Luvvie Ajayi Jones: Don’t Let Fear Stand in the Way of Innovation

March 23, 2021

Luvvie Ajayi Jones

Content creator Luvvie Ajayi Jones is having a moment.

Behind Luvvie’s rise is her new book “Professional Troublemaker: The Fear Fighter Manual,” which just hit No. 3 on the New York Times Bestseller list and provides a roadmap to help us banish fear and inner self-doubt. Embracing a strong identity, being willing to fail and speaking truth to power is at the heart of being a professional troublemaker, according to Luvvie.

This book is the natural follow-up to her first book, “I’m Judging You: The Do Better Manual,” also a New York Times bestseller, and her 2017 Ted Talk, “Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable,” that put her put her on the map and now has close to 6 million views. I sat down with Luvvie to talk about how marketers can rock the boat in a good way in their everyday work lives.

LinkedIn: Your new book encourages people to embrace being professional troublemakers. What does that mean? How can we be professional troublemakers?

Luvvie Ajayi Jones: A professional troublemaker is a truth-teller, a change agent. They're the people committed to doing difficult things because they're necessary. However, these people are not contrarians. They're not haters. They're not trolls who just want to hear the sound of their own voice. They feel this deep responsibility to elevate the rooms that they're in, to make sure that they're proud of what’s happening in their presence.

LI: How can marketers embrace this concept of being a professional troublemaker?

Luvvie: By thinking out of the box. Being a troublemaker and being a disruptor drives innovation. In marketing, whether it is B2B or B2C, one of the main ways to cut through the noise and reach your audiences is to share authentic stories. And the only way to be a true professional troublemaker is to be authentic. Some of the best marketing is done through storytelling — and what are the best stories? The ones that show innovation, the ones that show that we can create a world that's different from what we see. As we're coming up with campaigns, as we're coming up with ideas around how to get people to connect with our brands, we should think about how to do it differently, and more boldly, than anyone else.

Some of the best ideas we have, the ones that keep coming back, are the ones that we don’t feel brave enough to speak up about. But you have to fight that fear. I’ve been told that the reason my content connects with so many people is that I’m saying what they’re thinking, but they dare not to say. 

For brands, the idea of professional troublemaking is actually one that is not just a nice to have, it's a must have. You don’t want your company to be in a position of: "What are we so afraid of that we stop ourselves from innovating?" It's that bold messaging that will attract people to your message, to your products, to your services. It's in that boldness that your potential customers will say, "Okay, that's the one for me." Effective marketing comes to doubling down on what makes you unique. Expressing your boldness, your voice, your perspective – that's good troublemaking.

LI: The reason brands are afraid to be bold is that they’re afraid of “cancel” culture. How can marketers be bold in the face of such a polarized environment?

Luvvie: Oftentimes we are afraid of falling flat on our face. We're afraid of being humiliated. We're afraid of rocking the boat, so we use that fear to stop us from doing what we actually need to do. Then you don’t say what you’re supposed to say or do what you’re supposed to do because you're afraid of that one moment when it could be catastrophic. What about the 105 when it's not? What about the moments when your disruption is affirming and transforming?

So, what happens if you have a bad experience and parts of your campaign touched the wrong buttons for some people? Bad things happen, right? Ask yourself: What have I learned from this experience? What are the lessons that I can take away that makes me a better marketer? I've experienced what it's like to trend on Twitter. I’ve felt what it was like to publicly fall flat on your face. But it didn't destroy my career and actually made it stronger.

If you're operating in fear, how is your company going to innovate? You have to find the courage because the fear is natural. And in those moments when you see a company fail, it’s usually because somebody didn’t speak up when they should not have been silent. Someone on your team knew it wasn't going to go well, but just didn’t have the courage to say what was on their minds. This is why we need to surround ourselves with people who are not afraid to tell us, "Hey, that campaign might go wrong. Hey, that tweet might not land," because they'll keep you from those moments. But a lot of marketers and companies have actually silenced those people. People need to be more celebratory of the dissenters and the challengers in their companies, in their teams, in their departments. 

LI: A core part of your book is to provide a “fear-fighting manual” to people who feel like they aren’t good enough. I think a lot of women can relate to that feeling of being an imposter and, as a result, are too afraid of putting themselves out there. Can you talk about that?

Luvvie: I'm always thinking about the fact that the acute fear of not belonging stops us from putting ourselves out there. What we can do is start practicing the idea of truth-telling thoughtfully. We can quantify our decision-making when we do speak up. When you can quantify your decisions, it makes your life a little bit easier. Turn your decision into a math problem. When I’m having a moment when I’m afraid of putting  myself out there, I ask three questions: Do I mean it? Can I defend it? Can I say it thoughtfully? If the answer is yes to all three, I say or do whatever that thing is and just handle whatever happens. I let the chips fall. 

LI:Talk to me about your marketing background.

Luvvie: I fell in love with marketing during an internship in college, so my first job out of college was as a marketer. I’ve always been an early adopter when it comes to social media, so back then, I was always the one on the team pushing social media. I also love telling stories and I'm really good at connecting with people — all of those things in a pot made me a good marketer. When I got laid off from my marketing job in 2010, I basically decided to start marketing myself. Everything I’ve done since has been through a marketing lens. When my first book was about to come out, "I'm Judging You," I pulled together my full marketing strategic mind and decided I needed to get this book on the New York Times bestseller list. (Editor’s note: It worked.)

Marketing has allowed me to build an audience over the last 16 years that is deeply engaged with me, who are beyond followers — they're evangelists of my work and deeply believe in what I do. That's because my form of marketing is authentic storytelling. That is the best thing I do: I tell the story of my life in a way that is honest and true. It's the reason people will buy a t-shirt that I produce, a course I develop, or listen to my podcast. I have built trust, which is at the core of marketing: You earn the trust of the people you want to reach. And that's where I have been able to create this career and this name currency.

LI: For marketers, this past year has been unprecedented in the number of challenges they’ve had to face due to the ripple effects from 1) the pandemic and 2) civil unrest related to the killing of George Floyd. What do you think marketers can learn from the past year?

Luvvie: This last year has taught us that you can't really separate the personal from the professional. That means that in the messaging that we create, including in B2B, we must keep people's humanity in mind. People aren't just numbers or analytics or demographic groups. There are individuals behind that screen. COVID has really taught us that our lives are just deeply entrenched in one another. It has really laid bare that what’s important isn’t just about looking good in public, but feeling good in private. So people are able to cut through the noise now. You have to get more authentic about your messaging. You can't create a random tagline just because it's cute now – will somebody who reads it think, "Yeah, they're talking to me. They're not just a business."

For marketers, speaking to people where they are is important. Especially right now when all the distractions are gone. Because people are having a tougher time, they are scrutinizing your marketing more: "What can you do that's going to help me? How does this thing that you're trying to sell me actually going to help me?" This creates an opportunity for marketers, and now is the time to create more personal campaigns. Campaigns that speak to why the work, the product you sell, or the service you provide actually matters in the grand scheme of things. Right now, you’ve got to be really good to make people care about what you're doing or what you're saying. You’ve got to be really really good to get them to stop feeling like your logo and brand is just a robot behind a computer screen.

LI: As an influencer, how do you use LinkedIn? 

Luvvie: LinkedIn is a great platform because people go to LinkedIn for business reasons. People use LinkedIn to learn, to connect, to network. It's a unique place and unlike other social platforms where the focus is, "I'm going to go watch people's cute cat pictures." On LinkedIn, people who log on are looking to find something that is useful to their professional lives. So my approach on LinkedIn is to show, in a professional context, how the work that I do is useful to somebody coming to this platform to learn. Also, LinkedIn is unique in that it's one of the few platforms where people don't act a complete fool. It is the platform for thought leadership – it's a town hall, a forum. So it's a great place to go and engage with people in a business environment.

LI: You’re known for bringing the funny. Do you think humor has a place in marketing during times like these?

Luvvie: It absolutely does. Humor always has a place — it's just how you wield it that you have to consider. Humor has to be thoughtful; it can’t be crass. I think the best humor is when it's like, "Hey, this thing is strange and we should fix that thing. Have you noticed this weird thing?" That's when humor works. Observational humor is especially potent in times like this. Marketers shouldn't shy away completely from that, because again, authenticity comes down to all parts of humanity and we don't stop being funny just because the world is a dumpster fire.

LI: What content is giving you life today? Is there a book, TV show, magazine article that is speaking to you right now?

Luvvie: "Lovecraft Country" is one of the most brilliant television shows in the last decade. That show combines history, fantasy, horror, sci-fi, documentary. It blew my mind when I watched it, especially episode seven of the first season. It has layers and layers of brilliance and I'm so thankful it exists.

LI: Any final words? 

Luvvie: To really connect authentically, we can’t ever leave our humanity behind in marketing. When we do, ideas and messages don't land and we fail to forge meaningful connections.

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