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Starcom’s Lisa Donohue: Brands do not need to be perfect – but they need to show humanity

Lisa Donohue has been with Publicis for more than 30 years, acting as CEO of Starcom in the United States and now as the agency’s global brand president. She talks to Mumbrella Asia’s Eleanor Dickinson about the way AI is changing the industry and gives her view on the recent brand damage to the likes of Uber and United Airlines

Following last year’s restructure and the dismantling and consolidation of Publicis’ media agencies, how much of a challenge has it been keeping the Starcom brand and culture distinct?

“One of the first things I did as brand president was take a step back and ask if our global brand position, of creating better human experiences, is still right? Because if it wasn’t, that would have been a good time to change our stance.

“So after talking to the market leads and our clients, the resounding answer was that the branding of being the human experience agency was more right than ever. The human part is especially important: we always talk about consumers as ‘targets – as faceless people. But being human experience should not mean we do not know how to leverage data in the work that we do.”

Has the ‘human experience’ label even put Starcom at a competitive disadvantage to Zenith, ‘the ROI agency’ as it may appear as a softer option, when pitted against an agency offering tangible business results?

“Actually yes, some of the feedback we received from our clients was exactly as you said. They said they didn’t disagree that human experiences are important. So how do you show better efficacy and show that experiences work?

“This is still an industry of arts and science – that’s not going to change. Even with the science and the data, the human and the art are still important.

“In terms of talent, we have built up the data scientist capabilities, but we still need the anthropologists – those who understand people. In addition, people now really need to be able to think horizontally, so solve problems through a creative approach.

“As a leader, you have to take in a lot of information, a lot of data and human insights from your anthropologists. You then have to distill all that information, simplify it for clients and put it into a strategy. That’s a very challenging skillset to recruit for.”

Is it a skillset you find among the older generation of leaders though?

“Well those of us who grew up in a siloed world have had to reframe our thinking. We have had to say, the silos don’t exist anymore and we have to start thinking more horizontally. At times that does take a bit of a push. But for the most part, the talent we have has been receptive to that. They have sort of embraced it.

“It’s funny though because I really love the industry today versus when I started. When I look back I always think: ‘God it was so boring.’ There were set formats; there wasn’t any creativity; media formats were black and white. Now the world is your oyster. If you can think of something, you can find a company out there that will help you create it. That’s a wonderful and inspiring place to be.

“When I took on the role of Starcom CEO in 2009 though, that was when the global financial crisis had just started and that was a big challenge. The industry was accelerating at pace, but the clients were being conservative because they were cutting budgets and putting the money in things that they knew worked. So for a long time that really slowed innovation.”

But you must have seen a lot technological change over the last decade?

“Well it was 2012 that we started to feel the momentum swing back to the learn and experiment approach. And you have to experiment to know what’s not a fad. That’s the really hard part with all this new technology. People tend to take the shiny object. Some CEO will say something like: ‘Are we on that ChatSnap thing?’ And people rush and shout ‘yes we are’ without really understanding why they should be there.

“So when you look at technology, you always need to understand what human behaviour is being changed by the technology. What unmet need the technology is addressing, because that tells you where the longevity lies versus what may be a fad.

“One thing I am pushing for with our clients is artificial intelligence and voice-activated AI. This is a big term, like innovation, and there is a lot that comes under AI. But nonetheless, it is influencing the way clients run their business and their products, and services. So how do you build a brand in a voice-activated world? What are consumers saying that would be a keyword in a search engine? With search, you buy your keywords, but that will shift to how you speak about the brand as consumers shift to devices like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home.”

Of the technology trends prevalent today, are there any that you would label as a fad? Things that are just basically all talk?

“AI in itself is not a fad because it is going to impact business, but within AI you see some applications – such as the hairbrush that tells you the condition of your hair that day – that make you question whether there is a huge unmet need. Yes hair is very important to women and men, but is that really going to have wholescale penetration around the world? So, yes, in AI you do see a lot of fad things.

“You also have virtual reality versus augmented reality. Both are different and augmented reality has an ability to have greater impact broadly than virtual reality. Brands will be able to tap more into augmented reality, but VR is not going to go away.”

Earlier, you mentioned how the GFC made clients more conservative with their budgets. Given the chaotic political climate we are seeing globally and the economic effects of that, will that have an impact on innovation?

“So I see the political environment slightly differently. I don’t see the political climate as slowing down innovation, but what I do see it doing is it forcing brands to think about how they talk to their consumers in a divided world.

“If you look at the movements in the US, Britain and France you have the populist segment and you have the non-populist segment. If a brand runs afoul of that feeling with either side, then that changes how the brand is seen. If a brand supported to Trump, you had everyone all over that brand.

“Uber did so and was criticised after the election for supporting Trump. It created polarisation. The sentiment can change quickly and I would say it’s that effect, rather than slowing down innovation, that has been created from the political environment.”

Uber: Polarising politics

Could you say Pepsi also misjudged things around the Black Lives Matter movement with the Kendall Jenner ad?

“Yes they did and for many people they trivialised that [movement]. Consumers honestly do not expect brands to be perfect. They really don’t and it’s important for brands to remember that so they do not overthink things, as well as being authentic and responsive when things run afoul.

“I would say the same with United Airlines: it’s slightly different of course. But they dragged a man off a plane; and then you had the explosion and then a CEO who absolutely failed to have any understanding about being authentic. It took him three times to apologise. In the first apology, he kept reiterating it was that man’s fault. And in today’s environment, nobody is going to see you drag a man off a plane and think you as the brand is right. That person was a human.”

Are incidents such as those a sign that brands, have lost touch with with people?

You must have read my mind. And yes, the challenges for brands today are financial markets, 90-day finance, meeting their investors, who are on their boards and trying to get the fat out of companies. Quarterly finance though has definitely taken away some of the humanity.

“At times brands have lost touch with their consumers. With United Airlines, the first sign they had lost that was when they dragged that man off the plane as if he wasn’t a person. That situation was worsened in how they chose to address it. ”

So short-termism is a real problem today?

“Yes, which isn’t good. There are a lot of kneejerk reactions too. So when the business is in trouble, people will just make a change for change’s sake rather than if it’s the right change.

“You see the same when an agency or partner may not be performing as well as expected. Because most of the time, every client has a part to play in that [performance] and they very rarely want to admit it. But I don’t think it will get to the point of total disconnect. I do think that ultimately the consumers will keep brands honest.”

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