Getting to Know… Aubrey Podolsky

Zerotrillion recently promoted Aubrey Podolsky to managing director of its Toronto office and chief strategy officer globally.

The independent agency based in Toronto and Amsterdam also recently expanded its strategy team with the additions of Alex Ondretti in Toronto and Robin Roosdorp and Julie de Wever in Europe. The greater focus on strategy comes as a result of shifting client demands, said CEO Alex Paquin. “Increasingly, clients are coming to us with the big business questions, ones that precede brand, but whose answers must be reflected in the brand we create and nurture for them,” he said.

The agency is also growing its PR function globally, promoting Teal Minisofer from PR manager to PR and communications lead.

We asked Podolsky if he’d answer some “Getting to Know…”  questions for us, and here’s what he told us.

Do you have kids? What are their names? I have a son named Hayes. He’s two-and-a-half years old, and he’s already so considerate. It’s astonishing. I told him one night last week that I was going to dinner with my work friends, and he said “that sounds like fun!” I didn’t know how big love could be until the first time he gave me a hug.

Favourite book of all time and why?  I read everything Steven Johnson writes. His newest book, Extra Life, is an extraordinary guide to the scientific and social changes that led to the substantial increases in life expectancy we’ve enjoyed over the last hundred years. Each of his books is filled with surprising clarity and new connections between “established” ideas, weaving together history, science and social behaviour in novel ways.

He connects the dots, say, between the printing press and astronomy and biology. Not because people could now read about new ideas in those fields, though. It started because the printing press allowed for more broadly available reading material, which led to more people realizing their eyesight was terrible, setting off a flurry of activity making corrective lenses. This led people to make better lenses and find new uses, like microscopes and telescopes.

Also anything by the eminent historian Margaret MacMillan, she brings history alive. [And] Oscar Wilde slays me.

What did you want to be when you grew up?  A professional baseball player. I took it pretty far, too, even got invited to play at a handful of MLB scouting camps. The ones that make it are just so unbelievably talented and hard working. I’d love it if just before the commercial break they’d cut to normal people trying to hit a 91 mph slider or field a scorching line drive. It’d put things in context—and give everyone a good laugh.

Movie you love that almost nobody else likes? Hmm… there’s this documentary that people might really like if they had the chance to see it. It’s called Tim’s Vermeer. It follows the story of an inventor who believes he figured out how Vermeer was able to paint shadows and light so realistically, hundreds of years before photographic aides. He spends a year of his life recreating Vermeer’s workshop and painstakingly recreating one of his works—even though he’s never painted before. It’s obsessive, niche, surprising. Penn and Teller wrote it. It’s cool and nerdy at the same time, and I love it.

I also absolutely love The Sting. It won the Oscar for Best Picture, so I can’t exactly say nobody likes it. I just never hear anyone talking about it. So yeah, if you haven’t, watch The Sting. Word of warning, though: If you spent your childhood piano lessons agonizing over playing “The Entertainer,” it may give you PTSD.

Favourite thing about this industry? Lots! Meeting and working with so many interesting clients, colleagues and partners. Making things. Living in a world where great taste in design, music, art, film, books is valued. Helping to grow businesses. Getting to learn so much about so many different industries. It’s endlessly exciting and intellectually challenging.

Least favourite thing about this industry? How often people in our industry make the leap from data point right to solution.

I was watching The Magic School Bus with my son the other day, and in one episode, the students were deciding on a new mascot for their soccer team. One came dressed as a broccoli mascot, and defended the choice by saying “according to my research, broccoli is one of the healthiest foods there is.”  Data Point equals Solution. Bad solution. It illustrates that when data isn’t viewed in context, through a “shared lens,” people tend to superimpose their own values or motivations on it.

Many ineffective ads, campaigns and brand positions seem borne by that type of thinking. Great data is an incredible starting point for creativity, but we need the correct lens by which to view data: Established business goals, clear growth-limiting challenges and distinct advantages, an understanding of our audience and their mindset. I’m as focused on data, research and insights as anyone—probably much more so—but I caution everyone to consider data as a significant input towards developing a solution, not a solution in waiting. Be “informed by data,” not “driven by data.”

David Brown