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Dear Subscriber:

As you no doubt figured out, for the last two years The Drew Blog has exclusively featured the show notes from each weekly episode of Renegade Thinkers Unite. Feeling orphaned, we finally decided to merge it into a special location on which already contains all of the back episodes.

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Want to Rebrand? Make Sure Work From the Inside Out

Can one question change your life?  This certainly was the case for Gina McDuffie. In our podcast recording, Gina tells how when she was contemplating going to law school, her father asked her to give him three good reasons why. Turns out, she couldn’t come up with one and instead headed to Paris with $500 in her pocket and a willingness to try her hand at waitressing, bartending and even journalism.  A year later, she returned from the “School of Hard Knocks,” with a thorough understanding of who she was and her personal passion — “I love to build.”  This love of building drove her career choices, including her most recent move to VER, at which she presided over a major rebranding.

Brought in by new owners, Gina’s mission was to help transform marketing from a backstage afterthought to revenue-driving star.  Easier said than done especially with 1600 employees all used to doing business in a way that had worked for them for 30 years.  Recognizing the essential role employees play in any rebranding effort, Gina didn’t try to do the rebuilding alone and instead enlisted a core set of influencers.  This choice and more makes the interview below well worth your time and will make it easy for you to understand why The CMO Club honored Gina with their Rising Star award late last year.

Drew: Tell me about VER.

Gina: We are the amazing company that you’ve never heard of, but you have experienced. We provide production equipment and solutions to primarily entertainment industry and events industries. So any event you go to or pretty much anything you see on TV from the Super Bowl halftime show to the Emmys, the Grammys, the Oscars, major events around the country, VER is a part of it. So pretty much any event you go to, we are behind the scenes either providing the production equipment, working the equipment or coming up with a creative solution to make things happen that have never happened before.

Drew: Does the name VER stands for something?

Gina: Before I arrived, it stood for Video Equipment Rentals. VER started out more than 30 years ago renting video equipment solely. And then it just grew and grew and grew to now we provide lighting, audio, video, camera, LED, rigging, media servers, really all the production equipment you can imagine to major projects on six continents and we have 34 offices with 1,600 employees. It really has grown since its beginning and it was part of my job when I came in was to do a major rebrand.

Drew: You arrived at VER relatively recently. Was it an opportunity for a builder?

Gina: It’s good that I’m Gina the Builder because the company was 30 years old when I came in and there had been no marketing. The previous owner focused on customer relationships which served the company well. He told everybody, ‘go out there and make friends and if they want something and we don’t have it, buy it.’ So that was the marketing of the company. When I arrived, it had been just purchased by a private equity firm and there was no marketing infrastructure, no CRM program, no technology, not even an employee email list or a press list. There was nothing.

Drew: Wow! So where did you start?

Gina: So my job as CMO, first and foremost, was to work with the CEO on understanding and crafting a strategy. This certainly wasn’t about a revised logo or just changing colors. This was really figuring out the nuts and bolts in the strategy of the company, who we are, what we stand for, what services we offer and even what product categories are we in. Then it was dealing with all the tactical things that had never been done before, whether it’s PR, creating a whole new website, creating a digital environment, internal communication, lead generation and events. Essentially everything you can think of and it was starting from scratch.

Drew: Talk to me about the rebranding process.

Gina: Well there was one very easy thing about the rebrand and one very difficult thing about the rebrand. The very easy thing was customer and employee research. Everybody had very similar feedback regarding the company’s amazing culture, and that VER people will do anything for their clients. They are known for going way above and beyond, doing crazy stuff to get that one little piece that needs to be at the event and making sure the event is spectacular. And we are talking huge. We just did the Coachella Music Festival with 260 or more enormous screens. We’ve got guys hanging from the back to make sure that not one thing is out of place! So it was easy for me to understand the essence of the brand and the culture.

Drew: Okay, what was the difficult part?

Gina: The difficult thing was that we had 1,600 employees who didn’t understand that the company needed to change. What makes VER so special is the extremely talented and passionate people there. Many were skeptical of me coming in off the street saying VER needed to change. It was a really difficult time for me personally and professionally because I was trying to effect massive change that nobody thought was needed, other than the CEO and the private equity company.

Drew: So what were some of the key things that you did that enabled employees to get onboard?

Gina: Communication! A lot of it was talking with a smaller group of people who identified as influencers about why the change was necessary and to assure them that it was going to be okay and then to ask them to spread the word. It couldn’t come from me because people didn’t know me. I didn’t have credibility. They didn’t trust me. So I needed to work with people in the company who were trusted to get them to spread the word and to build trust.

Drew: I suspect part of the conversation was finding the bridge between the old and the new, right?

Gina: Absolutely. It was saying we are not trying to change what’s good, and there’s a lot that’s good. We are keeping what’s good and making it even better. We want our clients to understand the full scope of what we do. It entails talking about how our employee ensure our clients’ success and they are very weary of that because we’ve been behind the scenes for so long. Our entire purpose is to help our clients create extraordinary. It’s their vision and we make it happen.

It really was about assuring employees that the culture is not going to change. We are not going to change anything that’s good and there is so much that’s good. We are just going to make it even better. We are pulling on to the heritage and that’s why we didn’t change the name completely. We thought about dropping VER altogether and just coming up with a new name, but we couldn’t. We needed to hold on to the heritage because that’s really rich and strong one. And that went a long way with employees too.

Drew: How long did it take to get employees, and I’m sure it’s an ongoing process to buy into the changes that you help them realize were important?

Gina: I learned so much in this process. First and foremost, the anticipation of change is so much scarier than the change itself. Leading up to the major reveal of the brand, everybody was having a hard time with it and but then as soon as we changed it, as soon as they saw it in action and understood the reasoning behind it, they embraced it. It made me so happy and so relieved that on day two, people were wearing the hats, wearing the shirts, changing their e-mail signature, really getting behind it. And that to me was my measurement of success — how well the employees adopted the new brand.

Drew: Such a great reminder that rebranding starts internally. They have to buy in, right?

Gina: You bet. They are the brand.

Drew: How have you spread the word about the new brand externally?

Gina: We’ve done lots even just with our new website that hasn’t been done before and that was a big change for our customers. But more than anything, a rebranding can’t just be how it looks. There has to be a new user experience. So that’s taken a while to make sure that we are not just introducing the brand, but we are introducing a way of working with our customers that again doesn’t take away from what they had before because that’s working really well.

Drew: I’m guessing this transformation went beyond digital?

Gina: Indeed. We included a number face-to-face experiences and events. These can be time-consuming, but it’s really paid off for us to invite people into all of our facilities to spend time with our team and the equipment and just connect because we really are such a person-to-person business. I can’t stand that whole B2B designation. It’s all P2P for me. And this business really is person to person. We couldn’t just introduce the brand by saying here is our new logo, here are our new colors, that’s just not what it is. We needed to remind them of our love for our customers and we are doing that in person as much as possible.

Drew: Were there substantive changes to the way you actually did business that went along with this new brand?

Gina: A little bit after I arrived, we also hired a new COO, who came from Amazon and FedEx and we have been working to add more technology to our business and improving a lot of the processes, but not removing the personal touch. It’s been a major change on how we do business, always keeping the customer in the middle. At one point I was horrified because I realized that we weren’t answering a large percentage of our calls over the weekends. So I said, ‘everybody stop what you’re doing and let’s figure this out.’ Because it doesn’t matter what we are doing brand wise if we are not picking up the phone.

Drew: Such a key insight–no amount of branding can make up for a bad customer experience.

Gina: Right. My advice to marketers is that we need to get out of ‘marketing land’ and realize that customer experience, even if it’s not traditionally in our area, needs to be addressed for marketing to be effective. The brand can’t stand if the customer experience falls apart.

Drew: How are you measuring success from a customer standpoint?

Gina: Like I said, we are building from scratch. I still don’t even have a real CRM system in place; that’s still being built. The biggest metric I look at is what my CEO looks at and that’s profitable growth. The company has grown significantly year over year and that to me is a good enough indicator that what we are doing is working.

An Insider’s Look at Driving Change via Marketing

Last Friday, I was in one of my “oh we’ve nailed it” gleeful moods as we contemplated a new business plan to focus on “agents of change.”  Our logic was airtight, or so we thought.  If we could just figure out how to isolate change agents as a personality type via a line of questioning, then we could narrow both the target and our communications approach.  To see if we were on the right track, I called my oldest brother Rick who has studied Myers-Briggs personality types for years as a hobby, with the hope that he could help us with the identification process.

Doh! That’s when I was reminded yet again how wrong I can be. Of course, intuitive inventor-types like me gravitate towards new ideas BUT that doesn’t mean we’re the only ones who can drive change in an organization.  In fact, traditionalists, may not want or seek out change but if shown factual reasons why change is required, they can be especially effective at making change happen in regulated industries like banks or insurance companies.

Which brings me to my interview with Melinda Welsh, CMO of Chase Auto Finance. Although I can’t categorize Melinda into a particular Myers-Briggs quadrant, I can tell you she is very much an agent of change, an approach that garnered her much success at Chase transforming marketing into a profit center and along with that, The CMO Club‘s President’s Circle Award. Read on for details on Melinda’s efforts and stay tuned in the event my brother passes along more humbling insights with his soon to be earned Myers-Briggs certification!


Drew: Tell me about Chase Auto Finance.

Melinda: Sure. A lot of people don’t connect a bank with a car; we certainly do and think that consumers should be thinking about their auto purchase a little differently than they are today – just to make sure they’re getting the best rate and the best kind of loans for their personal situation. It’s really important for us. Today, most auto purchases and financing are happening in the dealer. And we have a huge dealership network; it’s part of what we do. We support a lot of our sales staff in our B2B space;. That’s a really huge, important part of our business. We also recognize that when a consumer sits down in a dealership, they may not be fully aware of what their finance options are and they’re thinking just about their payment. But do they really know what their rate is and are they really educated before they walk in the door?

Drew: But that’s not always the case, right?

Melinda: Exactly, which is why they need talk to their financial institution about it and do their research. We’ve just launched our new end-to-end car buying and financing site, Chase Auto Direct.It helps our customers with finding the car, purchasing, and completing the financing before getting to the dealer. This end-to-end digital car buying experience is pretty progressive – it’s not for everyone, but we believe we should be giving our customers options, particularly those who are comfortable with all-digital experiences.

Drew: How is it going so far?

Melinda: We’re learning a lot, and it’s been really a fascinating ride in terms of marketing. It’s been primarily picked up as a fintech story, which we weren’t expecting. So we are switching gears a bit and thinking about a fintech marketing approach.

Drew: Is there another side of your auto business?

Melinda: Yes. We work with manufacturers including Mazda, Subaru, Jaguar, Land Rover, and Maserati as their private label financing partners. From a marketing perspective, we work really closely with all these manufacturers on co-marketing that helps their brands, which is good for our business as well. So that’s been a really interesting combination of B2B and B2C marketing.

Drew: The role of CMO seems to vary greatly depending on the company and the individual. Some control the customer experience and marketing, others new product development. How much does your role encompass?

Melinda: It’s an interesting discussion around here about if any one department owns the end-to-end customer experience and the answer is no. Today, it’s not as cohesive as it should be and it’s something that we are really working on. We’re developing our roadmap for next year and offering a more consistent end-to-end experience is definitely an opportunity. I see more and more of that coming into marketing, and a more holistic ownership of that customer experience and customer lifecycle.

Drew: What about product development?

Melinda: At Chase product development typically sits in lines of business, which are all my internal clients. Marketing always has a seat at the table for how we would talk to a customer about this new product. This is so important because it really helps, inform what the product ended up being. So I don’t see that moving into marketing, but we’re definitely a critical piece of it.

Drew: What would you consider your proudest accomplishment so far?

Melinda: When I got into this job I had a fantastic CEO who really wanted transformative marketing. She said , “I want you to come here to change things.” When I arrived it was an old-fashioned cost center marketing group, Our shared vision was to change marketing into a profit center, to move it from B2B sales support to B2C, and to be a really big important part of what the Auto executive team is interested in.

Drew: That must have been a big challenge, right?

Melinda: Yes. We had to figure out the types of functions we needed and build a group out. We needed to assess how we’re going to invest in digital and how we’re going to transform things like events, which are still important to our business. And figure out how we’re going to use CRM and connect with our customers. We really took everything to the next level in a relatively short period of time, which is what I was brought into do. I feel like there’s still a lot more to do, but that’s what I’m proud of in this role.

Drew: That’s great. So you came in as a change agent and you succeeded at changing things. What part of this was measurable?

Melinda: The new digital portal is easier to measure than some of our other programs. We can measure that because we are doing a lot of direct marketing tactics to drive people there, and we track what happens. We know for every dollar spent what is needed to get a return, It’s actually quite measurable in that way.

Drew: There must be some other metrics that are tougher to gauge given longer purchase cycles?

Melinda: I think there are especially since we work a lot of the luxury automobile segments. People don’t buy those every day, and they might think about it for a long time before they buy it. So we measure engagement, exposure, and leads in those cases.

Drew: I would imagine that measuring sales and profit would be really important in your role?

Melinda: Of course! We’re a bank and we’re dollars and cents oriented. So that’s the most important way we measure things, honestly. But there is another internal measure that I use which has to do with my colleagues who run businesses. Do they trust marketing? Do they want to invest more funds and in more marketers because they see the value that marketing is adding? If the answer is yes, and they see it as a critical piece of growing their business, then I feel like we’re really succeeding as a marketing organization.

Drew: The overall Chase brand must also be a big help.

Melinda: I think that the strength of the overall Chase brand helps us a lot. One reason I’m extremely lucky to be here is that we don’t have to encourage people to come to our Chase assets. Millions of people come into our branches and visit our website every day. It’s where they do all of their financial activities. So if we put our messages on or in the branch, people read them. And, when they get to our website, they expect something really high quality. So we’re careful about what we put out across all of our businesses. We hope that what they find is something that’s very, very valuable because it has that Chase brand behind it,.

Drew: Do you have any recommendations for your fellow CMO’s to consider trying in 2017?

Melinda: Make sure that you’re still looking at non-digital marketing channels. I know it’s starting to become a buzzword again, but experiential marketing is well worth revisiting. And while some people are doing it well, a lot of people aren’t or they are not sure what to do to scale experiences. People really want something tangible and marketing can provide that. .

Drew: Love that. Renegade’s experiential program for HSBC (the BankCab) ran for 13 years and was actually cost effective. What else would you recommend?

Melinda: I think there’s something really interesting happening with video content within a platform like Facebook. I think advertisers haven’t really caught on to yet to the idea of creating “snackable” content. And it’s not about placing ads, it’s about really delivering content that people are going to be interested in a much different way than what we’ve been talking about for the past couple years.

Drew: Any other recommendations?

Melinda: I would say don’t just fall back on what’s worked before and really think about the next generation. My kids aren’t millennials but take my 11-year old daughter as an example, she does not watch TV! But she’s absolutely glued to video content on her phone, and what she finds interesting and relevant is very, very different than what we’re used to. So don’t ignore the signals and rely on what you’ve done before because there’s a whole new world of marketing and advertising that’s waiting to be tapped that we haven’t figured out quite yet.


How Brands Do Good in School

Both of my older brothers learned to diagram sentences from Mrs. Armitage, an unforgettable 7th grade English teacher at Heinz Kaiser junior high in Costa Mesa, California.  Not I. By the time my turn came around, this diminutive Southern-born chain-smoking firecracker with the gravelly voice that turned a-r-m into “airem,” was already suffering from lung cancer which meant we had a substitute teacher most of that year.  I don’t recall that women’s name but I can point to that class as the time I shoulda coulda woulda learned grammar. Instead, I went through 5 more years of being corrected by my mother, learning what sounded good but never quite nailing the rules of basic sentence structure.  To this day, I still finding myself pondering the use of “me” and “I” or “good” and “well” only to find resolution by speaking them out loud and then imagining my mother’s response!

So you would be totally justified to ask if my headline, “How brands do good in school” is grammatically correct? My mother would have made me change “good” to “well” which is all well and good BUT the “good” here, of course, speaks punnily to all the good things brands are doing in partnership with Discovery Education.  And that my friends is the good story we should be focused on, all dangling prepositions aside.  To do that, let me introduce you to my new good friend Lori McFarling, CMO of Discovery Eduction.  I got to know Lori through her inspiring presentation at the Incite Corporate Marketing Summit and I’m delighted to share part of our preparatory conversation here and now!

Drew: Can you give me a little background on Discovery Education?

Lori: Discovery Education is the leader in digital content for Kindergarten through 12th grade classrooms, serving 4.5 million educators and over 50 million students, and is transforming teaching and learning worldwide with immersive digital textbooks, multimedia content, professional development, and the largest professional learning community of its kind. The educators we partner with integrate our services into teaching and learning in ways that create modern digital learning environments that support the success of all learners. A part of the global media company Discovery Communications, we believe in the power of media to enlighten and educate.

Drew: How does translate into your work with brands?

Lori: We collaborate with Fortune 500 companies, foundations, associations and other organizations to create meaningful standards-based educational content that supports historically underfunded disciplines such as science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), health and wellness, and others. In this way, we are powering our partners to positively impact education on both a national and local scale. It’s really exciting to see these folks coming into the education sector with a genuine desire to serve their communities and to leverage their expertise to support teaching and learning. Improving student outcomes is becoming a meaningful part of many organizations’ brand profile, and we are pleased to help them accomplish their goals in a meaningful way.

Drew: Really interesting. Let’s get a bit more specific.

Lori: Working with our partners, we’ve built innovative programs that help drive authentic engagement, optimizing the school-to-home connection. It’s very grassroots and unique, especially for our brand partners who’ve seen real value by associating their brand to an issue that everybody in the country cares about: education. There are many needs in education today and it’s gratifying to see the private sector step up to support young people with mentorship, project-based learning opportunities and resources in areas that are traditionally underfunded.

Drew: I suspect sports brands would want to partner, right?

Lori: We work with a number of sports brands such as EA Sports, the NFL, the US Tennis Association, the Tiger Woods Foundation and others. For example, with EA Sports/Madden, we created a unique program that leverages the thrill of football to help young people understand core math concepts, revealing the math and science behind the game to engage kids in key concepts that they need to know. In this case, the magic of sports really helped open their minds to math and science.

Drew: Also, I’d imagine a number of brands would want to be involved in the sciences.

Lori: We have great fun collaborating with innovative organizations like 3M, Siemens, Lockheed Martin, Alcoa and others who are passionate about building the next generation of STEM leaders. Those organizations are authentically connecting their brands to efforts to support student achievement in science, technology, engineering and math, and are connecting their efforts to their pipeline & workforce development strategies. By way of example, we have a deep partnership with 3M centered on inspiring young people to use science to solve everyday problems. Through a nationwide middle school competition, the 3M Young Scientist Challenge, we just crowned Maanasa Mendu, America’s Top Young Scientist. She is a 13-year-old who invented a way to use solar and wind energy to create power. How cool is that?

Drew: Let’s dive into the 3M case.

Lori: Sure. 3M’s brand positioning is “Science. Applied to life” and their core focus is the application of science to improve the lives of people around the world. They also look simultaneously at how to build their pipeline of future employees, and are committed to highlighting the importance of innovation and science, and inspiring those traits and interests amongst America’s students. Discovery Education has partnered with them to create the 3M Young Scientist Challenge, which is the premier middle school science competition in the country. In this challenge, students compete to win $25,000, but most importantly, they are paired with real-life mentors at 3M over the summer to work on their innovations that, literally, can change the world. We’ve had winners of the 3M Young Scientist Challenge named by Fortune Magazine as Top 30 under 30 for their inventions. Students have been featured on the Ellen Show, Fox & Friends, and ABC Nightly News; they have met the President, as well as presented to members of Congress and more. This kind of earned media supports 3M’s overall brand profile as an organization committed to the use of science to change the world.

Drew: I love this program. What else can you tell me about it?

Lori: 3M has been smart about their consistent investment in education. And it’s paying off not only with the impact they are making in the classroom, but also with those that they’d like to entice as future employees. For the first time, 3M topped the charts as the #1 place millennials consider to be the cool, dream place they’d like to work, according to the 2016 Millennial Career Survey from the National Society of High School Scholars. The marketers at 3M engage millennials and their families in initiatives that they care about.

Drew: What are some of the keys to success when working in your space?

Lori: Bottomline, from a brand perspective, you need to engage with educators authentically, and need to do so in a manner that supports young people everywhere, not just in certain zip codes. Discovery Education provides educators in schools across the country with core curriculum and content that relates to the real-world with tools, resources, and professional learning opportunities that respect their expertise, helps them meet the challenges of their jobs, and celebrates the potential of every child, everywhere. I feel that our intimate knowledge of the education space, and our deep connection to educators, really has driven our success.

Drew: I’d imagine teachers, in particular, are tough gatekeepers.  

Lori: At the end of the day, the measure of our success is based on the success of teachers and students. If they win, we all win. We are excited to see the number of companies that are reaching out to us to have meaningful dialogue about how they can best leverage their organization’s expertise to help support education. We all know that regardless of where you live, providing support, tools and opportunities to our young people is one of the most important things we can do. To that end, yes, educators should have very high expectations for the kind of support that best sets their kids on the path to success. We rely a great deal on our teacher community, which is the largest of its kind. They work day in and day out with our nation’s kids and are very vocal about how corporate America can best partner with them on their important work.

Drew: I’m curious how you designed programs that get actually home to the parents.

Lori: All of the programs that we build with corporate partners are available to students, teachers, families and communities at no cost. They support real needs in the classroom and are implemented and activated through educators. We know that learning continues after the bell rings and that parents and caregivers play a critical role in the learning process, so for the majority of our programs, we create parent and family extensions that are also free of charge. To complete the circle, we utilize a variety of engagement platforms, whether it’s TV, online, social or other, to help build awareness and encourage parents to check out these initiatives.

Drew: How do you encourage your partners to measure the effectiveness of these programs?

Lori: As I said earlier, our first and most important metric is the value that teachers and students place on the program’s impact on youth achievement. Second, each partner has their own unique goals and metrics that are important to them as an organization. We work closely with our partners to crystalize what measurements matter, and then build our initiatives with those in mind. We don’t have a cookie-cutter approach to measurement. Everybody has different KPIs that they look at. The one metric they all share, however, is the desire to connect their brand to meaningfully impacting today’s youth while supporting the success of all learners…and isn’t that the most important measurement of all?

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.

Helping Your Customers is Always a Good Strategy

Waiting in the lounge area for my flight back to New York City on American last week, I overheard a fellow passenger grumble that “I have a zillion upgrade credits but can never use them.”  Having not been upgraded either despite my lifetime Platinum status and early check-in, I thought for a moment about my loyalty to American — why did I keep choosing them? The answer, it turns out, is a melange of actions both on the product and marketing sides:

  • New planes: on its transcontinental flights, AA flies new planes with power at every seat so I can work the whole way if I want;
  • Online booking: speedy process and my Platinum status insures that I get preferential seats without paying extra;
  • App: makes it really easy to check-in and get my electronic boarding pass;
  • Upgrades: every once in a while it really does happen!

None of this had to do with their marketing messages although I will say that @AmericanAir is always responsive to my tweets.  My point here is simple — brands are built on genuine actions (not vacuous promises) that are of meaningful benefit to existing customers.  A prime example of this comes from Suzanne Copeland, CMO of Sterling National Bank, who shares her insights in our interview below (by the way this is just part 1 of our conversation!).  And assuming you enjoy what you read below, feel free to join us at the Incite Group Marketing Summit (October 27-28) where both of us will be speaking.

Drew: Can you provide a quick recap of your career path?

Suzanne: It’s interesting. I didn’t necessarily set out to be in banking per se. Some people start out their careers in financial services and I really didn’t. It’s just a place that I ended up. I actually started my career on the advertising agency side. I got out of college and I was an art director. And I think that’s a good background to have, but it definitely was not my strongest skill set. And so, I moved quickly to the dark side! Later I had an opportunity, my first sort of bigger corporate leadership job, at a medical device manufacturer. Then a bank opportunity in my home town of Memphis opened up and that’s really where I got into banking. I spent quite a bit of time there. And then I was really ready for some new challenges and this opportunity presented itself to come to Sterling in suburban New York and build the marketing discipline.

Drew: Very interesting. I’m curious how being an art director and having worked on the agency side informed your approach to dealing with agency partners.

Suzanne: So this is what they tell me, and I think they are telling me the truth, that actually I’m easier to work with. I may be more demanding, but I also understand how things work on that side of the fence. And so when I give feedback, I understand what it is they need from me to move forward. I’m not the person that says, yeah yeah, what else do you have? I am very demanding, but I think the respect is there simply because I also know where they’re coming from and I help them get there.

Drew: Do you think about your personal brand at all and if so, how would you describe your brand?

Suzanne: I do think having a personal brand is really important. I think that it’s like anything else. You’re interacting with people and how you’re coming across and what you’re like, it definitely influences the outcome of that relationship. So, I do think about that. I’d like to think that my brand is smart, creative and fun. I’d like to think that people think I know what I’m doing, that I have unique perspectives and have unique problem-solving skills, but then I’m still fun to be around!

Drew: I can see that. I’ll credit that to your agency training! Speaking of creativity, you’re now in an industry that isn’t exactly famous for innovative marketing. Do you see banking as a unique marketing challenge?

Suzanne: It does come with some unique challenges. I think it also has some great opportunities associated with it as well. Way back, banks were some of the first companies that actually had in their possession that big data that everyone talks about; it was necessary to do the job, to do the business of banking. And they were among the first to leverage that information for marketing, particularly direct channels. So I’ve had a lot of great direct marketing experience by working for a bank.

Drew: Interesting. So what are some of the other challenges?

Suzanne: I think the biggest challenges are that it is very much a commodity marketplace and it is difficult to differentiate your brand. I think it’s hard to say you’re really doing something that different. I mean being an intermediary for funds, well, there are plenty of companies that do that. Everybody tells you that their customer relationship is better. It’s kind of hard to really tease that out to some specifics that explain exactly how you’re better. And then I think the competitive marketplace is also extremely strong in banking. There are lot of non-bank competitors and they’re making great strides with regard to innovation, which is something that the clients are looking for. So, that’s a challenge too.

Drew: Let’s talk about Sterling and how you have differentiated the bank. 

Suzanne: Well, our business model is probably the stronger driver of what the differentiation is. We’re set up with dedicated commercial teams. Our key target is the commercial middle market client. This is a business that’s pretty big, that’s established, but they’re not large global corporations. Having that one stop shopping, dedicated person that you can go to work with on your finances is important. You have to have a big enough organization that can meet your credit needs that has a sophistication on the deposit side and cash management, but at the same time, you don’t want to be at a huge organization that you’re going to have to find those services on your own throughout their different silos.

Drew: Got it. So how do you communicate that?

Suzanne: One of the things that we did early on is to initiate a content marketing strategy and I think that is a really effective way to engage with this audience. We have been publishing Connect Magazine for over seven years now, and a key feature is that we do client profiles. We have a cover story with a client talking about their business. So, it’s a great value to them. And with that, they do sprinkle in where Sterling has helped them with their business, where we have helped them establish the credit necessary to move into new markets or expand their manufacturing or just manage their cash flows better so they’re more profitable.

Drew: To me, that’s a renegade move. You’re “zigging” to print when everyone else is “zagging” to digital particularly in content marketing.

Suzanne: Well, I think digital is certainly a piece of it and we are taking all the content from the publication and putting it on our new website and making it searchable. This means we have a huge database of information for businesses on how to run their business better. So, we definitely haven’t forgotten about digital, but I still think because everyone else is so focused on it, I think the “zigging” instead of “zagging” is to your benefit to help you stand out. I still get feedback that now what people get in their mail, instead of being overwhelmed and throwing it away, that it’s sort of a novelty especially if it is a quality piece. “Connect” is a beautifully produced magazine. This is a small magazine, but it’s something that you would stop and take a few minutes to look at.

Drew: I bet your customers love seeing their stories in print as opposed to on digital and being able to leave it on the desk and — the waiting desk when people come to see them, look this makes them more impressive and more prestigious.

Suzanne: That’s absolutely correct plus we go the extra mile and we provide a framed article for those clients and they display those in their main conference rooms. Those are not hidden away in the copier room.

Drew: It is interesting to me that so much of the marketing world focuses on straight acquisition — this seems more of an acquisition through retention approach. “Connect” seems very much about making your customers look good, focusing on them with the hope that maybe some new customers will come along–is that a fair characterization of your approach?

Suzanne: I think it is fair, although I would say that the commercial middle market target, like a lot of the B2B type targets, have a longer sales cycle. You’re not just going to send out a piece of mail no matter what it is and then they instantly choose a new bank. There is some relationship building with regard to the prospects and quite frankly most of “Connect” is mailed to prospects and that helps build our brand. But at the same time, it is going to our clients and you’re absolutely right, it is also creating brand ambassadors that will praise our services. So, I think that it works on all those points.

Drew: Are there any brands out there in your category or beyond your category that you admire?

Suzanne: Well, it’s interesting. One of the things is just a personal passion of mine, and in more recent times, is about women in the workforce and really helping to bring women up in their level of position within organizations. I feel that I’ve been fortunate and I’ve taken some steps to give back. I launched the women’s initiative here at Sterling. It’s been a great program, very rewarding. This has caused me to go out and look at activity out in the marketplace and one of the organizations that bubbled up with regard to being a good brand was Catalyst. They’re pretty targeted to working with organizations to help improve their inclusion strategies with regard to females. I’ve been impressed with the communication programs they do, the kind of the content that they’re driving. I found it’s very much in alignment with their message and their mission. And I think they’re doing a good job with it.

Drew: Interesting. Tell me a little bit more about the women’s initiative that you’ve done at the bank.

Suzanne: This is personal passion of mine. I brought this whole concept to the organization and they basically let me run with it. There are a number of ways that you can improve the workplace for women, but I focus on personal and professional development. The program includes networking and topics that help women be stronger within the organization. Each quarter, there’s a different topic. I launch the topic with an overview the first month. The next month, I’ll do a panel discussion with senior women on the topic. And then the third month, I have an in-person mini-conference. It’s two hours long. We have an outside speaker and then do small group workshops.

Drew: Amazing. What topics do you cover?

Suzanne: Back in the first quarter we did executive presence including personal branding. We offer very specific tips, things to do in meetings, things to do when you’re presenting, things that you need to improve your skills in. The second quarter we did moving your career up to the next level. What kinds of things do you have to do to move up? What steps can you take? And then the one we just finished was leadership lessons from extreme environments. This was leadership lessons that come out of climbing Mount Everest and crossing the North and South Poles. Interesting, the analogies there between what it takes to do that and the leadership skills that you need in an organization. So, it’s been fun.