Technology & Disruption: 5 Rules of Engagement

Today, innovations in technologies like virtual reality and artificial intelligence are poised to disrupt a number industries – content marketing included. As unprecedented as it sounds, we’ve seen this many times before.

In 1985, Adobe launched Pagemaker (now known as InDesign), THE app that led to the disruption of advertising, marketing and publishing. Pundits forecasted the death of the designer and writer, as entrepreneurs and marketers began preparing their own ads, brochures and newsletters.

In fact, many of today’s creative directors, content strategists and senior designers all got their start in desktop publishing.

Here’s the thing: the smart agencies adapted.

They mastered the tools and produced designs, content, video and interactive properties that the untrained could never match. Instead of killing professions, this is one of many examples of new technologies fueling the marketing industry with the power to create what had never been imagined.

Now, most of our day-to-day tasks can be automated. Need a mobile site? Google can create it at the push of a button. Need a new display advertising campaign? Push a button in your AdWords account and eight new ads appear – right-sized, well-designed, and likely well-messaged.

What’s left for the humans to do? First, take your head out of the sand. Ignoring reality never helped anyone keep a job. Second, follow these rules when it comes to marketing automation:

While most of us might not think that marketing technology should rule our world, we can benefit from a few rules of engagement. Here are our top five:

  1. Stop resisting: Regularly explore what’s new and how it might contribute to your business and, more importantly, your clients’ marketing goals.
  2. Understand the technology: If a client mentions a popular marketing technology (Marketo, WordStream, HubSpot, Silverpop, etc.) you should know it and be able to speak to its relevance and effectiveness for that client. Otherwise, you’re not doing your job.
  3. Use the technology: Manage a campaign for yourself using new technology. If you specialize in direct marketing, use HubSpot and Marketo, if only to understand how they work. If you help your clients advertise, then you’d better offer a keen understanding of Google AdWords and the technologies that have sprung up around AdWords.
  4. Figure out how your role is changing: For example, AdWords and search have made a huge impact on media planning and advertising. But managing an AdWords campaign, getting the right clicks and keeping your quality score high (among many considerations) isn’t easy. Master this and doors will open.
  5. Understand what the technology is NOT doing: Technology is mostly fact-fed. It lacks the emotional intelligence and empathy humans have and consumers want in the content they consume. 

The human role will never disappear. Mastering new technology will ensure that agencies stay relevant with clients and comfortable with our new marketing partner: the machine.

Exploring Business Opportunities in Cuba

We’ve launched a new thought leadership series with our IPREX partners called Global Perspectives. Each month we will look at a global issue and share our perspective on the business implications and communications challenges involved with the selected topic.

Our first Global Perspectives tackles the changes in Cuba.

Read below for thoughts on doing business into Cuba from IPREX partners around the world.









BEIJING  “Closer economic ties between Cuba and the U.S. are to be welcomed, especially as global trading patterns are evolving and becoming much more multilateral. Chinese trade with Latin America has grown rapidly in recent years, surpassing US $258 billion in 2014.

“China is the second-largest trading partner of many countries including Argentina and Cuba, and a primary source of credit. That is a massive change from 1990s, when China ranked just 17th on the list of Latin American export destinations.”  Maggie Chan, Director, Greater China, Newell PR


BERLIN – “Cuba is a country in transition – that is the impression of two ORCA executives who travelled the country in October and December 2015. A number of small but profound changes are transforming everyday life on the Caribbean island. Small business is gaining ground, Cubans are becoming private employers, and tourism is booming; new resorts are popping up on wonderful beaches. The run on the Cuban market has already begun.

“The German Vice Chancellor recently visited the island, accompanied by a business delegation 60-strong, with the aim to boost economic cooperation. He emphasized that “German firms can offer Cuba very good solutions, particularly in the fields of energy, health, machinery and plant engineering.” As specialists in public diplomacy, we can assist with these development opportunities.  Michael T. Schröder, Managing Director, ORCA Affairs



DALLAS  “While U.S. restrictions have eased for certain industries, it is only the first step on a much longer road to normalized U.S.-Cuba relations. There are still strict regulations regarding how U.S. businesses must operate in Cuba.

“It is important that businesses beginning to serve the Cuban marketplace choose a partner that understands the complexities of a market that has been off-limits to Americans for 50 years.” Jody Venturoni, Partner, LDWWgroup


FORT LAUDERDALE  “How to do business with Cuba is a major topic of interest in South Florida, where conversations are happening between Cuban and American entrepreneurs.  While the Castro dictatorship understandably remains a source of outrage for Cuban-Americans and others, President Obama’s reopening of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba and allowing certain types of trade has generated tremendous interest in the business community.

“Cuba’s potential for airlines, cruise lines, hotels and other travel-related companies is obvious, but will not be realized until the embargo is lifted. Meanwhile, companies of all sizes should focus on cultural exchange and philanthropic work to build the relationships and brand recognition they will need when trade barriers are removed.” Jane Grant, President, Pierson Grant Public Relations



MADRID – “Cuba is still a very special economy with two currencies. A gigantic state apparatus controls the commercial activity with a bureaucracy typical of a country that is not democratic. Therefore, any company that wants to invest there must keep in mind some peculiarities.

“Cuba is a country where market prices are imposed, free competition does not exist and tariffs are not the same for everything, even if the imported product is the same. Additionally, the only source of news is the government. Cuba will be a good country in which to invest, but not yet.” Mayte González-­Gil, CEO, poweraxle and IPREX EMEA President


MEXICO CITY  “The relaunch of relations between Mexico and Cuba is related to the deepening project of updating the economic and social model driven by President Raul Castro in his country. During May 2014, a Mexican business mission formed by 68 Mexican businessmen representing 48 companies took place. This is a clear sign that opportunities are coming.”Horacio Loyo Gris, Co-Founder, Dextera Comunicación



NEW YORK  “The richness and worldwide popularity of Cuban music begs interesting business opportunities that may be had by activating and empowering the island’s wide array of talent and intellectual property in the field.

“Exploring partnerships with U.S. brands and makers of musical instruments and pro audio equipment, U.S. agencies may be able to enter Cuban markets and in turn capitalize on the opportunities to produce, promote and help develop Cuban artists in a worldwide stage, also using them for marketing, PR campaigns and content, much like Win Wenders and co. did with the Buena Vista Social Club, minus all the trade restriction headaches he endured at the time!”  Raul Gonzalez, Director, RGAA PR, a partially-owned subsidiary of French/West/Vaughan


SAN FRANCISCO  “Cuba is a long way from becoming a priority consumer market for U.S. companies. Most Cubans make an average of $20 per month. Other emerging markets with an established middle class offer opportunities to U.S. companies without as much uncertainty. However, one of the biggest opportunities for U.S. companies is in the Cuban travel sector. European and Canadian hotels have been doing business in Cuba for years.

“Given its geographic location, U.S. travel would benefit from entering the Cuban market. U.S. companies entering the Cuban market will have a need in Cuba for public affairs, employee recruitment and employee communications. These U.S. companies will also have a need for issues management here in the U.S., as some opposition remains (among Cuban-Americans) toward U.S. companies doing business in Cuba.”  Juan F. Lezama, Director, Mosaico, the Latino Division of Fineman PR

Read more perspectives in IPREX Voices:

Market Basket: This isn’t a PR Problem

market basket headerIf you live anywhere in metro Boston, you’ve heard about the Market Basket issue.

To the uninitiated the basics are this: Market Basket is a regional grocery chain owned by a single family. The chain had been owned by two brothers and split evenly, but when one brother, George, died, his heirs thought they would inherit their dad’s half of the company. It didn’t work out that way and so began a fight that pit cousin against cousin. It came to a head recently when the board ousted the CEO in more of the family squabble. Then the employees got involved, staging a protest to bring the CEO back.

This whole drama is playing out in the major media and the main question being asked is: how can a company screw up its communications this badly? And yes, it’s bad. While the workers let shelves run empty and then stood out front of stores asking shoppers to stay away until “Arthur T” comes back as CEO, the company’s board has said nothing. Market Basket doesn’t even have a website. The closest thing to a Market Basket site is one started by a lone web developer designed to help people get access to coupons and store times. Arthur T was loved by his employees and the Boston Globe’s Adrian Walker demonstrates why:

We toured the Chelsea store together last summer, during an earlier chapter of the fight that has pitted his wing of the family against the one led by his cousin Arthur S. Demoulas. I figured seeing him in his element would be more interesting than talking to him in some downtown conference room. But the connection between the magnate and his employees was frankly shocking. Demoulas knew almost everyone’s name. He knew the name of the guy cutting meat whose wife had just completed chemotherapy and asked about her with obvious concern. Customers came up to him and hugged him, cheered him on. The interactions were too numerous and spontaneous to be staged.

As for the current board? No website, no corporate presence in the media, no spokesperson and no outbound communications. The connection with its employees appears to be one of “we pay you, you do work.” This isn’t a company that can do PR well; it’s not in its DNA.

A lot of friends have asked, “if you represented Market Basket, what would you do?”

That may not be the right question, though. The truth is, would the Market Basket board listen to a firm they hired? In watching how they’re handling this crisis, not just through the PR lens but also through the corporate actions, I’m not sure they’d listen to an outside agency, even one they hired.

This isn’t a PR problem, it’s a corporate problem that plays out through PR. Even a great PR program won’t fix the core problems, but it can help communicate the right messages, provided those messages exist.

Any PR program is a collaboration between the company and the agency with both sides doing their part in getting the right messages to the right people. A company that hires a PR firm and thinks “I’ll just pay them lots of money and all my problems will be solved” simply won’t succeed.

The most successful PR program is a collaboration. The PR team listens to the client, researches the market, brings its experience to the table and comes up with a plan. The client listens, provides feedback, and helps feed the PR program with information. Every PR person has had the experience of a corporate executive who was “just too busy” to make an interview, leaving the PR person to pick up the pieces. Then, later, the executive wonders why they weren’t in the story.

In the case of Market Basket, any plan needs to begin with employee communications. That is, the board must communicate a clear direction for the company, especially if it doesn’t include selling the assets to the beloved Arthur T, directly with the employees. They must demonstrate that the employees are more than just a profit-center, but actually a part of the organization and its future.

I’m not talking about writing a single email that gets blasted to everyone, though that’s a start. I mean store-by-store meetings in which executives show up and speak with the people. These should be town hall-style forums in which executives take questions and then actually answer them. They don’t hide, they don’t skirt hard questions, they admit that this was handled poorly, own up to their mistakes and lay out a plan for moving forward.

The plan also needs to include time with the press, we’re talking old-school sit-downs with major media and key reporters. Pick and choose carefully, because those relationships will be necessary later.

Finally, the plan must include coming into the modern age with communications. Yes, Market Basket needs a website, but it also needs a corporate voice to document the changes the company lays out in its plan. Call it a blog if you want, but there are many ways to handle this issue. It could be a daily video aimed at employees but shared with the world, it could be an online news service, it could simply be a very active social presence.

There also needs to be a community forum for Market Basket employees that is monitored by the corporate parent so key issues can bubble up. The employees obviously care for their company deeply, the board must hear from them. In fact, every board meeting should include an employee advocate who takes the information from the forums, as well as other feedback and data, and reports that back to the board.

Of course, all of this assumes that the board is listening and this is about business. Unfortunately, all indications are that this isn’t business, it’s personal, and the past is littered with broken brands that had great runs but ran into the family business curse, when personal feuds drove business decisions.

Beyond Ego – A Key Marketing Teaching

Our culture drinks heavily of the Cartesian Kool-aid, “I think, therefore I am.” In other words, we identify with our thoughts.

This identification solidifies further in professions which reward us for thinking. Over time, we increasingly value our thoughts, which is reinforced as our employers and customers reward us for them. And yet, just as our sense of self becomes ever more heavily invested in our thoughts, research continues to validate the idea that creating some space between ourselves and our thoughts — in other words, separating the self concept from the thought of the moment — can lead to more skillful navigation of professional and personal landscapes.

Believing others will feel the same way we do is one of marketing’s cardinal sins.

I first learned about this in my early 20s when I read Beyond Ego: Transpersonal Dimensions in Psychology, a collection of essays including “Relative Realities” by Ram Dass. In that short piece, Dass points how repeated use of the expression “I am” when it comes to emotions (I am happy, frustrated, etc.) galvanizes a mental link between the self and the thought or emotion of the moment. “I am angry” is tantamount to saying “I define myself as angry.” In English at least, we don’t have an expression to communicate that we experience a thought or emotion but don’t identify with it, such as “a part of myself is experiencing anger, but I am much more than the anger.” Each time we express the “I am” concept, whether aloud or in our own minds, we reinforce complete identification with the thought of the moment.

This kind of close relationship between self-concept and thought of the moment is toxic for marketers. As professional communicators, if we identify too strongly with our thoughts or emotions, we become blinded to one of the foundations of effective communication: I am not my target audience. We need awareness of, and distance from, our opinions, emotional reactions, thoughts and even the understandable desire to show off our skills. This way we can focus on the marketer’s critical question, “will this communication strategy work?”

Sadly, most communications “experts” ask a different question: “Do I like this communication strategy?”

These so-called experts believe that their years in communications work give them license to be lazy: they identify 100% with their thoughts and express their own preference. Too often, they are surrounded by people who trust the “expert,” scratch one more item off their list, and move on to the next challenge. “You’re the expert, so you tell me.”And so we see thousands of communications campaigns that aren’t appropriate for the target audiences. Sometimes great ideas, ingenious marketing solutions addressing the wrong problems. [Read more…]

Marissa Mayer's decision isn't a "women's issue"

Brette seen here at her desk on a particularly cold day.

Brette seen here at her desk on a particularly cold day.

A lot of the discussion surrounding Marissa Mayer’s call for Yahoo! employees to return to the office full time has focused on the fact that she’s a woman balancing life and career. People are calling the decision wrong-headed or even a “snobbish” one that negatively reflects her (and Yahoo!’s) view of women in the workplace.

But if we continue to portray this as a woman’s issue, we will have completely missed the point. This is a work-life balance issue, and a family issue, for both genders. Where you work and the hours you devote to that work is your decision, whether you’re a man a woman, albeit one still dictated by economic realities. I would argue that Mayer is not picking on women, but rather signaling–however loudly–that culture change is underway and that perhaps it’s time for Yahoo! employees to decide whether Yahoo! is the right place for them.

If you look at it this way, her message, though certainly disappointing to many, isn’t terribly different from that of Barclay’s CEO Antony Jenkins when he issued his ultimatum to bank employees on meeting ethical standards after a crushing scandal: as’s Derek Irvine put it: “Live and work by our values, or leave.”

At Fresh Ground we give our employees (and ourselves) flexibility to do the work no matter where they are. So on any given day you may find an office full of people or a bunch of empty desks. Factors that drive the decision can be as varied as the commute time, the weather, what work needs to get done or when we need to pick up children.

My wife and I both own our own businesses and we split parental duties. I’m often the one dropping my children off at school and picking them up, then shuttling them off to soccer, piano, Karate, Chinese, tutoring or any of a number of different activities.

Technology has made this possible. At Fresh Ground our office numbers can be set to ring our cell phones and our desk phones, our data is hosted in the cloud, our computers are all laptops and we often use free tools like Google Hangout and

Still, there’s nothing like face-to-face interaction. Our culture drives people into the office. We learn from one another, we toss ideas around, we ask for advice. We’re collaborative.

A great blog post in the Harvard Business Review points out how Mayer is a data-driven CEO who, most likely, looked at the data of the best performing projects and teams, looked for consistency and made a decision that’s right for the company.

That’s not a decision driven only by what’s friendly for “women” but one that’s best for the company. We don’t know what other decisions she may make to ensure that Yahoo! is more family-friendly, but I suspect she’ll bring in other ways to support parents’ needs. But let’s dispense with the idea that this is a “female” issue and look at it for what it really is: a decision by a CEO who knows her stuff and wants to make her company stronger.