women on the West Coast led to success in fundraising. At what point would targeting very specific populations become an ethical concern?

There are ethical questions that are raised by big data, because it implies that there are many things about you that you might not want marketers to know. Target, for example, gathered information about people who they believed were pregnant or about to have a baby. They would send letters in the form of marketing promotions to these people, advertising that they now have baby products available on sale. Eventually, Target had to end that campaign and apologize to these families. The more data you have, the greater your responsibility.

I think it’s true for politicians as well. Many times, people aren’t actually reading the fine print; they aren’t paying attention. We can’t be the ones responsible for how that data is used. You know how we already have privacy commissioners and people like that? This never existed before the internet. I think that as we move forward, these roles will become more important and there will be more legislation on the responsible use and limitations of big data.

What are the emerging trends in marketing that we should be keeping an eye out on?

Millennials are now the largest cohort population in Canada, and I think there are many issues that come with it. How millennials consume food, for example, as they are much more conscious about where the food comes from, how it’s produced and how healthy it is. There’s much less interest among millennials to own traditional symbols of success like a car or house, for example.

What millennials are looking for in the work experience is very different as well. It’s not just about how much money you make or what your title is, it’s about how meaningful, engaging and interesting the work is. These are all new and understanding how these things are evolving and how to talk to people in a more relevant way is changing.