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Terry Young: “Be an authentic expert”

Create a Platform. Thought leaders need a platform to amplify their ideas. Typically, thought leaders are sharing ideas via keynotes, panels, byline, books, research, etc. However, these methods may not be strong enough to make a real impact. Professors have their universities, some people have TV shows or podcasts and others have corporate platforms. As […]

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Create a Platform. Thought leaders need a platform to amplify their ideas. Typically, thought leaders are sharing ideas via keynotes, panels, byline, books, research, etc. However, these methods may not be strong enough to make a real impact. Professors have their universities, some people have TV shows or podcasts and others have corporate platforms.


As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Terry Young.

Terry is the founder, and CEO of sparks & honey, a cultural consultancy that combines social and data sciences to solve world-changing challenges. sparks & honey designs preferable futures by identifying, tracking, and predicting the cultural, market and technological shifts for clients that include Fortune 500 organizations, startups, and government entities alike.

Terry is a preeminent speaker and commentator on all that will shape the future, and his views and insights are often featured in The New York Times, Fast Company, and Forbes. His most recent work looks at truth and trust in relation to the future of consumption, reinvention in Middle America, corporate disruption, space innovation, the new language of gender, and the rise of Generation Z. He is a sought-after keynote speaker at leading industry events for the American Advertising Federation, Cannes Lions, DARPA ISAT, Financial Times Innovate, Pratt Institute’s Design Symposium, Cosmetic Executive Women, WWD, Advertising Week, and the U.S. Congressional Summit on LGBT Entrepreneurship. His most recent speaking engagements include Fortune 500 events for Mars, Johnson & Johnson, Loreal, Bank of America, and Google.

In 2012, Terry founded sparks & honey, which is now part of Omnicom Group, Inc. The consultancy hosts a Culture Briefing at 12:00 PM ET Monday through Thursday. The briefing examines cultural shifts and is streamed live Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday via Facebook and LinkedIn Live. Every year, sparks & honey welcomes nearly 5,000+ in-studio guests at its New York City headquarters.

At the start of his career, Terry helped build the digital startup SixtyFootSpider. He has also consulted with companies across China while working at McKinsey & Co. Prior to his work in China, Terry volunteered for 27 months in Uralsk, Kazakhstan with the United States Peace Corps.

He resides in New York City with his partner and son.


Thank you for joining us Terry! Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

In 2012, I founded the consulting firm, sparks & honey.

We use tech-led cultural intelligence to help organizations understand and take advantage of accelerating change. Our intelligence platform, Q™, structures data from thousands of sources to visualize the cultural change in real-time. Our consultants bridge big data and social sciences to help organizations understand emerging shifts across the globe and the opportunities that lie in what’s next.

Over the course of the last 8 years, we have built a robust platform to identify, create and amplify thought leadership initiatives. We host culture briefings 4 times a week to explore culturally relevant topics such as ageism, future of precision health and modern masculinity, to name a few. We also produce in-depth IP reports that tackle these topics in more depth, deliver keynote presentations, participate in thought leadership panels and collaborate with other thought leaders to debate and shape emerging ideas.

The thought leadership platform that is top of mind for us right now is tied to Digital Biology — this summer, we kicked off an initiative with the World Economic Forum and a few key partners including Humana, 23andMe, PepsiCo, HP, Parsons, Mount Sinai, GovLab, Lifenome, Metakura and IBM exploring Precision 2030.

This body of work looks at the increasing desire for personalization and the race to remove friction from our consumption habits as we pursue positive outcomes in our lives has illuminated the desire for real-time, precision-based products and experiences tailored to one’s own specific needs. As a result, the topic of Digital Biology has been propelled to the forefront of culture and, more specifically, to the larger conversation around improving consumer well-being. From DNA to voice tech, image recognition to the microbiome, digital biometrics to retinal scanning — consumers are now starting to understand the value of their personal, biological data and the implications that the availability of this data has on their potential future well-being.

This initiative will explore this new and emerging area, laying out the opportunities and likely challenges of digital biology, personalized nutrition and scientific wellness with the goal of establishing a point-of-view on the future of precision consumption while also advancing research to improve long-term outcomes for consumers.

Our Precision 2030 work will launch in October of 2019 and continue through Davos 2020.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

This is a tough question since I have so many stories that I would like to share.

However, I think one of the most pivotal moments in my career was going from Founder and CEO of sparks & honey to the gay Founder and CEO of sparks & honey. Looking back on it, I have been on a journey with my CEO coming out story. It started with being open and transparent (and out) internally, then it moved to a bigger stage externally. I think my motivation to tell my story externally came from my acknowledgment that people need role models and inspiration along their own journeys. I grew up in a small town in Kentucky, made it to Madison Avenue and McKinsey & Co. and founded sparks & honey. I think there are other LGBTQ+ kids just starting out in their careers and coming from Middle America that must need to see that it can be done or hear a story that changes their course.

I think this shift, the blending of my personal and professional worlds, allowed me to see sparks & honey through a new lens. It isn’t just a company, but also a platform. A platform, one that we are constantly advancing and leveraging, that can amplify our thought leadership on what will shape the world for the better, as well as empower people to take a chance and make a change. In August, we hosted a 3-day series on Latinx and last month the team participated in the 13th Annual AdColor event and hosted the first AdColor non-gender binary panel. Last month, we hosted a panel on ageism featuring two of our cultural apprentice interns that joined us in their third act.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was 24, I started my first corporate job at Bozell Worldwide in Dallas, Texas. I was hired as an HTML programmer when HTML was still coded manually. I was a self-taught programmer and, to be honest, not a very good one. My first job paid 40K dollars, and my desk was in the middle of a hallway.

Over my first month, I worked around the clock on a new website for an automotive client. My boss called me into his office (from my hallway desk) and told me that he checked the code and found nearly 9,000 mistakes. I was pretty sure he was going to fire me on the spot.

Luckily a few others in the office had noticed my knack for explaining the complexities of digital and the internet, and they moved me to account management and internet strategy. This near miss turned into an amazing opportunity. Three years later, I was running the firm (SixtyFootSpider), at 27, and my old boss nearly 15 years my senior was now on my exec team.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

A thought leader helps to open minds and create possibilities. They share knowledge, IP and ideas with the world and help galvanize change (hopefully for the better).

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

We are life-long learners and will have many chapters to our careers. We need to constantly reinvent ourselves and help others do the same. Being an active thought leader is about teaching, sharing and spreading ideas. You shape, influence and amplify initiatives and inspire others to take action.

The sparks & honey DNA is built around a learning organization. We didn’t want to have the training and L&D as something we do from time-to-time, but rather as something that’s built into the DNA of the organization. We also wanted to build a learning organization that created thought leaders by building their skills and giving them a platform to share their ideas.

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

In simple terms, I want to help others see around corners and open their minds to new possibilities. Sometimes we only need to ignite the fire, and other times it takes an entire ecosystem to galvanize real impact.

For example, in 2016, we wrote a paper challenging the conventional wisdom around gender and brought the conversation into the mainstream. We saw young millennials building a brand new language to describe their gender, so we pushed to open up this conversation in corporate America. Gender used to be viewed through binary terms: male and female, masculine and feminine. But the new language of gender deconstructs that in favor of fluid identities across a gender spectrum. We believe that to be culturally literate today demands knowing how to speak the new language of gender and understanding its nuances.

Since our first body of work, we have seen significant changes across corporate America. Of course, there’s still so much more to do, but the conversation has been ignited.

Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

  1. Create a Platform

Thought leaders need a platform to amplify their ideas. Typically, thought leaders are sharing ideas via keynotes, panels, byline, books, research, etc. However, these methods may not be strong enough to make a real impact. Professors have their universities, some people have TV shows or podcasts and others have corporate platforms.

I have the sparks & honey platform. This includes our technology platform Q™, our 55+ advisory board (all thought leaders), our Culture Briefings, our IP engine and clients.

2. Develop Intellectual Property (IP)

We have built a robust platform to develop IP that we share openly.

For example, sparks & honey intelligence reports are published every season, on in-depth topics you haven’t seen coming. We create a vision of the near-to-far future, based on many months of data analysis, pattern recognition, firsthand research, and deep conversations with some of the sharpest minds out there including astronauts, neuroscientists, inventors, artists, and C-suite executives.

Our Intelligence Reports can be found in academia, quoted in books, and covered in media including Fast Company, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and more.

3. Be an authentic expert

You need to go deep on a topic. Share new narratives, angles and help guide individuals, communities and institutions toward preferred possibilities.

4. Build an ecosystem (beyond your individual brand)

Thought leadership isn’t a solo endeavor. I see too many thought leaders that are ego-driven and make their efforts about themselves — merely building a personal brand. It takes a network of thought leaders, creators, and influencers to make an impact.

5. Share + Act

As a thought leader, we not only share and shape ideas, we also must create action and change. I think too many thought leaders take the role of one-way communication and don’t necessarily live the change they share with the world.

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.

The sparks & honey Advisory Board helps us design the future. From neuroscientists to best-selling authors and CEOs, to entrepreneurs and TED Talkers, the Advisory Board is our one-of-a-kind brain trust with specialized expertise across more than 55 industries. They are our partners in crime, and culture. All of them are amazing thought leaders in their own right.

If I had to choose one person to highlight, it would be one of our newer Board members: Indra Nooyi, the former Chairman of PepsiCo’s Board of Directors — she currently serves on the boards of Amazon and Schlumberger Limited, in addition to sparks & honey. Indra isn’t just a thought leader, she’s a force of change. From 2006 to 2018, she served as CEO of PepsiCo where she was the chief architect of Performance with Purpose, PepsiCo’s pledge to do what’s right for the business by being responsive to the needs of the world around us. She grew net revenue more than 80% for the company — keeping shareholders happy — while also rolling out new nutritious products and helping to limit the company’s environmental footprint.

Today, she is writing, speaking and inspiring the next generation of female leaders.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

I use the term often and don’t feel it is overused.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

I strongly believe in the idea of managing your energy, not your time. The key is to recharge often. To be a leader, you are running a marathon, not a sprint, and you need moments to recharge. The right amount of sleep, clean food and multiple outlets for stress relief are required.

For me, I love to forest bathe by embarking on long hikes in the middle of nature. I also spend time with my five-year-old, enjoy 30–45 minutes on my Peloton bike with Ally Love or binge watch a few shows on HBO or Netflix. The key is to recharge, so you have energy and clarity to tackle your initiatives without burnout.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

A few weeks ago, I took my five-year-old to a summer festival in upstate New York and just as we entered, I hesitated. I thought about all of the recent shootings and wondered whether it was worth going to the festival. However, I put the thought behind me and enjoyed the festival with my son.

I believe we need individuals, organizations (public and private) and other voices to demand new gun policies in Washington. We must come together and begin the journey of fixing this and keeping our communities safe.

Honestly, I have so many movements that I would like to shape for the near and long term, but our unhealthy relationship with guns needs to be handled now.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Keep away from people who belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.” — Mark Twain

Coming from a small town in Kentucky, I many times felt the invisible ceiling, and heard the narrative that, to get ahead you need to go to the right schools, know the right people and be born in the right geography. I never accepted that narrative, even when it was from people close to me. In the beginning, I was just driven by pure ambition and self-belief, but eventually, I saw a new narrative. I shattered many of those ceilings from leaving Kentucky, leading a company at 27, joining McKinsey without attending an Ivy League University, managing an agency on Madison Avenue, founding a consulting firm within an advertising conglomerate, coming out as a gay founder and CEO and being a same-sex parent.

What I am certain of now, after a few more years under my belt, is that the stories that others around us tell us, and the stories that we tell ourselves can box us in. If you don’t like the stories, then look for new ones. You will find them.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to have dinner with the Bezos family — Jackie, Mike and Jeff. I have seen Jackie speak several times at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and I want to riff with them on AI, human and machine symbiosis, future of education, China, etc.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @terryyoungny

LinkedIn: Terry Young

Facebook: @sparksandhoney

LinkedIn: sparks & honey

Twitter: @sparksandhoney

Instagram: @sparksandhoney

Website: sparksandhoney.com

Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.

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