Endless Curiosity: My Conversation with Pete Sena

What the future holds for higher education and nonprofit marketing in 2021 is anyone’s guess. We seem to be in a constant state of flux. As the ground rumbles and shifts with the pandemic rolling on, the old rules simply do not apply.
I recently sat down virtually with a guy who’s thought a lot about how disruption can lead to innovation – if only we’re willing to embrace it.

If you don’t know about Pete Sena, you should.

Kinetic, magnetic, and in constant motion, Pete sprints from whiteboard to whiteboard, sketching marketing ecosystems in intricate, real-time colored marker blueprints. When we first met several years ago to talk about what I thought was a winning university integrated marketing plan, I came away with a strong sense that I would never think about marketing in the same way again.

Here’s our recent conversation.

The Brand Dame: Many would describe the upheaval in the education and nonprofit sectors as a tsunami, a perfect storm that has produced massive disruption from which most institutions will be slow to recover. Your thoughts? 

Sena: Covid-19 was more than a pandemic. It was the great equalizer. Like the virus, any business with a pre-existing condition is now that much more at risk for extinction or disruption. Covid-19 and everything that’s come along with it has permanently disrupted the education and nonprofit sectors. Both are now reimagining their models to better meet “consumers where they are.” The proliferation of digital and online platforms are certainly driving this shift and propelling digital enablement, but it also points to a shifting mindset of the future consumer and how we must adapt or die. I wrote about the importance of digital Darwinism a long time ago here.

However, I’m confident both sectors will adapt and grow in new ways — through strategic B2B and B2C partnerships as well as adapting to a direct-to-consumer model.

The Brand Dame: You work with some of the most iconic higher ed and nonprofit clients in the US. What are you seeing as we approach the end of this difficult year? Pain points?

Sena: I consider myself to be privileged to serve organizations in their relentless pursuit of progress. All industries have been disrupted permanently and are facing challenges making “noise online” to connect with their consumers. A consumer’s attention has to be captured with that “lightning in a bottle” moment, whether it’s an ad, a product, a video, or any piece of content.

We are living in an ephemeral economy, and those who don’t wisen-up to the impacts of it are going to face the cliff without a parachute. I dive deeper into this concept here.

As an example, I’ve been an advisor for a startup that’s fundamentally disrupting the music and ed-tech space. We’ve talked at length about bootstrapping to secure funding, establishing brand identity/ messaging, as well as every aspect of their go-to-market strategy. They’re a great example of doing everything they can from a values andcustomer experience perspective with a laser focus on meeting their consumers where they are.

Some of the important questions we posed during this process are questions all institutions need to answer these days:

  1. Can we define our brand’s DNA? What makes us different and better than the alternatives?
  2. Can we re-evaluate how our products/services are being delivered? Is the current process tracking and can it be reimagined? 
  3. Have we established a unique IP or value proposition that acts as a north star to guide everything we do?

Every brand and organization I’ve worked with has tackled these questions and succeeded in unlocking new kinds of success and progress.

The Brand Dame: Some would call you a “ futurist,” a term not normally associated with marketing strategists. How does this approach differentiate and inform your work?

Sena: As Steve Jobs famously said,, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward”. What he meant was that you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

I appreciate being called a futurist but would posit that anyone who is tasked with helping to grow companies irrespective of industry or discipline needs to be forward-obsessed. This is a moniker I’ve molded into our business operating system.

Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes progress and progress is what I’m focused on. The practice of looking backward and forward, and connecting the dots, is how I do what I do.

In my role as co-founder of Digital Surgeons, I’ve been ecstatic and grateful to work with so many leading companies. From legacy brands to start-ups, to Fortune 500’s, everyone is looking for the same thing: PROGRESS. Whether it’s doing product market research that’s redefining how a Fortune 500 brand uses innovation at the enterprise level, or helping a start-up reach their niche audiences online to drive revenue. I’m always striving to think like a Futurist in terms of calculating how to use curiosity and creativity to unlock new possibilities for growth.

The Brand Dame: What are your most pressing challenges in supporting your clients during this period of upheaval?

Sena: First, maintaining the right mindset and sustained energy levels. The hyper-inflation of ambiguity, rising uncertainty, and elevated emotional and mental states of people and the societies we participate in is challenging. I think a majority of our clients and anyone servicing brands through marketing, communications, and design, are assessing how to use time strategically, and are trying to create innovation that unlocks progress.

Since Digital Surgeons is a boutique creative consultancy that’s been around for more than 15 years, we’ve always been able to move through our process in agile sprints. I believe the ability to move and execute quickly while being diligent and innovative has been a catalyst to my own success and the teams I’ve led and worked with.

The Brand Dame: Are there lessons to be learned from the disruption of the last year that we can carry forward into an uncertain and sure-to-be-challenging future?

Sena: Absolutely. Whether it’s personally or professionally, I think one of the biggest takeaways and lessons learned to bring into next year is embracing pivoting and curiosity. Don’t shy away from trying to launch new content on platforms that you haven’t used before, or evade designing an experience on a website that might come off as unconventional at first glance.

Looking back at this year especially, Digital Surgeons has had success embracing, pivoting, and being endlessly curious which deepens our ability to adapt and respond. Doing this has amplified the speed and collaboration in determining how we use unconventional wisdom and new insights, and how we then can apply them to our clients’ business challenges.