You’ve seen nothing like it, so you need to improvise

The year was 1995 and we were attempting to sell packaged software in consumer retail stories in Argentina. Packaged software was new, computers were new, even supermarket chains were new in the country. There was no roadmap, so we had to lay out the roads and invent the tools to navigate them. One of the tools we developed was the consumer retail demo. A dear friend whom I met while interviewing candidates to do those demos recently reminisced the experience thus:

“You walked me into an empty meeting room where various PC parts were laying on a table. You told me I had 5 minutes to assemble the PC, plug it in, and prepare to demo Windows 95 [which had come out a couple weeks before]. Then you left and closed the door.”

My friend aced the interview, got the job doing demos at retail stores that summer, and went on to have a brilliant career at Microsoft (he is now regional director for Microsoft Philanthropies in Latin America). I don’t know if he still remembers this, but sometime after we started working together he recommended me a book, “Free Play: Improvisation in art and life” by Stephen Nachmanovitch. It helped me understand how he managed to approach unexpected situations like that crazy interview to make the most of them.

Something else that came out of those interviews was an entirely new company, Marco Marketing, which expanded throughout Latin America and now employs thousands of people. Instead of doing retail floor demonstrations, today many of their employees are advising clients on how to navigate a retail environment dramatically transformed by the pandemic (check them out).

I know this because they are our customer at Verb. As part of their 25th anniversary campaign, I had a chance to interview my supervisor at the time we set up the interviews all those years back.

“It was pre-Internet, pre-mobile phone,” he told me. “I don’t know if people today can imagine the extent to which it felt like a new world to us.” I mentioned the interview experience we devised to figure out if candidates would be able to operate in the fast-moving chaos of consumer electronics retail in the 90s. “It was pretty awesome,” he said, and draw a parallel to the chaos of the current crisis: “We will have new technology to help us through that we can’t imagine yet, just like then, but we will need to bring back the capabilities to identify problems, analyze the data, and make decisions on the spot,” that allowed us to improvise our way in the new world of that time.