Michael E. Kassan, Chairman and CEO, MediaLink, in Conversation with Fiona Carter, AT&T, Chief Brand Officer

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Earlier this month, MediaLink’s Michael Kassan sat down with AT&T’s chief brand officer, Fiona Carter, for a conversation that touched on the telecoms giant’s massive effort this summer to ‘rebundle’ its creative services, its conversation-setting ‘It Can Wait’ campaign, and the importance of video content in the mix. Following is a transcript of that conversation, edited for clarity and length and is a preview of MASS-terclass: The New Age of Mass Personalization, taking place Advertising Week’s Times Center mainstage on Wednesday, September 28th at 12:00pm.

Michael E. Kassan: Fiona, I spent most of my summer vacation with you. AT&T undertook a massive look at its media and creative assets and partners over 60 days to arrive at the decision to consolidate all of your media and advertising, which, at the level of AT&T, is quite an extraordinary statement, as one of the largest marketers in the world.

Can we talk about what the motivation was and how you feel about the direction you've taken, which is quite a change for the industry?

Fiona Carter: Sure. I think the first thing to say is that we as a company have been changing. As we integrated our internal organizations [DIRECTV and AT&T], that had real ramifications for us and our external partners. We're a decisive company that, when it decides to do something, we go execute. We executed in 60 days.

What were we trying to do? Number one, we really believe the best work from our agency partners comes when there's trust and stability. When you combine a number of organizations – DIRECTV and AT&T – we actually had a number of agencies vying for work. For us, it just wasn't the best landscape to get the very best work. Agencies need to feel trust. They need to feel they have a long-term relationship with us. Then they'll give their very best. So we wanted to identify the right long-term partners. That was goal number one.

Goal number two: just as we had been in silos, our agencies were in silos. You and I talked about it during the review, but media agencies today can still have investment and buying—separate departments, not really talking, not really working together. We wanted to explode that and bring them together for our benefit.

Equally, and it's shocking to say but it's true, our agencies were still working in a bit of an old-world model. We had a media agency and we had a creative agency. They would talk, but would they really work hand-in-glove to our best advantage? It just wasn't really happening. So we once again wanted to explode those silos and bring the agency partners together.

Number three: everyone talks about big data, but where is the big data insight and business insight that comes from that? Again, our data was in silos. We want to meld all the data together and we want it to inform the entire marketing. There's no reason why the data and intelligence that is gathered on the media side can't inform, optimize, and frankly improve some of the creative work.

Last but not least, we had a big marketing job to do. That was to build this new consumer brand. If I'm frank, our internal siloed structure had meant that we actually have a lot of bottoms-up promotional and product marketing, but we need to be a meaningful consumer brand in this new world of connected entertainment. We wanted long-term partners who could create a top-down brand platform that was going to drive business and traffic but also build a real brand that our consumer can connect and relate to.

The outcome: Omnicom won. It's BBDO and Hearts & Science. They will sit in one space. They will work side by side. We have a media lead leading the entire team, which will be really interesting. We'll see data, insights, and analytics thread throughout the process.

We're going to drive deeper into some of the platforms and social platforms so that we're really going to see experts in those areas at the very heart of creative ideas. We'll get native work created for a Snapchat, a Facebook, or a Google, rather than frontend work coming from a traditional ad agency then being changed and fitted to those platforms. We're excited.

MEK: Fiona, the game-changing aspect of this from a market perspective was to break down that silo. I began in the business when I was part of the group that unbundled, as we used that term in this industry, between the media and creative, yet I'm a big proponent of what you did and a gigantic supporter of what you did in rebundling – creating a new bundle.

Was data really the reason? I mean, there may be other reasons but was data the uniting force? What our argument was back in the '80s and '90s was the media folks are specialists in what they do; the creative agency leads were generalists in a different way. You're looking at the disciplines in media and creative. So, go to the specialists. Go to the orthopedic surgeon instead of the general surgeon. That was a logical argument to make. Why not go to somebody who does this for your day job?

By the way, as you talked about the platforms – the social platforms and content platforms – it's all one – everyone in the same pool today. Is data really the layer that forces that to happen?

FC: I think data, yes, is forcing that to happen. There's no doubt we have to bring those siloed streams together. It was interesting to me when I was back in the agency world—why is there a certain kind of data that informs creative and a certain kind of data that informs media? There's no doubt there's huge opportunity there.

I will also say AT&T is a marketer of great scale and also great speed in highly competitive categories, so we need these specialists to work side-by-side together, because we've got to get faster and cheaper at what we do. Even being in the same city but being in separate parts of the city was making the process inefficient. We wanted to create efficiency. I think we also want to allow for the happenstance and lucky chance that just comes from having talented specialists riffing off each other. Magic comes out of that. When you sit side by side, magic will come. I think that's what we're looking for.

MEK: I want to switch gears off the review in a moment – but I do believe as an industry we'll look back to this event as one of the game-changing moments for the industry because people will point to this model.

I'm confident it's going to work because I know you're committed to making it work and I have the good fortune of knowing your partners are committed to making it work for all the right reasons. If it does work, which it will, I think it sets the tone for how the industry goes forward.

FC: It's going to work for us, but we still have specialists. Hearts & Science and BBDO will retain their own identity. Just for a marketer of our scale, you can put them together on the same floor. They can work together. They will riff off each other, but they retain their own identity and retain their own sense of specialism that is just in service of a really interesting, big brand.

MEK: I want to switch to something specific. I think it's probably about six years ago – maybe five years ago – your CMO at that moment, a lady by the name of Cathy Coughlin who unfortunately passed away. Cathy made me make a pledge personally: that pledge was ‘It Can Wait.’

[That] logo is emblazoned on the back of my iPad. It is, at the highest level, public service. It's something AT&T led. It's something that the entire industry and beyond the industry had to embrace, because it's so logical: you can't be texting and driving. You can't be texting and walking down stairs. You can't be texting and crossing the street. It's not just when you're behind the wheel.

Talk about that. Again, you've taken a very bold move with this campaign by demonstrating the horror, truly, that can happen in that split second.

FC: AT&T is a good company. I say that, and I mean that. I'm new to the company and have been really struck by the values of this company and the values of the people. They are good people who care about America and care about doing the right thing.

We’re acutely aware of this issue. Nine [out of] ten drivers consider distracted driving to be a threat—more are concerned about distracted driving than about drunk driving. Yet if you drive in LA, New York, or across the country and look out your car as a passenger, you will see not only people texting and driving; you'll see people FaceTiming and driving; you will see people checking their latest email and driving. It's extraordinary.

It's just very important for us to take a stand but more importantly to try to create change. It's a five-year campaign. We have realized that to really create behavior change, you have to go to extraordinary measures to really confront people with their behavior.

We've had a number of really extraordinary pieces of marketing that have helped people understand how they're behaving. Real props to BBDO for doing some wonderful work. The latest this year came out of… a real insight, which is actually that people behave very differently when they're alone in a car than when they're with other people. Sixty-four percent of people report using their smartphone while driving, but that drops to 36 percent when you have other people in the car and drops even further when you have children in the car.

The most compelling piece of content we have out right now is from our @SummerBreak series. It's millennial teens and 20-somethings. It's an impactful viral piece of film which really is those people talking about how they behave. "Yeah, I check my Snapchat." Then we introduce JC, who herself looks normal as you first see her, but then you slowly begin to realize that her arm movement is compromised in some way. She was in an accident where an 18-wheeler hit her because they were trying to avoid someone who was distracted-driving. It's an incredibly moving and emotional piece of film.

We're really proud of that. It's had 150 million views, 3.3 million shares, and 21 times more views than a normal episode of @SummerBreak, which is something we might talk about later. It's that kind of marketing that is going to help us improve the pledges that we're... Just as you took a pledge, 10 million pledges have been taken. Frankly, that's just a drop in the ocean. We need more. We need to confront people with their behavior and create real traction here. I still am astonished every time I'm on the road by how people behave. I start wagging my finger out the window.

MEK:  Let me switch for a moment, Fiona. We're preparing for Advertising Week here next week. One of the things that everyone is talking about these days is video content. How important is that in your world from the mix, as you look at it?

The It Can Wait campaign is content, not a commercial. How would you differentiate content from what we would traditionally call a 30-second spot?

FC: It's a good question. If I take a macro point of view, I would say the riskiest thing a marketer can do today is maintain business-as-usual tactics and planning. Consumers are interacting and engaging with brands in so many different ways, and ways that are constantly changing.

It's incumbent on us to explore new ways to reach our consumers. You've got to see what works. You've got to have patience. You've got to have faith. You have to find new ways to engage on different platforms. In a way, it doesn't matter whether they're immediately successful or not. What matters is that you are constantly experimenting and exploring. Content is just another place where we do that. I don't know that I can differentiate between an ad and content. I think any piece of communication we create these days is content, because it's consumed in a different way.

MEK: It's interesting you say that. I think the Holy Grail from a marketer's perspective is for the consumer to look at it the way you just did. You don't want to look at it as a commercial break. It should be content. Except for the FTC worrying about not being clear on the difference between an ad versus not in the context of native advertising, a perfect world is one where the consumer can't actually tell.

FC: That's right. You want folks to lean in and to be engaged and enthralled and then ultimately to go do something with that information. Maybe that's the difference: Maybe people lean back with a 30-second TV commercial because they know they're being sold to.

For us, content is important. It's important in our marketing. It's actually important in our business. We bought DIRECTV, as you well know. We are experimenting both in the way we market and also in the products that we are delivering.

If you think about our marketing, we actually have a really interesting platform that we use. I referred to it earlier as Summer Break. Summer Break has been going for a number of years now, but it's actually a piece of marketing that deliberately and intentionally is not delivered in 30-second TV commercials. It's content, or it's a reality show that's distributed via YouTube and many social media platforms. It's really a different way to demonstrate how AT&T can play a meaningful role and be a real brand to take part in these millennial lives.

It's just integrated into the content. It's integrated into the entertainment. It's not a direct selling mechanism. It's been a very, very interesting experiment for us. We have 150,000 followers on Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram—and we've even be able to reach out to emerging communities such as Wishbone and Public.

For us it's a real experiment, and it's so different from, ‘here's a cute commercial with a promotional message at the end and a tagline.’ It's just a different way to engage but to ensure these consumers understand the value of what we're offering.

MEK: I'd say that's where blurred lines actually work to everybody's advantage. So often now, as the consumer took control, you don't want that interruption, yet you still want the information. You still want to know what's available.

Fiona, I'd ask as one final question, you're still a newbie. You made the transition from the agency side to the brand side and did it in a grand fashion. Just between us, entre nous, which do you prefer?

FC: It's a wonderful privilege—and due credit to my bosses, who had the vision, that I could fit in and work at AT&T. You know what I love about being a part of AT&T? I love the boldness of this company. Think about how many times this company has decided to cannibalize itself and move onto the next evolution of the category, from wireline to mobility, now from wireless to entertainment. That is exhilarating. I really love that.

It's wonderful to be part of a company that is firmly leading into the future. I might say that's a little different to some of my agency roles, who were looking wistfully backwards. I'm thrilled by that. I'm just thrilled to bring a measure of creativity and provocative thinking as an agency person to AT&T. That's what really this role is about.

My creativity gets more than fulfilled. In fact, here's the real secret: I'm way closer to the creative as a client than I was as an account person, because they really do listen to me and I really get to mold it, inspire it, and take it to the next level. I actually feel more creative than ever in this role, which you might not have imagined.

To hear more from Fiona and her team, join live during an Advertising Week panel moderated by Michael Kassan on Wednesday, September 28th at 12:00pm at the Times Center. To register, click here.

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