Influence, Power, and Interest

In conversation with Jon Levy, bestselling author of ‘The Art & Science of Cultivating Influence’.

Generating attention isn’t hard—changing behaviour is. So we spoke to a true master of attention alchemy,  behavioural scientist Jon Levy.

Just Evil Enough gives people a new way to think about marketing,  and provides a transformative framework for brand building in an attention economy. In the book, we use theories from neuroscience, game theory and human behaviour to rethink modern marketing.

Subversive marketing cuts through noise instead of creating it, and  subversive marketers know that the resulting attention only matters if you can turn it into profitable, sustainable demand.

To kick things off with John we talked about getting noticed in the attention economy, a term coined by Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon.  

“Attention is easy. It’s a car backfiring on the street. It’s what most ad companies are doing. They’re like, ‘bam, check this out.’ And hopefully it works. And technically, it does work. The problem is, it works just enough to keep them doing it, but that’s not necessarily the mechanics of interest.
Anyone can get attention, but I don’t want your attention—what I want is your interest. There’s a slew of things we have to take into account if what we actually want is interest.”

Cognitive theory explores different types of attention. Attention can be visual or auditory. It can be selective,  divided or sustained. Executive attention relates to our ability to control, or regulate our responses. To convert attention into profitable demand, Levy insists that understanding the nature of the attention we seek is critical—and he should know. 

Levy is a scientist, adventurer and a best-selling author. In 2009, he founded a secret dining experience that turned him into the most powerful influence broker in New York.

His first book took him around the world on a series of epic adventures, leaving behind a roadmap for those who don’t want to go gentle into the proverbial night.

His latest book, You’re Invited: The Art and Science of Cultivating Influence, is a masterclass in human behaviour. Levy draws on stories from history, scientific learning and his ‘Influencer Dinner’ journey to help us analyse the mechanics of attention, connection and the cultivation of influence.

The power of influence with John Levy


Levy on stage at TED. 


Influencing New Yorkers


Adventure Masterclass


Levy’s Latest Book

Influencer Trends

Today, ‘influencer marketing’ is a thriving industry. It’s a business model with champions and heroes, platforms, norms and taboos. However, back in 2009 when Levy started the Influencer Dinner network, hashtags were just a gleam in Kim Kardashian’s eye. It would be another three years before she would take to Instagram, or for the FTC to start regulating promotional bloggers and celebrity endorsements on social media channels. 

One of the core ideas of Just Evil Enough is the difference between simple trickery and true Zero-day marketing. One method subversive marketers can use to find a ‘zero-day’ exploit is arbitrage: Something you know that others don’t. Levy observed the early signals around influence, and used his understanding of human behavior to engineer a new network that would unlock immense opportunities for himself and others. A decade later, hundreds of invite-only dinners, salons and events have evolved into a global network of influential members and an invitation waitlist that may span years.

Wired for New

As Jon explained, we’re wired for novelty. The substantia nigra and ventral tegmental area of the brain (SN/VTA) is a major source of dopamine, which bathes our brain in reward chemicals when we discover something new or we learn something. The SN/VTA is responsible for motivational salience, a cognitive process that encourages our behaviour towards a perceived outcome. Jon talks about this in his 2018 TED talk, and in much of his writing. This part of the brain focuses on what’s new: When a human is exposed to the same thing repeatedly, this part of the brain responds less. We are wired for ‘new’.

Any subversive marketer knows that novelty will command a market’s attention. However most marketing exploits, once unearthed, can burn out quickly. The most subversive exploits are often zero-day, and therefore finite. For long-term success, you need a subversive mindset, and the ability to find new and novel exploits at every opportunity.

Jon told us that according to the research, novelty can trigger “a state where people are enticed to explore and understand”.

And this is precisely what the Influencers Dinner did. People were enticed by the premise of a novel experience with people of influence. Then the simple act of preparing a meal together, in that safe space, was enough to build trust and create memorable experiences. And entice is such a good word. A truly subversive campaign should beguile, tease and even startle—but always in service of the business model.

Novelty also requires that you strike a balance between the esoteric and the simple. Jon references the “creative curve” from a book by Allen Gannett, which explores creative genius.

Jon talks about finding the right point on the creative curve, that falls between these two extremes: Novel enough to spark interest, but familiar enough that it feels safe, and achievable enough that the audience isn’t overwhelmed.

Jon says “the partner of relevance is fluency.” He cites author Shane Snow and his book ‘The Storytellers Edge’. It’s not enough to be relevant to your target market—the audience must feel fluent enough in it to consider the behaviour or mental shift you’re asking for. If the cognitive load of your offer is too great for them, they’ll give up.

In the book we share a research framework for Product-Market fit called the Recon Canvas. The canvas defines the market as a pairing of attention with action. The canvas breaks ‘attention’ into neurology, social groups and relevance.
Fluency is the master key to unlocking all of this.

Intuit founder Scott Cook Says brand is no longer what we tell the consumer it is – it is what consumers tell each other it is.” While true, this doesn’t mean you can abdicate the role of messaging and positioning to your consumers. When your market’s conversations line up with your messaging, i.e. when you have achieved fluency, great things happen.

For a masterclass in understanding influence, relevance and fluency, you’re just going to have to read ‘You’re Invited’. It is an immersive read that breaks down the mechanics of interest. Packed full of stories, twists and unexpected outcomes, it reveals the hidden truths of the psychology of community and belonging.  

Jon armed us with a cluster of new case studies, and a deeper understanding of the importance of interest, trust and connection. He also shared a link to his games deck which his team used brilliantly when Influencer Dinners pivoted to virtual during the pandemic. 

So – Our final takeaway. Attention and interest are two very different things. To garner interest, you must seek relevancy. For that relevancy to stick, you must have fluency, and that’s the key to unlocking attention and converting it into action, or profitable demand.