Incrementalism won't do. We need to reinvent

Interpublic's Philippe Krakowsky's rallying cry to young talent.

This is an edited version of Krakowsky's commencement address to this year's 2020 graduation class of the VCU Brandcenter:

As we reflect back on this moment, one of things that I think will really stand out is how many contradictory feelings and emotions we’re all experiencing, and having to process simultaneously, as a result of this massive disruption. 

Off the top of my head, and in no particular order, in the past couple of days I’d call out: anxious, frightened, bored, angry, caring, exhausted, bewildered. You could doubtless add many more.

I’m sure that they’re actually all quite similar – because they’re what make us human, and they underscore the ways in which we are connected to, and ultimately dependent on, one another. 

"We’re all in this together" may be starting to sound stale to some people. But, let’s face it, that has never been more true. Even though it’s fair to say that human attention span has likely never been shorter, and that our need for instant gratification has never been higher, I’d guess that the people who prevailed through wars, plagues, and other disasters that took years to survive and overcome would probably not give us a pass for starting to run short of resolve after just eight weeks of Coronavirus quarantine.

So, here’s a first takeaway – well, it’s actually more of an ask. You are a cohort of incredibly talented problem solvers, communicators, creators, connectors, and innovators. I’d give you this brief:

Think about that neighbor who lends a helping hand with a mundane chore. Or the front line workers, like nurses, doctors, first responders, as well as the people picking foods in our fields, working in retail, and delivering needed goods to our homes.

Consider the family, friends and colleagues stepping into the breach at this time of need. What these people, their narratives, and this crisis are bringing most vividly into focus is the solidarity that can and should bind us together. 

How do we truly capture that spirit? How do we animate and transmit it? And how do we keep it alive and pay it forward, so that when the current danger is past, we don’t settle back into complacency around tolerating division, divisiveness and inequality? What role can you and your unique skill sets, honed at the Brandcenter, play in helping answer those key questions?

From that moral imperative, let’s now turn to the world of work. There’s no sugar coating the challenges that we face economically, or the fact that the class of 2020 is stepping into the workforce at a very difficult time.

You have my empathy, because as is the case for you today, I graduated high school and college during the double-dip recessions of the early 1980s.

Unsure of a career path, laden by student debt, the first few years of my working life involved a number of false starts, a bunch of freelance assignments, and an idealistic (that’s a polite way to describe the overconfidence that comes with immaturity) decision to start up an AI software company. It wasn’t the most conventional, or the safest, path. But it did involve a very broad range of interesting problems, a fair bit of drudgework, a lot of adaptability, and a steep learning curve.

We’re in for one of those when it comes to what lies ahead for every business. The economic crisis will fast track trends that we were already seeing, and that many corporate leaders have been moving to address, in recent years.

For any company hoping to survive and prosper, the "digital transformation" that’s been making tons of headlines is going to have to happen on an accelerated timeline.

Incrementalism won’t do. Business models will have to be actively re-thought and re-invented. Which sounds like it could be right up your alley, since you are all graduating with both a master’s degree in business and a "healthy appreciation for the power of original thinking."

Thinking about where the virus is taking business, there are a number of themes that will clearly be with us for the foreseeable future.

Like what does "contact-free" mean for your industry? How agile and responsive to change can your service model become? What does your core business see as its purpose, and what is the critical path to balancing the needs of customers, employees and shareholders alike?

All these questions have implications for business strategy, the promises a brand can reasonably and credibility make, every dimension of the customer experience, and all design elements connected to a company’s interactions with consumer and business audiences. Who better to figure out the implications of these massive challenges than the "best creative problem-solvers in the world of brands?"

The next six to twelve months won’t be easy for any of us. They’ll doubtless make it more difficult for you to find the career on-ramp you were thinking would be there for you upon graduation. But, in the mid-term and the long-run, the skills you’ve learned and honed, and what likely brought you to the Brandcenter in the first place – a rigorous,  unconventional, collaborative, hands-on learning experience at the forefront of marketing and media – will only become more valuable and impactful.

The phrase "may you live in interesting times" is widely reported to be a Chinese curse, masquerading as a blessing. It’s neither. It was invented, pretty much out of whole cloth, by a British diplomat in the 1930’s, and made famous when JFK inserted the expression into a speech he gave to a group of students in Cape Town, South Africa in 1966. In it, he said interesting times are "times of danger and uncertainty" that are "more open to creative energy than any other time in history." 

Despite basing that observation on a myth, he sure got the last part right! We are living in interesting, and truly historic times, times of danger and uncertainty. Your creative energy will be needed more than ever. It can make an impact on the kind of society we live in, on a more compassionate collective response to today’s challenges, as well as on the role business will play in people’s lives going forward. 

Congratulations, graduates. I wish you and your families good health. And I’ll definitely be staying tuned to see the kinds of ideas and innovation you bring as we emerge from this crisis.

Philippe Krakowsky is chief operating officer of Interpublic and chairman of IPG Mediabrands

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