What’s the problem with doing what everybody else is doing? Marketers are expected to come up with something wildly innovative or creative. Dare to be different and get unstuck by presenting interesting or authentic ideas in a meaningful way.
Today’s guest is Mike Poznansky, founder and managing partner at Neato — a full-service marketing agency that helps brands connect with young audiences, including college students and Gen Z. Mike explains how to break out of a rut and do work that reflects you and your brand. What makes you uniquely valuable, instead of someone simply following the leader of the pack?
Some of the highlights of the show include:
- Neato: Uncovers insights, develops strategies, and creates marketing programs
- Turnkey Tactics: Marketers observe how successful brands market themselves
- Thoughtful: Put time, energy, and effort into effectively identifying ‘why’ or ‘how’
- Copy-and-Paste Marketing: Don’t expect the same results by mimicking tactics
- College Culture: People’s needs, pain points, aspirations are always changing
- Human-Centered Approach: Understand brand, organization, accomplishments
- Iterative Process: People on the ground and prototypes represent audiences
- Authenticity: Be yourself, know who you are, what resources/assets are available
- Failures: Try to do something for the sake of evolving and learning
Ben: Hi Mike, how’s it going this morning?
Mike: It’s going great. Thanks, Ben. Good to be here.
Ben: Absolutely. Before we get too far along, would you mind taking a moment to introduce yourself to our audience and explain what you do at Neato?
Mike: Sure. I’m the founder and managing director of Neato, and we’re a full-service marketing agency that connects brands with young audiences. We have a focus on college students and Gen Z. Everything we do at Neato is driven by this core belief that young people are happy being marketed to as long as it adds value to their lives. That’s the core principle that drives our approach. We’re a full-service agency. We help uncover insights, develop strategy, and create marketing programs.
Ben: Very cool. I understand you’ve worked with tons of huge brands that a lot of our listeners would likely be familiar with. Would you mind taking a moment to share who are some of the companies you’ve worked with? Feel free to hype yourself up a little bit here.
Mike: Sure. We’ve been around since 2013 and we’ve had the opportunity to partner with some very incredible brands and wonderful people behind those brands—Target, Vans. Vans was one of our first clients and we’ve been working with them since our first days in 2013, for the last seven years now. Wall Street Journal, Spotify, REI, Anheuser-Busch, and Anheuser-Busch portfolio brands from Budweiser, Bud Light, Natty Light, Boston University—a wide range of brands. I’d say the one thing that binds all of them together is their aspirations to connect with a younger audience.
Ben: That’s awesome stuff. That’s a fun portfolio. Something that I want to dig into this conversation is this idea of boilerplate marketing and copy-and-paste marketing. A lot of different spaces very often have a tendency to want to look at what other companies are doing, and want to look at things that have worked for other companies prior to ever making a move of their own. As a result, you can pick a vertical and you’ll start to see the same things that just start to look familiar that every company in that space is doing. I imagine when you’re marketing to younger audiences in particular that’s a problem because with audiences that are looking for more innovative thinking, I imagine that’s all just going to start to just wash together.
In your view, what’s the problem with just doing what everyone else is doing? Or with being afraid to ever deviate from anything that you’ve already seen work for someone else?
Mike: It’s a great question. I noticed this, I spent my early career at Red Bull. I started working for Red Bull when I was in college as a student brand manager, and it was how I discovered marketing and ended up running Red Bull’s college program out of Santa Monica for Red Bull, North America for quite some time before going off and starting an agency. I had no desire to work at an agency, let alone start one. But one of the things that I noticed was as we started to scale, and we wanted some external help in terms of just creative and some executional assistance, I realized that most agencies focused on the youth space were offering a menu of turnkey tactics. It was pretty much an insert brand, insert product here. It was like, would you like the mobile event, or the sampling program, the field marketing program, the ambassador program, or experiential? Here’s exactly how we approach each one of these tactics, and here’s what you could expect as a result.
Marketers in the space as well, they look at what other successful brands are doing, and they observe the way these brands are marketing themselves. They attribute their success to the tactic or to the medium itself. When in reality, they don’t want to take the time and resources to figure out the most effective way, or the why, or the how. It’s helpful if I give you an example. Ambassador programs are a perfect example.
Companies who want to connect with a college audience would say, hey, we’ve seen other brands like Red Bull have an ambassador program and be incredibly successful. Go out there, find an agency, get me an ambassador program, make it cheap, and just get it done, because if we have one—if we have an ambassador program—we’re going to be successful as well.
When in reality, leading into that program, someone like Red Bull is asking themselves, how could we get a better understanding of what culture is like on these college campuses? How can we identify the right people that we need to be building relationships with? And what does that process of cultivating these relationships and nurturing these relationships look like? How can we personalize some of the marketing initiatives that we have on a global level, on a national level to these specific markets? The list could go on and on. How could we be supporting some of the sales accounts that we have both in the on-premise, and off-premise, and some of these high-value markets?
Through that, they’ll say it would be incredibly helpful for us to have someone on the ground who has plugged in, ambitious, well-connected. If you look at that on the surface and you’d say, great, it was an ambassador program that made them successful. When in reality, there was a tremendous amount of time, and energy, and effort put into figuring out the most thoughtful way to go about that. If you just try to copy and mimic the tactic itself, you can’t expect to have the same results.
Ben: Right, absolutely. That’s a great example of that in practice and a great example of what to do instead. This is something you touched on, it’s more work to come up with something on your own versus just looking at what brands XYZ in our space have done, just give me our version of that. What advice would you have for a company that’s maybe dealing with some internal resistance because either they don’t want to put in the work, or they don’t feel they have the resources to come up with something new, or whatever the case may be? What would you say if a company came to you, looking for something generic, what would your response to them be in that situation?
Mike: It happens all the time. We had a new business conversation with a company that we’d love to work with last week. They came to us and they gave us a little bit of a background on what they were hoping to achieve, and marketing to college students, and wanted us to provide them with a set of tactics. That’s a perfect example of a situation like that. What we typically do is we just say, hey, we’re incredibly interested in helping you to solve this problem, but we want to make sure, as your potential partner, that we figure out the most effective way to do that for you and for you to be approaching the segment. For us, that process always starts with talking to, in this case, college students, talking to the target audience, whoever it may be.
I’m pretty cynical about anyone or any collective out there who says we are experts in X. It would be very easy for us to say, we’re college experts. In the beginning, we might’ve even said that which is a little cringy. Look, we know the space better than anyone else. The longer you’re in it, the more you realize that culture is so quickly evolving, especially if you look at the world in 2020. People’s needs, and their pain points, and their aspirations are always changing.
Going back to the question, it’s essential that any marketer, whether it be a brand or an agency, connects with the audience that they are aspiring to market to, and has conversations with them to get a better understanding of their perceptions, some of their behaviors as it relates to the category itself and the brand, and then get a better understanding of what it is that they want, or what it is that they need. Then figure out how that reconciles with the brand and the business, and what they’re setting out to do because we often find those needs are not mutually exclusive—the needs of a young audience or a specific consumer segment and the objectives of a business, typically those meet in the middle. If they don’t meet in the middle, if there is no common ground, it’s often because it’s not a viable target.
If I were talking to someone who had no money, I would say, that’s fine. You’re probably going to have to do this on your own but just connect with people who are part of your segment, part of your target. In this case, go find some college students, or go find some people who represent Gen Z, and sit down with them for an hour and have a conversation with them. I mean that also will address your question around internal resistance. This is a long-winded response to a pretty simple question, but if you’re a marketer and you’re finding that someone is trying to prescribe tactics, your CEO wants you just to do X, Y, and Z, and not invest the time and energy to figure it out, if you want to go toe-to-toe with her, you can, but it’s going to be an uphill battle.
If you come back to them and you have real insights from your customer or your ideal customer, your potential customer, whatever it may be, and you have supporting quotes and statements that you could play back to them that rationalize your recommendation, that’s a much more approachable conversation. You’re going to find that there’s a lot less conflict there because you’re simply advocating on their behalf versus coming off as trying to just be someone who’s disagreeing.
Ben: Something that’s really important to keep in mind here is that actual authenticity doesn’t necessarily need to mean being super raw, or edgy in any way. In fact, I think for a lot of our listeners, odds are that’s sort of a cliched perception around what authenticity really means. It’s probably not going to be a good fit for your brand unless you are marketing to an audience that’s looking for that sort of thing.
What it really does mean is really figuring out who you are, what sets your brand apart, understanding what your audience really wants, and really expects from you, not operating off of assumptions but actually doing the legwork to really start to arrive with some solid answers for those things.
If you can focus on just those few areas, then better solutions and better ideas will often times just naturally start to present themselves so that you don’t have to look so hard at what other people are doing or be afraid of taking a risk or doing something different just because you haven’t seen it work for someone else before. Your competition, those other brands that you look up to, they’re probably in the position that they’re in because they’re doing what’s best for them. If you copy anything about what they do, it should be that you need to figure out what’s best for you too. Now, back to Mike.
It sounds like what you’re getting at is rather than looking at what’s been done before, rather than first looking toward your competition, you’re saying go talk to your target customer base, and let them tell you this is who I am, this is what I like, this is the way I behave in the world and all these other things. Then using that data, which your CMO, CEO, whatever stakeholder you’re dealing with can’t disagree with it. The data is what it is. The voice of your customer is what it is, too.
Let’s say that I’m a marketer, and I’m listening to this episode, and I’m realizing that I’m guilty of some or all of maybe some of the less enlightened practices that we’ve touched on a little bit. For a marketer in that situation, where would you recommend they start with reassessing their strategy so they can get off that hamster wheel of copycat marketing, and stop trying to play it safe so much, and move toward a more audience-centric or customer-centric way of working, what it sounds like you’re advocating for.
Mike: I’m glad you brought up that more human-centered approach because I like that. I would say first and foremost, make sure you have a very clear understanding of who you are as a brand, as an organization, and you’re very clear on what it is that you’d like to accomplish—you want people to know about you, you want people to believe, to feel. Then yes, to have an understanding of your audience or your potential audience as well, and find where those two things meet in the middle.
It’s not just research. You could co-create with people that you’re trying to target. I certainly believe in the value of having some initial conversations, doing some either round table discussions or one-on-one interviews with your target at the beginning part of the discovery phase. But even when you get into some creative exercises, come up with some initial tactics and play them to your target—to people that you’re hoping to connect with, to people that you want your tactics to appeal to—and get their feedback, and maybe shape those tactics with them.
That’s actually the real value of when you look at some of the organizations out there who have a vast field marketing network or an ambassador network if they have people who are on the ground who represent their customer base, who could be part of that creative process. But prototype it, and then get out there and try stuff, and show up, be a part of that experience or that event, and see how people respond, and talk to people afterward, and then refine it. It’s an iterative process.
Most likely, by the time you see a best practice that’s from a brand, there was a whole lot of thought that went into that at the beginning—there was a pilot for it, there were some initial phases of it, perhaps some of those were unsuccessful—by the time you see something that wins an award or celebrated everywhere online, it’s benefitting from all that collective experience, and all that collective feedback. Don’t expect to just create that overnight and especially take a tactic down point of view. But I love that point about the human-centered approach because I think that’s part of the process from discovery, to creative development, to execution, to refining the tactic.
Ben: Certainly. That’s a great point that you raise. People don’t see the sweat equity that goes on or that goes into an award-winning campaign. Those things don’t happen by accident.
Mike: Right. Especially as a new brand. We’ve had conversations with brands before, even existing established ones, and we’ll be going through a set of case studies, and we’ll pull up a slide on Vans. I’ve had marketers say to me, that’s amazing. We want to be like that. Just make us like Vans. It’s the equivalent of me. I’m here in Austin, marching down to South Congress, and walking into the salon, and pulling up a picture of Leonardo DiCaprio on my phone and saying, can you make me look like him? If you give me the right haircut, I’m going to be Leo. I would say don’t underestimate what it took for people to develop, and create, and refine their approach as you set out to take that same journey for yourself.
Ben: It sounds like what you’re advocating here is say, being like the agency, you would be the salon essentially in that metaphor. You could go in one of two ways. If someone says, turn me into Vans, you could either be like, sure, I’ll take your money. We’ll cash some checks and we’ll fail to make you Vans because you’re not Vans. Or you could tell them no, that’s not actually what you want. You don’t want to be Vans. You want to be the best version of you. Let’s figure out what that is.
For an in-house marketing team, if it was the CMO talking to the CEO and the CEO says I want to be whatever the Vans is of my space. Maybe what that CMO should do is turn that conversation around and be like we can’t be them because we’re not them. Is that what you’re getting at there?
Mike: Earlier you were talking about younger generations being a little bit more advanced of a target. I’d say almost every brand that’s approaching the segment, even ones who have just a more capitalistic point of view, that’s like, hey, we see this as a viable business opportunity purely and we’re not so interested in exactly how we get there, we want the outcome. I’d say everyone acknowledges in some capacity, the need to build a genuine and meaningful relationship with the segment in order to get them to care about your brand. It’s critical for brands to show up in an authentic way.
You can’t just show up and say, great, if I’m a beverage brand, I want to be exactly like Vans. Suddenly, I want to start talking about Off The Wall and inspiring creative expression or whatever it may be. You need to be yourself and you need to know who you are. You need to know what resources and assets that you have available to you as the company you are and the brand that you are, and then figure out where those meet the needs of the audience. It’s really about authenticity and if you aren’t genuine or you aren’t authentic, it’s going to be glaringly obvious, and it’s going to be a turnoff.
Ben: Yeah, 100%. At a more advanced level, a brand or a marketing team, let’s say they’ve gotten a pretty good grasp on these things. They understand what it actually means to be authentic in a real sense. They talk to their customers, they do their research. They put the legwork in to create a brand that is going to stand out versus one that is going to blend in. What’s next at that point? If you’re 90% of the way there, how do you add that extra 10% to your brand that really is going to make you stand out?
Mike: That’s a good question. I would say the process never really stops. You aren’t finished. One of the most effective things that we’ve found that serves the creative process well and the innovation process well is to get together and have a workshop. Get together could mean different things in 2020 but in an ideal world, you have everybody in the room. At the very least, everybody’s got time carved out and is fully focused and dedicated to the format, but have a creative workshop, have a generative session. Walk into that with some specific questions that you’d like to address, some things that you’re really curious about.
I will say, when it comes to looking at other brands, it is great to seek outside inspiration because there is a lot of great work out there. Bring that inspiration in there, have some campaigns that appeal to you. Deconstruct what it is about them that made them appealing. We always like to start with some initial inspiration. We like to follow that up with some things we heard from our audience or possibly even do a little bit of immersion into the current brand and the business, and have a generative discussion about what opportunities are out there.
I would say in an ideal world if you’re talking about going 90%-100%, a mistake that a lot of brands make is they put so much time, and energy, and effort into the upfront process. Then once the creative process is complete and they ship something out, they’re done. But stay invested, stay involved, continue to refine that approach, continue to learn, continue to listen to your segment, assess the results, and figure out how you can improve and make it better. We find a workshop format to be an incredibly effective way to facilitate a conversation like that.
Ben: Awesome. I love how that’s a very practical approach to actually bringing those minds together. The last question I’m going to throw your way—and this ties back into some things that you’ve already touched on pretty well—but there is a tendency for marketers to fall back toward whatever’s comfortable either when they don’t know what to do or when something doesn’t go well. It’s like, let’s just retreat back to a time-tested thing we know that we can execute that’s not going to ruffle any feathers.
Let’s say that a marketing team succeeds in getting buy-in to try something different from what they’ve done before, or to just try something that they don’t have an example from another brand to point to say that this works. In my former life of working in an agency, clients would always ask before they would ever do anything, it’d be like, can you show me a brand that this has worked for before? But then they would also want you to pull a rabbit out of a hat and be wildly creative, not seeming to understand the disconnect between those two things.
Let’s say there’s a marketer in that situation and they managed to convince the client, or maybe if it’s an in-house team, they got some stakeholder on board with doing something else, not doing things that way, and then let’s say it fails. Now the stakeholder’s pissed because they think they should have just done the easy thing. What do you do to recover? How does a marketing leader pick themselves up, and go face that stakeholder, and manage to continue to move forward without going backward?
Mike: It’s tricky because if you were hired to deliver against a specific set of objectives and you’ve seen something to be effective in the past at achieving those objectives, rationally, it would make sense to channel a lot of your resources into that existing thing, and I would still advocate doing the same thing. But then that raises the question, how can we evolve and how can we continue to be creative while balancing that with being efficient and effective with the limited resources we have? Because even with the biggest brands out there, there’s still some cap, some limitation on the resources available.
I like the idea of complimenting some of those tried and tested tactics with some new endeavors. It just comes down to setting clear expectations. One to say, look, we’re going to have a really open and vulnerable conversation about how we could push this forward a little bit because it’s working for us now, but maybe it won’t continue to work for us now as the landscape evolves, as the category evolves, whatever it may be. Carve out 20%, 10% of the budget of the agency’s time and give them that space where it’s okay to fail, and where it’s okay to try something and do something purely for the sake of evolving and learning.
Fear of failure or fear of sounding stupid or uninformed are real creativity killers in businesses and in the agency-client dynamics. I would say, align on the intention to try something interesting and different, give people the space to do things that are courageous and potentially fail, and learn from them, and make them better. Because eventually, you’ll either find that it doesn’t work or it’s going to inspire something great.
Ben: As I said, that was the last question I had for you. But before I let you go, is there anything else you’d like to add or any other parting thoughts you’d like to leave our audience with? It’s fine if not.
Mike: I was thinking about it. I would say, just never stop having conversations with your target, even if it’s four people, if it’s eight people. Sit down, schedule a Zoom with them. Maybe it’s even just family, friends, or connections that you have. Have conversations with them, learn about their lives, what they’re going through, what their needs are, what their values are, what sort of brands they’re interested in and why, and just don’t get lost in your own world of being a marketer.
For a CMO, you almost become this corporate maverick and your job is consumed by internal processes, stay in touch with your audience, and what they need, and what they want. That will pay off tremendously in the short and long-term as you continue on your professional journey.
January 12, 2021
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