Flipping the Bird to marketing executives

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What can a badass undercover cop teach a room full of marketing executives? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot — as 650 attendees of the Razorfish Client Summit found out on October 14 when they witnessed Jay Dobyns discuss his life as an undercover agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF).

Perhaps you’ve heard of Jay Dobyns. He’s the best selling author of No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels, which discusses his alternative life as “Bird,” the identity he assumed as a make-believe hit man to infiltrate criminal activity in the Hells Angels motorcycle club from 2001 to 2003. He drew on his experiences to share a poignant story of risk taking and personal sacrifice at the Razorfish Client Summit, an annual event where Razorfish clients and employees discuss the state of the art in marketing, technology, and creativity.

For the 10th Annual Client Summit (which I organized), Razorfish challenged marketing executives to succeed by taking ownership of change at a corporate and personal level. (The theme: “Evolve.”) Speakers such as Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn discussed what it’s like to do something as enormously complicated as change the brand for a multi-billion dollar organization. As I planned the event, I had a feeling Jay would be an intriguing speaker because he has consistently and willingly embraced change his entire life: from being a football star in college to an undercover ATF agent, a best selling author, and now missionary to disadvantaged children in Africa.

He did not disappoint.

For about 30 riveting minutes, he described:

  • What it’s like to really take a risk. After being on the job with the ATF for only a few days, he was taken hostage, shot, and nearly killed. (He showed us the bloody shirt he wore that day.) As dramatic as the story was (he could literally hear blood leaving his body), what impressed me was how he reacted to a near-death experience: instead of allowing the trauma to make him gun shy, he lost his ability to fear risk taking. In fact, he openly sought risk instead of hiding from it. His willingness to do so led him to an undercover assignment to investigate criminal activity inside the Hells Angels, which required him to completely lose himself in another identity as “Bird” a la Donnie Brasco.

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  • Living with the uncomfortable. Does the turbulent economy and the stress of being a marketing executive ever get you down?  Well, Jay Dobyns now lives everyday under the constant threat of being killed in retaliation for his undercover work (he once caught wind of a scheme to inject him with AIDS). So how does he endure that kind of stress, knowing he has a family at home? “Live life with concern, not fear,” he said. “I’ve got God on one hip and a pistol on the author. I don’t live in fear.” Remember that the next time you fear an upcoming budget review or the launch of a major marketing campaign.

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  • Remaining true to your values. In our industry, we work hard, we play hard, and we are driven to succeed. And Jay encouraged everyone to continue doing that. “Go out and achieve your fame and fortune,” he said. “Set your standards so high that your competitors cannot touch you.” But he also showed us that success means nothing if you can’t stay true to your values. In what was easily the most captivating moment of his talk (and the entire Client Summit), Jay described how he became so immersed in undercover life that he lost sight of his family. He related how one year his young son drew a birthday card expressing hope that his dad would never get shot again — and yet Jay was so lost in his identity as Bird that the card did not move him. As he related this anecdote, the room at the Boston Sheraton became still and Twitter chatter stopped. We just listened.

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After hearing Jay Dobyns speak, I was motivated to take risk and evolve my own career. But even more importantly, I could not wait to get home and hold my family close.

Thank you Jay for the reminder.

PS: for some reactions to Jay’s talk on Twitter, Tweet Dobyns #rzcs and check out the chatter. A few of my favorite reactions:

  • “@debpasquale All I can say about Jay Dobyns is WOW. Google him. Read ‘No Angel.’
  • @kellythul Jay Dobyns speaking. He is big. He is bad. I will have nothing but good things to tweet.”
  • “@sauld Really moved by Jay Dobyns talk at the Client Summit this morning”
  • “@stevedawson Jay Dobyns is officially a badass”
  • “@TeresaCaro Jay Dobyns makes our work life balance complaints seem insignificant”

Here’s to risk taking, loving change, and staying true to what matters.

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