Interview with Kevin Popovic, founder of Ideahaus and author of 20Years Communications

kp-2I caught up with Kevin Popovic, founder of Ideahaus, a creative communications agency with studios in Pittsburgh and San Diego, to ask about his new book (release date: TODAY!) 20 Years Communications: 20 Leaders, 20 Questions, 100s of Lessons, about the changes in the communications industry. In our interview, he offers some great advice for writers and all those interested in crafting messages for your company. With more than 30 years experience in the communications and marketing biz, Popovic was recently ranked #43 in Fast Company’s The Influence Project measuring the “most influential people online.” 

Kevin, tell us about your new book: how you developed it, why did you decide to write it? How did you publish it? 

When Ideahaus celebrated its 20 year anniversary, I couldn’t help but reflect on how much had changed—for me, for the agency, and for the communications industry. When I mentioned this to my colleagues, it triggered a discussion of communications, what we’ve seen and what we’ve learned. Since we all came from different corners of communications, our perspectives varied greatly. When I realized I was learning a lot from the discussion, I thought, “We should record this.”

So I coordinated interviews with 20 communications professionals, mostly people that I have met and worked with over my career. Their insights provide a powerful learning tool for students and for veteran professionals. Students need to know about the evolution of communications, and they need to know what to expect out of a communications career. For the seasoned professional, 20YEARS is a tool for seeing communications differently. If you’re a designer, you may not see what a musician or a photographer sees, for example. Hearing those different perspectives makes it easier to work with others, which improves the overall quality of your work.

In terms of publishing it, 20YEARS was originally released in video form via, and that video is still available. In the book, the video is married with contextual research, extended answers that were too long to include in the video, and discussion guides.

I see the book as a more complete tool for fostering discussion and learning. It’s essentially a full college course in a single book. In the videos, you get the answers, sure, but the book sets those questions up by exploring the background material, cutting to the heart of why we asked these 20 professionals these 20 questions.

20YEARS-Book-2-miniWhat changes in the past 20 years were professionals discussing? 

Well, I have at least 20 answers for that question.

In all seriousness though, a few common themes emerged, but everyone saw those themes differently. For example, many panelists discussed the idea of convergence, which is where multiple forms of technology merge into a singular device. For example, a smartphone embodies the functionality of radio, motion and still photography, a telephone, a newspaper, and a video game system. All of these technologies were once separate entities, and now they are contained in one mobile device.

Because our panelists all hail from different corners of communications, they have different views on this phenomena. For me, as someone who works extensively in social media, having all of these tools on my iPhone represents a tremendous opportunity. I can more easily capture and share events as they happen, and I don’t have to lug around a bunch of equipment.

For a photographer, convergence might be more of a challenge than an opportunity. With the power of the cellphone photography growing steadily, convincing clients of the value of a professional with professional-grade equipment is becoming more difficult. As professionals, we see the value of setting up the lighting and playing with the angles and perfecting the presentation in post-production, but the client might not. That’s a real challenge, and that’s something that we have to overcome.

That’s just one example, of course. A great deal is discussed in the book. The 20YEARS panelists cover everything from technology to practice to their predictions for the future of the industry.

Did anything they said surprise you?

Over the years, Ideahaus has worked with a variety of clients on a wide variety of projects, which has given me the opportunity to work with a number of different professionals along the way. Having been involved with the expertise that the panelists provide, I had a good idea of what they might discuss.

At the same time, seeing themes organically emerge from the interviews was an amazing thing. When we asked our panelists about the biggest challenge in public relations, for example, the answer was almost completely unanimous: spin. The public relations gurus recognized it just as clearly as the panelists that don’t work in public relations.

In the case of social media, almost all of our panelists—whether or not their day to day work involves social media—recognized the power of social media, but they also noted that the proliferation of social media platforms and social media marketing has created a great deal of noise between a communicator and his or her target audience.

For me, these common threads represent a huge learning opportunity, both for professionals and for students. These themes represent issues that we as professionals should be thinking more about, and there is an opportunity there for us to work together to address them.

What was one of the biggest changes–what did it reveal about the communications industry these days, as compared to 20 years ago?

Again the idea of convergence was probably the biggest change, which incorporates the proliferation of smartphones and the huge impact the Internet has had on how we communicate. Perhaps paradoxically, this idea of convergence, of multiple technologies melding into a singular device, is also characterized by a sort of splintering.

We may be using one device to communicate in a variety of ways, but our options for communication are increasing exponentially, which represents both a challenge and an opportunity. How do you want to reach your target audience? You could use television, radio, newspaper, outdoor advertising, mail, email Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Google+, YouTube, Vimeo, iTunes, Tumblr, a blog, and so on and so forth. We didn’t have those options 20 years ago.

What would you advise other communications professionals, specifically writers?

For communications professionals in general, making an effort to continually learn is essential. I think that most of us in this industry are naturally curious individuals; we want to experiment and try new things, which is the start of it. When something new comes out, whether it’s a new device or a new social media platform, we shouldn’t be afraid of it. We should be excited by the possibilities and dive in, fiddling with the potential and figuring out how it works and how it might fit into the work that we do.

Also, we can learn a lot from everyone we work with, from our clients to our colleagues. 20YEARS demonstrates that.

Writers specifically need to have the same sort of curiosity, which in their case means learning to write for the variety of platforms now available for communications. The rules for good writing still apply, but the tactics between writing for Facebook or Twitter or for a blog vary significantly. Audiences engage content differently on each platform, so you have to learn to write in a way that suits the medium. The best to learn those nuances it to connect with a mentor that is already doing that sort of work. The second best way to learn those nuances is to see how the most successful companies and organizations are using writing to communicate. Ideally, a writer would be taking both approaches simultaneously.

And what would you recommend for other CEO’s looking at their businesses and industries: should they write and market a book about the changes in their fields? 

I would encourage other subject matter experts to share what they know in a book; traditional format, e-Book, iBook, etc. It helps to share what you know with others, it contributes to your field of study, and, admittedly, helps you stand out in a crowded marketplace.

Thanks for chatting with us about your book, Kevin, and good luck!



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