ANALYSIS: Profile - Bill Novelli gives voice to PR’s conscience Social marketing pioneer Bill Novelli may have given up the fight against Big Tobacco to work for the AARP, but don’t take that as a sign that he’s slowing down. Steve

’See how new I am,’ says Bill Novelli, pointing to a sign by the elevator.

’See how new I am,’ says Bill Novelli, pointing to a sign by the elevator.

’See how new I am,’ says Bill Novelli, pointing to a sign by the


The sign misidentifies Novelli as the associate executive director for

public relations at the American Association of Retired Persons


The correct ending of the title is ’public affairs.’ Yet, neither

function really fits Novelli’s view of himself. Despite co-founding

Porter Novelli, he has always viewed himself as an expert in marketing

and communications rather than a PR man. Although he made his name in

the last quarter of the 20th century, he’s a prototype of the 21st

century PR pro: possessing marketing and business sense with a

sophisticated understanding of PR and other communications


A commitment to change

But it’s Novelli’s commitment to ’social marketing,’ which uses

marketing concepts to advance issues, causes, and non-profits, that

really distinguishes him. ’He really does practice and live his

idealism,’ insists Porter Novelli CEO and president Bob Druckenmiller.

That idealism was displayed most recently and prominently when Novelli

served as president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

The campaign came about because national health organizations and the

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation were interested in forming a single-issue

organization to tackle tobacco.

Novelli employed advocacy strategies, an important component of social

marketing. ’You have to change the environment. And the way you do that

fastest is through policy change,’ he claims. ’Lobbying alone will not

do it, nor is changing individual behavior enough. You need the public

to pull it through and to demand it of legislators and public


To help provide that all-important ’pull,’ the Campaign developed youth

advocacy programs featuring fresh-scrubbed young faces that were magnets

for TV cameras during ’Kick Butts Day.’ They also pricked the conscience

of adults. As Novelli says, ’If you’re going to have an impact on kids,

you’ve got to have an impact on adult smoking too. They’re the role

models for kids.’

The Campaign also made headlines for its attacks on connections between

the tobacco and entertainment industries. But for all his successes,

Novelli suffered a big disappointment when the bill that was needed to

finalize a settlement against the tobacco companies was defeated. The

tobacco companies pulled out all the stops, waging a multi-million

dollar advertising and PR campaign portraying the bill as ’government


Looking back, Novelli regrets not going on the offensive. ’If I had it

to do over again, I would have gone to the Robert Wood Johnson

Foundation and some other key sources and said, ’We’ve got to fight fire

with fire.

We’ve got to combat this almost dollar for dollar,’’ he says. ’If we had

blasted back in advertising and marketing response, I think we could

have blunted them.’

Even so, Novelli believes ’we won the PR battle over the tobacco

industry regardless of how many agencies they had, how much money. We

had a better story and told it better.’ But he admits a takedown of Big

Tobacco is still a long ways off.

Having fought the good fight, Novelli decided to leave the Campaign

because it was ’time for a new adventure.’ And he’s no stranger to

change, having made several significant moves before this in his quest

to do work that has social relevance.

He was the marketing guy working with wild and crazy creative types at a

New York ad agency three decades ago when his unsated desire to do good

drew him to Washington and to Jack Porter, then the Peace Corps’ head of

public affairs, who hired him. The two hit it off, eventually deciding

to go out on their own. They formed Porter Novelli, a marketing and

communications firm for health and social issues.

Soon after, Novelli came across articles co-authored by academic Phil

Kotler detailing the concept of what has come to be widely known as

social marketing. As Novelli has said, ’the firm was just a bunch of

soap salesmen applying marketing to health. (Kotler’s) got some ideas

and concepts that we can use.’ Academics were brought into the fledgling

firm to help on social marketing projects, and Novelli quickly became an

authority on the subject. But his interest in social marketing went

beyond the academic - he lived it. According to Rob Gould, EVP of the

firm’s Washington, DC healthcare practice, Novelli has ’talked about it,

documented it, but also did social marketing and convinced people to buy

into the concept.’

Novelli stayed with his firm until the early 1990s, but he had already

been speaking out as a voice of conscience for the PR and marketing

industries when it came to tobacco. Gould recalls hearing Novelli give a

talk to marketing executives in the early 1980s, where he openly

challenged those working for tobacco companies. The audience’s reaction

was decidedly mixed, but Gould saw Novelli as someone ’with interesting

things to say, (who) did interesting work and could criticize people

right to their face.’

PR for baby boomers

Now, he’s come to AARP, a former client of his at PN, at a time when the

organization is preparing itself to meet the demands of an explosion of

retirees. Many of today’s retirees are interested in something other

than rocking chairs and Social Security checks. They brought on Novelli

to meld together their communications, legislation and public


And as the baby boomer generation begins to retire, they are likely to

have a very different mind-set about their golden years. Their options

in retirement will be much more varied, and many can afford to join the

ranks of the retired while still in their 50s. Many boomers are less

interested in protecting Social Security than in leisure, volunteerism

or starting second careers.

Novelli sees PR playing an important role in helping AARP appeal to

tomorrow’s retirees. ’Among all the different marketing communications

tools,’ he declares, ’I think PR is the most powerful. If you apply it

to AARP’s mission, you’ll have absolutely fabulous PR here.’

What changes Novelli will make are not clear yet, but his record over

the past three decades bodes well for success. Novelli sits in his

office, musing over his latest opportunity. He reflects: ’Change can be

very renewing.

It keeps you young.’ But first things first - let’s change the title on

that nameplate.

Bill Novelli Assoc. exec. director, public affairs, AARP

1964-1972: Advertising and marketing executive

1972: Founds Porter Novelli

1991: Executive vice president, CARE

1995: President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids

2000: Joins AARP.

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