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Disruptor | Farrah Bostic, founder of The Difference Engine

Disruptor | Farrah Bostic, founder of The Difference Engine

Posting in Design

Advertising industry veteran Farrah Bostic wants to help companies slim down their marketing strategies.

Farrah Bostic starts to speak, then catches herself. She laughs, “These are the moments when I get painted slightly as nerd.” She's about to tell me how excited she feels about growing usage of mobile internet devices.

We're seated in the lobby of Manhattan's shamelessly hip Ace Hotel, sipping artisanal coffee as tech entrepreneurs work from laptops around us. Nerd proclivities aside, Bostic's clearly at home here, in slim red jeans and a sleek blond ponytail. She meets clients here regularly, and when a leather jacket wearing thirty-something walks by she reaches out her hand to high-five him. "Dan!" she exclaims and then continues our conversation.

Bostic founded the marketing and innovation strategy company The Difference Engine in 2011. She calls herself "a reformed adman" after nearly a decade and a half at top ad agencies across the country. Since then she's earned a reputation in the industry for implementing Lean strategy in marketing and design. Bostic borrows ethics from the waste-conscious process, popularized in the manufacturing world, to help companies better serve their customers.

Making business Lean

Most of us have worked in jobs where we know the company could be run better. But Bostic channeled that frustration to build her own Brooklyn-based company, and to also become an advocate for industry-wide change. She's just back from presenting her strategic visions at Austin's South by Southwest Interactive, and she's days away from a flight to Sydney to present at an ad industry conference.

"What I had learned working for more traditional marketing companies and more traditional research companies," she explains, "was there's a lot of waste in that system. And some of that has to do with just the traditions of how we set up research and how we conduct it. Some of that has to do with people's discomfort fundamentally with qualitative research and qualitative data. And then I met these people who were talking about Lean."

She heard about it in the context of lean startups, popularized by Eric Ries' book. But Bostic realized the principles applied to research and marketing as well. She says the method is about putting a company's resources toward efforts that are going to bring returns and reacting quickly when you realize change is necessary. Which can be challenging, she says, in an industry that puts so much emphasis on purely creative insight.

"It's really mainly to do with evidence-based strategy," she says, leaning forward in her armchair. "What sounds good in your head may not actually be a very good approach to solving whatever your business problem is. Your gut is great, but you need to check that against reality. And your vision is great, but you need to check that against reality as well."

To illustrate successful Lean strategy, Bostic gives the example of a project she worked on last spring with the dementia-care company Silverado. They wanted to grow their senior-living facilities to new states, and they brought Bostic on to help with the expansion. They had Bostic talk with assisted-living residents and their families to learn how they went about choosing care facilities. When she presented unexpected findings in a meeting, the company made decisions on how to change things moving forward during that same meeting.

Strategy as a deliverable can sometimes be a tough sell, Bostic says. She gestures with her hands as she explains her methods. While ad agencies often present a big idea to clients and then walk away, Bostic prefers a more stepwise process with clients. They try new marketing and design options one variable at a time, assess them quickly and then move on. She says this method ensures they address all the issues with their approach. At the end of the day, Bostic says, she's there to make sure that a company's actions are actually serving their customers.

Moving away from aloofness

Bostic holds a strong aversion to "cool" in an industry that worships the quality.

"Cool is about detachment," she explains. "And it's about not ever looking foolish. But if you're trying to build something that you care deeply about, you will make a fool of yourself occasionally. You are passionate sometimes to the point of being quite dull about it. And I just think, culturally speaking, if you're interested in being cool all the time, you are not really ever in a position of real empathy with anyone."

Ad agencies get paid for creative ideas, Bostic says, and they're not paid to strategize what the consumer really wants. "The revenue model for advertising agencies is production and media approaches," she shakes her head. "And they make commissions on both of those things. Being paid to think isn't part of the revenue model."

Bostic says that can lead to campaigns and solutions that impress a business client but don't actually impress their customers. She smiles, adding, "So that's my rant about the culture of agencies."

Toward vulnerability

The daughter of a philosophy of science scholar, Bostic grew up in Oregon in a home where her father used sci-fi paperbacks to teach ethics. One of her favorite topics of late is humanized robots. "Now they've programmed a machine to jump," she says in disbelief, "that's ... awesome." She laughs at her own enthusiasm.

Bostic says she remains driven by that appreciation for visionary work, both in technology and in business innovation. And she says it comes when people allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to learn they're wrong –- which she hopes businesses can achieve when they use her adaptive approach to marketing research.

"We are so uncomfortable with the idea that we might be surprised," she tells me, "that we construct something we call research in a way that we never discover anything new and we're never wrong. Because we designed it to be what we're expected. And then we're disappointed at the end, because we didn't learn anything new." Bostic helps companies set up systems so they can try new approaches to customer engagement and design and be ready to adapt when research findings buck their expectations.

Take Apple, for example. Bostic consulted with the company during the launch of the iPod. At that time, other MP3 players existed on the market, but the products had found little success. Undeterred, Apple sent Bostic and other researchers to visit people in their homes to talk about the devices they used to listen to music and what obstacles they faced in both acquiring and playing music. That open-minded approach helped Apple understand how to talk to customers about iTunes and the iPod.

"This is where a lot of traditional research gets it wrong," she says, gesturing for emphasis. "They want to hear it from the horse's mouth." I check her meaning -- the horse is the customer here. "You're not going to hear it from the horse's mouth when they don't know the answer to that question [of what they want]. That's why empathy is important. That's why getting to know people really well is important. And that's why having ideas to bounce off of them is really important." Bostic explains that companies need to think of research participants not as respondents but as collaborators for an exchange of ideas.

I'm a little confused at this point: does Bostic view her client companies, or the consumers, as the customer?

"That is where the tension lies," she tells me. "I have a customer, but it's not the person who buys what my customer is selling. But I have to be that person's advocate. That's really what my job is. So it's, you know," she trails off in a half laugh. "Sometimes it works really well and sometimes it's a process to figure out how to integrate," she laughs again, "how to integrate what I think is the best approach to doing things with what I think they're going to be comfortable dealing with." And that, she says, requires compromise.

But she's optimistic that client expectations will adjust. "I think the future of advertising is not advertising," she predicts. "It is more of this iterative process to learning [what wins customers]. I think it's lighter weight, I think it's less expensive, I think it's faster, but I also think it's more enriching," she says. "I think in a way it starts to limit traditional advertising to what it's best at, which is awareness-building and broadcast media. And leave the real connection moments, and the value propositions, to people who can build products and services for you or can help you develop products." And she's ready to lead those innovations.

Photo: Bryan Thatcher

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Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure