BGBS 054: Andy Starr | Level C | Different Is So Important

BGBS 054: Andy Starr | Level C | Different Is So Important
July 26, 2021

BGBS 054: Andy Starr | Level C | Different Is So Important

Andy Starr is a provocateur in the niche landscape where education, business, and brand co-exist. He sees the value in being different and finds comfort in creating change. Even as a kid, he liked being the black sheep. He didn’t identify with the lead singer in a band or the striker making goals in soccer, he always wanted to be the drummer in the back or the goalie with a different uniform.

With 17+ years of agency experience, Andy continues to move the needle forward with co-founder/brand master Marty Neumeier, as they educate leaders in the evolution of brand within business through their platform, Level C. You’ll learn that Andy believes in more than just using strategy to sell. He believes in people, storytelling, and provoking emotion. Andy believes that provocation can be good and different can be important, inspiring us to ask ourselves how can we each embrace our differences to provide value to the world.

In this episode, you’ll learn…

  • Andy considers himself to be a provocateur in the professional education space. To him, this means being different for the sake of being valuable.
  • In the professional education realm, what needs to change is access, quality of content, relevance of content, and applicability of concepts. Andy and Marty Neumeier care about progressing professional education through the lense of brand.
  • On the higher academic level, much of what is studied focuses on theory. The purpose of this is to teach you to think critically and prepare you for a world that is constantly evolving. With this in mind, analytic thought will always be relevant.
  • Andy grew up in a conservative, change-resistant part of the world. Growing up, he always wanted to do the complete opposite of what was expected of him. When he learned the payoff of being different it transformed his whole world.
  • Andy was always enraptured by the drums. He resonated with drummers the most but didn’t begin playing himself until college. When he did, he expresses it as meeting himself for the first time.
  • While in law school, Andy helped his girlfriend with her graphic design clients and found more interest in that than what he was studying. She introduced him to The Brand Gap and he fell in love with the book.
  • Marty was a great influence to Andy, and he messaged him many times with his accomplishments to prove himself worthy of being mentored.
  • When Andy first visited Marty’s apartment, he found a highly used, beat-up version of The Brand Gap that he thought may have been a first edition. He later learned that it belonged to the one and only, Steve Jobs.
  • Level C’s purpose is to bring the role of brand to the C suite so that business is done with the people in mind. By doing so, real change can happen within business, and in turn, the world.
  • Brands do not control their audience, they influence them (and even that has a limit). A brand’s stance will provide more context to where you stand in regards to their position, whether that is with or against them.


LinkedIn: Andy Starr

Instagram: @the_andy_starr

Level C Website:


[15:55] Different matters because we think that there’s something in it for us. Whether it’s noticing something different, or acting, feeling wanting to be different, there is a perceived payoff to that. When I realized that, when that was revealed to me and for me, my whole perspective on everything changed.

[19:25] I actually started playing drums. That was something that I always wanted to do. Even as a little kid, I was always attracted not to the guitarist, or the lead singer, or the pianist, I was always attracted to the guy sitting in the back, because the guy sitting in the back was always the one that I felt in my chest, in my gut.

[51:56] What we’re trying to do with Level C is we’re trying to put in, or depending on your perspective, restore the role of brand into the C suite. To restore the role of brand into a position of influence on the business side, a position of relevance to the business and the consumer side…to influence the way people think about this stuff. And we believe that when they think about it, when they learn, and they think, and they process, and then they practice, real change can happen.

[53:01] We’re not looking to change the world. We’re looking to change a part of business because we do believe that if you change business enough, then the world can be changed.

Podcast Transcript

Andy Starr 0:02
That romantic sense of the trajectory of my life or what I thought that trajectory needed to be, where it was always there, I couldn’t shake it no matter how hard I tried, until I actually started playing drums. That was something that I always wanted to do. I always, you know, even as a little kid, I was always attracted not to the guitarist or the, the lead singer, or, you know, you know, the pianist, I was always attracted to the guy sitting in the back, because the guy sitting in the back was always the one that you felt, or the one that I felt in my chest in my gut, right. And the drummer always seemed like, like the black sheep. And I honestly couldn’t necessarily tell you why that was, but it always was.

Marc Gutman 0:54
Podcasting from Boulder, Colorado. This is the Baby Got Backstory Podcast, where we dive into the story behind the story of today’s most inspiring storytellers, creators and entrepreneurs. I like big backstories and I cannot lie. I am your host, Marc Gutman.

I’m Marc Gutman, and on today’s episode of Baby Got Backstory, we are talking with Andy Starr, co founder and partner of the brand education company Level C. And while I have your ear, if you’re listening, I’m assuming you like our show. And if that premise holds true, then please take a minute or two to rate and review us over at Apple podcasts or Spotify, Apple and Spotify use these ratings as part of the algorithm that determines ratings on their charts. Better yet, please recommend this show to at least one friend you think will like it. If this is your first time listening, please consider subscribing. It is your subscriptions that make this show possible. Alright, enough of that stuff. Let’s get back to the show. Andy Starr’s bio describes him as a provocateur for hire at the intersection of education, business and brand. And while that is a super cool bio, I think he’s so much more than that.

Yes, he’s a provocateur. But he’s also a thought leader, an empath, an educator, an entrepreneur, a brand nerd, a people person, the partner to branding legend, an author, Marty Neumeier. I hope I can call him a friend and he calls me the same. But if you ask Andy who he is, he’ll probably say none of all that and simply tell you, he’s a musician. With 17 plus years of agency and in house experience across multiple categories of client business, including special focus on nonprofit and higher education. Andy is equal parts strategist, creative manager, and storyteller. I first met Andy is one of his students via the Level C program.

Level C is an education platform. They’re a company and a certification focused on all things brand. I’ve personally attended, and surprisingly, graduated both levels one and two. And all I can tell you is that there’s something special about what they are building. How Andy sees the world. In his relationship with brand Master, Marty Neumeier. Andy is an accomplished brand professional in his own right. And well on his way to becoming a brand icon. Just don’t tell him that. And this is his story.

I am here with Andy Starr. He describes himself as a provocateur for hire at the intersection of education, business and brand. He is also the co founder and partner at Level C and we’ll talk a bit about that. But Andy, what is a provocateur for hire at the intersection of education, business and brand?

Andy Starr 4:20
That’s what I like to think of a brand professional as being, someone who pokes the bear, someone who’s looking to, you know, everyone’s favorite word, zag. You know, when if everyone is doing this over here, I want to be the guy doing this over there, okay? And just you know, sometimes being different for the sake of being different, but professionally being different for the sake of being valuable. And that’s what this whole thing is it’s provocation. provocation can be bad, but provocation can be really good. It can be valuable, it can mean something. And that’s how I see myself I just see myself as a provocateur for Hire less for hire these days, just, I’m getting tired of doing client work. You know, I want to focus more on being provocative in the professional education space.

So, you know, and that is that is where we find ourselves, you know, at the intersection of business and education. You know, education is a business, I’ve had several education clients, universities and colleges that that refuse to acknowledge that they’re a business at the end of the day, that makes my job as a brand provocateur more difficult. So when Marty and I started this, I was just like, let’s just call it what it is, let’s let’s, let’s not gloss, spin, blow smoke. Education in business is where we are. It’s what we do. And it’s what we’re looking to transform, you know, then leave leave, leave the bullshitters to play in other spaces that they just make up, or that they they ignore. So that’s, that’s my jam.

Marc Gutman 6:00
Yeah. And so, you know, you’re talking about being a provocateur in the education space, which leads me to believe that there’s something wrong with the education space, at least as we see it today. That holds true, please correct me if I’m incorrect in making that assumption. What’s wrong with education today? Like, what are you trying to change?

Andy Starr 6:19
Oh, man, you don’t have enough time in your podcast. The big problem with education is its inability, or refusal to accept the fact that it needs to change. And there are 1,000,001 ways in which it needs to change, it needs to change from an administrative perspective, it needs to change from an academic perspective, it needs to change from a financial perspective. And it needs to change from a distribution perspective. So for us, in the professional education, part of the sandbox, we believe that education should be a life long thing, it should go on forever, we should, you should no one should ever want to stop learning.

Most people don’t. But access, quality of content, relevance of content, applicability of concepts, that needs to change. And we’re not proposing that we, we are like the savior of education, we don’t think that we’re the savior of professional education, we want to, we want to practice what we preach and live up to what we believe. And so when it comes to professional education, we want to keep it focused on you know, we’re not branding and marketing and sales and advertising content and social media. rebrand, and we’re not, we don’t want to take a how to brand approach to education, we just want to say, here’s how you think about education, right? So when we think about our academic perch, we’re not giving people prescriptions, we’re just giving them food for thought. Okay, but that’s not really out there.

There are people who do it, you know, there, there are outlets, there are providers that do it. But there are fewer and farther between. and at a higher academic level, like MBA programs, there are really no MBA programs that talk about brand. If you want to find brand and Wharton’s MBA program, you have to specialize more focus in marketing, you have to take marketing courses at Wharton. And, you know, hopefully you hear about brand at some point, but they don’t talk about how to think about brand. That’s just a loose example. So it’s a big mountain to climb, dude. And Marty and I care very much about education, I especially care about education, my professional background and my family’s background. I have educators in my family, my father was a professor, my grandfather was a university founder, he fell, he co founded a university and was an academic dean. And it’s, I just care about it, it just matters. And so that’s the space we want to play in.

Marc Gutman 9:07
And I definitely want to get into that. And we might go there real soon here. And as he is you’re talking like this idea of education remaining. You mentioned a lot of great points, you know, applicability and accessibility and just availability, but this, this idea of like education, having to remain relevant, and I’m personally just obsessed with this idea of like, relevance, and what does that mean, and how do you stay relevant? Because what struck me as you were your speaking is that Yeah, like our education gets stale really quick, especially in today’s environment. It’s not like, back in the day when the university held the professors and the university, you held the books and you had to go there and that was the only access you had to that information. And then the world was also moving equally as slow. But now, you know, we can we can Learn from a TED talk from someone around the world from someone we’ve never had access to put that in, in motion change the world. And so this idea of like staying relevant, and not even really sure, I have a question for you at the end of this is just fascinating to me. And that, you know, that really seems to be a huge challenge for people in the education space.

Andy Starr 10:20
For sure. And like you said, one of the catalysts of that, you know, are sources of that challenge, is because unlike 30 4050 years ago, the world is just hyper connected. I don’t even know if that’s accurate. And it’s just, we are all connected. We move and we think, and we learn and we consume at faster and faster speeds. Right? And so it raises the question of the role of immediacy, in education, right? Because and, and speed and immediacy, I think, are part of its relevance, right? How quickly can I have access to the educational content? How quickly can I consume it? How quickly can I be deemed to be proficient? And how quickly can I get out back in the real world, and actually use it and make a difference, bring value and earn something in return? Right?

Those questions, raise 1000 more questions. So it’s, it’s complicated. It’s it’s super, super tricky. But, you know, another thing about relevance is, and this is something that we, we’ve actually tackled in our first level masterclass. For the teams that worked on higher education as a category to disrupt, right, we’ve heard things about kind of the cadence, or the formulaic structure of education, and this is something that Marty feels especially strong about, traditionally, is and even today, kind of the model of education is, you know, at that at the college and beyond level is like, you study theory, right? You spend four years, two years, you know, three years unless you studied theory, and then you go out in the world, and you learn gain us skills, right? But while you’re studying that theory, it’s like, What am I supposed to do with this? How does this how does how is this theory relevant to the world that I’m about to land in? Or that it’s about to fall on me one way or another? How do I how do I survive just with this theory?

And so you know, there’s one school of thought, that says, you know, learn the skills first, and then continue lifelong learning and learn that theory, have a greater appreciation, a better ability to think critically and analytically. Right. But the flip side to that argument is, well, that’s what a liberal arts education is in liberal arts teaches you how to think critically. And analytically, you’re reading about history and philosophy, and literature, you’re not doing that just for shits and giggles, right, you’re not doing it solely to feed the ego of a tenured professor, although that that is part of it. It prepares you for a world that is constantly evolving.

A world in which the kind of one career from start to finish doesn’t exist the way it used to, with a few exceptions. And you have to be able to think critically and analytically so that you’re flexible enough to kind of jump from one chapter of your career to the next from one role to another, from one category to another, and in some cases, making a complete career change from one to another. And I did that, right. And so we’ve altruistically, we sleep very well at night. Because we know that what we’re doing is righteous, it’s self righteous, we want to make a valuable contribution in this space. But at the same time, it’s not that we’ve set ourselves up for failure is that it’s a huge mountain to climb, and we will most certainly never get to the peak of it. But that’s okay. That’s okay.

Marc Gutman 14:17
So much to unpack there and so, I’m not even gonna try. What I’d like to do is—

Andy Starr 14:21
Talk to my therapist, I’ll call her!

Marc Gutman 14:25
I’d like to shift gears a little bit. And, you know, you talked a little bit about your family and your family history. But you know, and you also mentioned that part of being a provocateur is is being different and so when you were young, were you always striving to be different as a child. I mean, was this was this ingrained in you? Is like eight year old Andy always pushing boundaries?

Andy Starr 14:46
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. You know, I grew up in a relatively conservative minded white collar family. Dad was a lawyer mom was a social worker, and We lived in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and it was a relatively conservative, change resistant part of the world change resistant parents. And yeah, I was kind of a black sheep. I just, you know, if everyone told me to do one thing, I just wanted to do the complete opposite. I liked feeling and being different. But that’s as a kid, you know, that I didn’t understand the value in that. And it wasn’t, it wasn’t really until I got into this work. 2030 years later that I understood, why being different, wanting to feel different, look different, act different. Think different, is so important, and why I cared about it so much without understanding why and and, you know, Marty, we talked about this in the class, it’s, you know, human beings are hardwired to notice what’s different. But it’s the why we’re hardwired, we different matters, because we think that there’s something in it for us. Whether it’s noticing something different, or acting, feeling wanting to be different, there is a perceived payoff to that. And that when I when I realized that when that was kind of revealed to me, and for me, my whole perspective, my perspective on everything changed on life on career. And then when I realized how I could weaponize that and use that in this space, like, everything just kind of broke, broke open. And, but but but it, it bears it bears repeating. And like, I feel like the need to constantly say it, it’s not being different. For the sake of being different. There’s a reason for it. The reasons may be my own, right. The reasons may be a client’s goals, it kind of doesn’t matter. But there are reasons for doing it. There are reasons for wanting to do it. And there’s sure shit reasons for learning how to think about that. Right. And again, it all comes back to learning to think. But I’m not, we don’t teach you I would never teach someone how to be different. But we do talk about and I’m happy to talk about thinking about being different.

Marc Gutman 17:23
Yeah, and I think thinking about being different is the for me at least the the key idea because inherently, we don’t want to be different. I mean, our childhoods could have been very similar, except I grew up in Detroit new grew up in Philadelphia, but I remember, like, I felt different, but I didn’t want to be different, you know, and being different,there was always this ying and this Yang between like and tention between being different and people saying, that’s what makes you special. And the reality of like, we want to be part of groups, and we want to fit in and we want to be the same. And I think, you know, we can talk about this later. But I think that’s the trap brands fall into all the time is that they, they want to fit in, they want to be seen, like they they’re scared to be different. And they’re thereby they try to fit in and then they get bland and they get diluted and all these things. Things happen. So, you know, when you were a kid when you were looking around and being different, I mean, what were you into? Like, what were your interests? Like? What did you think you were gonna be? Did you think you were gonna be a provocateur for hire? Did you think you were gonna be an education? Like, what do you think you were gonna do?

Andy Starr 18:28
No, I mean, I guess Looking back, I think I had this oddly romantic sense that I would follow in my father’s footsteps. You know, I my dad was incredibly important to me. My grandfather was in both my grandfather’s were incredibly important to me. And I kind of always saw myself following in one of their footsteps, either a lawyer without knowing what that meant, or understanding why it was just, it was my, what my dad did a university Dean because that’s what his father did. Or a psychoanalyst, which is what my other grandfather did. They were, you know, that’s, that’s what I wanted to do. And I always, even through college, I had that, that that romantic sense of romance, that romantic sense of the trajectory of my life, or what I thought that trajectory needed to be. Where was always there, I couldn’t shake it, no matter how hard I tried, until I actually started playing drums. That was something that I always wanted to do. I always, you know, even as a little kid, I was always attracted not to the to the guitarist, or the, the lead singer, or, you know, you know, the pianist, I was always attracted to the guy sitting in the back, because the guy sitting in the back was always the one that you felt, or the one that I felt in my chest in my gut, right? And the drummer always seemed like, like the black sheep, and I honestly couldn’t necessarily tell you Why that was but it always was in sports.

I was in soccer. I’m still a soccer geek. I played soccer since I was three. Well, when you’re a kid, everyone wants to be the striker the forward who scores the goals. I never did. I wanted to be the goalkeeper. Why? Because the goalkeeper got to wear the different shirt, the gloves. And the goalkeeper was always either the hero if he made the big save, or the goat, the bad goat, if he if he botched it and let a golden so drum, you know, the drums and being goalie in soccer. To me, they were always the same thing. All the glory, if you got it a complete, you know, complete disaster if you fuck it up. And for me, there was never I was never satisfied. I never enjoyed To me, the middle ground was boring. It was uninteresting. It’s like it was like, it was just nothing and I wanted nothing to do with it. And so my parents encouraged me to play soccer. And as a kid, they wanted me to have nothing to do with the drums because to them, the drums weren’t a real musical instrument playing the piano playing the guitar playing, you know, the violin or or saxophone. That was fine with them.

Uh, playing drums wasn’t and I didn’t get to play drums until I got to college. And when I did, I mean, I remember the first time I did it, and that actually changed my life more than almost anything. Because I felt like I was meeting myself and meeting the person I always wanted to be for the first time. Do you remember that day? I totally I, I remember the day I decided no matter what I was going to find a drum set and teach myself. And I remember, I remember the day that I sat down behind a drum set with drumsticks in my hand for the first time. Absolutely. I remember my first gig. And it was all my first my freshman year and it changed everything. It literally changed the trajectory of my life.

Marc Gutman 22:04
Where were you that first day you played the drums take us there.

Andy Starr 22:08
It was January of 1998, we had just come back from winter break. And there was a senior on campus who was a drummer in a funk band, and the funk band played on campus. And when they would it was like the thing it was like the coolest thing ever. And he you know, kind of did your your typical rock star kind of you know, playing with his shirt off sunglasses cigarette dangling from his lips. And it just drove people nuts. And I was just like, I just need to do that I was super shy. I didn’t drink I didn’t party. And it was something I always wanted to chase. But it was also a way for me to stand out on my campus. And that was important to me, I wanted to have a good college experience. And up to that point, I really wasn’t. And I knew who he was. It took me a semester to work up the courage to approach him. And I on on a January day we were we had been back on campus for like a few days. And I saw him walking and I ran out of the building. I chased him down. It was really, really cold. And I just said, “Hey, you’re the drummer in that band. I would love to learn how to play the drums. Could I maybe play on your kit a couple times and see if I can do it?” And I thought it was just gonna say no.

And he said, “Yeah, here’s the room on campus where they’re stored. Here’s the code to get in play anytime you want.” And it took me like another week to work up the courage just to go and do that. And I had no idea what I was doing. There was YouTube didn’t exist. So I couldn’t watch videos on how to do it. But I had a pair of drumsticks that I had, you know, come into my possession along the way. And I sat down. And just for some reason I knew what to do. And it was it became addictive. And I played my very first gig with people a few months later, he had heard me practicing and they wanted to know who was playing. They said, You’re really good. What do you want to jam with us? And that and that first gig, I remember the songs we played, was like it was just, it was transformative. And that’s so that’s what I wanted to do for a long time. I wanted to just be professional musician. I went to music school after college. I wanted to be in a rock band. That’s what I wanted to do.

Andy Starr 24:29
It didn’t play out that way but—

Marc Gutman 24:34

Yeah, so what happened?

Andy Starr 24:35
Well, you know music piracy, the way the industry change and 02, 03 I wanted to be a musician but I didn’t want to be a poor starving musician living out of a van driving six or 800 miles a night from gig to gig just to kind of build up that fan base. I just didn’t want that. I wanted to be a musician, not a rock star. So, but I’m still a musician and if people when people ask me like to Talk about myself. I say, you know, I’m a musician, first of Philadelphia and second, you know, and I work in brand third. That is me.

Marc Gutman 25:09
Nice. And so but you’re not in Philadelphia right now are you?

Andy Starr 25:12
No, I left Philly, I left early Jesus like, almost two years ago now. And I was making my way I’m very nomadic right now I was making my way to California through by way of Houston. My best friend lives here and I wanted to see him and I’ve just gotten stuck here with COVID. So, but I’m Philly, being from Philly is like, you know, other places. It’s like an attitude. It’s like a state of mind. So I can live it I can live and be anywhere but I’m Philly.

Marc Gutman 25:44
Feel like being stuck in Houston, because of COVID is like a great next great like Wes Anderson movie, you know? sounds incredible to me. But so you, you leave college, you go to music school, you’re pursuing your love of music, and you decide that you might have to get a real job. And so like, how do you get into like, this brand stuff. I mean, the path isn’t always obvious. And I’m guessing it wasn’t for you either.

Andy Starr 26:14
It wasn’t I still didn’t know really what brand meant. Then I left music school, I was kind of like in a funk didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be the lawyer that my parents wanted me to be. And my dad working in finance, he and I kind of had had a falling out a little bit we were we had a rocky thing for a few years. And he when he learned that I was going to leave music school, he asked if I would want to kind of learn his business, and maybe build a path, you know, a career and you know, some stability for myself. And I didn’t care about the business, but I cared about him. So I did it and and I liked what we were doing. I liked it. That was that was just commercial finance and, and so that was going to be the trajectory of my life. And then it’s a much longer story.

But things happen professionally with our business and with the economy at the time. And we were professionally we were the victims of fraud. And when that happened, my dad basically lost his business. And I kind of lost a pathway, if you will. And I was very angry, like ferociously angry. And I wanted revenge. And I applied to law school. And I got in. And so I was prepared to do that. And at the time, I was I was in a relationship with a girl and she worked in she was a graphic designer. And she worked like in advertising. And her father was kind of a big name in branding in the branding world. And she she kind of had her own little consultancy, and she would kind of come home from the day and I was trying to study the law. And she was complaining about her clients. And I found myself talking with her about her clients. But I was talking about it from a strategic standpoint, not from a design standpoint. And I found that I was liking that a whole lot more than studying the law between that and her father kind of encouraged me to pursue that and not to pursue the law. And I got out of the like I left law school before it was too late. And I’m really glad I did. And I started kind of doing this loosely with her still not knowing really what Brandman still not really knowing that advertising was like a whole like industry and thing that I could go do professionally.

And then one night she suggested that I read a book about branding. And it was called the brand gap. And I had never seen a book like it never heard of the author. But I started reading it and next thing I knew it was the next morning I’d stayed up all night reading it. I just couldn’t stop and that experience was probably the other thing that changed my life trajectory. Right? It I just I saw and thought now is the thing I thought about everything. I thought about business I found about people without ever having had any grounding or experience in the concept of brand and literally overnight. I knew exactly what Brandman and from from that point. I knew not only was this interesting, and that I wanted to try it I knew that I could be really good at it. I just knew that I could. It all just made sense in it in some ways. It filled in some gaps for me It helps me think about myself and where I had been in why I was the way I was right and why I am the way I am so it just when that happened when she put brand gap in my hand like that was it. Everything became crystal clear. I ended up stalking Marty for a long time. Like I stalked him online. Found him he was at his his old agency new neutron. And I emailed him and I was just like, hey, read, you know, read the brand gap, I think you’re a genius, this is what I want to do, will you be my mentor, please, I need a mentor. And I joke about it, but he basically sent me like a fuck off, I’m too busy email, he didn’t use that language. But he that was basically what he was saying.

But I didn’t care, I kept sending him messages along the way, when I would get my first agency gig when I would get my, you know, produce my first you know, copywriting project, I would just send stuff to him just to see what he would say. And occasionally, he would respond with looks good, keep it up, you know, kind of your, your, your packaged, automated response, right. But I started to try to demonstrate to him that even though I didn’t have the experience in the portfolio that a lot of other players in the space had, I thought about it differently. And I thought about it at a much higher and deeper, more impactful level. And he started to respond to me. And at one point, he invited me to come to France to a private workshop, and he was holding with, like, you know, executives, and like super high level designers. He’s like, come to the Chateau. It’ll be for a week, and you’ll, it’ll be crazy. It’ll change your life. And I didn’t go. And it’s like the one regret I have professionally. Like, I didn’t go to that. But, you know, fast forward Six years later, and look at what I’m doing with him and of all the people in the world who could be doing this episode.

Marc Gutman 31:37
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Crazy, right? And so like six years ago, you have no should I say resume or credential? in this space, you decide that? It’s your calling, and it hits you. And how long before like Marty starts to even like, respond to you and you build that relationship. I mean, you kind of jump but I mean, how long are you like sending him like, Hey, I’m still here messages like, hey, like, I, you know, respond.

Andy Starr 33:07
I sent him, I sent the very first message to him, like in November of 2009. And then I think I was sending him maybe like one a year, up until like 2014. And I had been basically agency hopping, you know, like shop hopping in between. And then in 24 2013, I sent him something. And that’s when he responded with like, Hey, you should come to this workshop. And I, you know, I was like, I don’t think I can I’m about to start a new agency gig. You know, and he was like, if you just buy the plane ticket and just come just you don’t have don’t pay the workshop fee, just just come for free. I would have been the most junior person there. I came this close. But I was starting a new agency gig and an agency I’d really wanted to land in. And I didn’t think it was a good idea. And then I didn’t I didn’t email him. I didn’t message him for several years. And then it was in 2017.

So it was about three years ago, I had gotten tired of the agency world super tired of it. And I left and I was working at a startup. And they were the startup work in the event space. And they they they were an event business and they had physical space. And they wanted to kind of rebrand themselves, but they also wanted to evolve their product offering. And I started talking with the CEO and we were coming up with ideas of you know, how can we make this event space because at the time, like that was like super commoditized right? And we work was the was becoming the 800 pound gorilla, right? And so there was this idea of using this existing space not just for corporate meetings and events but for education and to come to To fill the schedule, with gurus across different disciplines, leading workshops, that was already happening, but here was a space and we could kind of reposition this business around that.

Well, that was cool. But that wasn’t wholly unique. And I had this idea to go one step further and find like high level gurus who are already delivering workshops and educational content, and to kind of bring them into this mix. And to do that in partnership with a local business school like a local MBA program. And the idea would be that the MBA program would underwrite a certain of these workshops, right? And allow participants to not just take the workshop, but to earn academic credit towards that schools MBA, that wasn’t really being done anywhere, by anyone or any school. And so we decided, like that was, that was a cool idea. We wanted to change it. But we had two challenges. We had to find the gurus, but we also had to find an MBA program willing to do that. So we chased the MBA program first, because to me, that was going to be the bigger lift. But fortunately, a local Philadelphia MBA program, and we had a connection, we had a meeting, we had, we made a proposal to the dean, and we said, let’s just give it a shot. Let’s do a one on one professional Ed, you know, adult education workshop in a specific topic that we all agree on. And the MBA program will give or make credit available. Let’s just see, the dean just was like, Okay, done. Let’s try it. Okay. And when we were walking out of the conference room, someone said, by the way, what’s the topic? And who’s going to be the subject matter expert?

We didn’t know. And I literally just blurted out, how about brand branding that’s relevant to business. And no MBA program really offers that. It’s a great, great idea. And who will lead it? And I was like, there’s a guy who wrote some books. And they said, Great, set it up. And then I so then I sent Marty an email for the first time in years. And I reminded him who I was. And I told him, here’s what we’re doing. Here’s what we want to try. We want to try it with you. And I really didn’t expect a response. I got a response in like 30 minutes. And he’s like, let’s talk and Marty doesn’t like to like do things by email, or by phone, he likes to Skype, or he likes to see you. And I was like, Oh my God, I’ve never done that before. I’ve never spoken to him Skype, whatever, we set it up. And we set up a 30 minute kind of intro. That’s what I thought it was going to be. It was like a two and a half hour like, thing back and forth. And my entire team was like, behind my laptop, like, like listening. And I’m just jamming with Master. And he said, like, in his entire career, people have come to him with ideas and wanting to partner and said, this was the best idea that anyone had brought to him, like better than wanting him to like come in and do that better than LinkedIn learning, wanting him to come in and like be exclusive is like this was it. Okay, crazy.

Fast forward a little bit. We were getting everything set up the MBA, there was a problem with the MBA program we pulled out. And then the the startup just it wasn’t it wasn’t working. They wanted to go in a different direction. They weren’t funded properly. And so I bounced, but Marty and I kept talking, we would email and kind of we started asking ourselves like, what if, like, how about, you know, could we blah, blah, blah. And one day, he just said, Look, if they weren’t willing or able to do it, why don’t you and I just do this ourselves?

Why don’t you and I just try it? Okay, I flew out to Santa Barbara. He invited me to his home.

We locked ourselves in his home studio for like three or four days. And we went through our own process that we teach. We did it on ourselves. And we had this thing basically, in the can, like before I left. And here we are. Yeah. And so

Marc Gutman 39:30
Take yourself back to that time in Santa Barbara. I mean, what do you think? And are you just looking around like, I can’t believe this is happening like this, you know, this, you know, as they say, the this escalated quickly, right? Like all the sudden, you’re in partnership, and I know it’s that you’ve built a relationship over time. And I and I really don’t want to minimize that because I think it’s a huge thing that I want people to take away from this that you you built a relationship you stayed in front of Marty and when the time was right, it was right for both of you, but It is you’re in Santa Barbara, and you’re building this thing and you’re like, we’re doing this thing. Are you just kind of looking around like you’re, you mentioned, you’re in his studio. I mean, this is, you know, I think for any brand, or you have his books on your desk, I mean, mine, I just put mine just to the side here. But you know, I’ve typically got stacks of them. I mean, to me, that would be like, whaaatt?

Andy Starr 40:17
So I had met him, he, he flew to Philadelphia, while we, you know, after we kind of agreed we were going to try with that startup, he flew to Philadelphia, because he wanted to meet me and the team at the time. And he, he gave us he basically did his brand flip workshop, like, for like, almost nothing, he just wanted to meet us. And so I had the starstruck thing when I picked him up at the airport. That was like, that was bananas. I was like, you know, just a little kid. But when he invited me to out to his home, that’s when, for me, it became something different in the coolest thing that we did, there was, you know, I’m in his is his studio. It’s like, the kind of studio I would want for myself, you know, and he has, like, on his bookshelf, he has, you know, extra copies of all of his books, and then all of the design and business and strategy books that have influenced him, right. And I’m literally going like book by book, and then I get up to the shelf with extra copies of the brand gap, right? I mean, this is so wild. So out, and they were all like super pristine, right?

Except for one copy. There was one copy that was all just beat up and folded and and there were rabbit ears, and there were little postage sticking out of it. And I thought like, that’s really weird. Like, why is that up there? like is that his copy? Was that like a is that a first edition? Whatever, I take it down. I’m looking at it. And I’m just, I’m holding it in my oily, you know, hands. And I’m just what is it? And he walked out of the office for a few minutes. And that’s when I was doing this. And when it comes back in, I just turned to him. And I’m like, what’s the story with this book? Because it’s not pristine, like sentimental value. And he’s like, Oh, look at the cover. And I looked at the cover and it said Steve’s copy hands off, and I’m like, I don’t get it. Who Steve and he just so nonchalantly says well, that Steve Jobs copy. I was like what I’m holding Steve Jobs copy of the brand gap beat up folded marked, you know, rabbit ear, you know, notes, you know, that for me? Was that was another thing like, this guy wants to like be my partner. He wants to do this with me. And that would that’s that was really kind of like the first time with Marty that I felt way out of my element. Like, this should not be me. I’m not I’m I should not be the one to do this. It made me It made me like nervous. I was like genuinely, like, kind of out of sorts about it. And then we sat down and started going, you know, through the thing, and I’m kind of a control freak. I like to be in control when when I know what I’m doing. And I feel confident about what I’m doing. I can I can drive the train.

And I was just like, no way. I was like, dude, you’re in charge. Like, you lead the way. I’m going to follow I’m going to do this with you. But like, you know, Master apprentice, you know, Jedi Padawan like I’m totally okay with that. And when we started going through it, I thought I knew things right? You know how like, you can read the books and you can have your successes and you can have your confidence. You You think you know your shit, right? You know, I know all my rudiments on the drums and like, you know, I’m pretty decent drummer. But then you meet like a real German you’re like that cat is just a bad fucking dude. When when we kicked it off that morning, I was just like, Whoa, and I regret not like recording the entire thing for posterity. Because it was that bad. It was that like, Oh, alright, so this is what this is what it’s really like when the master does it.

And I mean, like, the whole thing was like a learning experience. And I was like, I was drunk by like, the end of the first day.

Marc Gutman 44:19
Yeah. And, you know, you were wondering, like, hey, how could this be me? But it is you so in working with Marty like what makes him a great partner?

Andy Starr 44:30
Marty’s no bullshit. That’s the best thing about him. Because, you know, even better than his experience and his talent than his intelligence and his intellectual curiosity. He reads more than almost anyone I know. But he is no bullshit. He’s no bullshit with me. He’s no bullshit with our students. He calls it exactly the way he sees it. And it’s funny, we’ve actually had disagreements about that. When we get feedback in our class, I’m an advocate For a slightly gentler approach, I don’t think that there’s a need to be super blonde just for the sake of, you know, minimizing bullshit. And we’ve, we’ve disagreed on that, but I’ve come around to really appreciate that, and have have just the most the utmost respect for his candor is the elegance that he provides feedback, and expertise, the the elegance with which he shares his mastery with other people. Um, and that was no different for me.

I just had the luxury of having it one on one in a very intimate setting. Right. That’s, that’s the thing about Marty, I’m just an app, and look at the space we work in, look at how much bullshit there is. I mean, I’ve worked at agencies, and I’ve worked with people who literally have this philosophy that we are in the bullshit business. Right. And that’s hard. That’s hard to swallow, right? For me, at least. And to realize and then experience that the mass the guy who wrote the book, The master himself, is completely, I mean, completely anti bullshit. I was I was just like this, this is just too good to be true. just too good to be true. But it’s not. It’s just too good.

Marc Gutman 46:34
So, no, it is too good. And you know, to flip the coin a little bit, what makes you a great partner. What do you think? Either you can address that from either what you think or what do you think Marty would say?

Andy Starr 46:48

I don’t see the weird thing is, it’s not that I’m uncomfortable asking that. I just don’t know. It’s not I’m not the type of person who typically answers that. I would say, I think one of the things that makes me a good partner is that I take it, it’s because I follow some of the some of the advice that I and guidance that I try to contribute to others, including, I take it seriously. But I’m not too serious about it, I think I have a very healthy idea of what matters and what doesn’t. For myself, for Marty, for us, and for our tribe. I’m very patient. And I think I think I’m hyper patient. And I’m, I am, I am extremely passionate about what we’re doing. And I know that sounds that may all sound cliched, but one of the things I’ve learned is that, if that’s not if that stuff isn’t there, it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing, right. And the last thing I want to do is be a hypocrite and I couldn’t really live with myself, if people thought that I or Marty or we were hypocrites and what we what we preach what we teach. So I think that from what I think for money, I’m also a balance. You know, we talk about personality types and, and roles. And I think that Marty and I complement each other really well, there are things that he can do that I can’t, and I don’t want to try, there are things that he can do that I can do that I just don’t want to do that I don’t like to do, or that I’m just not very good at. And there are ways that he thinks that I don’t where I can. And I would say the flip is just as true. And I think that we balanced and complete and round each other out really well like that, you know, like looking at it from 80,000 feet.

He’s a creative and a designer and i’m not i’m a strategist, right? He’s He’s strategic. I am creative, but we kind of we recognize where we belong, and we recognize our lanes. And he’s not as territorial as you. Some people might expect him to be. He is and on all things creative. I defer to him. And he he, I think for him, I’m also going back to the word, you know, going back to the label provocateur, I’m more provocative than he is. I am, I think I’m definitely more brash, I’m a little more raw. And, and maybe he likes that because he doesn’t need to be that anymore. He doesn’t want to be that anymore. Maybe it’s just not enough, you know him. But I think we just we just complement each other really well. We look at the world basically the same way. We never really had an argument about anything. We have disagreements, but we’re both patient enough and I am super respectful of his seniority to me.

Super respectful, and I value that, and I want him to and I tell him I want him to be the master, not just for others, but for me too. And, and allow me to learn while we’re doing this. And I have every time he and I jam on something, I learned something new, which is bananas. And I think all of that makes me a partner that works for him with him. And he’s had partners in the past, I’d be curious to hear what he thinks of me as a partner. But that’s the thing, I’m not going to let my ego get in the way I want to know. And I want to be a good partner going forward. And even when he takes a step back, and I have to decide how Level C c kind of moves on, I’m going to want other partners, and I want to be a good partner for them.

So you know, but I hate talking about myself that way. Like, I hate it. Good question, though.

Marc Gutman 50:56
Good, good. Good. And so, you know, as you talk about Level C, like, what, let’s talk about that for a second, like, why does brand matter? And why does Level C matter? Like, what are you trying to do with this thing?

Andy Starr 51:09
Brand matters, because brand, is brand is the people’s connection to business, right? brand is what lets come what lets the company, and the people actually come together. So when a company talks about the people, the people, the people, the customers, it’s all just talk, it’s the brand that actually makes that real, that makes that consequential, if you will, and so brand should matter to the business world, if they actually care about the consumer, the people, the tribe, the audience, whatever you want to call them, brand should matter to people, because it’s through brand that people can influence and change business. Okay. And what we’re trying to do with Level C, is we are trying to, we’re trying to put in, or, depending on your perspective, restore the role of brand, into the C suite, to restore the role of brand, into a position of influence, on the business side, a position of relevance to the business and the consumer side, to change the conversation. Right, there’s a lot of conversation, especially recently, about kind of the role of brand versus marketing.

You know, there are a lot of people that believe that, you know, brand is a part of marketing. And we believe that you know, marketing is actually a part of brand. And that’s a red herring, I definitely don’t want to go down, go down that path here. But we want to influence the way people think about this stuff. And we believe that when they think about it, when they learn, and they think and they process, and then they practice, real change can happen. And you know, here’s the thing, we don’t we’re not trying to change the world. We’re not maybe we’re one of the few brands out there that is comfortable saying that we’re not looking to change the world, we’re looking to change a part of business, because we do believe that if you change business enough, then the world can be changed. So that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re, you know, we’re creating an army of people who who get this stuff, right. And maybe army isn’t the right word. Maybe tribe isn’t even right, the right word. We’re just recreating it, we’re creating the opportunity for people who work in this space, to get it, evangelize it and bring the rest of us forward.

Marc Gutman 53:40
Yeah, and I couldn’t agree more. I mean, I, you know, I’ve spoken on this before, but, you know, I believe that this idea of business is just this one big story that we all have invented and buy into. And if, if you hold that to be true, then that means that we have the power to influence it and change it. And I also think there’s something that’s like, just crazy going on right now. And I’d love to get your take on this. You know, even thinking about like, brand, you know, the history of brand, but like, it’s my observation that people are looking to brands now in ways that they never have before, right? They’re looking to brands for how do you feel about COVID? For example, how do you feel about racial inequality?

How do you feel about politics, you know, in by asking the brand that they want information that it’s that well, it says like, well, then if you feel this way, then I feel this way, it’s a direct reflection. And I think there’s just this crazy thing happening and I don’t know if you’re seeing that if that’s if that feels new to you, but like this idea that like, even the brands I work with, they’re like, Well, what do we say like how do we act you know, and now it’s a bigger conversation because you know, we can get into like values and your beliefs and you know, hold true to those but I just find this, this kind of forefront of brand and the way people are looking to brand to to comment on the world so that it tells them how they feel about the world. Just this, you know that and I believe in that, like, how the customer felt about the world was it seemed to be that like it was, it’s been like that for a long time. It’s like the subtext. It’s like, it’s like, like, what am I? What’s my status? Or like, how do I see myself? But now it just seems like way more overt and direct in terms of like, what people are demanding from brands in terms of worldview?

Andy Starr 55:19
I mean, it’s it’s tribalism, right? You can boil all that down into tribalism, or identity, right? Who am I? What do I stand for? What do I want? You know, what matters to me? You know, I think it’s a different conversation, I think it reflects a lot of other things, the fracturing of the human of human identity over the last, you know, 20 plus years, and I know, it’s, it goes back way longer than that, but, you know, the way the world has changed in the past 20 years, the way we’ve all become, you know, immediately connected, right, you know, everything can happen. Now. I can talk to someone, you know, we had a student in a thing this morning from Nepal. Like I can talk to him in a second, right. Um, and so I think that that’s created a kind of a sense of urgency, maybe that’s not the not exactly what I mean. But in terms of, in terms of clarity, about where you stand. And so when people, you know, ask the question, what does the brand stand for? Right? You know, what, what is what is I don’t I’m making it up, what is Warby Parker’s stance on Black Lives Matter.

It’s not so much that they care about Warby Parker’s stance that is that this is what I’m just speaking for myself what I believe, I don’t think it’s so much that they care about Warby Parker’s stance, I think it’s Warby Parker’s stance helps frame a little bit more of the context for themselves. How where do they see themselves in relation to Black Lives Matter and Warby Parker and apple and Nike and Starbucks and Virgin and pick a brand? Right? Because really, really, at the end of the day, do you think that people really give a shit about most brands? I don’t. I don’t. I think that brand loyalty is almost like a misnomer. Like, do I love my iPhone? Yeah. Do I love my Apple watch? Sure. Do. I love my MacBook Pro? Absolutely. And my loyal to the Apple brand? No, I don’t care that much. I just don’t care about me. I care about my friends, my family I care about my community. I you know, I care about who’s at the top of the barclays premier league table. I don’t really care about Apple’s brand. If I hear that Apple has a position where has done something that I don’t agree with? Does it anger me annoying me? piss me off? Yeah, it does. But mainly just because I wish that they could see it the way I see it. But I don’t I don’t.

I don’t look at it the way I know a lot of people look at it. You know, when I have a client and they, they they’ll ask me, you know, how should we respond to this, I’m always going to tell them the truth and not my truth. But what I strategically believe, is best for the business and the brand. And that’s always a tricky kind of gray area. But I just I just don’t think people care. I I struggled to believe that people genuinely care. And people may say, I really care. And they may they may believe that they may feel that way. And I and I, I won’t disrespect or deny that that happens. I won’t. But I think deep down maybe you know, it’s it’s more ID than ego. I don’t think it matters to them as much as it’s been made out to. Okay. But again, if you believe if you believe me when I say if you believe in the idea that the brand is what connects people to the business, well, then what the brand stands for their values, their their position on a given issue, political, social, whatever, then it does matter. For better or for worse. I just don’t think that the brand can control it as much as they think they can. Right? Because they certainly can’t control their audience. They can influence their audience. They can try to anticipate what the majority of their audience believes or feels about a specific issue. But, you know, when it comes to control, and it doesn’t exist, it just doesn’t influence exist, but even that has limit so I roll my eyes a lot and when when I when I see the question, you know where the debate happening? It’s I’m just like, who really cares? That’s different from caring about the issue. I definitely care about the issues, I feel very strongly about the same issues. I just don’t care about what the brand thinks, or what the brand says they stand for. I just don’t.

Marc Gutman 1:00:17
Hmm. So to challenge you on that, if Apple and by the way, this is theory, everybody, if Apple actually denounced black lives matter if they had a more not inclusive policy towards LGBTQ and like, you know, did not recognize those folks that would have no bearing in your purchase of their product.

Andy Starr 1:00:45
It probably would. And not probably would, it would. But that’s not again, it’s not so much because of what Apple stands for. It’s for what I stand for. Correct? Yeah, that’s, that’s why and again, I, I recognize that what I just said, may may initially resonate with some people like why wait, he doesn’t care? No. I care very, very much. I have extremely strong feelings that I believe are in the majority. By the way, I think that I stand with most people on most issues I do. And because they matter so much, to me, that’s what influences my decision. That’s what influences my behavior in one way or another. If he here’s another example. Um, I remember, I think it was a couple years ago, the I think it was the CEO of barilla. Pasta, I was kind of outed for making, you know, homophobic remarks, right? Mm hmm. I’m like a pasta. I basically eat spaghetti every day of my life. and up to that point, Burleigh, was the brand that I like to make. I haven’t had real essence. And I never will. Not because because of what he said, but that’s not what influenced my decision is because of how I feel. That’s how strongly I feel about it. Right. And, and there’s a difference. I think it’s subtle, it’s nuanced. It’s complicated. It’s not simple. But if someone if Apple so if Apple basically denounced Black Lives Matter, and people boycott Apple, it’s more because of how those people feel for themselves about the issue. That’s what I’m saying.

Marc Gutman 1:02:33
I got it. Got it. Well, Andy, I could talk to you forever. This has gone super fast. And as we near the end of our time together, I’d love for you to think back to that time when you first walked into that music room and sat down at those drums and maybe hit the drum once or twice and had that charge of electricity. And if that Andy ran into you today, what do you think he’d say?

Andy Starr 1:03:04
What do you think he would say about me now? Yeah, I have no idea. Wow, I’ve never been asked that before. I’ve always been asked the opposite. What would I say to Andy? That Andy, then I, I like to think that he would say, I’m sorry, I have no I’m like, stunned by that, that. That question is going to haunt me for a while. And I don’t I don’t even want to say I have to get back to you on that. Although I know I’m going to I have no idea dude. What? What is Wow, what an amazing question.

Andy Starr 1:04:00
You can see my face and you can i’m, i’m i’m just like I can I can I ask you? Why did you ask me that question?

Marc Gutman 1:04:17
Part of it is I want to know if your younger self would have been impressed or would have been interested or intrigued or curious or a myriad of other thoughts about how your life turned out and where you’re at today and where you’re going. Huh? And if that young Andy who is probably thinking, Oh my gosh, I’m about to become a life long professional musician. I would have thought like, Hey, you know, this is just as good playing music in a different way.

Andy Starr 1:04:48
I think this is just more of me now. Then. What I would have been back then. But I I like to think or maybe I just hope that he would have have asked me Is it a good gig or is it a good deal? And without hesitation I I’d say it’s the best gig. That is the best gig. This is a people business dude. Like it’s more about people than it is about business. the business side of Level C like it’s like the least fun thing that I do. The most fun thing that I do is meeting people like you meeting you know, meeting people like Mata Marina do meeting people like Matt Davies, Chris lateral Layla Casanova. I’m, you know, 300 more than 300 people, awesome human beings who work in the human side of business, from like, 4050 countries so far. That’s, that’s like the best gig in the world, the best gig.

Marc Gutman 1:06:00
And that is Andy Starr of Level C. Well, what did you think? Drinking from the firehose yet? I could have talked with Andy for hours, but I think we’ve covered quite a bit of ground and our time today. A big heartfelt thank you to Andy Starr, and the team at Level C. We will link to all things any star in Level C in the show notes. If you’re interested in sharpening your brand chops, I highly recommend you check out their masterclasses. Well, that’s the show. Until next time, make sure to visit our website where you can subscribe to the show in iTunes, Stitcher or via RSS so you’ll never miss an episode. A lot big stories and I cannot lie. You other storytellers can’t deny.

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