by Richard Littlemore — BC Business Magazine, May 2000
So, who made you Tod Maffin, anyway?
It’s not something you could ask just anybody (in fact, if you put the question to anyone other than Tod Maffin, it would sound downright silly). But Maffin is a special case. He is an e-guru who burst to prominence like a speeding Pokemon, a cyberpunk who, at the hoary age of 30, has established himself as an elder statesmen among Internet pundits. “No one is more wired, more hooked up and more plugged in than Maffin, the 29-year-old Vancouver-based guru of the new economy,” The Vancouver Sun wrote last year. At the same time, The Globe and Mail called him “one of Canada’s top cybergurus,” to which its Report on Business Magazine added, “one of Canada’s most influential futurists.”
Maffin is also a maven of the speaker circuit, a ubiquitous broadcaster and a writer of prodigious energy. His snappy Future File prognostications air regularly on radio stations such as News 1130 in Vancouver and 680News in Toronto. Future File itself is a newsletter he broadcasts biweekly over the Internet to an audience he estimates as being between 20,000 and 50,000 people. And through the summer, Maffin had a regular gig on CBC Radio One, the weekly show todradio.com that aired live from coast to coast. He’s now the technology anchor on CBC Television’s Canada Now.
The conventional questions arising from this glowing CV are, well, the conventional questions. Who suddenly decided that Tod Maffin was so darned quotable? What had he done to come to this attention and when, in his relatively short life, did he have time to do so? In short, where the heck did this guy come from and why is everybody so impressed?
The most obvious place to go for answers is to the answer man himself: Tod Maffin. You certainly would have no trouble picking him out of a crowd. If Vancouver’s premier casting director had to dream up an Internet consultant, she’d look for someone who looks just like Maffin: a little short of six feet, slightly built and compulsively jittery, intense dark eyes, gaunt face, handsome big ears and a ready, if somewhat sardonic, smile. Short of adding a pocket protector (which is, of course, of no use to a computer geek) Maffin exudes the perfect and, in his business, perfectly credible image of a nerd. Except for one thing: the fellow can talk.
It’s not just that he is loquacious — the world suffers no shortage of Russian politicians and Western academics who can rattle on until the entire gallery is snoring. Rather, Maffin’s patter is compelling. Not just articulate, he is specific, particularly when talking about technology. While he boasts in his promotional literature about using no jargon, he does. in fact, use just enough e-lingo to demonstrate his insider status. But he is also careful with his context, careful that while he signals to the technology literati that he is one of them, he also makes himself understood, clearly and effortlessly, among those for whom the modem technological world is a mass of intimidation.
You might guess that Maffin is the product of a good school. You’d guess wrong. Born in Vancouver and raised in Ladner, Maffin dropped out of school in Grade 9. There followed a short, pointless career as what he describes as “a juvenile delinquent” — the highlight of which occurred when he defeated a car alarm one evening for the pure pleasure of quietly lifting a package of cigarettes that had been left on the console. It was, perhaps, while wandering down the dark Delta streets with those cigarettes in hand that he recognized two things: 1) he didn’t smoke and; 2) there was no future in what he was doing.
At 15 he hustled his way into Kwantlen Community College for a single course in criminology, but it was not until he was 18 that he settled back into a conventional academic setting, completing an associate degree in arts and sciences at Capilano College by the time he was 21. It was during this period that he started building his credentials as a communicator. Writing for the student paper, The Capilano Courier, he worked his way into the chair as news editor and ultimately as B.C. bureau chief for the Canadian University Press. He parlayed that into his first radio job at the Kootenay Broadcasting System station in Creston. A year later, he moved to The Sunday Press in Sechelt as the senior news writer.
It was fated, then, that Maffin’s next step was into public relations — as a junior account rep at Vancouver’s The Haibeck Group. It was there that he began fiddling professionally with computers, participating in the conception and design of some early websites. It was a perfect fit. While he has never acquired all the technical skill to create the sites himself, he learned enough to know what he could demand of the programmers, and he started thinking seriously about Internet strategy.
“That was the beginning of my futurist studies,” Maffin says now. “I realized that things were moving so fast that you had to be living 18 months ahead just so that, by the time you launched a site, it was not already out of date.”
He jumped ship to Emerge Online, where he was involved in the creation of numerous major corporate websites (i.e. Future Shop, London Drugs). Two important things happened while Maffin was at Emerge. First, he began his “public speaking,” giving seminars on everything from how to set up an intranet to measuring the effectiveness of your Web page. Second, he began to write a regular promotional piece called Emerging Trends. While he initiated both projects to promote Emerge, he was soon looking farther afield, knocking at the door of The Lavin Agency, an international speakers’ bureau that books everyone from demographer David Baxter and big thinker Stephen Jay Gould to celebrity journalists Diane Francis, Peter Mansbridge and Peter Gzowski.
“Tod called me and said he had something to offer,” says Lavin vice-president Cathy Hirst. “He loves to talk and share his messages and he knew an awful lot about gadgetry and the Internet.” Hirst worked with him for a while, added him to the booking list and ever since, “he’s gone gangbusters.”
In January 1999 Maffin left Emerge to set up as a consultant. He turned Emerging Trends into Future File and started peddling it independently. He also helped found MindfulEye, a company that monitors Internet websites and chat rooms to track the reputations of publicly traded companies. MindfulEye has grown to 25 employees and, trading over the counter, had reached a market capitalization of more than US$60 million early this fall ($30 million as of the end of October). All the while Maffin has continued to work the speaker circuit, with incredible success. For example, in one five-week period beginning in May 1999, he delivered 27 separate presentations. You could never argue that he lacks an appetite for work.
He will, however, admit to sometimes being under-prepared. Such was the case last fall when he was speaking in Toronto to a conference of senior producers at the CBC. “I was supposed to be speaking on the future of broadcasting and I hadn’t had a chance to do much research,” Maffin says. “So I stood up and just said what I would do if I was the dictator of the CBC.” Far from offending those assembled, he inspired a Vancouver producer to ask Maffin, during the question period, what his dream job would be. “I’m usually quite self-effacing,” Maffin says by way of suggesting that he would usually laugh off such a question, “but something told me that I should answer this one seriously.”
Maffin told the producers that, given the chance, he would launch a fully interactive national radio show, a sort of Cross Country Checkup for the computer crowd. He would go live in every market — which would mean working five consecutive hours to put on a fresh one-hour show in each time zone — and he would take full advantage of his listeners’ ability to provide feedback instantly through a chat room and ongoing by preparing MP3-file features at home and sending them in via the Internet. Not only would the show be vibrant and fun, attracting younger viewers than the CBC’s usual baby-boomer demographic, Maffin argued it would also raise the corporate understanding of how technology could be used to facilitate other shows.
Two weeks later Maffin received an email asking if he would like to submit a formal proposal. CBC assigned network producer Anne Penman to lead Maffin through the technical and bureaucratic minefields and by March this year he was contracted for 10 shows filling in for the summer season.
All of which brings us pretty much up to date, answering the whens, wheres and, to some extent the hows of Maffin’s career. But it doesn’t answer the why. Why does the media — and through the media, the public — accept Maffin (or anyone, for that matter) as a pundit?
“It all starts with information,” says Steve Bengtson of Viewpoints Research. “I know something that you don’t know.” For example, having commissioned a poll on the sexual habits of British Columbians, Bengtson has become an instant expert on that topic. And, as he would tell you, there are certain subjects the media just can’t resist. Sex is one, technology is another. “Technology seduces people,” Bengtson says, in effect congratulating Maffin for having positioned himself well.
The second test for pundit-making comes when the phone rings. “In the beginning, it’s just the facts, ma’am — the Joe Friday thing,” Bengtson says. “But when the media get on to you, they expect you to expand, [giving] not just the facts, but a vision. They want to know what it means.” And that, Bengtson concludes, is when “the pundit thing takes on a life of its own.”
Indeed, that’s the point at which you separate the pundit from the press agent. The latter tells you what he knows; the former what he (or she) thinks.
There are other components to getting accepted as a pundit: familiarity, quotability, credibility, availability, even likeability. (For example, I phone Bengtson because in our previous dealings I have found him bright, articulate, amiable and — sometimes most important — willing to take my call. We have become co-conspirators: he wants to be seen as an expert in punditry because, as the principal with a polling and research firm, it’s good for business. I portray him as an expert because I want you to believe that my own analysis arises our of serious conversations with the smartest folks around. That’s why reporters sometimes lather on the superlatives when introducing their sources. They want you to believe they are quoting “Canada’s most influential futurist” and not just some guy who wasn’t busy when they called.)
So Maffin is erudite and available. That still doesn’t address what may be the most important factor: credibility. “If I work for an organization that has consistently proven to provide false information, I’ll have no credibility, no matter how quotable I am,” Bengtson says. Maffin, for example, dismissed the Y2K panic and flew to New York for New Year’s Eve 2000. If his aircraft’s computer had crashed en route, his reputation would have been toast, even if the jet — and he himself — had survived.
William Koty, the creative genius behind the UBC Internet marketing course, takes the analysis a step further. “Tod,” Koty says, “is engaged in branding, the basic business process of any company. Except in his case, he is the product.” Koty also believes Maffin has done a good job: “He’s not bashful at promoting himself; in fact, he’s approaching celebrity status. But as with any brand, he has to deliver. A brand has a place in people’s mind, but when they use it, it’s got to be good.”
In answer to the question of whether Koty thinks Maffin actually delivers, the academic has a quick response: “Tod’s one of our guest speakers [for the Internet course]. The students love him.” Koty first heard Maffin speak “somewhere” in 1997 “and I was impressed by what he had to say.” Maflin accepted an offer to speak and — given the extremely positive students reviews — has been asked back every year since.
That, then, may be Maffin’s most significant output: happy customers. His speaking success has been based almost exclusively on word-of-mouth endorsements, says Lavin’s Cathy Hirst, who says Maffin is “a darling to work with. He works very hard for us and extremely hard for our clients.” At the CBC, Penman is similarly effusive, calling Maffin “a producer’s dream… Every five to 10 years, someone like Tod comes along.” From a broadcasting point of view,” she adds, “he just gets it so completely.”
It might be appropriate, then, that this was always Maffin’s dream. On one hand, he says, “I wish I could say I had a strategy for all this, that I wasn’t just in the right place at the right time.” On the other, “I’ve wanted to have a CBC radio show since I was eight.”
And what’s in the future?
For once, the soothsayer is struck speechless. He pauses and thinks. Aside from hoping that CBC picks up his show, Maffin says his only plans are to take a week off and return to a more direct involvement with MindfulEye. “I can’t see myself doing all this when I’m 50,” he adds.
No worries. Given Maffin’s track record, 20 years will be lots of time for him to recreate himself into someone else.
– Richard Littlemore is a contributing editor for BCBusiness