Creative is not a department: ten questions for the queen of trendspotting, Marian Salzman

Marian Salzman, chief executive of Havas PR North America, PR Week’s 2011 PR professional of
the year, a 2012 addition to PR News’ Hall of Fame and one of Business Insider’s 25 most powerful people in PR, is venturing to New Zealand as the keynote speaker for CAANZ’s international Marcomms forum on 3 July. Here’s what the
award-winning blogger, brand marketer, public relations executive and social
media innovator had to say about the global
move towards real-time creativity, the role of digital and social and how the industry can do more good. 

1) When done well, real-time marketing can be a powerful force, a la Oreo’s Superbowl ‘lights out’ ad. But it’s a fine line. How do brands avoid being seen as desperate and not get themselves on the real-time marketing sucks website?

Here’s a cardinal rule: you shouldn’t do in marketing what you wouldn’t do in real life. That’s especially true in real-time marketing, when you have less time to think things through. Real-time marketing still has to have real-time good manners.

Here’s an example of what not to do. During Hurricane Sandy, I started receiving offers from web retailers saying things like “Sandy Can’t Stop You From Shopping! Save 20 percent Online!” or “Our store is still open! Stop by and save 15 percent!” There was even one from a well-known, national retailer of trendy furniture, just days after the storm, offering to give a measly 20 percent discount to anyone who showed “government-issued documentation” or a “completed insurance claim” in order to help replace damaged items.

This is what you would see while you were logging on to get your news, huddled behind your computer at a re-charge centre, or worse—dealing with the complete loss or devastation of your home. I found it to be completely tasteless.

Sometimes we don’t know what to do in times of tragedy, but the best rule of thumb for a brand is to acknowledge a tragedy but not use it as a promotional opportunity.

On a different note, I would say that the biggest way that PR has evolved in recent years is that all messaging is in real-time. It’s the additive conversation. In the world of co-creation, if you post something or someone writes an article, it’s not so much what’s been created by the journalist, but rather how the conversation develops as a consequence of what’s put out there. So you can’t ever really say a story is completely written. And that’s very different.

Control is gone. That’s why I’m so obsessed with the whole “co” thing—collaboration, co-creation, co-preneurial … You can’t control anything anymore. You can simply hope that you are able to contribute constructively to the conversation.

Further, because of the unprecedented access to information we have now, your digital history is your real-time identity. Your parents lay it down for you when they start blogging about you as an infant. 

Real-time has also changed the speed of time when it comes to PR and marketing. It used to be that people would ring you and say, “We’re thinking of launching a product in nine months.” Now they’re saying, “We’re doing this tomorrow.”

Why do we need to worry about things ahead of time? We can change them tomorrow. Build your website instantly! Launch your Twitter feed today! I do worry, however, that we’ve compromised quality for a lot of other things. I don’t think we worry about quality as much as we used to. Just think about news reporting. Media content is no longer the job of one person or one team, and it’s no longer a static thing. Old-fashioned values such as objectivity, definitive reporting, authority and accuracy are becoming less important when there’s a de facto understanding that the story is going to be told correctly eventually—or that it isn’t, and that doesn’t matter.

2) With the ability to look at what’s working (eg through AB testing), do you envisage a future where a lot of small ideas are being constantly rejigged and refined, or do we still need those big ideas to create the attention?

We always need big ideas. Just think about everybody’s favorite buzzword of today, which is “disruptive”—disruptive ideas, disruptive technologies, disruptive businesses … Do we need to reinvent the traffic light? Probably not. But the most transformative concepts are the ones that make headlines and, more importantly, change the world.

That being said, all ideas—even the big ones—are constantly being subjected to constant feedback. Everybody has something to say about everything and has a platform to weigh in.

It took an awfully long time to get a feedback loop before. But today, if I added a turquoise M&M to the usual color mix, you’d have feedback in minutes.  

Think about an event we just participated in with our client, the UN Foundation, called Mom+Social. It was a one-day summit focused on the role of social media, technology and philanthropy to improve the health of women and children everywhere. In the past, you would have planned the conference, lined up speakers, printed the programme and let the event take its course. But in this case, the agenda—the speakers, topics, etc.— were set practically in real-time according to trending Twitter topics in the days leading up to the event. (SXSW is famously organised in a similar way.) That’s an example of real-time rejigging for a PR tactic that would traditionally be very pre-determined.

3) What do you see as the major strength of digital and social media?

Digital and social media provide for constant connectivity—time and geography matter a lot less. Everyone is an open target for engagement in the conversation—which, of course, means that hierarchies matter a lot less, too.

When it comes to PR, it means you can think bigger—and get the public to do a lot of your work with you. You see your audience as a collaborator, whereas the in the past, you dictated to them.

Here’s an example from our work with Sears Holdings for ‘Heroes at Home,’ the company’s programme to work with injured veterans to rebuild their houses to allow these men and women to more easily live with their post-war injuries. For this campaign, we reached out to Josh Gracin—county music star, former American Idol runner-up and U.S. Marine veteran—and asked him to do a bespoke song. We then asked veterans and their families to write in with their stories and let him choose the one that inspired him.

He ultimately chose the story of a young widow, a mother of two, whose focus was not just on her heartache, but rather on how important she felt it was that her late husband not be forgotten. Josh wrote a beautiful song that through her story, put the spotlight back on our heroes. We were able to amplify its impact through social media, a music video, live concerns, traditional media and more.

Yes, we would have been able to do some of this without digital and social media. But digital and social media allowed us to think much bigger. We were able to engage with families of veterans in a massive way that we wouldn’t have been able to do before. It wasn’t just a dialogue, but a “tri-aloque”—a collaboration with the veterans’ families that also involved input from other people who were building on that conversation.

4) The joy of predictions is that the ones that don’t come true are often forgotten, while the ones that are deemed correct tend to stick in the mind. Have most of your predictions come true?

I agree that the predictions that don’t come true are often forgotten. But the funny thing is that even with the ones that do come true, by the time they happen, they’re so ingrained in the cultural conscience that people just think they’re obvious!

My predictions about the rise of the metrosexual male and “local is the new global” both seemed obvious in hindsight—though they weren’t when I predicted them.

In 1994, for example, I predicted that the San Francisco area would be “the” place to be for the day’s visionaries. What I saw was the fusion of intelligentsia, food, fashion, arts and technology there. But at the time, both Apple and Espirit (the main fashion company in the area) were teetering on the edge and the prediction seemed silly. Now, of course, it’s part of our cultural history and just seems like a given.

In the same year, I predicted that every company would be setting up an internet address to become the corporate “face” to the world. It seems so obvious now—what company doesn’t have a URL?— but one of my clients, a major corporation, didn’t listen to me and had to get involved in an expensive and time-consuming lawsuit in order to gets its name back online.

As a trendspotter, my own problem is that my predictions often come too early. By the time the world comes around to my prediction, I’ve moved on from it. I don’t stick with these trends long enough to have ownership of them.

What’s the solution? Well, that’s why you have to have a second occupation and can’t be a professional trendspotter! Really, it’s why trendspotter isn’t a career for most people. It’s a tool you bring to what you do for a living. I would say that if Havas has a positioning as an agency, it would be that we are skilled at working with our clients to create the future by harvesting what’s happening in the zeitgeist.

5) In New Zealand, we’ve seen a few experiential and real-world activations that specifically aim to create online buzz. Is that a smart strategy?

I think that kind of buzz marketing was provocative ten or so years ago, but now it’s just one part of the cost of entry. A good marketing campaign has to include experiential activations as just one of many components.

6) Has PR done enough to cement itself a position as an important business partner and get itself around the boardroom table? And has the rise of social and digital media and the need to converse with consumers to create demand, not just fulfil it, helped that?

PR is doing a better job at having a seat at the table, but this is part of an an age-old conversation about how much power each discipline has, with all of the disciplines fighting it out for who is going to control the corporate message.

At the end of the day, he who controls the budgets controls everything. Because of the need for real-time responses and activations, and because PR is the best at that of all the disciplines, PR is finally getting a shot at getting the budgets. That is the biggest shift and the best hope for PR.

7) Has the trend towards digital opened the door for PR agencies to steal the thunder of creative agencies? Or is it a case of both sides having to work more closely?

The way I look at the current landscape in the U.S. is that there are two styles of agencies—hyper-focused and generalist.

Digital specialty agencies fall into the hyper-focused category. They are good at working in 140 characters; their D&A is in digital, naturally, and they have momentum in working with clients in this space. They are where the client already feels comfortable, so it’s easy for the client to keep moving budget their way.

Then you have more generalist agencies—primarily in PR and creative—who are trying to move into the digital space. Compared to creative agencies, PR has an easier time moving into the digital space because they can work in real-time more quickly than creative agencies can. They also have a better shot at having a seat at the table alongside digital agencies because they can claim they own the messaging; that they are the ones with the big ideas.

Then you have completely new concepts, such as Buzzfeed, which is essentially a digital agency with a proprietary content hub. On one level, a platform like this benefits from the shiny penny phenomenon—can you imagine the President of the United States joking about Edelman at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner like he did about Buzzfeed? But on another level, if agencies like ours don’t assert ourselves, a site like Buzzfeed can make us irrelevant someday. That being said, it’s in our interest, and our clients’, to stay involved when our client is working with a Buzzfeed because we have a holistic view of the whole program. We are working in the client’s best interest, though we are aware that a Buzzfeed is the best place for the client to get certain types of services.

8) Why do ad agencies often seem to win the big PR awards? And is this a source of tension?

Ad agencies win these awards because they know how to package their submissions. The PR agencies, on the other hand, are terrible at packaging. They don’t know how to put together a great two-minute video.

Havas has done disproportionately well at awards shows because, given my advertising background, I know how to put together a video and an awards submission. With these awards, the package matters more than the actual campaign.

9) Do you think the marketing industry needs to use its powers to do more good, rather than just sell more shit?

I recently had a brain tumor removed—for the second time—and I would say that for me, personally, it has become a major priority to work on cause-related programmes. I can get excited if it’s something that interests me personally—that I enjoy—or if it’s related to making the world a better place. There are only so many hours of the day, and I want to be sure that as many of those hours as possible go towards working on things that have a positive impact on society.

Regarding the way the industry is moving: “doing good” is a great opportunity for PR. Consumers are looking to put passion into something and there’s not much to be really passionate about. You can get passionate about newness—about the latest developments in an industry or category. Or you can get passionate about the kinds of people who work at a company—what those people believe in and are working towards.  

At the same time, we as consumers are tired of having too much stuff. That extends to relationships, too. Facebook and the like have allowed us to acquire a lot of people and relationships, but we want to be sure that we are collecting the people that matter to us. There is a desire to cap the amount of stuff in our lives along with our relationships—the way we do that is by choosing the ones that really matter.

Some people are calling it purpose marketing. The idea that every brand has to stand for more than just the products it sells or even the opportunities it creates for its employees. It has to stand for what it’s doing for the community.

With Ford Warriors in Pink, which is the breast cancer charity we work with for the Ford Motor Company, we don’t just PR the celebrities that are at the centre of helping out. We PR the real people stories of the people who are the real warriors—the people who live with breast cancer, who are going about their lives. 

10) How has social media changed the role of research?

We’re all able to do real research all the time. With blogs, online forums, bulletin boards, and online surveys, for almost no money, we can access hundreds of thousands of people if we really want to. It gives us an enormous amount of access to people and ideas and opportunities that we wouldn’t have had access to before.

The challenge is to learn to differentiate between noise and the voices that resonate. Just because somebody is making a lot of noise doesn’t necessarily mean they are the person you want to listen to. 

Ticket Prices to CAANZ Marcomms ‘Creative is not a department – PR/Experiential’s place at the marketing table.’

  •  CAANZ,
    ANZA, MA, EMANZ and PRINZ members – $255 per p/head  plus GST 
  • Members
    Table of 10 – $2295 plus GST  
  • Students
    – $125 p/head plus GST with ID 
  • Non Members  – $295 plus GST 
  • Non-Member
    Tables of 10 – $2655 plus GST 

Kat Thomas, managing director of One Green Bean Sydney and Christine Kalin, SPCA New Zealand chief executive and Peter Vegas, DraftFCB senior creative, are the other speakers. For more info, click here

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