“Marketing Matters”: 2015 Annual Meeting Take-Aways

Aired October 21, 2015

The consensus is clear: an authentic relationship between brand and humans must be built like any human relationship: on trust, honesty, and quality.


This week’s “Marketing Matters” fell on the evening of the Wharton Future of Advertising’s annual meeting, attended by over 50 global advisory board members and other guests. Our four guests stayed late to share insights they’d gathered from the working sessions that day, where the diverse range of advertising and marketing professionals discussed what to expect from—and how to prepare for—the myriad changes the field is facing. Catherine Hays and Jerry Wind welcomed Kelly O’Keefe, professor and chair of Creative Brand Management and Partner at the VCU Brandcenter; Julia Gometz, founder and author of The Brandful Workforce; Karsten Koed chairman and partner at Gorm Larsen & Zornig; and Christian Kugel, VP of Consumer Analytics at AOL.

Professor and Chair of Creative Brand Management and Partner at the VCU Brandcenter
Kelly O’Keefe, Professor and Chair of Creative Brand Management and Partner at the VCU Brandcenter

Catharine and Jerry’s first guest, Kelly O’Keefe, is a partner at the VCU Brandcenter, a program with similar interests as WFoA. “We’re trying to help brand owners, agencies, and partners to understand what’s happening in the universe of branding, and how to navigate this time of change,” explains O’Keefe. “But our mission is more broadly focused on developing creative thinkers who can solve all types of problems, not just advertising problems.” For O’Keefe, the biggest take-away of the day was for decision makers:

“If I were out there,” he says, “I’d be paying attention to the fact that these consumers have more control than ever, and not just more control, but more cynicism.” Citing the recent VW emissions scandal as an example, O’Keefe explained how consumers respond so immediately to a breach of trust. “This is a world where, if you’re not being truthful about your promises, boy we’re all going to know that tomorrow morning,” he explains. “Everybody’s equipped with a motion studio in their pocket.”

For O’Keefe, the notion of All Touchpoint Advertising—a concept central to WFoA research—is the key to the future of advertising. Simply advertising, without imbuing all other facets of a brand experience with the same ethos, will no longer do. “You can’t just advertise your way out of a problem anymore,” explains O’Keefe. “Once advertising and experience line up, advertising can work well, but you have to adapt the experience first.” For O’Keefe, branding is not longer just about promoting a consumer good. “You’re really seeing changes in the way consumers embrace brands,” he says. “And no matter what kind of company you are, you have to worry about your brand.”

O’Keefe was equally enthusiastic about another pillar of the WFoA approach—the R.A.V.E.S. model. An acronym for ‘Respectful, Relevant, Actionable, Valuable, Experiential, and Sharable,’ R.A.V.E.S. “puts the responsibility back on the advertiser to be a value to the consumer,” says O’Keefe. “We have to create that value for the consumer in a number of ways, the consumer isn’t just a value for us.” The rise of ad blocking is evidence that today, much advertising is not valued by consumers. “Ad blocking is not a problem, it’s a symptom of a problem,” says O’Keefe. “I asked a group of advertising professionals how many use ad blocking, have a DVR, have their number listed on a do-not-call lists and so on. And they all do. So if we in the industry are blocking out messages, then what does it say for the people who aren’t in the industry?”

For O’Keefe, ad blocking is an opportunity, rather than a hindrance, for the industry. “I think ad blocking is great,” he says. “Ultimately, it will force us to engage with consumers, to provide value with advertising that’s engaging, entertaining, and relevant.” The push back against ad blocking—attempts to block the practice—is, for O’Keefe, entirely the wrong approach. “It’s like being in a conversation with someone who didn’t want to hear what you were saying, so they put their hands over there ears, and in response you tried to pull their hands off their ears,” he laughs. “Maybe instead you should be saying something else?”

Catharine and Jerry’s next guest was Julia Gometz, founder and author of the Brandful Workforce. The research for her book, which was published in 2013, formed the foundation of her current business. “I wanted to help organizations to really truly get their employees behind the brand,” she explains. According to Gometz, the process is difficult, but the result is both necessary and rewarding. “There’s no such thing as a quick fix Band-Aid for this issue,” she says. During her previous job in Human Resources at

Julia Gometz, Founder and Author, The Brandful Workforce
Julia Gometz, Founder and Author, The Brandful Workforce

JetBlue, Gometz worked on employee engagement, but “realized that while there’s so many things an employee can be engaged around, brand was not even included in the research.” This research led to the foundation of her company.

When asked what she thought was the most important lesson from the days’ meeting, Gometz saw brand authenticity as key. “I think it should always be about authenticity and making that real connection with every employee,” she explains. “The purpose behind the organization has to be the real central unifier of a brand, and you have to communicate it in a way that employees can internalize.” Gometz pointed to a population that is often neglected by organizations—job applicants who interview, but don’t succeed in being hired. “Even in the recruiting process, the people who don’t get the job can leave as brand ambassadors,” she explains. “So many companies don’t realize that and just throw the opportunity out. But if treated the right way, they could be turning potential employees into life time customers and advocates.”

Gometz, like O’Keefe, felt that the products and services of a company must thoroughly align with their marketing campaigns. People can fall out of love with a company, and Gometz stressed that it is important to stay aware to that risk, for employees and customers both. “Focusing on the continuum and evolution of the passion between your employees and customers through all the touchpoints—your products, services, and traditional ads—is really, really important,” she explains. Agility can be the make or break. “The companies that get it accept that can no longer be in control, and that control is not a good thing,” says Gometz. “They are brands that act like humans.” To act human is to empower human components—employees—by respecting them as the face of the company. “In industries where regulations allow it, the successful companies are really just giving employees free reign,” she says. “Some companies, like IBM for example, encourage employees to identify as such on all their social media accounts.” In doing so, companies are showing confidence that their brands are authentic and appealing places to work.

The importance of engaging employees in a meaningful brand is evidenced by the way people job hunt today. Interested applicants are not necessarily limiting their pre-application research to the company’s website, where the content can be carefully controlled. “Folks are turning to social media to see if they know anybody who works at the company that they can find or link into to get the inside scoop of what its really like to work there,” explains Gometz. Right now, she is running a pilot program of a concept she calls the ‘ghost applicant,’ inspired by phantom shoppers in the marketing world. “At last year’s WFoA meeting, someone said to me ‘there’s a great opportunity to take what we’re doing in marketing and apply it to companies and what people think of their employment brand,’” explains Gometz. “And they were absolutely right.” Her goal is to test the people a company is trying to encourage to apply for their positions, rather than simply those who chose to.

The next guest on the show was Karsten Koed, Chairman and Partner at Gorm Larsen & Zornig, a Danish digital and ad agency. “What’s makes my agency distinctive is that we’ve chosen three areas to have as core competencies: branding, content, and conversion,” explains Koed. “We

Karsten Koed Chairman and Partner, Gorm Larsen & Zornig
Karsten Koed Chairman and Partner, Gorm Larsen & Zornig

talked today about context and conversions and reached the agreement that content is nothing without an ability to convert it to something. Without conversion, it’s just a good story, and we have journalists for that.” Koed, who is in the midst of re-designing his entire company based on insights he’s honed through WFoA, presented during the working session. “The most important thing I touched upon today is the shift in the paradigm of loyalty, the notion of trust,” he says. “I’ve tried to focus on the word trust for several years because trust is the most important thing in branding. Why? Because trust reduces the need for a complex understanding of the brand.” Citing the recent VW emissions scandal, as did O’Keefe, as an example of lost trust, Koed gave the listeners insight into what is at stake in this story for Europeans.

“The question we are all asking is ‘why do people suddenly commit fraud without a personal gain?” he explains. “No one has gained anything from the emissions scandal, no one on the ground made a special profit. So what we are asking now is, can our number game, our KPI, or propagating growth factors, drive our ethics the wrong way over time? And that’s a really tough ethical question to ask. The suggestion is that if we are we defining ourselves on capitalism and growth and we keep squeezing the lemon a bit more, we will find ourselves off-brand.”

Developing and maintaining a loyal relationship with customers would help avoid this tipping point, according to Koed. “In the future, permissions are going to be harder and harder to get, but we need to have a dialogue to have advertising,” he explains. “On one side, consumers want to have the right information so they can make the right decision, and on the other side, they don’t want to be annoyed by irrelevant communication.” Striking that balance with advertising is central to gaining trust. He gave the example of the utility of Google maps: people find the GPS so useful they allow Google to know where they are. “When we’re doing communication and product development, you should try to work this kind of trade off of permissions into your business model,” he explains. “If you respect your potential customers, and respect their permission-giving, it will change the face of your communication and advertising, because you will apply a more serious approach, and a more respectful approach, to your fellow citizens and customers.”

For Koed, storytelling and ‘storydoing’ were useful concepts that were discussed during the annual meeting. He explains that for him, storydoing is empowering, saying, “isn’t it about time we think about what we will do, not what we will tell?” Thinking with an active, forward-looking approach, Koed suggests, “will help you create future stories, which is much more interesting and compelling. It gives you a freedom of communicating a process of development.”

The final guest on “Marketing Matters” was Christian Kugel, the VP of Consumer Analytics at AOL. “I think most people, if they’re not in the digital marketing ecosystem, probably have an outdated idea of what AOL is,” says Kugel. “They think about it as dial up and the CDs we were bombarded with in the mail decades ago. But about five or six years ago our CEO Tim Armstrong came on board to turn the company around, and AOL is now a media technology company, which means media in the sense of we have our own owned and operated products, as well as acquisitions like the Huffington Post.”

Christian Kugel, VP of Consumer Analytics, AOL
Christian Kugel, VP of Consumer Analytics, AOL

Kugel is closely involved in the research side of AOL, which has focused on “really fuelling programmatic advertising,” he explains. “On the one hand, we’re developing premium ad and content experiences for consumers on behalf of advertisers. And on the other hand, we’re working on very intelligent, data driven, targeted, surgical advertising powered by programmatics.” As a digital agency, data is infused in all divisions of AOL, “but what my team brings to the table that’s unique is the consumer voice,” says Kugel. Unlike many other publishers, AOL has a centralized group in media analytics that can help all other facets of the company, avoiding the siloing and isolation of departments. “What it allows us to do for our stake holders is connect the dots between what we understand and learn on the consumer-facing product side and what we learn on the agency side,” he says. “Very few agencies are structured to be able to do that.”

The insights from such centralization can lead to interesting, sometimes counterintuitive results, some of which Kugel presented during the annual meeting. “Data is extremely powerful, especially with the capabilities that the industry has to drive intelligence in marketing and advertising,” he says. “But intelligence has lots of different layers to it, especially when you’re talking about consumers. What we aspire to do is ensure that the data that powers advertising and targeting is grounded in human truth. It’s very easy to look at digital analytics, or a report, that represents human behavior and assume a lot of motivations and intentions behind that. That’s where a lot of people fall into a trap, and what we try to do it try to ground it in truth.”

Kugel’s presentation focused on content marketing, an area that has really taken off in 2015. Thanks to some groundwork laid three years ago, AOL has established what Kugel describes as “a normative database of how content marketing is effective. It’s an amazing asset that gives a really robust view of how content marketing can drive results for brands.” The database is predominantly focused on of three types of content: native advertising, entertainment, and news curating. “What we’ve seen over the last three years is that these programs consistently work really well to deliver results for advertisers,” says Kugel. “They result in a healthy lifts in awareness, persuasion, interests in learning more, and consideration. When you compare that to norms for lets say, online display, we’re talking a marked improvement.” Analyzing this data can then result in practical, and applicable advice. “One of the things we’ve looked at is content that’s designed and practical and useful, versus content people don’t see as being practical and useful. Utility and practicality work incredibly well to create an environment of receptivity for consumers.”

The value of such accurate data is useful not just for data analysts, but equally for creatives. “Our challenge is to consistently give the creative and productive folks the right insights to consistently create programs that deliver outsized results for clients,” says Kugel. “And that’s a really difficult thing to do because at the end of the day we’re talking about a creative challenge, and that requires a creative solution.” Through analysis, says Kugel, “we’ve tried to reveal the landscape of how people engage with content so the creative folk are armed with the insights they need to be able to make the right recommendation to clients.”

His team has broken down content into eight ‘content moment’ categories, such as ‘feel good.’ The insight in this small fragmentation is two-fold for the industry, according to Kugel. “First, if you’re focusing on content marketing, its important to align with what people are actually doing and know why, and this is often an afterthought for marketers. And the second point,” he explains, “is to recognize that each moment only comprises about 15 percent of total content moments. So if a brand goes too narrow in type, they’re trading out the vast majority of other moments.”

Like the other radio guests, and all the attendees at the annual meeting, Kugel had insights to contribute, and was provided with interesting and diverse insights to mull over. The consensus is clear: the importance of an authentic relationship between brand and humans must be built like any human relationship: on trust, honesty, and quality.

Written by:
Alexis Rider
WFoA Program Assistant
PhD Student, History and Sociology of Science
University of Pennsylvania

With research support from:
Elijah Cory
WFoA Research Assistant
University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2017