NZ@SXSW 2014: Sarah Robb O’Hagan

For the past week, Contagion’s Tom Bates has been hangin’ with the geeks and soaking up the knowledge at SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas (check out some of the coverage here). And while he was there he caught up with a few expat Kiwis doing big things. First up, Sarah Robb O’Hagan. 

Name: Sarah Robb O’Hagan

Company & Role: President, Equinox (and before that president of Gatorade North America and global chief marketing officer, sports nutrition, PepsiCo). 

Born: Hawke’s Bay. 

Lives: New York. 

What’s your role and why do you love it? 

I am the president of Equinox, which is a leading global fitness lifestyle company. We run the Equinox brand which comprises 65 luxury health clubs predominantly in the USA, the Blink brand which is a fun and friendly concept we are incubating to serve the value consumer, Soul Cycle the leading boutique cycling experience in the world and Pure Yoga in New York. So in my role I am leading the charge on expanding our fast-growing family of brands both in terms of our geographical footprint around the world, and also into ancillary business streams enabled by digital technologies.

I am in my dream job. I get to combine my huge passion for fitness and athletic performance, with my love for style and consumer culture and my never-ending desire to innovate and shape new concepts. We have the most incredible team at Equinox, with over 10,000 people who are bonded by a shared passion for high performance living. It’s honestly such a pleasure to get to work with this team every day.

What’s the most exciting thing about working in the world we live in today?

The pace of change and the fact that the barriers to entry are now so low in so many businesses. I think it means that to succeed we have to perpetually invent and forge into new territories, which makes us better business people, better businesses and better brands for our loyal users.

What’s it like being a young Kiwi doing big things in communications in the US?

Well, I am not so young anymore. I had exponentially more wrinkles than most of the people I was hanging out with at SXSW. But I have been in the US for almost 20 years and while I am now an American citizen with three dual citizen kids and a dual citizen husband, never have I been more fiercely proud of my Kiwi heritage. I go out of my way to live my New Zealandness ‘out loud’ because the Kiwi label signals to everyone you meet with that you are open-minded, open-hearted, willing to work your ass off and keen to have fun. 

The way we consume media has evolved rapidly over the last five to ten years and it’s only the beginning. If I was trying to cut through to you, where would I have to engage you and what media do you personally engage with every day?

In order to cut through to me you’d want to show up with a message or an experience that was super relevant and in tune with my lifestyle and daily agenda. Less is definitely more. Send me just the right message exactly when I need it. I am actually okay with promoted messages in my Facebook and Twitter feed as long as they are relevant. For example, I just tweeted an article today on the underground Karaoke movement enabled by new apps and technology. So for me to then receive a personal invitation to a super cool, high-end karaoke experience, I’d be fully in to that. So many brands don’t realise that consumers are leaving digital footprints everywhere. It’s going to be inexcusable in the future to spam people with your message, because your competitors will understand the importance of relevancy.

What brands are leading the way with customer-centric propositions and great ideas?

Equinox, of course. I am actually not kidding. Check out our lifestyle digital magazine Q.Equinox.com. There is a reason Mashable rated us as one of the few brands that is doing content well. It’s super interesting stuff with a strong POV that we are serving to our members as they need it. 

You are obviously passionate about health and technology, in particular wearable tech. This seems to be an area that has captured huge attention this week. What’s next in this space?

I am thrilled that Silicon Valley has pushed so hard and fast into the health and fitness space. The fact that 40 million Americans are wearing health and fitness devices is awesome for our national health. It shows that people are engaging more in their well-being. That said, I think there is a giant gap between data—what everyone is tracking today—and knowledge—what they actually should do with that data to get results. And that is where companies like ours come in. Our fitness professionals have the knowledge to coach people around that data and help them understand how to evolve their behaviour based on those insights. That is the next frontier and it’s what we are squarely focused on. 

It makes sense for health and lifestyle brands to invest and innovate in this space. Is it also possible for brands outside these sectors to be involved?

Of course. I think the ‘quantified self’ has so many more applications. Think about wealth management or academics for example. 

How big a role does data and in particular social data have in your business now?

A huge amount. We are putting a lot of resources and effort into data science so that we can deliver on the promise of super relevant products, services, experiences and communications for our core audience.

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