How to Make Agency Partnerships Work

As chief Renegade for the better part of two decades, I’ve witnessed first hand the innumerable variations client-agency relationships can take. Some have been multi-dimensional like our phenomenal 15-year partnership with Panasonic.  Others have been more focused like the BankCab guerrilla marketing program which drove customers to HSBC for 13 years. Some clients have given us a clean slate to solve a particular marketing challenge while others have been more prescriptive, defining the channels they want us to cover.  Some lay out the budget parameters, others ask us what we need to get the job done.  Some really truly treat us like partners, others as interchangeable vendors.

And here’s the crazy part, at Renegade we are incredibly selective about the clients we work with, seeking out the one’s that welcome Renegade thinking and want mutually beneficial partnerships. Yet somehow we’ve never been able to predict which relationships will endure.  Part of the unpredictability is personnel changes — you start with one client team and can end up with a very different one down the road. Part of it is that only a few clients put a premium on their agency relationships such that they actually train their marketing employees on the care and feeding of these relationships.  One exception to that rule is American Express which is why I was so thrilled to interview Pepper Evans, who until recently was Vice President of Branding & Member Engagement Marketing. Pepper actually ran a training program for AmEx marketers helping these folks learn how to be effective clients and as a result get better results from their partners. If the old saying, “Clients get the work they deserve” is true, read on to find out how you can always be on the right side of that formula. (By the way, you can hear Pepper speak at the Incite Group Marketing Summit October 27-28.)

Drew: Some clients approach agencies as vendors, others as long-term partners.  Can you speak to some of the advantages of the partnership approach? Is there measurable value here? 

Pepper: I firmly believe you should treat your agency like a partner in order to get the best results. That mindset leads to a different way of working together. First, you openly share your business objectives and metrics so that the agency can help you solve your issues. After all, you’ve hired them to provide a different point of view. Second, a partnership mindset assumes trust from the outset. You establish trust as a team norm, meaning they know you as the client have the agency’s back and will defend them and the work internally. In turn, the agency tends to give 110% to the project. Third, by being partners, there is an assumed give and take in the relationship, a mutual respect for each other’s expertise that is critical to success. What I’ve seen is that all of this leads to a commitment to doing great work together.

Drew: What are some of the things you think clients can do make their agency relationships more productive? 

Pepper: Clients can make their agency relationships more productive by doing three things:

1—Understand the client’s role in the creative process. It is to provide strategic direction and feedback in the form of comments against the brief. It is not to play creative director.

2—Be appreciative of the creative process. When giving feedback, remember that a human being is behind the work. Don’t be a bully. Say thank you early and often!

3—Recognize the agency is a business too. Both sides have to be financially successful.

Drew: A lot of clients are moving to project-based relationships versus AORs. Are there any downsides to this approach? 

Pepper: Project-based engagements mean that team turns over more frequently, leading to new agency staff on your business. You lose that deep institutional knowledge. On the plus side, it can drive innovation by cross-pollinating ideas across brands more frequently.

Drew: Over the years, it’s been my experience that clients with agency experience either make the best or the worst of clients. Do you see it as an advantage that you had worked on the other side of the table? How did that make you a “better” client?

Pepper: I think former waitresses fall into the same camp: some of us, like me, always tip well while others have such high expectation about service, that nothing can live up! In general, I do think it’s an advantage because it makes you more empathetic to who is sitting across the table from you. Anyone who has had a late night scrambling for a client deliverable is well aware of the impact of each client request and how that trickles down the chain within an agency. Without that inside knowledge, it would be easier to treat the agency as a faceless group of people just spitting out the work. And that’s where the vendor mentality can sneak in.

Drew: Working with an agency is an art form that many have yet to perfect.  Is this a teachable skill? Is this something that a senior marketer can and should teach to more junior employees who are new to working with agencies?  (if you did this at AmEx, please elaborate)

Pepper: This is a skill set you can learn but I also think the partnership mindset has to be emphasized from the top down. In my last role at Amex, I held an agency day for all the marketers in Plenti who worked with our various agencies. We taught them how to write a brief, give creative feedback, and, importantly, work with the agency as a partner. Many of the junior people had never been exposed to these concepts in a formal setting before. I see this as almost a life skill. Plus, a good agency can make you look smart and help your career progression, which is another motivation.

Drew: What are some of the biggest and preventable mistakes that agencies make that prevent enduring them from having relationships?  

Pepper: I’ve seen agencies lose relationships in two main ways. The first is by getting greedy and pushing work that is unnecessary, which fractures trust. The second is failing to treat the client with equal respect and assuming an “agency knows best” approach.

Drew: You won a leadership award at Amex for your relationship building efforts.  Can you elaborate on that? 

Pepper:: I’m very proud of winning the President’s Leadership Award. It was in recognition of my ability to motivate and manage both internal and external teams through challenging situations. I believe my job as a leader is to point out the North Star and then use every carrot (not the stick!) in my garden to encourage people to find the creativity, strength, and imagination within themselves to get there.

Keeping the Customer Front and Center

water skiing crash bigGripping tightly to the lifeless plastic handle I could only muster a fainthearted “hit it” to the speedboat skipper 50 feet away. This was to be my third and final attempt to rise above my skis and frankly I was already drained and shivering. The first effort had ended in a face plant with skis scattered across the surface like an old-fashioned yard sale. The second was only slightly less ugly. My already formulated excuse was going to be that the boat was too weighed down with passengers to yank my sad ass above the surface. Fortunately, the third time was the charm as I kept my weight back as instructed and let the skis do their magic. Once elevated, I hurled myself out of the wake regaining some semblance of the athletic confidence I usually take for granted and romped around the lake like a champ.

Had you not seen my false starts or heard any of the coaching I received before liftoff, you might have thought it was just another effortless and solitary accomplishment by an experienced (read middle aged) jock.  [Stay with me now as I deftly transition to the real story here!] This is not unlike the experience most of us have when seeing a finished product or a successful marketing campaign. Typically, we don’t bother to ask about the team behind the product or about any of the missteps along the way. As consumers, we take all that for granted as we should. But as marketers, we can’t afford such incuriousness. We have to go deeper. We must look under the surface. We must understand the process behind the success.
And yes, that’s exactly what I did during a recent conversation with Kieran Hannon, the CMO of Belkin, the makers of Belkin, Linksys and Wemo products. Kieran, as you may remember is featured in my book, The CMO’s Periodic Table under the element “Storytelling.”  This time we went even deeper, covering his impressive three-year plan, Belkin’s inclusive product development process, influencer marketing and more. While Kieran appears not to have had too many wipeouts along the way, what you will discover is a marketer whose seemingly effortless glide is wholly the result of determination, collaboration and well earned experience.

Drew: One of the things that you mentioned to me was your three-year plan. Where are you on that plan, and how is it coming along?

Kieran: We’re now going into year four. Year 1 was focused on the organization itself. It was aimed at educating our marketing teams across the globe, helping them understand their roles, the needs in the markets, and the priorities of the company. Essentially, Year 1 was building a team that could deliver global marketing programs and lead that development. Year 2 was aimed at aligning the region and the corporate goals because we were decentralized at that point. In Year 2, the global marketing teams were supporting all three brands. Some of the team members were dedicated to a brand but in a lot of other respects, the teams worked across multiple brands. For instance, the CRM team has worked across all brands. Now, CRM is embedded into each brand, they are in control of their own destiny and their needs as a great example. Additionally, we had designers sitting in 11 different functional groups around the world. Now, all designers are in one group in each brand, so there is a single management structure for each brand. Those are just a few examples of streamlining, and bringing focus and prioritization around the world.

Drew: What was the result of this plan?

Kieran: As a premium brand, Belkin is doing very well in a somewhat commoditized market. Our focus on highly differentiated products and experiences is making a big difference. For example, when you travel you’ll see Belkin in all the Hudson News stores around the US and around the world. For Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Hudson came to us and asked if they could build a Belkin store because travelers find the brand so compelling.

At CES, one of our products, the Valet Charge Dock for the Apple watch and iPhone was voted Best in Show. That’s another example of the design innovation Belkin is reknowed for — and it’s been a tremendous success.

Drew: Let’s talk about product innovation and marketing and where product development sits relative to marketing. How do you ensure that there’s a marketing idea built into the product?

Kieran: Sure. Let me tell you about ScreenCare +, a new applicator system that we launched in all Apple stores. That is not just a product; it’s an experience. The product management team, the industrial design teams and the marketing teams worked very closely in the development of that program from embedded testing to the testing of different formats for training of store specialists. We have what’s called our “E2” planning processes with different gates and as a product goes from formation into development, marketing and other groups provide input and feedback. This insures alignment throughout our exciting and rewarding process.

Drew: It really is amazing how Wi-Fi is at the center of everything, the enabler of the Internet of Things.

Kieran: It’s such a key enabler. A lot of people have so many devices at home, they don’t realize they’re probably sitting there with a three or four-year-old Wi-Fi router and it’s wrecking the experience of these great devices that they bought. What’s worse than when you want to go online in the evening with your family to stream a movie, and all you see is buffering? A lot of the issues are because you have an old router and there are another ten devices connected to the Wi-Fi that are impeding the ability to deliver that signal. To help our customers have a better experience, you can now prioritize within the Linksys system your Netflix streaming device and de-prioritize other devices.

Drew: How are you incorporating influencer marketing into your overall strategy?

Kieran: We’ve done a number of influencer programs over the years and they’re very target based. We spend a lot of time ensuring that we get the right type of influencers that can really amplify our cause. Importantly, we let them drive the project. We just want our influencers to express their feelings about the brand, the products and the experience in a way that’s most meaningful to them. Full transparency is pretty critical and we’ve been very pleased with every influencer program we’ve done.

Drew: What are the pitfalls of influencer program?

Kieran: I think the fundamental pitfall is trivialization, either trivializing the audience or trivializing the role the product plays. It doesn’t mean that you heighten the role of the product in that experience but you don’t want to trivialize it either. So, I think it’s best to be authentic throughout the partnership.

Drew:  I think one of the challenges clients encounter is evaluating the success of influencer programs relative to other activities. How do you evaluate these programs?

Kieran: It’s the crossover between paid and earned media that’s really powerful and puts the icing on the cake. We have both consumers and retail partners as our audience, and how they talk about and relate to our brands is very important. We think about that as we build up these influencer programs.

Drew: As a company that introduces innovative products and services, how do you make sure your media and your marketing is innovative? Is the medium the message sometimes?

Kieran: Oh, absolutely. I’ll give you an example. A great program that we do with Hulu is at the point of buffering, we deliver a message to people that you don’t have to have that experience – you just need a more powerful router. So, the medium can absolutely be the message. On the Belkin side, we’ve done some great programs with other mobile platforms that really bring to life what you’re doing at that moment in time. So yes, the medium is equally important as the message in a lot of cases.

Drew: The geo-fencing program you did is particularly innovative. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Kieran: Yes, we are doing an interesting program with geo-fencing where we understand when the consumer is in the proximity of a retail partner and we can share with them the relevant personal message to that proximity.

Note: This is part 1 of my interview with Belkin’s Kieran Hannon, part 2 will appear on Social Media Explorer soon.  

Battling Goliath: How to Win as the Underdog

As my daughter was heading off to Copenhagen for a semester abroad five years ago, my “cheap dad” instincts went into high gear. With visions of thousands of dollars of long-distance cellular calls on my horizon, I suggested to her that we use a free messaging app that one of our client’s at the time had introduced. Her lightning response via SMS was, “Don’t worry dad, when all my friends went overseas they used WhatsApp and I’ve already installed it.” Of course, that settled the issue. We did use WhatsApp, helping her get through a long dark Scandinavian winter and saving me a kingdom of Krone.

That first hand encounter with messaging apps also shed light on what we could call the “community effect.” The adoption of mobile messaging apps typically happens in waves of users, community by community. And scale within a community matters since their value increases with the number of friends and family that also use the same app. This helps explain why one app could be very popular in one country and almost nonexistent in another. Most of these apps grew by word of mouth, spreading from friend to friend and in some cases, daughter to father.

The “community effect” creates a remarkable marketing challenge.  How do you generate community versus one by one adoption?  Can you accelerate word of mouth with a burst of advertising?  And how do you do all of that in the face of ginormous competitors like WeChat, Messenger and WhatsApp? Well enough of the hypothetical questions, join me as I interview Scott Nelson, the North American head of Viber, a five-year-old messaging app with over 750 million users worldwide.  As you will soon see, Scott learned a lot from his recent campaign that included a unique blend of traditional media, digital ads, content and influencer marketing and he was kind enough to share it to good effect with this community.

Drew: I read that Viber launched a marketing campaign in late 2015. Can you tell me what prompted this effort?

Scott: Up until probably a few years ago we had no marketing department. As we grew our base very quickly and learned more about our users, we realized that there was a very emotional connection with our product. Our first real campaign specifically here in the US was mainly to increase awareness around Viber. We have a really good global footprint, with users all around the world, but in the US people are not as familiar with the brand. So, number one was to increase US awareness around Viber. Then, number two was what I called a reappraisal for those people that knew of Viber but didn’t know that we had several different elements in the platform. We wanted to bring them up to speed on the services we offered.

Drew: Can you say a little more about the structure of your 2015 campaign? 

Scott: We launched an outdoor advertising campaign that included the more traditional marketing and then we went deeper with a digital partnership, bringing in several different influencers to help our overall public chat platform. We aligned ourselves with well-known artists, and the likes of the Barclays Center to create live experiences within the app. We did several different things from traditional advertising elements to deeply social campaigns, so it was a pretty robust effort from September into December of 2015.

Drew: Let’s talk about metrics. Did you have a tracking study in place for awareness?

Scott: We conducted a brand connectivity study with our Spotified partnership, so we were able to get tracking information. We worked with performance media so we had a couple of different forms of brand tracking involved.

Drew: What were some of your findings?

Scott: There are a couple of different kinds of things that we looked at like how number of downloads related to awareness of the brand. When we looked at average yearly growth, we saw that our downloads had doubled, meaning we did really well when it came to actually getting people interested in downloading the app. Next, we looked at the daily active users and the monthly active users, which we call our DAU-MAU. A lot of the content that we created, and a lot of the efforts of the campaign were meant to get people coming back to the app on a daily basis. We did well on that front also.

Drew: Did you look at social media in your metric analysis?

Scott: Yes, we found that we had increases to 700% in overall brand mentions of the Viber name throughout all of social media. We saw a 20% increase in overall positive brand sentiments around Viber. We also focused heavily social media which did many things for our brand, and it was a really good learning experience since we hadn’t done much in the social media space before this campaign.

Drew: What are some of the bigger lessons you learned from this campaign?

Scott: One of the things that we’ve learned is the importance of focus. We decided it was best to narrow down to two things and do them very well, as opposed to working at five or six different goals. Then, number two is creating the right content. You’re trying to get people to come back to the service on a daily basis so you have to figure out what that right content is. Then, you have to realize that the right content for the messaging app space is different than what you create for social media or offline partnerships. Understanding the category and helping our partners create the right content that again is relevant to our user in each space is crucial.

Drew: So after getting people to download and use your app, the next step is to monetization. How is this done over at Viber?

Scott: We have two forms of monetization. One is for our Sticker Market. So you know, we have a very large sticker marketplace, and some of these are paid stickers, which is one form of monetization. Number two is Viber Out, which is a calling feature where if you have Viber and you’re calling someone with a landline, you’re charged a reduced rate.

Drew: I’m guessing more than 90% of that base is international. Even though you were focused on the US, was there any ripple effect on a global basis?

Scott: Yes, definitely. We’ve been working to create programs here in the US that will have a ripple effect into some of our larger regions around the world, namely Russia, South East Asia, India, etc.

Drew: How does Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp inform your marketing strategy?

Scott: Again, the category is rapidly growing. It’s the hot sexy category to be in right now, and I’m thankful to be a part of it. WhatsApp is gigantic, Messenger is gigantic, WeChat in China is gigantic. For a US-based service like us, we don’t have as deep a penetration as an app like Messenger or WhatsApp. So then we have to consider, “What do we do and how do we act, and what do we bring to market that might be different and useful for our consumer?” Anyhow, we are constantly brainstorming how we can be better than our competition. But at the same time, it’s all about what Viber is doing, and how we can improve our service.

Drew: You mentioned earlier that your team incorporated influencer programs into your marketing strategy; these are often very challenging for marketers to implement. Can you tell me how influencers were integrated into Viber’s wider marketing initiatives?

Scott: I’ve been working with influencer programs throughout my career, and I think ecommerce is probably one of the best blueprints of how to work with an influencer in the most authentic way. During my time at Converse, I learned how to create the right influencer program there, and have kept those lessons with me throughout my career. For me, it’s all about authenticity. Finding the right people that are authentic to whatever you’re working on, your brand, your company, etc. Our influencers came to us because they saw it as a platform where they could develop their own brand globally within the mobile messaging app space. The next step was to determine how relevant they were in popular culture. If they’re not relevant, then we don’t want them on our platform. We are more interested in people who are up-and-coming. Thirdly, our influencers needed to have large groups following their lead. That doesn’t mean they have millions of followers on Instagram, but more that they have a rabid kind of audience that paying attention to what they do. 

Drew: Is there any individual that you would point to as a success story or prototype for Viber’s influencer program?

Scott: Yeah, absolutely. YesJulz is an entertainer down in Miami, South Beach. She came onto the scene probably two years ago because she started to do some really interesting things on Snapchat. She then became known as the Snapchat darling in South Florida, eventually making a name for herself in New York and LA. She was clearly very tech savvy so we got in talks with her about Viber. At the end, she understood the platform and really loved it. She then started her public chat, and now has well over 1.2 million followers. So, we basically took her from more of a local, US influencer to someone who is now getting calls from Berlin, Tokyo, Tel Aviv, and Rio. So, YesJulz is a great example of how utilizing the Viber platform in the right way can really enhance your personal brand.

CMO Insights: How the Grammys Became More Than a One Night Affair

The Grammys have brought us some of the best moments in television, and the most spectacular performances in music. From Michael Jackson’s moonwalk across the stage in ’88 to the Elton John and Eminem duet in ’01, and most recently Lady Gaga’s tribute to David Bowie, the Grammys have been the place for historical moments in music. And if you’re like me, you brim with excitement before the show, and are unable to stop rehashing the night’s best moments for days after. One night a year, the telecast captivates people around the world and easily dominates the conversation on social. However, is the show on your mind for other 364 days? Well, I spoke with Evan Greene, a friend of mine and CMO of the Recording Academy, to hear how his team approaches the challenge of marketing a show that airs one night per year. Key words here: social, social, and more social.

Drew: What does your marketing purview include?

Evan: I can tell you that anything that touches the Grammy brand ultimately runs through the marketing area, whether it’s marketing and brand strategy, PR, social media, digital content and yes, partner strategy. We represent the biggest brand in music, and for other brands, there is value in aligning with us. We partnered with other brands to utilize the impact and the marketing reach of brands that are complementary to our own. Also, we are a 501(C) 6, a not-for-profit trade organization, and this affects our marketing strategy.

Drew: How does it affect your marketing partnerships, specifically?

Evan: We put together marketing partnerships so that we can leverage the impact of the Grammys, which is unparalleled in terms of credibility and prestige. On the flipside, the value that partners bring to the table opens up other marketing channels. Now, because of the prestige of our brand, there is a value associated which means there still needs to be an economic model in place.

Drew: Was there partner integration for Lady Gaga’s performance? Did Intel do the projection?

Evan: Yes. This was the first time when we partnered with a company to actually help us enhance the performance. If you notice, there was no Intel visibility or attribution on the telecast because we wanted it to be subtle. We focused on making the performance memorable, something that people would be talking about for a long time. At the end of the day, Intel received a tremendous amount of credit and earned media.

Drew: And with that comes months of hard work and constant communication between Intel and the Grammys.

Evan: Yes, there was a lot of heavy lifting and coordination. We put something together that had never been done before. There were things that happened on the Grammy stage from a technology standpoint that have never been put on television. It really was the next generation of Grammy moments, right before our eyes.

Drew: Every year, you challenge your agency to do some new things. Let’s talk about the new things that you did this year in terms of marketing and social.

Evan: This year we started thinking about the inspirational power of music and the intersection between music and sports. Sports came in because it was SuperBowl 50 and it ran on CBS, eight days prior to the Grammy Awards, which created an extraordinary opportunity to bring the two together. We engaged our agency of record, Chiat/Day, which in my opinion is one of the best shops on the planet.

Drew: How was the concept further developed?

Evan: We started from the standpoint of how do we celebrate sports and music. How do we align the best in music with the best in sports, globally? What came out of that was a powerful tagline, called “Witness Greatness.” We looked at the music that inspires the athletes who in turn inspire the world. “Witness Greatness” really is about the inspirational power of music, and we could apply that in a number of ways.

Drew: So you were able to move beyond just the “Witness Greatness” tagline?

Evan: Yes, it was not only the theme and tagline, but also the visual representation and how we applied it. We then applied the theme to social and made sure that any visual we associated with represented greatness. We made sure to elevate that conversation whenever and wherever possible.

Drew: How did your team focus on the witness portion of “Witness Greatness”?

Evan: We have a companion stream, sort of a shoulder programming experience called “Grammy Live.” It shows different angles and elements, not necessarily the telecast itself, but it shows backstage etc. This year, we inserted a camera inside the base of the Grammy statute so that we could actually witness greatness in a different way-from the position in the POV of the statue itself. We got some great footage and content that had never been captured before. 

Drew: After the Grammy team fully adopts the theme, I’m guessing the next step is for the media to pick it up?

Evan: Yes, and was amazing when the media starts quoting our taglines, and when other members of our social ecosystem started organically using the “Witness Greatness” hashtag. When I think about all the touch points, from those doing social to the persons pitching media stories, to our marketing partners, there is a consistent look and feel across the board.

Drew: Any favorite projects from the “Witness Greatness” theme?

Evan: There were a couple of components that I found particularly exciting. If you go on our YouTube page,, there is a video that we did with Kendrick Lamar in his hometown of Compton. We went on the street, and asked people to sing a couple of lines from his song Alright, which has become sort of an anthem over the past year. We created a video of all of these individuals singing particular lines of the song, and at the end, it culminated with an impromptu performance and the tagline was “Greatness Comes From Everywhere.” This served as a drive to the Grammys. 

Drew: I know the Grammys has worked with user-generated content in the past. Can you give an example of how you used UGC in past seasons?

Evan: Several years ago, we had a campaign called “We’re All Fans,” and it underscored the idea that what makes an artist great are the fans. With that in mind, we invited fans to upload videos of themselves and become part of the campaign. That was probably the most organic example that we had. People actually got to see themselves as part of the national Grammy campaigns, creating mosaics of Lady Gaga and other global superstar artists.

Drew: How was UGC executed for this Grammy season?

Evan: The idea really drives the execution. This year, our campaign was about creating the conversation, engaging with fans and having them share what about their favorite artists represents ‘Greatness.’ So in terms of UGC, we didn’t invite video submissions this time around, but we focused on having respectful dialog with our fans and followers about inspiration and greatness.

Drew: The reviews have been very successful on social. Obviously, you’re at the center of the social media conversation during the show, but you’re still very present months after it aired. How is that even possible?

Evan: I think we’ve been very successful and I am happy with the work of our social team and everybody involved in that effort. I think we can get better, I really do. The core reason for this year-round success is respecting fans and speaking with trust and authenticity.

Drew: What are some of the mistakes you are seeing other organizations make with their social media?

Evan: When communication seems gratuitous, and it is focused purely on making a sale or driving behavior, consumers see right through that. We simply want to be a credible part of the music conversation. When you look at the brands that resonate and break through, it’s the ones that earn your trust. If you speak with authenticity, and you respect your audience, then that becomes the cornerstone of trust. Trust is how you build a long-term relationship.

Drew: Being a nonprofit, how do you allocate the money brought in from the Grammys?

Evan: The money that we make doesn’t go to pay dividends, meet a quota or achieve net profit goals. It’s filtered right back into the music industry so we can create more in-school music programs and empower the next generation of music makers. We give back in a variety of different ways to enhance and srengthen the industry platform that the Recording Academy sits on.

Drew: One of the other things that you’ve done over the years is expand the Grammys from Grammy night to Grammy week. I feel like this was Grammy month. Where are you right now in terms of the scale of the Grammys?

Evan: I think we’ve made a considerable amount of progress over the years, but we still have a ways to go. What has struck me is that we’ve built this massive brand with a tremendous amount of impact by virtue of a single television event held for three-and-a-half hours, one night per year. The marketing opportunity that creates is enormous. If we take a proactive brand management approach, how impactful and powerful a brand could we be if we continue to extend throughout the year?

Drew: What a challenge! How do you rate progress? 

Evan: I think we have expanded the impact of the Grammy as a brand, beyond simply one night per year. I do not believe that we are anywhere close to being there yet where people started thinking about the Grammys as a relevant brand they need to interact with in June, July, and August. But like I said, we’re making progress and there are a number of exciting things on the horizon.

CMO Insights: The Undeniably Power of PR

An apology is in order. Probably not the only one that you’ll see from me on this blog but certainly one that is a long overdue.  This one goes out to the thousands of public relations professionals, particularly the ones who almost always find a way to plant the seed that becomes a story, who uncover the news when others just see a plain old brief, who instinctually know a potential buzz machine from the proverbial blind alley.  To these fine folk who helped drive the success of many of Renegade’s classic guerrilla marketing successes (BankCab anyone?), I officially apologize for omitting Public Relations as an Element in my book, The CMO’s Periodic Table: A Renegade’s Guide to Marketing.

Please note that this was not a conscious omission but rather a statistical anomaly.  In retrospect, it seems impossible that PR wouldn’t become front and center in one of the over 150 interviews with senior marketers I conducted prior to finishing the book.  To make amends, not that any of you are all that upset or not used to receding from the marketing spotlight, I am thrilled to present part 1 of my interview with Caralene Robinson, CMO at Vh1. A recipient of last year’s CMO Award for Creativity, Caralene was kind enough to share her thoughts on the importance of PR and how that aspect of marketing is so critical to the success of VH1 programming.

Drew: Last year you won The CMO Club’s creativity award. Can you talk about a program you’ve done at VH1 that you’re particularly proud of?

The sheer volume of projects times rate of change demands constant innovation. So there are many programs I quite proud of. For example, the launch of our original scripted movie, Crazy Sexy Cool: The TLC Story. TLC was cultural phenomenon that came to life in the most authentic way. It was an incredible multifaceted campaign. The film and the campaign were used as momentum to launch a new TLC album. Epic Records saw the opportunity, decided to release an album simultaneously, and this collaboration amplified the impact. In general marketing has changed so much. When I first started, there was no such thing as social media and print was the big thing. The dynamics of the marketing mix have completely changed. I am particularly proud of campaigns where we effectively partner with Press, which I see as a critical part of the marketing mix. I have a great consumer marketing team that constantly looks for activations designed to get people talking in a very unbiased way.

Drew: Is there another example you’d like to share?

Dating Naked is a great example. For Season 1, we released a viral video that generated more than 2 million views. What we spent on that is nominal compared to the views. So creating adjacent content that captures the pop culture zeitgeist and gets people talking is huge. For Season 2, we created an outdoor board in Hollywood that was essentially peel-off stickers. Consumers could walk up and peel for prizes, eventually revealing the two nude leads of the show. I like the stuff that gets people talking.

Drew: My book The CMO’s Periodic Table covers 64 elements of marketing but there is one element that I know I haven’t really covered very well, and that’s PR. Could you talk a little bit more about the role that PR plays in your business, and how you make sure that your marketing is buzz-worthy and press-worthy?

Since the beginning of my career I’ve always considered Press part of the marketing mix. We can’t survive without our amazing Press team, which reports directly to our President, Chris McCarthy. Press is equally as important as paid media, social and on-air. So there is never an instance where we’re not walking hands-in-hand with the press team, regardless of where it lives in the organization. Extending the overall strategy via press not only on the consumer side, but also the trade side as well is crucial.

When you’re evaluating a potential marketing campaign, do you compare them based on how much press one might get over the other?

Well, I think we all do that. We look at a number of factors and prioritize launches. In terms of press, some shows are stickier than others. But that’s why our press team is really good at what they do. They figure out the starting point and ask the right questions – what do I have to work with? They look at everything–the actual concept of the show, the talent, our marketing plans, etc. Then they figure out how to create excitement.

Drew: It’s got to be easier to get press for VH1 than it would be for Coke. Are there some lessons that you think that someone outside the entertainment space could draw from your experience at the VH1 in terms of getting press coverage?

I’ve had projects where it’s easy to get press, and I’ve had projects where it’s difficult to get press. It really depends. I’ve marketed carbonated beverages, dish liquid, and cell phones. I’ve gone from selling tangible products to intangible content. It varies on a project-by-project basis. In terms of press as a crucial part of the overall marketing mix, I think it’s important to customize pitches to verticals. Our VH1 press team is extremely good at this. What you pitch to a Fast Company is different than what you might pitch to Billboard, and different than what you might pitch to The Wendy Williams Show. And I don’t always feel like the brand needs to lead the story. It could be a pitch to the New York Times about adult millennials, for example. And if we’re just referenced in the article, that works for me too. Because that means we’re perceived as being culturally connected or culturally cognizant.

Speaking of Content: The Economist

If you’re a reader of The Economist, chances are you’re looking forward to the long weekend, not just for the barbecues and beer but also for the opportunity to read this week’s issue from cover to cover and maybe even finish previous editions.  Your devotion to this pub, one of the few news magazines that has weathered the digital tsunami, is grounded in a shared appreciation for insightful commentary from a very clear and consistent point-of-view.  A point-of-view that just about all news can be interpreted through an economic lens expressed via language that is sharp, sassy and to my ear, singularly British.

For content marketers, the lesson here should be obvious.  Without a distinctive brand voice, your content will drown in the 30 trillion pages of content Google indexed last year!  One way to overcome this challenge is to partner with a brand that already has a unique voice and a devoted audience.  To understand how that works, I talked to Jeff Pundyk VP of Global Integrated Content Solutions at The Economist a few months back. I’m confident you’ll find this interview worth reading before you fire up your next content program. [For more sizzling insights, join Jeff and me at the upcoming Corporate Social Media Summit in NYC June 20-21st.]

Drew: This may seem like a weird question for a content creation company, but do you have a content strategy for marketing The Economist beyond publishing a magazine and ezine? 

Our content strategy is simple and basically unchanged since the publication was founded in 1843 — serve the reader first. That’s true whether we’re doing print, film, digital, social, our aps or VR. That may sound obvious, but these days it’s not. Today as the media landscape morphs and as more and more alternatives to media companies emerge — and as the lines between content and marketing blur — readers don’t know who to trust.  We build trust and credibility by putting our readers’ interests above our own, by being fully transparent about our commercial relationships, by having a deep understanding of who our audience is and how to serve them uniquely.

Drew:  Years ago I used to attend lots of Economist events and they were always excellent. Many times these were centered around a new research study which today would be touted under the content marketing umbrella.   Do you still do a lot of events & studies and are these integrated into your overall content creation strategy?

Yes, we do many events and we continue to create sponsored content for our clients.  As the traditional advertising business declines, both of these are important services we can provide for our clients.   Happily, our readers are very open to the proposition of connecting to our clients through original content — whether that be an event, digital media, or an old-school report — because we have earned their trust and do not violate it.

Drew: With seemingly every brand thinking they need to be in the content creation business, where does that leave a long-time quality content creator like The Economist?

It’s never been a better time to be a company that makes quality content for a quality, global audience.  Given all the companies creating content, the question is how do you rise about the noise.  Our answer is by creating high-quality work that connects with our audience in ways that nobody else can match.

Drew: I read recently that Meredith made a deal with Georgia Pacific to create a lot of that brand’s content.  Are you looking at similar arrangements with marketers?

Yes, we have many clients for whom we create content, and have being doing so for a long time.  Some are traditional research programs like you remember and others are more innovative digital projects.  Our most well known is probably the program we do with GE, called Look ahead.  It’s a three-year program.  We create content for this program every day.  The content is not about GE but is about topics that GE is associated with — Transportation, Health, Advanced Manufacturing and Energy.  It is sponsored content created by a dedicated team of journalists who are separate from Economist journalists.  See it here:

Drew: As a publisher, you know only to well how costly it is to create really high quality content and then build an audience for that content.  Do brands really have a chance at getting this done right?

It doesn’t have to be expensive to get started and to start learning what works for you and for your audience.  There’s lots of ways to do small, smart experiments that will inform your bigger decisions.  Frankly, there is no alternative.  The people you are trying to reach  have clearly moved beyond the old school marketing-communications tactics.  If you don’t find new ways to engage, they will  get what they need somewhere else.  There’s no shortage of choices.

Drew: What are the most common mistakes you are seeing brands make in the area of content marketing?

 There’s a few simple questions anybody creating content should be able to answer:

  • Who are you trying to reach?
  • What are you trying to get them to do?
  • How will you reach them?
  • What can you tell them that is distinctive, relevent to them and credible coming from you?
  • What does success look like?

Before you start pumping out content, take the time to answer them.