What An African Safari Taught Me About Digital Marketing

April 28, 2017

Written by our Strategy Director, Peter Hegener.

In late March, after an extremely busy Winter of digital marketing at Van West Media that included the launch of some major websites (Flos, SSRGA, Club Fit) and the ongoing development of some exciting new initiatives, I took my family of four to the African bush for a much needed two-week vacation. This would be my 23rd time to Africa, but the first with both of my children.

Though I tried to dissociate myself from work, the trip unfolded in such a way that I found myself comparing and contrasting various parts of the journey with my work and aspects of digital marketing in general. In fact, this juxtaposition happened before the trip even began.

Screen Shot 2017-04-28 at 11.02.53 AM

The Butterfly Effect

My five-year-old son has a terrible peanut allergy and the prospect of him going into anaphylactic shock six hours out over the Atlantic, as well as the numerous traumatic allergy stories that Google can quickly uncover, almost caused us to cancel the trip before it even started. But as with many things in life, my wife and I prepped enormously with pre-planned meals, copious amounts of Benadryl and baby wipes, communications with our allergy specialist, and eight, yes eight, Epi-Pens.

As I boarded the plane and took a deep breath, with our connection to terra firma for the next fifteen hours, I felt that familiar butterfly that floats up every now and again in my digital marketing work life. Whether it’s a big pitch presentation or pushing MailChimp’s “send” button on a major campaign, the best thing you can do for complex situations is preparation, proper communication, and a solid, well thought out strategy. When the plane landed, just like when the pitch is over or the email campaign has been sent, euphoria kicked in. I was back in Africa, and all those sights, and smells, and smiles came flooding back into my senses like a lost friend; a friend that I had waited years to share with my children.

Screen Shot 2017-04-28 at 11.04.21 AM

After a quick drive North from Johannesburg to the Limpopo Province of South Africa, we entered Welgevonden, a vast and beautiful game reserve that has become pivotal in the preservation efforts of some of the most treasured animals on the planet. Nearly 100,000 acres of deep valleys and beautiful mountains home to a wide variety of animals including the Big Five (elephant, cheetah, lion, buffalo, and leopard) as well as more unusual animals like the pangolin, aardwolf, and brown hyena.

Don’t miss what’s staring you right in the face

We stayed in the bush for four glorious days and had too many adventures to count. But one, in particular, stands out. We were fifteen minutes into our first game drive when my son, sandwiched in between my wife and me in the back seat of the open air Land Rover, and barely able to see out of the vehicle, suddenly yelled, “Cheetah”. I gestured to him quickly as if to quiet him, but saw the seriousness in his face, looked over, and saw the most beautiful cheating sighting I have ever seen. The ten adults in the car and the ranger had all failed to see what my son had; two full-grown cheetahs lying in the open, plain as day, merely fifteen feet from the vehicle.

Screen Shot 2017-04-28 at 11.05.17 AM

Back at my desk now in New York and thinking about that moment, I realize how important vision is and how often it can become clouded by pre-conceived expectations and experiences based on the past. No one in the vehicle, or at least not the adults, would ever expect the cheetahs to be so obviously visible and in plain sight. We had all almost missed something incredible that was literally right there, staring us in the face.

A famous Maltese inventor, Edward de Bono once said, “Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way.” My son spotted the cheetahs because he was not using established patterns for his visual search. He was looking at things differently. Marketers often focus on the minutiae and details and this can often lead to missing the big picture. Especially when relying on previous experiences to drive answers and solutions.

An open mind, where the narrative has not already been written, can enormously expand digital marketing creativity and vision.


Contact Peter Hegener at Peter@VWM.com