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Better PR Now is a podcast created for communicators, whether in public relations, public affairs, media relations, government relations, strategic communication, marketing, or corporate communications. Every episode delivers great insights, tips, and professional advice from some of the smartest, most experienced people in the field. Mark Phillips talks with top practitioners and cutting edge researchers to find best practices as we explore new ways to hone our communication skills. Learn the secrets to success, the tools they use, and lessons learned. If you want to be a more effective, more influential, and more successful professional communicator, join Better PR Now as we improve Public Relations, one conversation at a time.
Dylan Phillips discusses the importance of formative research in brand communications, the power of storytelling, how to use specific online resources at just the right time, and the VCU Brandcenter experience.
Welcome to Better PR Now, Episode 1. I’m Mark Phillips and today we are talking with my son, Dylan Phillips. Now, before you start thinking this is just going to be one big bag of nepotism, there’s a reason I wanted to talk with Dylan, particularly at this time.
When this interview was recorded, he had just finished graduate school and was just starting his career. I wanted to explore his experiences as a student and intern, as well as his hopes for a future working in communications.
We’ll explore the importance of formative research in brand communications, the power of storytelling, and how to use specific online resources at just the right time. I think you’ll find this interesting. Let’s jump in.
Mark: I wanted to save this very first interview for Dylan, because it’s a special occasion. He just finished graduate school just a week ago, and I wanted to give him the absolute first interview. So Dylan, you just graduated from the Brandcenter at Virginia Commonwealth University; tell us about that program.
Dylan: Well, it’s a two-year graduate program for advertising. It’s really intense, sort of boot-camp style. There are different tracks that people take, whether you’re more art direction, or copywriting, or someone like me who is a strategist. They also have an experience design track, which is essentially creative technology. The program is two years, with lots of presentations and a lot of student work for big brands, small brands, and sometimes live clients.
Mark: So why did you pick the Brandcenter? There are a lot of graduate programs in advertising and marketing around the country; why the Brandcenter?
Dylan: Well, I was really interested in getting into advertising strategy. There are a lot of options for people who are looking to get into art direction or copywriting, whether it‘s The Creative Circus or the Miami Ad School, but Brandcenter is the only place that has a full program for strategy.
Mark: Tell me a little bit about the strategy track; what does that entail?
Dylan: We do things like ethnographies, where we go to people’s homes and learn about how they use products. We do things like digital anthropologies. We are professional Googlers, but there are ways to be more affective at that.
We make subculture documentaries and really get entrenched in a subculture that we aren’t part of to learn as much as we can about those sorts of people. And really, the whole point of the track is to learn how to learn about people, to think strategically, and how that applies to advertising.
Mark: So tell me a little bit more about this idea of thinking strategically from a marketing and advertising perspective; what does that mean?
Dylan: Well, a lot of it has to do with asking “Why?” So you need to understand what the essence or the soul of a brand or company is. You need to figure that out and if that’s already defined for you, then you need to figure out who cares about it and why they care about it.
And so, when you can understand both who, on a DNA level, the brand is and who the people are that love it, or could potentially love it, then you can see a bigger picture of what you need to do to make a commercial. But it needs to be based on knowledge that you have that that will connect with audiences you want to connect with. I think that pretty much sums it up.
Mark: So that knowledge gives you insight into the connection that the company or its products have with the people that might be consumers of those products or customers of that company?
Dylan: Yeah, usually you figure out who the people are that love it, or who the people are that you want to love it, and that way you can not only figure out where you want to talk to them, whether that is on the Internet, television, or channels like newspapers, but also how you talk to them. It can inform, and this is the side that I am more interested in: it can inform the creative decision that goes into the communications.
And a lot of advertising is heading towards a lot more content creation that’s actually less advertising and more just entertainment that happens to be connected to a brand. So if you can figure out what people love, then you can create things. Content is such a buzzword, but you can create value that can add to their lives, rather than just trying to distract them for a minute to get their attention about a sale or something.
Mark: That’s interesting. So you’ve talked about this understanding, this insight and you’ve talked about being professional Googlers; how do you go about doing that and, in addition to using Google, talk about different ways to use tools like Google. How do you go about doing this research or getting this insight that you are able to help a brand better understand and make those important connections?
Dylan: Brand planning or strategy came about in the late 80s I believe, but it came over from Europe. And so there have been strategists for you know a number of decades now that didn’t have the Internet at their fingertips to do this stuff. So a lot of it was focus groups, man-on-the-street stuff, just trying to get people’s opinions. What’s amazing now is that everybody has a voice, and people really don’t hesitate to use it.
One good thing to do is just go on Amazon and read reviews, because that’s where people feel the strongest is in reviews. Also, if something is just sort of happening trend-wise, you can almost guarantee that you can find something about it on Reddit. I mean it’s called the front page of the Internet for a reason. It’s funny there is a cycle that sort of happens that if you find something on Reddit it might have not yet happened on Facebook, or Twitter, or BuzzFeed.
But it’s sort of like a cycle and it starts on Reddit and then you’ll see some stuff happen. On Twitter usually is more quick with the uptake, and then you’ll see it on Facebook trends on the side of your wall. And then there’s a BuzzFeed article about it, and then the people that are the most late to the event or whatever it is will be sharing the BuzzFeed article more likely.
Mark: So if your business involves being sensitive to, or being able to spot, emerging trends, Reddit’s a good place to be?
Dylan: Definitely. I mean obviously you’re not just going to be searching for whatever your company is, but themes and trends surrounding that. Say you owned a mountain bike shop, you would look at what people are talking about within the mountain biking forums and other outdoor forums and chats.
Mark: So what about the old-style types of traditional research, like doing focus groups or doing man-on-the-street interviews, or those intercept-type of interviews; is that way of research dead in your mind?
Dylan: Not at all. I think it’s very, very important. I like to use the Internet to formulate an idea at first, and then when I get a concept and I’m able to talk intelligently with people that - so let’s go back to the mountain biking example. Say I’d never had a mountain bike before.
Mark: Which you have.
Dylan: I mean I have, but imagine that I hadn’t, and so I would go to Reddit first. Go on the Internet first try to figure out what’s the lingo, what’s the sort of language that people use, what are the trends, and what do people like about it, what do people love about it. That way, when I do talk to people who are involved in that activity, I can speak intelligently enough to spark conversation.
Mark: If you were in product development, would you be also looking for pain points or where people are having problems, or where they are expressing frustration as potential problems that your company could solve or offer solutions to?
Dylan: Yeah, I don’t think that’s just a place for somebody working in product development either. I think that looking for pain points is a great way to figure out how any company can fit in or brand can fit into someone’s life. So if I was working at an ad agency doing communications for a mountain biking brand, we might be able to figure out, that, wow mountain bikers really hate getting hit in the shins with their pedals, it hurts.
So say that’s a common problem and maybe that shows up in an ad, then that way it’s a little piece of truth that when mountain bikers see it, they’re like, “They get what I care about, because that happens to me all the time and it sucks.”
Mark: So the truth resonates.
Dylan: Yeah, for sure. I think if you can show people that you’re not faking it, that is important.
Mark: So it allows you to be genuine?
Mark: Things like Reddit allow you to survey the landscape and see trends that are emerging, to identify opportunities.
Dylan: You can also find people on Reddit to talk to.
Mark: Tell us about that.
Dylan: Not only does it paint a picture with conversations that are already happening, but you can get involved as well. So you could say, “Hey, can we talk about this?” You can pose a question that people will respond to, and then if the answers are something that you’re interested in, or particular answers are interesting to you, you can reach out to that person and send them a message.
It’s interesting that the community on Reddit seems more willing to help each other than a lot of other communities online. And so if you’re just straightforward with them and say, “Hey, I’m working on a project and I would really like to talk to you about A, B or C” then more than likely, and I’ve had this happen a bunch of times, people will say, “Okay, yeah, definitely.”
And whether it’s just a series of emails or whether they want to Skype with you, you get to talk with somebody who is actually entrenched in what you’re trying to learn about, which is you know way more valuable than just reading.
Mark: Right, historically we’ve been told to define demographic personas or avatars of our perfect customer, stakeholder, or public that we’re trying to engage, does Reddit allow us to go beyond that … and actually go to real people and allow us to dive deeper and go specifically. They’re not extractions any more. They’re real, living breathing people we can go to and ask, “What do you think about this? If this was a product would you be interested? If you had shin-guards for your mountain bike would you wear them or would you think it was dorky?”
Dylan: Right, I think that it definitely allows for that. But I don’t think enough places are taking advantage of that. It’s really easy to turn to a statistic and say, “Well, this kind of says this, so we’ll just do this.”
It is much more compelling to say, “Well, this guy’s name is Tom and this is what sucks about his life.” Or, “This is what he doesn’t like about this product,” or “This is how this product makes his life better.” Those are some of the best ads: When you see real people and how they’re affected. As human beings, we’re story driven. As much as numbers can tell a story, that doesn’t resonate with us the same way that telling about how an actual individual interacts with something does.
It’s actually like reading the numbers of people that have died in a war. At some point it just becomes a number and statistic, and it’s like I can’t even imagine that. But if you hear one story about one person and you get details about them dying, it’s a much more impactful way.
Mark: It sort of becomes relatable when it’s one person’s story.
Dylan: Yeah, for sure, or even a groups of people, maybe more than one, but it’s a human story, rather than just numbers.
Mark: So what’s a take-way lesson from this for companies that offer products or services. How might they be able to use this deep-dive approach to better understand how their customers, or how their stakeholders, or how their publics think about things, and how they might better anticipate their needs.
Dylan: What it really boils down to is conversation. I think a lot of times things get lost within organizations, whether you know people just sort of playing email tag or you know just passing off documents, rather than actually having a conversation about what they want to do. And also that’s within an organization, but I think it’s really important to get to know who your stakeholders are, who your audience is. And treat them like people rather than just numbers on a page because, at the end of the day they feel a certain way about your organization and that’s linked to an emotional connection. And so if you can figure out how to strengthen that in a non-salesy sort of way and an organic sort of way, it can be invaluable for you.
Mark: Fantastic. Let’s go back to the Brandcenter for a moment and look at how it works. It has multiple tracks in addition to strategy; what are the other tracks?
Dylan: Art direction, copywriting, creative brand management, and experience design.
Mark: So why did you pick strategy?
Dylan: Strategy seemed like a good mix of problem solving and creativity, which I really enjoy and it allows you to really get into culture and think about that sort of stuff. I’m really into all of that, so it just seemed like a good fit.
Mark: At the Brandcenter, you work in teams, you function as an ad agency where you work on actual problems, real world problems, sometimes for real world clients. Tell us about some of the projects that you worked on while you were there.
Dylan: Oh, we worked on such a wide variety of things. Some of them are more hypothetical, whether it’s the first semester we worked on a project for Marvel coming out with a new superhero and marketing that. But then, we also have real-world clients.
We worked on one project that was this cheesecake company. It was interesting, because most of us went and tried it and didn’t know what to think about it really. But it was trying to be sold as a high-end luxury sort of dessert, but they are in, essentially, baby food jars.
Mark: Is this a startup?
Dylan: I guess it was a startup. It wasn’t brand new though; it’s been around for a while. And it was interesting. Working with a live client was a little bit more difficult, because he was very, very strict on what we could change and what we couldn’t change.
And in the class, the teacher expected us to change everything and do whatever we wanted, so we did. But at the end of the day, he had the final say in what happened. And what ended up happening was he stuck with his old stuff.
Mark: Which is the client’s privilege right? Well, it’s their prerogative.
Dylan: Yeah, but a lot of the stuff that got made ...
Mark: That were working on this same project?
Dylan: Yeah, and you know a lot of the stuff that got made was really good. And you know some people recommended repositioning it, trying to change who we were talking to. Some people just changed the logo and the visual language of the brand. But he decided to stick with the same stuff that he came up with himself, which I guess is all right, but there was a lot of good stuff that he just turned away. Overall, though, people had an interesting time working on it.
Mark: So, with experiences like that, do you think those prepare Brandcenter students for life in real agencies and life in the real world?
Dylan: I think so. Even if we’re not working with a live client, the professor acts as a client and they are usually, in my experience, much tougher than any live client that I’ve ever interacted with. Obviously, they give their feedback in class in front of all your peers. But then you also get to sit down with them and hear about where you went wrong, or where they think that you could have pushed it further. A lot of times, for a strategist that criticism that you get is that you didn’t push it far enough or you didn’t think it through all the way. You know, they critique all of it, so the art directors might say, “Well, this isn’t very well-designed” or “This doesn’t make sense for who you are trying to talk to.” So if the strategist and the creative team aren’t meshing well, then that sometimes comes through. The live clients that I’ve interacted with in Brandcenter settings or at an agency this summer have always been really nice, at least compared to my experience at school.
Mark: Right, did you come out with thicker skin than you went in?
Dylan: I think so, especially about presentations. That’s something that you just get a lot of reps in. First semester, you’re presenting almost every week and it tapers off a little bit towards the end. But by then, you’ve given so many presentations and talked in front of so many people that something that a lot of people get nervous about seems normal. And by the end of Brandcenter, that is definitely something that almost everyone gets over and gets better at. So, yeah, I think so; definitely tougher skin.
Mark: Any tears shed, either you or your classmates, over the course of the two years?
Dylan: Oh, I never cry! But yeah, there’s definitely some crying that happens there every once and a while. It gets stressful.
Mark: But overall?
Dylan: Overall a great experience.
Mark: So for students who finished their bachelor’s, are considering grad school, and are definitely in a marketing track, would you recommend the Brandcenter?
Dylan: Yeah, 100%. My advice to them would be to have a good idea of what you want to do before you apply. I see a lot of people realizing about half way through that they wanted to be in a different track and it’s very difficult to switch. Some people do it, but you know, if you really really love writing and you want to be a copywriter, then you should apply as such. The acceptance rate isn’t super high and it’s kind of difficult to get in, but it’s totally worth it. The application is long and the program is a lot of work, but the experience is definitely worth the effort if you put it in.
Mark: Great, so let’s go back to some of the projects that you worked on, what are some of the most memorable ones?
Dylan: Well, we worked on one where we had a side project working with a live client, working under a grant from the Department of Energy. We branded nuclear energy.
Mark: What was the task?
Dillion: The nuclear Department in VCU approached Brandcenter and said, “We have this grant money and we want to have Brandcenter teams compete to rebrand nuclear energy.” Basically, what they had found out is that nuclear energy in general has a negative perception, they really weren’t sure why, and they were looking for creative solutions on how to talk about it, how to even brand nuclear energy, and how could that improve the perception.
About 20% of the US electricity comes from nuclear power currently and there is a ton of lobbying that goes on from gas companies. That basically keeps nuclear from advancing and becoming more of a predominant form of energy for our country.
Mark: So your team won.
Dillion: My team won, yeah.
Mark: And what did you come up with?
Dillion: Well, it started off with what I talked about before with my process in strategy. I did a lot of reading and a lot of talking to people. I found out a few key things, one was that, in general, people didn’t really like nuclear energy that much, but most people were very uninformed. They couldn’t give me a good reason why they didn’t like it; it was just a sort of a gut reaction.
Another thing I realized was that people don’t really care where their power comes from as long as when they flick the switch, it turns on. Another thing I realized was that there was just one small key difference between people that were for nuclear energy and people that were against it; that difference was the way they view risks.
So the people that were for nuclear energy were more likely to do their own research or do their homework. Whereas the people that tended to be against nuclear energy were more “gut reaction” sort of people. Very similar to the sort of people you would see a story on Ebola on the news, see that it was in the US, and freak out like, “Oh, we are are all going to die of Ebola.” When in reality, that is not actually something that’s going to affect your life here in the States.
So then I dug more into the idea of risk and started thinking about actual risk that affects American lives everyday. Things like texting while driving is really dangerous or eating fast food regularly is really not good for you, and over time is really dangerous as well. But people don’t really think of those as a risk, whereas people think about Ebola, or nuclear energy, or ISIS and they freak out and get scared. I wanted to know what’s the difference between these two different types of risk.
I realized that people don’t care about the fast food, texting while driving sort of risk, because it’s domestic and mundane and sort of ordinary. Whereas these other things are more foreign, we don’t understand them, and they’re complicated, so they’re scary. So we realized the most exciting thing we could do for nuclear energy was to make it boring, just like those other risks.
And we realized it would be a monumental task to try to shift people from hating nuclear energy and not knowing why, to being huge fans of nuclear energy and knowing everything about it. So we realized that it would be much more realistic to shift people to from ‘I don’t like it’ to ‘meh.’ So that’s what we did. We came up with a campaign called “Nuclear Is.” Basically, it’s just a way for people to see how nuclear fits into their lives. So it could be like nuclear is doing your laundry, or nuclear is watching your favorite show on HBO, or nuclear is driving your Tesla.
Any time you’re using electricity in your life that could potentially be a moment where nuclear energy is interacting with you, and so that’s what we came up with. We ended up winning and went to South by Southwest as the prize.
Mark: That’s excellent, so looking back on the whole process at Brandcenter, are there things that you know now, that you wish you knew when you started? Is there advice that you wish you could have given to your younger self before you started?
Dillion: Yeah, I think the most important thing that I probably learned, and it would have been helpful at the beginning, was how I view the idea of ownership. When I first started, I thought I was the strategist and I’m going to come up with this idea and everybody is going to like it and the creative team is going to follow that idea and then execute based on that and it’s going to be great.
But in reality, a lot of people have ideas and directions that they want to go in. I realized that a strategist’s role is not about coming up with the one and only idea and then forcing people to stick to that; what it’s really about is coming up with a lot of ideas, facilitating other people’s thinking, and providing context for that. So what I would tell myself, if I could go back now, I’d say, “Listen more.”
Mark: Last summer, you had the opportunity to intern at Goodby Silverstein in San Francisco. You worked on a number of different projects and accounts there, tell us about that experience.
Dillion: Yeah, it was awesome. I got to work on so many different things as an intern. I got to work on Häagen-Dazs, Sonic, Milk, and Comcast. I also got to work on two separate pitches, which was some of the most exciting work, because it’s all new ideas and thinking and trying to figure out what the agency can do for a brand. Which reminded me a lot of how Brandcenter operates, because you kind of look at everything as a pitch there.
Mark: What were you most surprised about?
Dillion: How casual everything is.
Mark: In an agency environment?
Dillion: Yeah. I had never worked in an agency before and it’s okay to go and talk to whoever you want to go talk to. I mean people are busy, but you know no one is closed off in an office so that you can’t go and talk to them. Everyone kind of wears what they want to wear and does what they want to do. Work still gets done and, obviously, the work there’s great, the people are great, and it’s a very comfortable environment.
Mark: People working very hard?
Dillion: Yeah, but not to the point where they seemed stressed or uncomfortable. It was like people were working hard because they like what they do and are passionate about it.
Mark: Right, a very creative environment.
Dillion: Yeah, definitely. There’s open office space that kind of promotes collaboration, creativity, and all that.
Mark: What were some of the most important lessons you learned?
Dillion: I think being in brainstorming sessions where they kind of solidified that lesson I was talking about before about the idea of ownership. I also learned more about how decisions are made; you think about, for example, this CEO just got hired for this brand, what do you know about this guy, what is he like? Because if you’re working for him now, he’s your client, you’re providing work to him that ultimately he will have to sign off on. That is something that I never really thought about before: Learning individual people’s preferences.
Mark: So what’s next for you? You just finished grad school, been working really hard, now you’re job hunting; where do you see yourself in a year or five years?
Dillion: Working hard at an agency, most likely in California. I think I’ll probably be trying to move up as a strategist, trying to create awesome campaigns and work with really creative, talented people.
Mark: Great, one last question: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?
Dillion: One that’s been the most memorable for me was when I was talking to a creative director and I was trying to figure out where I wanted to work. He said that where you want to work doesn’t really matter. I asked, “Do you mean in the agency, or city, or what are you talking about?” He said either one; it doesn’t really matter. What really matters is who you work for. Say you want to work for an amazing guy who lives in Washington, but you hate the rain. Well, it rains a lot there, so put on a jacket!
That got the point across to me: Who you work with and for is more important than the name on the door or the city you live in.
Mark: Very cool, good advice. You’ve got a really cool website; what’s the address and how can people get in touch with you?
Mark: Awesome, terrific interview, Dylan. Thank you very much. I really appreciate the time. Why don’t you play us out.
Mark: There you have it; a view from someone just starting his career. You know, I’d like to check back in with Dylan down on the road about his professional experiences and whether his perspectives have changed.
Thanks for spending a little time with us today. I hope you found it entertaining, but more than that, I hope you found something you can use in your career.
I’d love to know what you think about the podcast. Who would you like to hear on the show? What questions would you like answered? What challenges are you facing?
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See you soon!