Q&A: Brian Marr, Chief Strategy Officer of Smashing Ideas

"Teaching wasnt something I had expected to get involved with, but the process of planning a course, working with students and seeing the results with their project work is incredibly rewarding."

November 27, 2018By John Levesque


This article appears in print in the November 2018 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Tell us what your company does and what attracted you to this business.

Smashing Ideas is a design and innovation agency. We consult across the product design and development life cycle with a focus on accelerating innovation for our Global 500 clients. We bring together a blend of design thinking, research, strategy, agile development and our unique approach to enhancing engagement, which we call Motivational UX, to bring new products, services and businesses to market faster.

There were, and still are, two things that attracted me to this business. First, we get to work on some of the most interesting, challenging and groundbreaking projects a company might choose to take on. These occur in a variety of verticals, including health care, mobility, enterprise training, consumer products, retail and more. Most of them start with the words The Future of … Unfortunately, we dont get to talk about them since they are often highly confidential and core to our client’s growth strategy. Were OK with that, however, and enjoy being the people who help teams accelerate innovation and make things that matter for their customers. The second one might sound like a cliche, but it is the truth. For the past six years, Ive had the opportunity to work with colleagues who care about collaboration, making things that matter. Big egos have no place at our company. We have a set of values here that were generated by the entire staff, resulting in a culture that makes Smashing the best work environment Ive been a part of and that bar is already pretty high.

What book/TV show/podcast are you reading/watching/listening to and why?

I have a bad habit of juggling multiple things at once and I am a firm believer in filling my spare time with educational or life-enriching content, so my list is long. Here are a few of the books I am working through:

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond. This is a powerful book about the cycle of poverty and housing in the United States, viewed through the experiences of several people in Milwaukee a city Ive been spending quite a bit of time in recently for work. I started reading it to better understand the cycle of poverty and homelessness so I was more equipped to help make a positive impact in Seattle.

Calypso, by David Sedaris. I love Sedaris writing. For his latest book, Ive been listening to it on Audible during my commute into work. Hes an entertaining narrator, and his delivery magnifies his sardonic humor. I had the opportunity to work with his sister, Amy, once. She is equally hilarious.

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, by Daniel H. Pink. As an armchair behavioral psychologist, I enjoy books that help me better understand and optimize behavior particularly my own, though I can often apply what I learn to the work we do at Smashing.

Whats your favorite spot in Seattle?

Riding my mountain bike, by myself or with others, helps me decompress, think through tough problems and gain some perspective. Were very fortunate to have access to so many parks and options within a short distance from downtown. As much as I love places like Tiger Mountain, Duthie Hill Park and the all-new Raging River trail system, I have one place that stands out from the rest. North SeaTac Park on a Wednesday night, during the spring and summer, is my favorite. The NW MTB Series hosts a casual race series called the Wednesday Night World Championships, which has become a tradition for my family and close friends. My daughter and I race every week. We start talking about it months before the first race, counting down the days until it starts. Its not the best park the city has to offer, but when you add several hundred fun people, food from Tacos el Guero, a few kegs of Schooner Exact and some sunshine, it becomes my perfect Wednesday in Seattle.

What kind of car do you drive and why?

This isnt an easy question to answer. Today, I drove a BMW 328i for 12 minutes. Other days, it depends on where I need to go and how quickly I need to get there. I actually dont own a car, and havent for over 10 years. It wasnt on purpose at first. My lease had just run out on the car I was previously driving. As I was looking for my next car, I realized I could get to most places using a combination of public transportation, pedal power, car sharing and ride hailing. I was an early user of Uber (though I prefer Lyft these days) and services like ReachNow. I ride my bike to work for fitness and to avoid traffic as often as I can.

That said, sometimes you need to get somewhere the other options just cant support. In that case, I negotiate with my wife. She drives a Chevy Traverse, which we both use for shuttling our kids and their friends to school, soccer practice, rock climbing, bike practice, swim lessons, and a list of other stuff that makes us sound like an overcommitted family. Its very much her car, however. I wouldnt think about moving the rearview mirror.

Tell us something people dont know about you.

While I was in college, I took photography classes to fill credits. It turned out to be something I fell in love with and pursued for many years, including running a professional photography business on the side. My focus was mostly environmental portraiture, though I also shot some weddings. I still enjoy it to this day because It requires empathy for your subject, technical skills for lighting and exposure and the willingness to put a part of yourself out in to the world that people would react to.

Photography was also one of the most important classes in school for me for a different reason. My instructor was tough. She was harsh and unfiltered, delivering critique that would cut any thoughts you had about being an artist down in just a few words. In my first class, during my first review of work, she told me I should give up. My work was terrible and apparently not good enough for an entry-level class. I was mortified, and considered dropping the class. Then, an interesting thing happened something that has been a life lesson for me. I learned that if I am told I cant do something, or that something is impossible, I will work tirelessly to prove otherwise. This has been a constant for me, and I remember every time in my career when that fire was ignited.

Fast forward to today… I still love photography and enjoy taking photos of friends and family.

What are you passionate about outside of work?

I love teaching. I have taught a graduate-level digital marketing course at the University of Washington for the past eight years in the Communication Leadership program. I also guest lecture for the UW Foster School of Business and at Western University in Ontario. Teaching wasnt something I had expected to get involved with, but the process of planning a course, working with students and seeing the results with their project work is incredibly rewarding. After so many years doing it, my former students are now returning as senior/executive marketers to guest lecture and provide advice to students. It is incredibly rewarding to see it come full circle, as well as to be a part of such a great program and school in our city.