John Winsor’s Radar Love

NEW YORK Radar Communications, John Winsor’s research company, was bought by MDC’s Crispin Porter + Bogusky in May and merged into the agency’s research department, Cognitive and Cultural Studies.

The group was renamed Cultural Radar, and Winsor is a director with Tom Birk. Prior to founding Radar in 1998, Winsor worked in publishing: He was the founder of Spots and Fitness Publishing, which he sold to Condé Nast and Emap in 1998.

The 47-year-old author, blogger and father of two talks about getting users
to make products and the death of free will.

Q: Explain what Cultural Radar does.
A: We take an anthro-journalistic approach. Anthropologists are good at
going into the field and figuring things out, but aren’t good at telling it
in a powerful way. Journalists are good at telling stories in a powerful
way, but aren’t as good at going into the field. We’re doing video
ethnography on the street. We’re doing context interviews and digging into
culture and overlaying that with analysis of what it means.

What’s the next big shift in culture?
I think you’ll see more brands playing a bigger role in communities, both
virtual and real.

Explain what it is you’re doing for Crispin on the Nike account.
Running is at the core of what Nike is all about. Over the years, they’ve kind of lost their way and we’re trying to re-envision what runners are all about. We’re also helping them with Nike+. Nike+ changes the game from being just about sports to being a community platform. And NikeID represents an interesting space because right now all the rage is user-generated content, and my sense is that in the future it will be about user-generated product. The future is much more like the creative business of music and movies, where freelancers get paid to come up with ideas and then share in the profits. The metaphor is Yahoo. No one cares about Yahoo!, but everyone loves MyYahoo, because you can make it yours.

What surprising insight into consumer behavior have you had at

It’s been an interesting journey for me. I’ve never liked ad agencies. As a publisher you’re always negotiating with them. At Radar, we were doing brand innovation. When Alex Bogusky [Crispin’s CCO] and I started talking, he said I could take all the ideas and research we’d been working on and put them to use on real-world products.

Bogusky talks a lot about culture and how to shift it. What are those

We all think we have our own free will, but it’s really controlled by what
our peers think and is a product of the surrounding culture.

So it’s all about the death of free will?
It’s about the fact that we fool ourselves a lot of the time. I think in the macro sense there are things we change our behavior over because of pressure from our culture. I don’t think free will has changed over time. Throughout history we all feel the need to be part of a community and something greater than ourselves and that need has limited our choices.

The subtitle of your book Beyond the Brand is “Why Engaging the Right Customers Is Essential to Winning Business.” Who are the right customers Crispin should be engaging? Clients who are too willing to take risks. Alex is a fearless guy who is willing to push things in not only advertising, but products and services. Clients who know the marketplace is shifting and that paradigms are shifting.

What’s the most ridiculous branding jargon you’ve ever heard?
I usually just turn my mind off with that kind of stuff. There are so many
different kinds of jargon in branding and the ad world that just get in the
way of doing good work. A lot of quantitative research has “brand tracking.”
It’s great to do brand tracking and that kind of research, but what counts
is whether we helped our clients sell more stuff and make more money.

Where do you get your inspiration?
Athletically and by being out of doors, climbing mountains and surfing big
waves. I definitely have ADD. I love those sports because they’re such
clarifiers for me. That’s why I love big, hairy business problems. There’s a
real seriousness to the endeavor.

What do you mean by clarifiers?
When you are climbing something really big, the ability to execute flawlessly is critical to your life. Everything else is stripped away and you’re left with just holding onto a small ledge and pulling yourself up. It’s amazing how much you then focus on that.

How do you get past a creative block?
There’s no way for me other than hard work-just keep grinding it out until
the right things happen. Whatever it takes to get the job done, we do.

What advice would you give to anyone just starting out in the research

What’s important is to follow your passion. It might seem kind of rote, but
after starting a bunch of businesses and surfing in Mexico and climbing all
over the world, I just have to follow my passions. You’re much better off
having an OK idea and a lot of passion than a killer idea and no passion.

Who has influenced you the most creatively?
One of the things I’ve enjoyed about Alex is he inspires me a great deal.
Because I didn’t do much business in the advertising business, I hadn’t read
much about Crispin or about Alex. Also, for a while I was a fine arts
photographer, so a lot of the great photographers, like Ansel Adams.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career?
Philosophically, Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia. He’s so passionate and so full of energy. He created Black Diamond Equipment, which I’m on the board of, and Patagonia. Patagonia is more than a clothing company; it’s a lifestyle. People buy the clothes not just for their functionality, but for the [metaphorical] badge that says, “I give back.” It’s about using the right materials and supporting the right organizations.

Both your books, Spark and Beyond the Brand, deal with getting non-creatives to be more creative. Can creativity be reduced to a rule set?
There’s not really a rule set. A lot of times the rules need to be geared to
allowing people to be creative. Rules can be used to facilitate creativity.
You need rules or processes, but too much of that makes people secure. If
you had a building but no desk, you couldn’t do any work.

What’s the smartest business decision you’ve ever made?
To sell Women’s Sports and Fitness to Conde Nast in 1998. The timing was right. [Condé Nast shuttered it a few years later.]

And what’s the dumbest?
We started four inline skating magazines during the boom in the mid- to
late-’90s. I thought we were kings of the world. There were 30 million
participants. The next year it went down to 7 million. People were knocking
down our doors to buy the magazines and we didn’t sell at the time because
we thought it would replace cycling. We definitely missed the mark on that
one. Ultimately we sold them a year and a half later.

What was your most recent creative coup?
Just building Radar was a really fun thing. I started Radar with the idea of
overturning how focus groups are looked at and focusing them more
anthro-journalism. My feeling is that focus groups don’t work. You need to
be in the context of people’s lives and have the ability to understand the
culture of what the person is saying.