Collaboration Roundtable: Concerted effort

In an age of integration and multiple platforms, a willingness and ability to collaborate with all partners has become table stakes. Industry leaders gathered in Chicago to highlight the keys to and tangible benefits of doing so at this Allison+Partners-hosted roundtable.

Participants (in alpha order):
-Mike Cummins, director of PR, Tyson Foods
-Cheryl Georgas, SVP and deputy GM, JSH&A
-Brian Grace, director of communications, Progressive Insurance
-Julian Green, VP of communications and community affairs, Chicago Cubs
-Candace Mueller Medina, senior director of communications, PepsiCo North America Nutrition
-Heather Oldani, senior director, US communications, McDonald’s
-Jay Porter, president, Chicago, Edelman
-Lisa Rosenberg, chief creative officer, Allison+Partners

Moving the agenda
Gideon Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
Offer an example of how effective collaboration has driven a business objective.

Lisa Rosenberg (Allison+Partners): At South by Southwest this past year, we sought to do something for our brand. Gathering internal colleagues from all departments, we discussed our C-Factors program and pondered ways to bring the Cs to SXSW. We focused on cronuts, which were hot at the time.

We partnered with Dominique Ansel, the chef behind the cronut, to bring it to a new audience. Cronut at Midnight was born. There were limitations to how many he could produce, so we devised a secondary item just for SXSW – the chocolate-chip cookie milk shot.

We had close to 3,000 RSVPs for an event space holding 300. Our research indicates we controlled 80% of all agency conversations at SXSW. We generated nearly 1 billion media impressions with Allison+Partners included. From concept to execution to result, this exemplified collaboration’s unique impact.

Brian Grace (Progressive): Progressive is data-driven and that data presents numerous opportunities to engage – and collaborate. We have information on when accidents happen and the factors involved. This data can be the basis for stories that resonate with consumers. It’s a window to bring PR pros together with data analysts and other disciplines.

Take our Black Wednesday campaign. We found the day before Thanksgiving – with everyone returning home – is a big night for accidents and claims. With multiple teams involved, we turned our data into an effort encouraging people to stay off the road. The more you work with partners with whom you have not collaborated, the more automatic it becomes to use everyone’s strengths to develop effective initiatives.

Heather Oldani (McDonald’s): We don’t have time to not collaborate. Our team visited Silicon Valley a couple years ago to study tech and startup companies. Regardless of expertise, these people had to come together quickly to develop offerings to get to market in line with competition. Traditional organizations are only starting to tap into that.

For our current "Our Food. Your Questions" effort, collaboration was essential. We had to work closely with supply chain partners, suppliers, and legal to know what we could and should say. When dealing with 12,000 questions and counting, it can’t just be the PR pros.

Jay Porter (Edelman): This requires serious thought to how teams are structured. We’re bringing in creative people from digital or traditional creative agencies, as well as planners and business strategists. When you incorporate new skill sets and people find themselves sharing responsibilities once fully their own, trust and respect among parties – the essence of collaboration – is mandatory.

Cheryl Georgas (JSH&A): For a boutique agency, collaboration is particularly key in two areas: working with global brands and new business development. With our IPREX partners, collaboration has allowed us to get in on key business opportunities. Similarly, agencies in the network have tapped our expertise in social, crisis management, and new product launches. It helps them – and us – remain competitive.

Mike Cummins (Tyson Foods): The recent Hillshire Brands-Tyson merger is a period of great collaboration internally, but also between people in Arkansas, where Tyson in based, and Chicago, where Hillshire is headquartered.

Also, Tyson focuses on food service, so it hasn’t thought about brand as much as Hillshire, which has always been consumer-centered. A lot of time is being spent figuring out how to merge what each side does best. It’s a great opportunity to pick up thinking each side has not pondered previously. For example, Tyson has always dealt well with local governments where it manufactures food, which we can learn from. It’s vital to ensure siloes do not develop between Chicago and Arkansas. Collaboration is making the merger smoother.

Candace Mueller Medina (PepsiCo): If collaboration is not in your DNA, you can’t produce great work. And that includes communications, consumer relations, legal, nutrition, R&D, marketing, even finance.

In early 2014, Quaker launched its Good Energy campaign. The whole concept was that busy moms have less energy than time and our products provide good energy. In addition to the comms team, the insights team was heavily involved, as were our PR and ad agencies. Our promotions and marketing teams were key in helping launch this initiative at the Sundance Film Festival with our Good Energy Lodge. That moment in time helped propel the ad campaign. It demonstrates how disciplines can help each other.

(Editor’s note: Medina assumed her current role in late October after two-plus years as senior director of communications and chief of staff at Quaker Oats, a PepsiCo brand.)

Julian Green (Chicago Cubs): There’s a difference between transactional and effective collaboration that drives business results. This has been underscored by the fact our on-field product has struggled of late. We’ve been forced to step back and figure out how to effectively collaborate to drive business.

This past year was Wrigley Field’s 100th anniversary, so we put together a yearlong celebration. Collaboration was crucial to ensure every touch point was covered so fans would have a reason to come to the park.

Starting with our marketing department, we discovered opportunities to create engagement on numerous underutilized platforms. We launched the 100 Gifts of Service, so the community affairs function played a key role. This collaborative effort increased attendance and drove season-ticket sales.

Proper alignment
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
A PRWeek/Allison+Partners survey data identifies "lack of true alignment among parties" as the greatest inhibitor of effective collaboration. What causes it? What can cure it?

Green (Cubs): Technology can be a starting point for this lack of alignment. It’s tough to count on such tools when you’re trying to communicate about a big idea or get buy-in.

Being inclusive during the idea-generation phase is a huge factor in gaining alignment. You don’t want to come in with all the answers without considering those who might have helpful influence.

The team concept

Ben Stringfellow and Julie Wenger, VP of US comms and senior director of US marketing at McDonald’s, respectively, grow to appreciate the benefits of collaboration more every day. It fuels major campaigns and furthers relationships with internal and external partners alike. Below are some key takeaways from their conversation with PRWeek’s Gideon Fidelzeid:

Collaboration’s key role in the "Our Food. Your Questions" initiative:
Ben Stringfellow: The idea came from one of our smaller agencies a couple years ago. We felt we could make even bigger, but it required every internal and external team to sit down and figure out what this could look like through all those different lenses.

Julie Wenger: The way this particular campaign has evolved from inception truly demonstrates how a great idea can come from anywhere. The embracing of that philosophy is the foundation of effective collaboration that can truly drive business-changing programs.

Fostering a collaborative environment:
Wenger: Both internally and with our agencies, we always reinforce the belief that we only get from our agency partners what we give. We cannot allow ourselves to create too much bureaucracy, process, and constraints that inhibit our agencies from coming to us with really good ideas.

Stringfellow: More and more, we try to facilitate sessions where we bring our PR and ad agencies together in the ideation phase. They look to us for cues on how collaborative the agencies will be with each other based on how collaborative our internal teams are. We must be role models to ensure our agencies work well together.

Gauging a firm’s ability to collaborate during the agency-review process:
Stringfellow: There’s certainly a bit of gut feeling, but we speak with other clients who have worked with the firm. In fact, it is often among the very first questions we’ll ask. Agencies absolutely develop reputations for being either strong or weak collaborators.

Wenger: During the selection process, you need to look if an agency has a real threshold for flexibility. You want partners who will really lean in to a bit of ambiguity and risk-taking. Those are the types of traits you can spot in a selection process that lend themselves very well to collaboration.

Click here for more from Stringfellow and Wenger.

Rosenberg (Allison): During a major CPG product launch earlier in my career, the marketing team had a concept upon which it wanted to build the whole campaign. The ad agency loved it, but internal comms hated it and didn’t want us building on it. On the agency side, you’ll deal with misalignment such as this.

We didn’t love the core idea, but had to make it work. In-person meetings galore were essential to build out campaign executions. An executive creative director from a big ad agency was very engaged, so we had to be mindful of his sentiments. We needed to sell an idea the marketing client would buy, the PR clients could work with, and present it as an integrated campaign. It meant giving the ad agency a say in how the campaign got executed from a PR standpoint, but we got everyone going forward and the campaign was successful. The efforts to collaborate despite differences proved essential.

Georgas (JSH&A): During the presentation that preceded this roundtable, McDonald’s marcomms executives said they needed to be role models of collaboration internally if they expect their partners to follow suit. That is dead-on.

The client also has a key role in how it interacts with its agencies in terms of planning and integrated marketing. Clients must give agencies freedom, but not be totally separate. Too many times, we get brief, a budget, and are told to play nicely in the sandbox. That’s difficult for an agency because you want to do good work, but are still accountable for your bottom line. When the client is involved, you’ll always see different agencies collaborate more and the work produced is better.

Medina (PepsiCo): Having a feedback group – not just for agencies, but clients – should be part of every initiative to ensure collaboration is encouraged and monitored.

In terms of derailing alignment, a major challenge is the fact we answer to multiple stakeholders with very different objectives. Mapping out a vision for success from the get-go is crucial. It’s something everyone can look at to ensure they are on the same page.

Grace (Progressive): Everyone needs to take a step back with each internal partner to see how a project you might collaborate on supports the company’s objectives. That’s a common goal around which everyone can work.

Cummins (Tyson): Communicators have a responsibility to ensure broad collaboration. We take messages public and answer the questions from various constituents, so we must know everything, including what all relevant parties are thinking. We can’t live in a gray area. Ensuring alignment is an essential function of our jobs.

Oldani (McDonald’s): You need alignment before taking something external. We've actually instituted leadership alignment sessions where we bring in the CMO, the comms lead, the supply chain head, and chief legal counsel. Internal teams can be aligned, as can agencies, but until rubber hits the road and those officers are aligned and agree with your approach, you don’t have true alignment.

Porter (Edelman): Part of this is a willingness to ask tough questions. Not to poke holes necessarily, but to ensure alignment and that we’ve thought through all possible reactions. Communicators can help avoid potential second-guessing by playing that key role.

The heart of integration
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
Please discuss how collaboration uniquely empowers integrated efforts.

Rosenberg (Allison): Share a Coke is a fantastic campaign whose genesis is hard to identify. Packaging played a key role. It was marketed well. Social drove home the reasons for people to buy a can. I’m not a soda drinker, but it caught my eye. When you think about an initiative that inspires that kind of consumer engagement across so many platforms, it stands out as an integrated campaign that is all about the idea, not where it stemmed from.

Grace (Progressive): The superstore campaign with Flo came out of the idea that we have an intangible product we needed to make tangible. Collaboration plays a huge role in keeping it strong and current.

Improv actor Stephanie Courtney plays Flo. She represents the brand so well, particularly the helpfulness we wish to highlight. We just put out our 100th ad with Flo. Few other brand icons have that longevity. Between Stephanie, the ad agencies, and our internal teams who create programs, it’s an ongoing collaborative effort where ideas are shared to bolster it on all platforms. The campaign is seven years old and going strong. Collaboration of so many different partners is the reason why.

Oldani (McDonald’s): Anytime you put something out now, it will go worldwide. In terms of "Our Food. Your Questions," whenever we’re answering queries in the US about food here, we must be very specific because there are different supply chain standards or criteria around the globe. The complexities necessitate you ensure up-front alignment and collaboration with global marketing and communications partners.

Former Mythbusters cast member Grant Imahara is a central figure in our current campaign. He is getting paid, but he is also authentic because he is skeptical. He hadn’t eaten McDonald’s in 15 years. He had a lot of questions about our food. We don’t tell him what to do. He tells us what this campaign needs to have credibility. It exemplifies how brands collaborate with influencers in ways they never did before.

Medina (PepsiCo): One element we haven’t touched on is empowerment. Those above you in your organization must empower you. Clients need to empower agencies. You must provide guiding principles, but then allow them to make decisions quickly. In an age when brands must concern themselves with so much more than just selling product, that collaboration – that empowerment – of all disciplines is needed.     

Porter (Edelman): What would have looked collaborative in multi-stakeholder initiatives a few years ago is no longer enough. For Dairy Management Inc. we recently launched storytelling content hub DairyGood.org. The goal was to allow all stakeholders – dairy farmers, producers, and so on – to be on the same page in an environment where some unknown, uncredentialed person could say something true or not about nutrition, sourcing, what have you. The entire community had to understand what was being said, find a common viewpoint, and respond in a concerted fashion.

The complexity of bringing something such as that to life required a bit of hand holding because not everyone is immediately comfortable. Traditional attitudes of wanting total control and knowing exactly what will happen simply won’t work now.

Georgas (JSH&A): This past summer, Reddi-wip put out a brief to numerous agencies to come back with ideas on how to celebrate berry season and get people to engage with the product. The brand team idea was to ask customers to share photos on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter using #BerryJoyful. We led the creative development process, as well as traditional and social media outreach, while a promotional agency helped execute the sweepstakes that were key to the effort.

Cummins (Tyson): Earnings, M&As, and crisis are issues I deal with. When they arise, I will find myself in a room with finance and legal people I might not be with regularly.

Say there’s a product recall caused by mislabeling. Such situations put collaboration to the test because everyone has different concerns, immediate goals, and tasks, but you all must drive toward the same result. Somebody must figure out where the product is. Someone has to get the product back. Another team works with the USDA. We write press releases and figure out how to best tell consumers. Of course we have a crisis plan and have gone through exercises, but nothing such as this ever follows a script. Too often in situations such as this, the importance of collaboration is not fully embraced when it really is the foundation of handling crises.

An open mind
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
Is there truly broader acceptance that the big idea can come from anywhere?

Rosenberg (Allison): On the agency side, we want to believe there is no client bias as to where that big idea can come from, but we’re not there yet across the board. The challenge is clients sometimes view their role within certain confines and, thus, view the PR firm’s role the same way.

At clients where marketing and communications are truly integrated, the acceptance of big ideas coming from anywhere is higher. Nobody will say it must come from only one place, but actual behavior has not yet caught up to the belief.

Porter (Edelman): We’ve been pleasantly surprised. In a recent case, we presented a very PR-minded social-first idea the client loved so much they wanted to turn it into a TV spot and have us do it.

Georgas (JSH&A): A couple years back, a client wanted to use the Presidential election to create buzz for its product. They asked their ad agency to develop a TV spot. An internal stakeholder suggested they not think so narrowly. A call went out to all its agencies for ideas. We were told ours was the best, most integrated one, but they still went with the TV ad because it is guaranteed placement.

Among many clients, there is still a lack of comfort with the fact you’re not guaranteed placement with PR. They are open to looking at ideas, but not necessarily executing them.

Oldani (McDonald’s): The way things are activated and executed might still lean toward certain disciplines and, perhaps, that’s what some agency executives are feeling. However, there is true leadership belief that ideas can come from anywhere. Taken further, we are seeing ad agencies act more like PR firms and vice versa. That historical legacy of who owns and does what is crumbling. I’ve also seen global brand agencies activating ideas that came from much smaller shops. It will take time for all clients to get there, but it is happening.

Of course, it’s a two-way street. Communications people must get comfortable with the idea that ad agencies could come up with a really great PR idea. I was encouraged when one of our comms leaders recently welcomed me bringing our ad agency head into a PR meeting. It was a Hallelujah moment. We need to build off of each other’s ideas.

Green (Cubs): If an idea translates to revenue for the team, come one, come all. The PR people are so involved in the day-to-day execution that it is challenging to carry that "big idea" mantle. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t bring ideas to the table. And none of this means anything if you can’t execute it, so if you’re looking at PR’s overall role in bringing big ideas to fruition, it’s there.

Medina (PepsiCo): Ultimate success would be co-creating ideas with other agencies and the client versus having the big idea come from one function or agency. It’s an educational process to explain PR people can do so much more than just communications. This is where data is so important to show PR’s success stories.

Cummins (Tyson): It’s always been trickier for PR to attach hard numbers to its efforts, but those numbers will more likely sway decision-makers to do things that way, which is why they lean toward ads. In turn, ideas from anywhere else might get bunted.

Social media is where PR can really make its mark. However, the challenge is that areas that lead social differ from brand to brand. Broadly speaking, PR has done a very good job of taking a huge leadership role in social media and, as such, has earned a voice among all other disciplines.

Grace (Progressive): I report to the CMO and work daily with our social and integrated marketing heads. We’ve crafted a truly integrated model. We’ve seen great ideas come from both our PR and ad agencies with implications well beyond the scope either was hired to provide.

We have not quite gone all the way on everything, but it’s encouraging to know we’ve gotten some knock-it-out-of-the-park ideas from our PR agencies that we were able to activate on a much bigger scale. In turn, we just got a pitch from our ad agency that included PR tactics I want to run with. Ideas are coming from everywhere. Broad acceptance is almost there.

Click here for more from this roundtable, including separate discussions on both traditional and newer tools that are fostering greater collaboration.

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