Ryan Mathews

Founder, CEO, Black Monk Consulting

Ryan Mathews, founder and ceo of Black Monk Consulting is a globally recognized futurist, speaker and storyteller. Ryan is also a best selling author, a successful international consultant and a sought after commentator on topics as diverse as innovation, technology, global consumer trends and retailing. He and his work have been profiled in a number of periodicals including Wired, which labeled him a philosopher of e-commerce and Red Herring, which said of him, “It’s Mr. Mathews’ job to ask the hard questions”. In April, 2003 Ryan was named as “the futurist to watch” in an article on the 25 most influential people in demographics over the last 25 years by American Demographics magazine.

His opinions on issues ranging from the future of Internet pornography to ethnic marketing have appeared on the pages of literally hundreds of newspapers and magazines including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Business Week, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Advertising Age and American Demographics. A veteran journalist, Ryan has written cover stories for Fast Company and other leading magazines has been a frequent contributor to National Public Radio’s Marketplace on topics related to innovation. He is widely regarded as an expert on consumers and their relationship to brands, products, services and the companies that offer them. Ryan has also done significant work in related areas including supply chain analysis, advertising and new product development.

Ryan is the co-author (with Fred Crawford) of The Myth of Excellence: Why Great Companies Never Try To Be The Best at Everything (Crown Business), which debuted on the Wall Street Journal’s list of Best Selling Business Books. Myth was named to the bestseller lists of Business Week, 1-800 CEOREAD and other business book tracking services. It was also a bestseller on, whose Business Editors selected it for their list of the twelve best business books released in 2001. Writing about Myth Federal Express chairman, president and ceo Frederick W. Smith called Ryan an “exceptional strategic thinker.” A.G. Lafley, president and ceo of The Procter & Gamble Company said the Consumer Relevancy model advanced in Myth was, “…the best tool I’ve seen for incorporating consumer wants and needs into your business.” Ryan is also the co-author (with Watts Wacker) of The Deviant’s Advantage: How Fringe Ideas Create Mass Markets (Crown Business), which received uniformly high reviews from the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, Fortune, the Miami Herald and Time magazine. He was also a contributor to the best selling, Business: The Ultimate Resource (Perseus). Ryan is currently at work on his third book (again with Fred Crawford), tentatively titled, “Engagement: Making Sense of Life and Business” which addresses issues as diverse as a new model of branding and the search for the elusive global consumer.

A frequently requested keynote speaker Ryan has addressed a wide variety of subjects in his speech practice from the future of beauty to the future of house paint. His audiences have included labor groups such as the United Food & Commercial Workers Union; not for profit organizations like Planned Parenthood; associations from the Photographic Retailers Organization to the Grocery Manufacturers of America; academic institutions like Michigan State University and Pennsylvania State University; high technology forums such as Information Week’s CIO Boot Camp and Accenture’s E-Business Symposium; consulting audiences including Cap-Gemini, Ernst & Young and Deloitte & Touche; to consumer goods manufacturers from Sherwin Williams to Procter & Gamble, Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola and numerous others. He has worked and spoken extensively in Europe for clients including Grey Advertising, Musgrave, Ltd, the British Post and Unilever. In addition to speaking and his other areas of expertise Ryan has done significant client work in organizational development as a facilitator and scenario planner.

Ryan received his BA from Hope College in Inner Asian history and philosophy and did his graduate work at the University of Detroit where he studied phenomenological ontology. He is a Kentucky Colonel and his reputation and experience as a chili authority won him a seat on the International Chili Society’s board of directors. He has also served on the Advisory Board of the Department of Marketing and Supply Chain Management at Michigan State University’s Eli Broad College of Business.

  • Posted on: 01/23/2018

    Would Iceland’s equal pay law work in the U.S.?

    Ben, again I don't think this is an issue of eliminating differences between "Employee A" and "Employee B." It's a question of the justification of the higher or lower pay. In a perfect world there would be no outliers, i.e., there would be equal pay for objectively agreed to -- and met -- standards and everyone meeting those standards would be paid the same. So, an idealized model would count "soft" attributes such as zeal, commitment, creativity, etc. in addition to more traditional metrics. The fly in the ointment is determining who is interpreting compliance to the standard. Like it or not most managers promote/reward folks like themselves. But, the bottom line here is that we ought not let the theoretical best be the enemy of the pragmatic better. Let's get all workers paid the same for the same work and then we can iron out the nuances which, by the way, I realize is far easier said than done. But, we have to start somewhere and equal pay for equal work seems as good a place as any.
  • Posted on: 01/23/2018

    Would Iceland’s equal pay law work in the U.S.?

    Ben, I'm not sure that equal pay for equal work signals an automatic end to meritocracy. The issue isn't whether objectively better employees should be paid the same as mediocre workers, it's whether women should be paid the same as men for the same work. If gender isn't a factor in determining "merit" -- then there should be no problem. I think any number of approaches could work -- emphasis on could -- provided gender is not a consideration. Of course, that's pretty hard to ensure given the good old boy culture that still dominates in corporate America.
  • Posted on: 01/23/2018

    Would Iceland’s equal pay law work in the U.S.?

    I'm not sure your premise with respect to pay equality is accurate if you look across the brand spectrum of all hourly workers, especially blue collar workers. I think a rigorous analysis might find lots of examples of men out-earning women. That said, you raise an interesting point in respect to tenure. It would be useful to see an analysis of layoffs and downsizing based on gender. Ditto for promotions, especially from hourly to salary. I'm not sure why we are discussing the efficacy of equal pay for equal work. That should be the law -- period, full stop. But, as you suggest, it is a complicated model. If men get preferential pay, promotion, training, etc. then they will also have longer tenure, more experience, etc. -- all of which becomes a justification for pay inequality.
  • Posted on: 01/22/2018

    Diversity isn’t easy

    I think most companies with failed diversity models have one thing in common -- resistance to true diversity. There are a variety of tripwires along the path to true diversity. The first is, "Let's hire/promote/create a board seat for, "one of everything," -- i.e., women, members of the LGBTQ community, Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans, etc. In harsher times, this was called tokenism. The other is to adopt the proportional fallacy, i.e., "If women represent 52 percent of the population, then 52 percent of our executives should be women." What both these approaches suffer from is the assumption that true diversity is just a numbers game. As Marvin Ellison noted, when he was viewed as a quota figure whose job was to adjust to the existing corporate cultural model he was frustrated and his ability to impact his company for the better was thwarted. Once he embraced himself, and his co-workers began to appreciate and embrace his unique experiences, the real power of diversity began to manifest itself.Diversity takes on myriad forms -- gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, age, physical condition, religious conviction, economic, social class, etc. -- and most importantly experiences and ideas. It isn't -- or shouldn't be -- a matter of checking off the boxes. With the possible exception of the tech industry, (and then not in terms of gender diversity) American corporate culture is primarily old, white, male, straight and -- increasingly -- entitled. Just bringing in, "different kinds," of people isn't necessarily going to change any or all of that. And that only touches the most obvious aspects of diversity. Any number of my clients are increasingly hiring from a handful of universities. Sure, MBA graduates from Harvard, Wharton, Chicago and Stanford come in a broad assortment of, "types," but they have all been trained to think in pretty much the same way.The real key to making diversity effective is to learn how to recognize, encourage and celebrate difference rather than just accommodating it.
  • Posted on: 01/19/2018

    Is personalization the new loyalty?

    Let me respectfully disagree with the article which states, "If high-value or high-potential customers don’t perceive they’re getting something 'extra' for their loyal behavior, there’s no incentive for them to change their behavior by buying more, shopping more often, and referring their friends — and all you’ve accomplished with your personalization efforts is to raise your cost of doing business."This is confusing personalization with rewards, customer acquisition, buying business or whatever. If a retailer has a truly personalized relationship with me they will be giving me what I uniquely want, so why should I care what somebody else is getting? Personalization is about building relationships first and hoping they lead to transactions. Most loyalty programs are about encouraging transactions first and hoping they lead to relationships or pretending they are relationships. It's an apples and oranges question.
  • Posted on: 01/19/2018

    Can Wakefern crowdsource away its out-of-stocks?

    Decades ago Superquinn in Ireland experimented with a low-tech version of this -- they awarded extra loyalty points to shoppers reporting out-of-stocks. Crude but effective. Several retailers are also exploring using robots to scan shelves in real-time. Seems like an easier and ultimately more effective solution to me.
  • Posted on: 01/19/2018

    Incentives drive web survey responses

    I'm not a fan of professional respondents and, therefore increasingly, I'm not a fan of surveys. If the object is to get a reward the incentive is to speed through the survey. So while it improves response rates I think it degrades overall quality. In terms of what's most effective -- cash or gift cards.
  • Posted on: 01/18/2018

    Forget Kroger. Will Boxed open its own stores?

    Mr. Huang is partially right; if Boxed can't cross the financing hurdle, the answer is, no. But even with financing Werdelin is right -- doing digital retailing in a physical space is just as problematic as trying to do physical retailing on the Internet -- some practices don't work in both contexts, some do and some have to be modified or they will fail.As to the second question, digital retailers rely on information-driven systems more than merchandising gut checks. They don't have decades of institutional wisdom to draw from or ignore. And they are slightly more likely to focus on customer feedback than inventory management. That said, those are tendencies and may not serve them all that well in practice.
  • Posted on: 01/18/2018

    Could ‘platform thinking’ be a blueprint for retail success?

    I would have liked to have heard her whole speech since the gist of her argument isn't crystal clear to me here. That said, like Carol, I have been beating the drum that retailers have to stop thinking in terms of selling "stuff" and find new ways to optimize space for -- quite literally, sadly -- decades. If you want to label that "platform thinking," fine with me, but I think that begins to trivialize the potential. Also I don't accept, as presented at least, the argument that you can't compete with "large platforms." Good thing nobody told that to Sam Walton, or Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or we would all still be going to the A&P and operating IBM mainframes. Myth has it that the cockroach co-existed with the dinosaur, and we see who won that fight. Of the elements listed above I guess I would opt for the third. If you don't understand how your offering fits into your customers' lives, no platform is going to save you.
  • Posted on: 01/18/2018

    Walmart CEO: ‘Retail is about change’

    My advice is that there is no option. Over 40 years ago in "Future Shock" Alvin Toffler said that the thing that distinguishes and defines the modern era is change in the rate of change. That assessment was made by looking at what we now know was the tip of the iceberg. So creating a culture of change is an imperative. The first step is to find ways of communicating that nothing good happens without change rather than focusing on the downside risk. As to hurdles, there are lots of them but two of the biggest are: slavish adherence to conventional wisdom and the fact that, in many cases, employees come to the job with more sophisticated technological skills than the people that manage them. It's hard to "teach" someone how to use -- and optimize -- a tool if you yourself have no idea of its potential.
  • Posted on: 01/17/2018

    CPG brands push retailers to up their tech games

    To me this -- and related issues -- come down to two slightly different questions: a.) Who ought to "own" the store from a merchandising, branding and customer experience point of view and what are they rating to accomplish? and b.) Do you see a store as fixed real estate divided into sections or as a platform broad enough to facilitate a wide variety of technologies, media, customer uses, etc.?If you don't think of it this way you get stuck in what I call, "old think," or seeing the future as variations on past practices. So for example, if retailers believe they are creating a "platform" it should be as fully technologically enabled as possible in order to accommodate any possibility. This puts the onus on manufacturers to have offerings equal to the platform. If, on the other hand, manufacturers are driving changes to meet their proprietary needs -- sometimes at the expense of the greater good -- then we will quickly evolve to high-tech versions of slotting allowances and performance fees. Upgrades shouldn't be undertaken on a project by project basis, at least if retailers want to retain control of their stores.
  • Posted on: 01/17/2018

    Will tech fix fashion’s environmental problems?

    The quick direct answer to the question is, no. The only way to achieve really meaningful environmental impact is to convert the mass market end of the supply chain, not just the fringe or tip. If we took the sales of all of the companies mentioned in this article they wouldn't represent a rounding error on the books of large manufacturers. This is also an example of what used to be called, "first-world thinking." Most of the planet needs clothing -- full stop. Environmental concerns -- while they often most directly impact poorer populations -- are all too often luxuries only the affluent can afford.As to which is most effective, we need more information. Recycling and repurposing always seems like the best answer but can lead to secondary problems. Frankenclothing seems like a good idea, but the target customers are likely to be the most vocal opponents. Unmade is good in theory, but the fact is many people don't know what size they really are. So ordering a size-six dress or a 38 regular suit still creates issues if you are actually a size 10 or a 44 portly. So if we really want to make significant environmental improvements we should be looking at rethinking mass marketers' supply chains, not at boutique solutions.
  • Posted on: 01/17/2018

    At NRF Show, CVS calls for transparency in beauty

    As a man I want to avoid the error of gender presumption by trying to pontificate on how women and girls will respond. As a person, it seems to make good sense. Older generations were conditioned to think of advertising as aspirational, i.e., representing an idealized goal the consumer could strive to match. This creates issues for everyone. Younger shoppers are -- at least marketers assure us -- more focused on issues like integrity, humanity and values and so, on against those criteria, the CVS campaign should be well received.As to what the changes, "... have more to do with ...," I'd say the options aren't mutually exclusive. Empowerment, for example, is a health issue -- both mental and, in many cases, physical. So if we look at it from a customer's point of view the benefits seem to be authenticity, respect and the empowerment that comes from understanding that business is willing to both listen and hear one's concerns. From CVS' point of view it seems to be all about moving closer toward a transparent, authentic statement of being a supplier addressing total customer health and wellness.
  • Posted on: 01/16/2018

    Should showrooms replace closed stores?

    Most stores close for a reason -- changing fashion, changing competition, changing customers. If a store can't sustain enough volume on its own, maybe there's a reason and, if there is a reason, maybe it means there isn't enough room for a showroom. There are also lease considerations, sublet potentials, etc. I'd say each of these opportunities has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but my guess is that in many of them, the economics won't work out.
  • Posted on: 01/16/2018

    What’s the trick to handling online returns?

    It seems the future of online returns looks something like the Amazon policy -- or at least how it's supposed to work -- print a label, slap in on a package, drop it off with UPS or USPS and wait for an expedited refund. The only additional step I'd take is to accept everything back you sell without question. That's how you are going to make customers (generally) happy and not clog your stores. The fact is, most companies aren't good on returns and probably burn up excessive capital and customer good will needlessly. Better to take the hit on potential fraud then to lose one percent of customers because they are dissatisfied with your returns policy.

Contact Ryan

  • Apply to be a BrainTrust Panelist

  • Please briefly describe your qualifications — specifically, your expertise and experience in the retail industry.