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Episode 36: “Leading with Your Heart and Your Head” with Mat Zucker, Partner and Marketing Practice Leader at Prophet

Mat Zucker, Partner and Marketing Practice Leader at Prophet, and Matt Swain discuss how communications impact a company’s brand, reputation and culture – and the results of “Leading with Your Heart and Your Head.”

Matt: I'm Matt Swain and you're listening to the "Reimagining Communications" podcast, where we discuss the opportunities and challenges facing companies on the road to optimizing their communications for the future. Today, I'm joined by Mat Zucker, leader of the marketing practice at global growth consultancy, Prophet. Mat, thanks for joining today.

Mat: Well, thanks for having me, Matt. Great to be here.

Matt: [00:00:31] Mat, your bio is likely the envy of many in the creative and digital agency world. You've held prior leadership positions as Chief Creative Officer at OgilvyOne New York, Global Executive Creative Director at Razorfish, and Executive Creative Director at R/GA and Agency.com. Share with me a little insight on that progression and what excites you about the agency world?

Mat: Yeah. So, I started in advertising as a copywriter and I guess I'll always think of myself in some ways as a copywriter. And through my career, as I became a creative director, and then more recently, as I switched into strategy from creative and into consulting from agency, I found that what I learned in advertising really helped me work in this world of content and communications. So, it just feels like everything's added up to this moment. Even the radio commercials I did as a junior copywriter for AT&T now are helpful in this world of podcasting nowadays because I love the world of audio. And everything I learned in TV helps me, of course, in video.

Matt: [00:01:36] And Mat, you have 25 years in the industry. You just named radio and TV as two channels. What technological advancement was the biggest game-changer for you as you've progressed through your career?

Mat: Well, it's funny when I was in radio and TV at an agency called FCB, which is still around in New York, this world wide web came onto the scene in 1994 and no one wanted to do it, right? Everyone wanted to do commercials.

Matt: All right.

Mat: So, they gave it to Zucker. So, I got to do what was one of the first corporate websites for nabisco.com. And I even created the first, what was day parting on the web, where we turned Nabisco to dark at night, if your IP address thought it was night and it was back on light during the day. So, that was my first innovation, not even realizing it too. And the second one was e-commerce was new. Even before America Online, there was CompuServe and Prodigy. And I created a store for Rayovac batteries. It was an ugly store. It was all pixelated and everything, but I did learn how to sell renewable batteries online. And it was early on. I think 30 people were there and 5 of them bought batteries.

Matt: [00:02:42] Well, but at the same time, it's amazing how those opportunities come to the more junior person of the time because it's a new channel. And I feel like that maybe is still happening to some extent even in agencies today with emerging channels.

Mat: Oh, yeah. I think so too. That's why if you're young and you get offered to do something new that hasn't been done before, or if you're a senior and you've been offered to do something that hasn't been done before, say yes because it might become a thing and you might end up with a lock on the thing. I mean, even podcasting, you know, nobody was really doing it back in the even mid-2000s when my friend Greg Nanda and I created this J&J podcast for Acuvue. And who knew that I would have experience in podcasting before so many other people even had it? So, I think the opportunity is to say yes, is to try new things. I'm sure that's happening right now in AI, in bots, in all sorts of technology and emerging media. I mean, who's ever creating content for Alexa or those kinds of scripts is probably two steps ahead of the rest of us.

Matt: [00:03:46] How often does a client come to you with a request for developing content for a channel versus with an idea and leaning on you to figure out the right channel or mix of channels to execute it through?

Mat: Yeah. I think people have very strong biases about channels. So, they come from a channel point of view, they run the website, or they run the email program. So, clients have, I think, had it been too long trying to perfect channels. So, most of the requests come in from a channel lens. And I think as the consultant strategist or as the agency, you've got to try to make those connections and try to say, "Well, if you do this program, it can work across these platforms or across these channels." I mean, usually, an idea is anchored, there's a hero idea that's anchored in video or it's anchored somewhere, but it doesn't mean there aren't other channels to use. And I think we should all move beyond just optimizing within a channel and start figuring out how channels should work better together.

Matt: [00:04:45] Oh, absolutely. And some of the work that I've done recently, we tend to tell that story of multi, or omnichannel, or opti, or whatever version of the catchphrase people are using. But then oftentimes, I find it a balance with a client that says, "I'm willing to try that channel as long as you focus most of your effort on this other channel that I'm most comfortable with." Does that happen to you too?

Mat: Yeah, absolutely. And some of it's for a good reason, right? That client has the biggest budget from that channel, or the most people against that channel. Or like you said that they're most comfortable, you know, they grew up with web and they're not comfortable with other things where people don't believe in email, even though email is the most performing and best-performing relationship channel. Or they've never tried texting, or they just learned it. So, they don't realize the whole world is SMSing for engagement offers and things like that. You know, they don't realize it. So, it's either their comfort level or you could follow the money and people come with those biases for sure.

Matt: [00:05:45] I had seen one of the articles that you had written recently. I always get caught by the word re-imagining in any title because I use it in the podcast. And I had seen the re-imagining marketing channels and examples of rethinking conventions. I think a little bit about the email channel and your comments just then. Can you just give me a little taste of where you see email performing well and what tactics are most effective in garnering attention?

Mat: So, well, with email specifically, you know, you can look at... it's been around for a while, right? So, we have all gotten a lot of experience in what works and there's that phrase that a lot of people hate called best practices. And it's, kind of, those proven things that, sort of, work, right? The graphic button above the fold, if there's even a fold anymore, right, on your phone, and then the other link below the thing and mention it twice and do this in the subject line of the rules. And those things work, but they won't necessarily help your breakthrough. And with reinventing channels, what I often do is to look at a convention of a channel and then look for examples that break the best practices, but that are more interesting and might be even more effective.

So, the two examples I've used the most, one is for an accessory company that makes these little Mac accessories, like little adapters and stuff. And what they did is in the acquisition email they sent out; they didn't follow any of the best practices. You had to scroll all the way down this gorgeous image following the adapter cord, all the way down, and down, and down, and down, and down, and down, and down, and then eventually, you got to the button, the call to action. And, of course, the results were through the roof. It was just great. Like it was just a great idea at work with a product and they broke all the rules you could break.

The other example I really like is when you opt-out of a program, every brand blows you off. Spotify has this charming thing when you... I don't know if they still do it, when you downgrade from premium, they send you a goodbye song list. So, I got a private playlist. It was just a great use of a channel that no one expects. So, I just think there's a lot of room within all these conventions and fake best practices where there's a chance to break out. And I bet you get higher performance numbers if you very judiciously play around and try it.

Matt: [00:07:55] In our world at Broadridge, we send a lot of transactional and regulatory communications, both in print and digitally. And so, I think of bills, and statements, and privacy notices. And one of the things that we always work with our clients on is how do we leverage these recurring opportunities to engage? For instance, a monthly bill. You have this bill that somebody is going to open and whether it's through an email or in print, what can we do to augment that experience? How can you cross-sell, upsell, educate, and form increased customer SAT scores (CSAT)? I'd just be curious of your thoughts through that lens when the primary intent is more pay a bill or review the statement. How do you put a strong marketing message into that?

Mat: Yeah. I think it's a really good thing that you're looking at it because I think a lot of businesses like yours with these regular subscription things, whether it's insurance, or whether it's utility, or whether it's anything on your bill every month or every quarter has a danger of being complacent and getting disrupted by not taking advantage of something like a moment in time like that. So, the two ways I think about it or one is maybe you want to do something before the bill comes, especially with a lot of folks that if they don't get a lot of value out of their service that month or that year, and just say their rates go up, not because of anything they did but because the market went up. This happens in commercial insurance all the time. Rates go up and you didn't use it, nothing happened. You didn't have a fire, but the world was on fire.

And so, you need to interact or intercede in advance of that bill coming, which nobody ever does, or I guess you could try to inject like you did into that moment of the bill. The only danger is I've tested that a few times and I've fought like hell to get, you know, a marketing message onto a bill. And sometimes it works, but sometimes people are also in pay-the-bill mode and they're not really looking for another type of engagement. So, I guess you could test your way there. Or maybe if you could segment, a lot of people, the billing is not segmented. I mean, it's segmented by zip code, right, but it's not segmented by buyer personality or by type the way you would in marketing. Maybe if you could do it by that, then you could really get to people who might be more engaged in a marketing message and appreciate it rather than do it for everyone.

Matt: [00:10:14] Yeah. I think that's great feedback. And that point around segmentation but also just testing is so critical, right? Like let's run a pilot, let's AB test it, let's learn from the results and fine-tune.

Mat: You know, one of the best bets I ever made was my Cisco client had this giant jar of people that hadn't opted into the list, but they'd dropped their business card at meetings or something. And, you know, that rule would come into effect where you can only email people once. So, they had like a million names, but we could only email them once. So, it was a very precarious thing. So, the idea to get people to opt-in what he wanted to do was send a widget, like these little tacky widgets, and I got very upset about this. I didn't want to do a direct mail or an email thing offering a widget. It was like a key fob or something like, "Give us your email address and permission to email you and then we'll mail you three weeks later this Cisco branded key fob." I'm just like, "Oh, my God. Like have I bottomed out, right?"

So, I didn't want to do it, but he really insisted that it would work. So, I said, "Well, can I bet a different concept and we do a split-run, we do an AB test on, we do it on a fraction of the 1 million people and if I can prove my idea beats your key fob, will you get rid of the key fob?" So, he said yes. So, that's why I pitched them a concept which is like a thank you note. Basically, it was sending people a lovely thank you note for giving their business card and we appreciate you and it was a whole emotional thing. So, instead of trying to get them to get a free key fob, I used emotional power of thank you. So, when the results came in, the numbers were pretty good like mine slightly outperformed, but not been negligently so. So, he goes, "It's, kind of, a tie." And I said, "No, it's not a tie because the ROI on mine, you still have to mail out these key fobs and pay the postage." My idea was far cheaper. So, he agreed. So, I won the bet.

Matt: [00:12:02] Oh, that's great. I think about emails today and notably, in this world that we're living in right now, getting we're here for you during COVID-19 and here's what we're doing from companies that you haven't talked to in years, what's happened to your business? How has your business changed? How are client conversations shifting?

Mat: Yeah. And so, and I think it's changed over the last few months and maybe it will change again the way things are, kind of, still happening. But what we saw, we kind of organize the conversations and into... they were consultants. So, we did a framework and there's three Rs. And there were, you know, what clients needed in terms of responding, and that was much more in the moment, right, like especially in the beginning. Like say in March, April bleeding into May, maybe in some markets, people are still in a respond attitude.

The second “R” was reignite. Maybe they've responded. They've done a bit of that or maybe it's a commodity just to respond and say, "We care. We're here for you." And you go to reignite and reignite means get back to some, kind of, growth is pushing it, you know, but it's back to what you were supposed to achieve this year, maybe it looks different. Reignite could be rethink what success looks like, you know, refigure out by December what your goals are. It's more than survival. It's something a little more positive than that. But some clients obviously are going through that. So, that's the second one.

And then the third conversation, really a few companies were starting to enter this with now, which is reignite or reimagine, really, I should say. And reimagine is, "Okay. If this is what the world is going be like, what might good look like going forward?" And you see this on the sales side, right? There's no more Dreamforce, right? It's going to be digital selling for a long, long time. There might be conferences in-person, but there'll be smaller, they'll look different. So, what does reimagining what works look like? What is re-imagining what my product line could be like? What's reimagining what my marketing and communications could be like? The shift to digital channels, right? Maybe my spend really changes. Maybe this podcast thing really is a thing, you know, who knows, right? So, maybe out of home is going come back, but something else won't. Reimagine is really... it's interesting. It's very strategic and very creative about how do you take advantage of this new world and what might that look like, so we come out on the other side of it?

Matt: [00:14:37] With clients revisiting their strategies, does it give you a chance to do a bit of a blank slate with them and reset campaigns that maybe weren't headed in the direction that you wanted or help them with a broader strategy than you have in the past?

Mat: Well, it's a two-sided thing. On the one hand, it's massive budget cuts. So, on the one hand, clients don't want to spend money. They're pressured to cut people and resources right at a time when they probably need them. They cut skills and training right at a time when they probably need them. So, it's terrible for everybody, right? On the upside, if you're a digital person like me and you do digital transformation, it's accelerating everything people talked about doing or started to do. So, if you were thinking about maybe moving some media to influencer marketing, if you were thinking of, "Could I do brand building using digital marketing instead of brand building during conventional channels," it's, kind of, accelerating a lot of what you, kind of, have been pitching for a long time. So, that's really the upside is an acceleration of a transformation, which probably isn't new to anybody but maybe hadn't gotten off the books into action.

Matt: [00:15:50] I had recently read another article that you had written, and it was on "Forbes" and it was titled "The CEO Content Strategy - Your Chief Executive as A Reputation Channel." And in it, you talked about the power of effective communications in shaping the company's brand, reputation, and culture. And you talked about market disruptions and public scrutiny. So, I'm thinking that's COVID and those fighting against social and racial injustice, but what that has done to put a spotlight on the CEO who is now being expected to play a greater role than ever in what you say being the heart, soul, and face of their company. Can you explain a little bit about the research that you and your colleague Julia Dowling had done relative to the evaluation of Fortune 500 CEOs and the key differentiator relative to leading with head or heart?

Mat: Sure. So, Julia and I were working about to advise a CEO, one of our clients on content strategy and how she might... it was a new brand evolution, a new brand, kind of, coming out into the market and, you know, what stands should she take and how can we best advise her? And we really thought about, "Well, let's do some research about what others are doing before we open our big mouth and give advice." And often, CEOs are driving it themselves, right? They have their own instincts around what they want to do, but we wanted to be thorough about what else was happening in the market. So, we studied a whole slew of top-performing CEOs and a nice variety across different industries to look for some patterns because we thought that would be incredibly helpful.

And we really found this nice mix of CEOs who were famous for being themselves, like very much a personal brand, CEO's who were as closely associated with the company, and then we were looking for a different way to look at it. And Julia stumbled across head and heart and really looking at companies that, you know, where the CEO is representing in the head, their representing the company's financial impact on the industry, or their operational impact on the industry, or for personally, kind of, expertise. But then there's a whole slew of CEOs that kind of work from the heart. And on the company view, that might be representing the company's culture, their values, or personally, their impact. Maybe they have a special story from where they come from that you will know about. So, this set up a convenient two-by-two, where you could look at a company brand, a personal brand, and you could contrast it with somebody playing up either the head or the heart. From there, we started to plot different examples of CEOs we knew out there to see where they would land and started to draw some conclusions.

Matt: [00:18:33] And I believe you were noting those four common personas, the humanizer, the storyteller, the advocate, and the thought leader.

Mat: Yeah. So, it really became clear once we started to plot these folks that most of the CEOs, very loosely, just from looking at their behaviors out in market, looking at their Twitter feed and how they described them, looking at what channels they, you know, use. Do they really use Twitter or did they not? Do they use a lot of speeches, do they not? Were they quoted in the press or were they not? What kind of stories do they come, you know, to view? If you Googled them, what would you find? If you googled the companies, when would they come up? So, we found there were a bunch of good archetypes that came up and there were six in total, even though four of them were more popular.

So, there was the thought leader, right, which is the CEO with a strong personal reputation and a defined point of view, right? So, like Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase. Like he's all over that, right. Like when he gets on "60 Minutes", he's just a clear, consistent voice and you're like, "Yeah. This guy knows where the industry is going. This is what's happening." The second is a storyteller. And the storyteller is smart, but brings a unique, personal brand forward a little bit and they somehow integrate their external passions and their interests into their public persona, right? So, this might be somebody like the CEO of Northwestern Mutual, John Schlifske. He, kind of, is interesting. He, kind of, uses his platform to not only discuss Northwestern Mutual, but as a way it drives change in the community. And he talks about building financial security for all and about Milwaukee as a hub. So, there's, like, a whole story in that. And that leads to certain actions, while the humanizer, you know, one of our best examples is Ed Bastian from Delta who is really in the press a lot, right? And he does a lot and he just brings his life story into it, and that's his way of showcasing Delta's values. So, he might, you know, once a year, might show business performance. And Ed gets to that, but he also talks about Delta's values consistently. And you'll see that in his Instagram feed, his LinkedIn, it just has his personal events in there. He just reeks of humanizer. It's wonderful too.

And I'll contrast that with the advocate. So, Margaret Keane of Synchrony is a great example of an advocate. And she's like, she's got an incredible amount of credibility, but she also really, kind of, is out there for you, the moral obligation to prepare her employees and the community she serves for the future. Like she's on a mission. And that, kind of, you know, indicates what she gets involved in and what she talks about. And there are two other archetypes, kind of, the lifer and the operator. The operator might be like Abby Johnson from Fidelity, right? She's the next leader of her family business. And she is very private, right? So, she's not a humanizer or the advocate, but she's all about, like, business performance. And a lot of times, companies need that. They need a strong operator at the helm.

Mat: The sixth archetype would be the lifer. And maybe Craig Jelinek of Costco is a good example of this too. I mean, he's got 25 years or more maybe at the company. So, he knows the principles of Costco. He knows the ways of working. He probably knows every employee on the floor. So, who better to talk about the needs for happy employee and what it takes, but he speaks from that lens of having been there, of knowing these folks inside out, of knowing the stories of the past. So, if you put these archetypes all together, you can find different folks by play certain ones up and certain ones down, but they really do find that mix of what's right for them and what's right for the company in the moment.

Matt: [00:22:10] Mat, when you talked about some of these people like Abby is right for Fidelity and in that role she plays, did you also think about the next level down, whether it's the president, or CFO, or somebody else that is outwardly visible and maybe their role in complementing the role of the CEO?

Mat: Yeah. I mean, I think if you work in communications nowadays, you realize it's the entire employees, they all need to be advocates. They all power the brand from the inside, right? So, the next level down for sure has to go through somewhat of the same exercise. We do believe in, kind of, starting at the top, let the CEO set the pace. That's their privilege, and then let the other folks, kind of, find their spot in that. And it might be very consistent to what that person does, it might be their own flavor of what that person does, or if that CEO is fulfilling a certain need for the public, but there's other needs, right, say that CEO is a great storyteller or thought leader, but we, kind of, need a bit of operator because Wall Street's really looking at us, then maybe other executives should be playing up the operator lens. And that's right for them to, kind of, balance it out.

So, it doesn't have to be the exact same choice, but it does have to be from the same playbook. So, we would believe in starting with the CEO, doing the next leadership value, then maybe even cascading it down to the next level of management and to the employees and finding their own flavor of it too. You could also go bottoms up, of course. You know, and there's no right way of doing it, but there's a reason to be cohesive if you can't be consistent.

Matt: [00:23:42] Excellent. So, Mat, how do you anticipate digital marketing and communications will continue to evolve in the coming years?

Mat: I think automation is coming for all of us. And this can be a good thing because we could start spending our time on more important things than maybe what we are. For example, if I'm, I don't know, spending a lot of time on the message, maybe I can spend half the time on the message and then Alexa can tell me which of the six to use because it'll work 80% of the time or something. Maybe I'll get some time back, but I think automation is going to influence digital marketing and communications. I think marketing and communications are going to continue to come closer together. We already see that with sales and marketing coming closer together. And in some categories, we see marketing and comms coming closer together. They share a lot of channels; they share a lot of the same beliefs. Pushing reputation and pushing brand are very similar if not at the same. So, I think we're going to see a lot of confluence of both people and talents. So, it would be good idea to know a little bit about both.

Matt: Excellent. Well, Mat, thank you so much for the insights today.

Mat: Thank you. Super fun. Love your show, love your name.

Matt: And for listeners that can't get enough of Mat Zucker, I would encourage you to sample one or both of his podcasts "Rising" and "Cidiot." I'm Matt Swain and you've been listening to the "Reimagining Communications" podcast. If you liked this episode and think someone else would too, please share it, leave a review, and don't forget to subscribe. To learn more about Broadridge, our insights, and our innovations, visit broadridge.com, or find us on Twitter and LinkedIn.