By Betsy Rohtbart
Vice President, Digital Marketing
When I was in elementary school, I had the opportunity to visit a news outlet’s active newsroom. As we toured, I vividly remember seeing the obituaries of famous people – actors, authors, foreign dignitaries, presidents and more – openly hanging on a clothesline-like structure in what appeared to be column inches. The most surprising thing was that none of the people were actually dead.
It was explained to me that newsrooms have to be fast to report the news and in the unfortunate event that one of these high-profile figures should pass away, then much of the work is already done. The outlet needs only to polish the story with the details surrounding the final days of the deceased’s life. The news outlet could be nearly 100% prepared for when the time came – they could expect the unexpected.
I’m not sure if it’s because this memory has stuck with me for 3 decades or because I’m Type A, but as I’ve advanced in my career I have been the most successful when I’ve considered and prepared for all possible outcomes. And, conversely, I’ve failed when my overconfidence has led me to committing to a single path and not prepared for its, in hindsight, inevitable bumps.
I’m not alone. Marketers and advertisers who have long been lauded for their creative vision and success have also fell victim to their own hubris. Consider the now infamous Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial from April 2017. The ad’s architects set out to tell a story about how a small act of kindness can stop an uprising. While there are many inspiring stories from history where this is true, none of them involved a Pepsi, and sometimes the uprisings themselves paved the way for critical, positive change. In the spot, Pepsi’s oversimplification positioned the civil unrest as so frivolous and baseless that it could be ended with a model handing a soda to a police officer. The backlash on the commercial was fierce, and the marketing fail will likely rank among the largest of all time for the foreseeable future.
This past March, as the Northeastern U.S. was recovering from a powerful nor’easter storm, Con Edison sent out a marketing email titled “Is solar power right for your home?” Given a large number of their own customers were still waiting for their power to be restored (and continued to wait for upwards of two weeks following the storm), this was particularly poor timing and form.
Social media not only increases the exposure of our mistakes, it often provides the avenue. In January of 2017, Wendy’s got in to a quippy back and forth with an individual user and it garnered a following. Unfortunately, over the course of the exchange, Wendy’s unintentionally tweeted a divisive cartoon image, and the exchange ended in an ‘un-envisioned’ way.
A few years back, Alicia Keys took a creative position with Blackberry and then tweeted on behalf of the company from her iPhone – thereby removing any shred of authenticity to her message and reducing the efficacy of her position. The lesson is: In an effort to be timely and relevant, we can be careless and that carelessness can supersede our message.
Honestly, I don’t know if anyone is ever going to believe the “apologies, our company’s handle was hacked” line anymore.
So how do we prepare?
1. Pressure-test ideas with people who sit outside your sphere of influence. We all fall victim to “groupthink” – we sit in rooms with like-minded individuals and view work through a shared, myopic lens resulting in one-dimensional executions. A single person sitting in the storyboarding meeting for the Pepsi commercial saying: “hey, let’s change the protest scene to some teenagers arguing over the score of a pickup basketball game and let’s change the model to the guy on the bench handing each a Pepsi.” Same concept, different execution, better outcome.
2. Have a final list of safety checks for the day of launch – and consider requiring two signoffs. Marketing programs and campaigns take time to develop. Sometimes there are factors to consider on launch day that didn’t exist during concepting. Sometimes there is no time to concept because the conversation is happening right now and it’s critical to be part of it. Either way, before sending, posting or trafficking – take a beat and Google search your tagline, check Twitter for use of a hashtag, read the day’s headlines and browse trending topics. If you can, have someone else do the same because as much as we fight it, our own association bias will always cloud our judgement to some extent and fresh eyes can be the difference between appropriate and disaster.
3. Create more than one set of creatives. The same concept can often have several executions and you may not know which will “work” until they are finished. Or, you may want to run a test. Or you may want to run a serial. A strong concept doesn’t always mean strong execution.
Isn’t there wasted effort? Yes. There are creative executions that end up unused, shelved copy, a folder of images marked “extra” and development effort diverted from other projects which are now behind. But, hopefully, we end up more prepared and less exposed.
In the end, we’re human. We make mistakes, take some punches, endure embarrassment. But there are lessons learned that we take with us, and much like the preemptive obituaries I saw as a child, I can limit the downside that comes with being ill-prepared for the unexpected by expecting it.
Betsy leads Digital Marketing for Vonage, focusing on B2B globally. Her cross-functional team is responsible for web design and development, content strategy and publishing, demand generation and media channel management. Betsy joined Vonage in January of 2018 following digital marketing roles at Pitney Bowes, SAP and the Omnicom family of agencies. Her career spans nearly 15 years leading teams and spearheading projects ranging from end-to-end website development to integrated digital program design and management to post-merger brand and marcom integration.
Earning her B.A. in English from Northwestern University and starting her career at Forbes shortly thereafter, Betsy gravitated to leading strategic initiatives to drive growth and deliver business value. Adding an M.B.A. from Columbia University, Betsy pursued roles on the agency and client-sides to give her critical insight and experience across all marketing vantage points.