You always hear the key to online marketing is content, but what does that really mean? How do you know if you have good content and how do you know if you’re reaching the right people? Content is not just text, it’s everything a brand does. It’s basically anything where a customer is engaging with your brand. Jenny Rooney, editor of CMO Network, shares some tips on how to make good content and optimize it to increase your reach. Amanda Slavin, CEO and founder of CatalystCreativ, a full service experiential marketing agency, says that you have to emotionally connect with your internal teams and with your audience to change the way they experience your brand. She shares the seven levels of engagement to guide you exactly how to do that.
We have a great show. We’ve got Jenny Rooney and Amanda Slavin. Jenny Rooney is the editor of the CMO Network at Forbes and she also plays a part in the Forbes 30 Under 30 Marketing and Advertising list, and Amanda Slavin made that list and she’s the CEO and founder of CatalystCreativ.
Listen to the podcast here
Online Marketing Through Good Content with Jenny Rooney
I am with Jenny Rooney, who’s the editor of the CMO Network at Forbes, where she manages content critical to executive level marketing decision makers. She reports on industry trends, research, and news. She’s interviewed hundreds of CEOs and CMOs as part of her ongoing Forbes CMO Interview Series. She’s developed the ongoing Forbes CMO University Alumni Series, which connects marketing practitioners with marketing academics and students, and she serves on the advisory team for the ANA’s CMO Talent Challenge. She also annually oversees the development of the Forbes 30 Under 30 in Marketing and Advertising list and plays an integral role in the development of topics, content and programming for Forbes CMO Practice events throughout the year, particularly the invitation-only Forbes CMO Summit, which I’ve attended, which is a great event. It’s so nice to have you here, Jenny.
Thanks for having me, Diane.
This is going to be fun because I’ve had a lot of people from Forbes on my show, including Steve Forbes, Mike Federle, Bruce Rogers, some others, and I’ve been looking forward to talking to you because I have seen you live at the CMO event, which is quite an event that you put on. I know that you have quite an interesting background. I saw where you came from before Forbes and I wonder if you could give a little bit of background so people know more about you.
My whole career has been as a business journalist. In the very early stages, I was focused on the healthcare world of business and then very quickly, early in my career migrated over to covering advertising, marketing, and media when I took a job at Advertising Age in New York back in the late ‘90s. At the time I was covering something called interactive agencies, which was a new concept. Digital wasn’t the term that was used back then. I quickly got into the whole emerging world of online marketing and the agencies that were enabling that to happen and the things that clients were doing to establish presence online, which is a whole new and uncharted territory for them back then.
Then over the years I moved to different publications, still focusing on marketing, advertising, and branding. Then probably ten years ago, I transitioned to focusing exclusively on the highest level marketing leadership in any given company. When I went back to Ad Age a second time to oversee something called CMO Strategy and that was focused on that. It was highlighting the senior level marketers at any given organization and talking to them and being in front of them. From there I went to Forbes where I further built out my network of CMO’s. I spend all my time now at Forbes and I’ve been here now for seven years engaging with the CMO community in lots of different ways. That’s what I do now.
It’s interesting to see what you have done. I attended the event when you had Simon Sinek in Coronado. I had worked with Bruce Rogers who used to be with Forbes. He created that Publish or Perish report. We created this brand publishing course for a part of my work at the Forbes School of Business, and I found it fascinating because attending this event, I kept hearing from going through that Publish or Perish report and talking to Bruce and all that, that there are so many vendors and there’s so much confusion of how to pick the right vendors and how to ensure that they all communicate with one another and then how to get their messages out in a personalized way, but to do it at scale and it seems very difficult for CMOs to keep a pulse on all this. Has that become any easier since I attended that event or is that still a big major focus?
For that reason, we’re seeing a lot of CMOs start to take over control. A lot of things that they may have parsed out to vendors, and there’s a feeling, especially now with all the data that’s available, CMOs want to bring more and more capabilities in house. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t need partners, but ownership of the content, ownership of the data, and direct oversight is becoming paramount for CMOs right now.
There was a lot of talk. You always hear content is king, but what does that mean? How do you know if you have good content and how do you know if you’re reaching the right people? Even if they bring it in-house, how do you get that sense that you’re doing the right thing?
You have to back up and think about how you’re defining “content”, first of all. In the early days, there was this assumption that content is just text. It’s not. It’s everything a brand does. It’s the experience it creates, it’s the transactional, the e-commerce experience it creates. This is what I believe. Content is basically anything where a customer or consumer is engaging with your brand. It’s the delivery of information and sometimes it’s utility, sometimes it’s entertainment, sometimes it’s a transaction, but all of that is what I would define as content. Certainly, there’s the traditional idea of written content, but that’s only a very small portion of it in reality.
What you have to do as a CMO to make sure that it’s resonating is you have to constantly be in contact with the customer, with the consumer. Obviously for many years we’ve talked about how the consumers own the brand, the customer owns your brand. A long time ago CMOs gave away ownership of brands to their targets, but the way you make sure and check in and make sure your content is resonating and your experiences are delivering upon brand promises is you’re in constant communication. It’s a two-way dialogue that has to happen constantly, and so there are tremendous mechanisms set up to make that happen. Obviously, social media is one, but CMOs own the voice of the customer and never before has that been more important and relevant than now as CMOs are being expected to be not just brand builders, but business growth drivers within organizations.
It’s a very challenging job. It’s fun to teach marketing. I teach a lot of marketing courses. When we talk about some of the content and information, students always focus on the Super Bowl and the ads, it’s fun to watch things trend on Twitter and that type of thing. Do you have a problem watching commercials now? Do you overanalyze what they do and how they focus? I know I do a lot of that. I’m curious if you can watch things without overthinking.
For the last several years I would always be asked to be part of the tweet meets and groups that were constantly giving feedback on Super Bowl commercials during the game. I made a concerted effort to bow out of all those things and I chose to sit and watch the game and watch the ads as a regular person. So much of the industry, sometimes we’re also inside baseball, and it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. For me, it was super beneficial because I didn’t over-analyze and hyper-analyze the commercials. There’s true value in that, especially for those of us in the industry that want to understand how things are resonating. I sat back and enjoy them this year so that I didn’t have to do that, whereas if I were tweeting constantly I’d be half looking at the ads and half writing down what I thought was some incredibly, intelligent review of some aspect of one ad in the third quarter. That wasn’t what I wanted to be focused on. You have to step back.
I thought the Tide thing was interesting though. It was unique. It’s always fun to me to watch them, but I know what you’re saying. I’m curious about some of the other things you do. Can you talk about the Forbes CMO University Alumni series? What is that exactly?
I would say that’s a real passion project of mine. I started it probably five, six years ago and it was the result of an acknowledgement that the industry is changing so dramatically that never before has there been a need for marketing practice and marketing education to connect and to be better in touch with each other, so that academia can learn from practitioners and vice versa, and the benefit would be to the students. It also came at a time when the industry is talking a lot about how CMO’s are having a challenge in terms of identifying and recruiting and keeping next generation marketers on staff. It’s only increasing competitiveness. Marketing as a chosen profession is not the be-all and end-all for a lot of young people coming out of college and business schools right now, yet marketing is probably one of the most exciting, multidimensional, challenging, and innovative fields out there.
We’re in a time when marketing has a marketing problem. It needs to do a better job of exposing to the next generation all the myriad opportunities that it affords people, not just in creativity but in data analytics, writing, storytelling, and all those things. The alumni series was basically a way for that bridging to happen. Because I have a great network of similar contacts, I’m able to help schools identify those people they have, those rock star CMOs they have out in practice who are all alumni of a given school, then I work with the school to help invite and bring back to campus, not one or two because every school always brings back one or two alumni to give a presentation, but the whole point was to bring back a critical mass.
Bring back fifteen to twenty CMOs for a day and a half long symposium where it’s a true little mini conference for students. It’s all returning alumni CMOs who come back and they talk about the future of marketing with students, either undergrads or business students or both. The program has taken on. Schools love it. To their credit, they’re super interested and they embrace the idea. It’s a collaborative effort, so without the business school’s incredible participation, it wouldn’t happen. The series continues, and there’s been a lot of benefits all around.
My daughter has a marketing degree, and I’m curious if the CMOs that come back all have marketing degrees or do they go in different directions and come back to marketing? Did they initially start out with an undergraduate in marketing?
All the above. Some are MBAs and go straight into a brand management job at P&G and then they ascend the ranks in the traditional way. I’d say almost half though went through college of arts and sciences or communications or got degrees in English or things that obviously are outside business school, which is indicative of the role of CMO. Obviously, we all know that when you talk about it, same old rule has to bring together the art and science approach of business and you don’t necessarily come with an MBA. Some have taken different paths, some have managed P&Ls, which has been super important, some has obviously done R&D. They may have gone into different aspects, but then they obviously all funnel up to that top spot, that CMO role. That’s the beauty of it. That’s where the education can come in for the students to see what different paths the various CMOs returning have taken to get them where they are today. It’s a great time.
You interview a lot of CMO’s with your interview series, the Forbes CMO interview series. Do you find it challenging to come up with the new things to ask people? You’re so focused on CMOs and I know I get a lot of a variety here on the show, either CEO’s or different authors and different things. Do you feel like there’s enough topics to make it interesting? Is it always changing or do you ever find that challenging?
No, I never find it challenging because for me personally it’s so interesting to talk to CMO’s. Maybe I ask them the same questions about the challenges and opportunities they’re facing, but to hear them all come at it with their own unique take is fascinating to me because I love getting to know them as individuals, as people, and what drives them, and trying to understand what their backgrounds are. I’m super interested in what kind of educations they have and what experience they’ve had in the past, because all that obviously informs what they’re doing in their current roles. They’re one of the most interesting to me, one of the most interesting roles in the C-suite. As we all know there’s so much change happening that it’s never not interesting to talk to a new CMO about how he or she is navigating all of that change.
I find marketing to be fascinating as well. I’m a very curious person. In my work, I’m doing research on curiosity. I imagine you’re obviously a very curious person. Did you always find that you were curious about things? Did you have a family that raised you to be that way or do you think this is something that you found on your own?
No. I’ve always been a curious person, and I’ve always gravitated to subjects that I didn’t know a whole lot about and wanted to learn. I know that sounds crazy, but I did my master’s thesis on Vietnam War correspondent Michael Herr. He was arguably one of the best documenters of what happened in the Vietnam War, but he used a very innovative way of storytelling at the time. He did a mix of fact and fiction to tell a story, but in his mind that was the only way he could accurately and fully depict the events of what was happening on the front line and what the grunts were dealing with.
That was completely foreign territory to me as an individual. I had no personal connection to that, and yet I couldn’t relate in any way to what he had gone through other than the fact that I was studying to be a journalist myself. I’ve always gravitated and I’ve always tried to learn more about things that I didn’t know a whole lot about. With marketing and covering industry, one of the things that I personally love to do is the constant learning that happens. I know that sounds silly, but I’m the first to admit the areas that I have no idea and that I completely don’t understand. Forever, I didn’t understand media strategy, as crazy as that sound, the nuances of it
I’m still trying to understand GDPR. I’m still trying to understand Blockchain. I love being a student. I constantly feel comfortable in the role of student and I’m not afraid to tell people, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Explain it to me, help me learn.” You have to be like that. Nobody holds it against you if you have to be honest with what you don’t know. Obviously that’s the only way you’ll learn things. This role, this job, this industry, I still have tons of opportunity to learn new things and that plays right into who I am as a person.
You were involved in education with the alumni and that type of thing with the universities. I’d like to see people become more curious the way you are, where we embrace things we don’t know. How do you get people to do that? A lot of people shut down for reasons of fear or environment, technology, a lot of different reasons. That’s a very unique quality and obviously that’s why you’ve done so well at Forbes. Do you have any advice to help other people get to be more open minded to seek out new knowledge about topics they don’t know anything about?
I do think we’re moving into a time where people are more readily comfortable and embrace and accept when you say, “I don’t understand something,” or, “I need to engage with the community to better understand something.” You could argue this is peppering throughout organizational structures and hierarchy. The old fashioned top down structure of companies, even that’s being completely disrupted. We’re seeing reverse mentoring all over the place. That requires a complete letting go of high level executives of the sole ownership of knowledge within a corporation. They’re completely willing and accepting and understanding of the fact that they need to learn from the next generation of the workforce that’s coming in now that are digital natives, and that are completely comfortable with social media and beyond.
We see pop up, meet ups and communities where people gather together to learn from peers. That kind of knowledge exchange, I truly think those in-person opportunities to learn from one another is becoming the norm, it’s becoming completely acceptable. People, especially if they’re building their own brands, they need to be authentic, they need to be accessible, they need to be honest. As a result, I would say to anybody out there, you have to be understanding that the only way you’ll advance, the only way you’ll engage with other people, is if you drop your guard, be true to yourself, lean into what you know, be honest about what you don’t know, and from there, that point of authentic connection is only where you’re going to grow as a person in your knowledge and in your capabilities, and frankly in your leadership.
That’s so important and you echoed Keith Krach. He has been on my show. He’s the chairman of DocuSign and I’m on the board of advisors for DocuSign. He had said on my show about how he thinks he gets more from interacting with the younger generations than they get from him. He is being very humble, but it’s important to recognize that it’s not like it used to be and there’s so many people we can learn so much from. I learned so much from those 30 Under 30 for Forbes who have been on my show. So many times, I’ve had some great ones. A couple of them spoke at your event, that CMO Summit, Tai Tran and Anda Gansca. They’ve both been on my show. They were at that event. Now, you have some association with putting that list together. Is that what I saw?
Yeah. One of the things I do is I oversee the marketing and advertising list every year. The broad Forbes 30 Under 30 is identifying 30 people under age 30. It’s twenty different categories now, so my category is advertising and marketing. Being editor of that list for the past five years has been an enormous opportunity for me personally. I selfishly say it’s been the best learning opportunity. It informs how I view the whole marketing industry, because on the one hand I was spending all my time engaging with, talking to, and interviewing CMOs who have a certain tenure and experience over on this side of my job, but then engaging with the 30 under 30 community has been completely eye-opening.
I can do 180 and see and view the marketing landscape from their vantage point, which is vastly different, having the combination of those perspectives for me personally has been incredibly informative and enormously helpful. I’ve learned a ton from them. I keep up my relationships with the under 30s, everyone at Forbes does. They’ve been such an incredible resource of information, learning and knowledge and no less so has the advertising and marketing list alumni have been for me. It’s a fun part of my job.
They are amazing, not just the group that are in the 30 Under 30. I’ve seen some young people at the Forbes Women’s Summit which I’ve attended. Roya Mahboob was on my show and she was a Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World and she’s been at the Forbes events and I got to know her through that and she is an amazing person. The people you meet at these Forbes Summits, each one you go, “You’re more interesting than the next,” and you keep meeting all these people and this very hard to attend these events. You have to get invited to attend them, but if anybody ever has a chance to get to one of these events, I highly recommend it. You do such a great job on your panel moderating and the things that you do. How challenging is that to do the panels?
I love doing it. To me, it’s an extension of interviews and talking to people. I do them at the Forbes events, but then I do them at other industry events as well. That’s a lot of fun. I’ve done some things with She Runs It and I gave a keynote there at their event about mentors and mentees, because obviously that that’s an area that I’m certainly passionate about. This whole concept of mentoring the next generational marketing talent is something I’m involved with it and very focused on. Anytime I get a chance to engage with folks in those different contexts, it’s always a valuable opportunity for sure.
You’re in the New Jersey office. I’ve been to the Forbes on Fifth events. I have never gone to your New Jersey office. What’s it like to go to Forbes every day to work? Is that such a cool thing? Do you have to pinch yourself? I always think about that.
I have tremendous appreciation for working at Forbes. The brand is second to none. It is still such a venerable brand to work for certainly in journalism. Forbes itself has gone through such transformation as have all publications and media companies in the last several years. The innovative and entrepreneurial culture is something that I frankly haven’t experienced anywhere else. It’s an incredible platform from which to do what I do.
Everybody I know at Forbes has been wonderful and I’m so glad I got a chance to get you on the show because I know we’ve been trying to set this up for a while and I’ve seen you at so many events and I’m so glad you were able to join us. I was hoping you’d be able to share how people can reach you and find out more.
LinkedIn, Twitter. My email address is JRooney@Forbes.com. That’s the best way to reach me initially. Certainly you can follow my Forbes blog, you can follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter. I’d love to connect.
Thanks, Jenny. This has been so much fun.
Thank you for having me. I’ve enjoyed it.
You are welcome.
The Seven Levels of Engagement with Amanda Slavin
I am with Amanda Slavin, who’s the CEO and Founder of CatalystCreativ, a full-service experiential marketing agency backed by Zappos’ CEO and venture capitalist Tony Hsieh. Clients hire CatalystCreativ to help them out with designing their community. This includes brand consulting, engaging the right thought leaders to further their strategic goals, developing educational content, training selected speakers or panelists, and providing detailed planning and execution of events. She’s worked with many brands such as Harley-Davidson, Axe, and others to create grassroots marketing campaigns, and she’s also a member of the Forbes 30 Under 30. I’ve had quite a few Forbes 30 Under 30 inductees on my show. It’s so nice to have you here.
Thank you so much for having me.
I had discussed with the Joanna Martens, who introduced us, about the Forbes 30 Under 30 list and she thought about you. I guess she works with Kim Komando now who was on my show. I was looking at your bio and we’re connected to 200 same people. Craig Newmark has been on my show from Craigslist fame and a lot of the people. We were destined to meet. A lot of them have been on my show like Shama Hyder, a lot of the Forbes 30 Under 30 lists have been great. Brian Wong, I was looking at your list going, “They’ve all been on my show.” I thought I saw that Joanna said she met you through NBC Universal. I’m curious about that. What did you do there? Were you on some show she was planning?
I’m trying to remember. I remember her. We did an entire dinner together. I think I gave a panel. I was getting a talk and she came up to me after. It was with 99U for their LA Conference and she came up to me after and we started talking. I have never worked with NBC Universal. We did do something. We had a campaign with a blindness organization called Foundation Fighting Blindness. We had that campaign featured on the Today Show, so we worked with NBC in that capacity. We ended up meeting because I was giving a talk and she came up to me. When I feel like I’m vibing with the person, I usually will invite them to dinner or stay with me in my house, which is super random, but I lived in Las Vegas for years and we’ll invite people to come and stay and learn about downtown Vegas. In this case, we went to dinner and it was a three-hour dinner. We talked all about these different topics and then she reached out months and months later and passed me a great idea.
She’s nice to introduce us and Kim was great to be on my show, but I was interested in researching you. I’ve seen so many of your interviews and I liked a lot of the pieces that Forbes did on you. It was an interesting story of how you met Tony Hsieh and how you got him to invest in your company. You want to share that story?
It’s funny too when people say, “How did you convince him?” It’s dual convincing. In the sense of meeting Tony, I ended up meeting him at a conference and he invited me to Las Vegas with a bunch of other people. He always would invite people to come see his project in downtown, and then what ended up happening was I went to Downtown Vegas and I went to say hello to him. He didn’t remember inviting me or who I was because he invited so many people. I went to hug him and he backed away from me and it was unbelievably awkward. He always jokes that while I was in Downtown Vegas, I was the one that “forgot” because I ended up meeting someone who was also visiting Downtown Vegas out of all places.
I ended up telling him to watch his own TED talk because I didn’t recognize him because he had a beard. As the relationship continued in terms of very awkwardness and putting my foot in my mouth, I ended up talking to Tony. He said, “Let’s go to lunch.” I ended up talking to him about what I wanted to do and build with my career. It was around this idea of creating a marketing agency that was rooted in education, inspiration, and engagement. He was intrigued and thought that I should start it in Downtown Vegas with the intention to help and create this inspirational educational community in downtown. After our first conversation, he would come to visit New York and we would have these conversations about what the company could be. I ended up creating a business plan with Sharpie markers and a notebook and presenting it to him and then took a very little bit of money and then six months later put together a formalized business plan, create a little bit more, and now it’s been six years. That’s the story behind it.
It’s a fascinating story because to get a guy’s attention like Tony’s, you have to have an interesting and unique plan. You have been called vivacious, you’ve been called a lot of very complimentary things, and your company has been described as a holacracy, in other words more decentralized management. Tell me a little bit about your company.
It is funny too because with Tony, I read his book when I was in Downtown Vegas that night before I met him because I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t know what he was about, and then after reading his book, I realized he was this very grounded, zany person. I was myself and that was how I got the attention of him. In terms of my company, the whole entire intention of the organization was initially to develop Downtown Vegas. It’s this burgeoning community, and the way we did that was we created these events called Catalyst Weeks and Creative Weeks, which activated the entire city. We work with all the small businesses in town, we work with the government, we work with foundations, and we work with non-profits to bring these thought leaders from all over the world to come to Downtown Vegas, and experience it for three days.
Unlike some of these conferences that sometimes tend to be insular within a city, it was all around giving back to the city. They would give free workshops, free talks, have volunteer opportunities, and give back to the community. Through that, we ended up having lots of brands, attendees, and experiences and they said, “How do you create experiences for us in a similar way?” It was all around this master’s in education and with my background in events and marketing. With a combination of the two, we were able to create experiences that not only were great for marketing purposes, but were inspiring and educating people from the inside out, activating from within this idea of being a catalyst. At CatalystCreativ, we call ourselves an experiential marketing firm, but we do everything from these internal workshops and optimizing internal teams to develop creative outputs that are true to the DNA of the organization.
In terms of holacracy, I can certainly go into that, but that’s a whole other situation. We’ve been operating within holacracy for the past six years and our whole entire focus is the idea of this methodology that I developed called the feminine workplace. It’s embracing the traits that are seen as feminine and one is this idea of vulnerability, empathy, compassion, and a lot of the principles of self-organization mimic what I would say these traits that have been perceived as feminine. We’re about letting everyone have a voice, but letting everyone shares their perspective, letting everyone move the organization forward, and being malleable. I’m placed in a position where I can change and grow as the people in the organization grow.
I had read your information about the feminine organization. I was talking to one of my colleagues about what you do and she said that she knows she has attended a Forbes event and they were on stage saying that women need to stop trying to be like men and don’t wear black men’s pant suits and she looks down and she’s wearing black. She sunk into her chair. We did try to fit in to the competitive nature that women have a more feminine side that maybe men can embrace in the workplace. Is that what I read?
Correct. My whole entire theory is that both men and women have stepped into their masculine side because workplaces have been dominantly what we perceived as masculine traits. Competitiveness, assertion and aggression. We use the words like, “Let’s kill it, let’s hustle.” There’s this new resurgence of what it looks like for a workplace because we’re taking our work home with us or taking our home to work and it’s finally integrated. What I believe is the future of work, and it’s already slowly starting to happen, is for men and for women to embrace these feminine traits that we’ve seen as feminine. Compassion, empathy, tenderness, even love and sensitivity. Even what I would say about wearing an outfit like a “man” what I would say to your friend is, “Wear whatever you want.”
How about instead of focusing on these external factors, which goes back to exactly the way that we’ve been treated as women in workplaces which is that it’s about our outfits and it’s about what we’re wearing, it’s about are we smiling or not, when in reality workplaces are not emotionally safe or productive for men or for women. I would say these systematic problems are the reasons why we’re facing so much of what we’re facing right now. This theory is for men and for women to treat each other and themselves differently.
Back to the clothing aspect of it, the worst thing you can tell me is business casual. It’s men wearing khaki pants and I thought as women, we don’t have something that fits that thing. You end up wearing something trying to fit in or you wear a dress and you’re uncomfortable. It’s not a comfortable thing for women to give us business casual.
When it comes to dressing as a woman, this is a big thing in my career. I was in hospitality and nightlife before I started Catalyst, and then I moved again to Downtown Vegas so my style completely changed. I’m in a place where I wear what I feel comfortable with. Wherever I’m going, I carry it with the confidence that I have because I’ve chosen this. As much as it seems like a minute detail about life, it’s how you present yourself. I do think we should get rid of business casual and wear what makes you feel good and makes you feel confident. It’s not about what you’re wearing, it’s about who you are, so let’s put that to the side for a minute.
If you’re in Vegas, it’s like Phoenix. That’s where I am. The weather, you don’t have a lot of options. You can’t wear too much because you will die. I’m interested in more of your experiences you create. You say you don’t like to call it an agency, you like to be called an experience studio. What is an experience? What does that include exactly? You mentioned some things but is it so unique for each company that you can’t quantify that in one simple sentence?
I could try because we always try to say like, “How can an eight-year-old understand it or an 80-year-old?” and my grandma still definitely doesn’t know what I do. My team has said, “Let’s be an agency and set ourselves apart by the work that we do,” but with an experience studio, it’s this idea of how do you change the way people experience your brand and the way that you do that is by emotionally connecting with them. That’s based on this methodology of engagement that we developed, the seven levels of engagement, and it’s this idea of developing whatever that looks like, whatever experience it looks like, to emotionally connect with your internal teams and with your audience. That can be a website, that can be a full redesign, that can be a social media campaign, that can be an event, but it’s nuanced. It’s not one size fits all.
We have these brand acupuncture workshops. Identifying the pain points, coming up with creative solutions, and the experience is the outcome of what we end up identifying as a pain point as opposed to every single person has to do the same exact experience because that wouldn’t make no sense because every single company has different people working for them and different people they’re trying to attract. We try to target them in a very specific way.
You mentioned a few things, emotionally connecting and empathy and all that. It’s a big part of emotional intelligence, which I wrote my doctoral dissertation on. I was looking at you wrote your thesis on seven levels of engagement. A lot of what we need for engagement boils down to having some soft skills with communication and things like that. I’m curious about your seven levels. That was fascinating to me. Can you remember a few of them?
I know all of them and I’d love to talk to you more about empathy. I believe that’s one of the feminine principle. The seven levels of engagement are disengagement and there’s an action associated with each level and then a description. They’re on our website, but I’ll talk about the idea that it’s disengagement, unsystematic engagement, frustrated engagement, structure-dependent, self-regulated interest, critical thinking, and literate thinking. The most important one that I would say that are nuanced is this idea, it’s not so easy to say someone who’s not connected to your brand and someone who is. The disengagement is a level of engagement and you can change a person from being disengaged to engaged, and that’s an opportunity for brands.
The highest level, the literate thinking, is when you’re pulling from your personal values and beliefs and aligning that with a mission. This was a taxonomy that was developed for education purposes. This is where we ended up using this in my thesis, was applying it to students using their community at the classroom and how it impacted engagement and achievement. We took those actual levels and applied it to marketing, which is a completely different approach, but I always would say, “If I could sell math to a six-year-old, I could pretty much sell anything to anyone.” Those personal values and beliefs at the highest level is empathy. It’s emotionally connecting, and brands have to be able to show that they know their audiences and they’re willing to be able to stand for something so that individuals know that how to actually emotionally connect with them on this deeper level.
You can tell a real educator when they mention taxonomy. We got up Bloom’s reference and that’s such a huge thing in education, is to set up these courses in a way that you scaffold up to the higher level. I’ve been researching a lot for my book I’m writing on curiosity. When you talk about critical thinking, that all ties into that as well. I saw somebody wrote that you’ve spent weekends in Manhattan throwing elaborate parties for financial and marketing clients. Explain that.
I was 21 years old and I would take the train from New Jersey to New York and my dad would pick me up at the end of the night and I would throw these events. This was when Facebook was fairly new. It was so funny because now it’s so overused, but at the time, this was maybe say fifteen years ago, I was given the advice to look for people who’s having a birthday party or an anniversary and ask them if you could host their events. I started to reach out to these individual and started hosting my own parties. I wouldn’t say they were elaborate.
There were themes and there were concepts that I had to execute on, but I would say that after I ended up hosting my own parties and I worked for Paige Hospitality Group, which is the company that started a restaurant called The Ainsworth, that was when the events started to get elaborate. We worked with Harley-Davidson and had a real tattoo artist and motorcycles. We would create an event with LVMH and we launched their brand at the Hamptons and I lived in a sixteen-bedroom estate for the entire summer, which was completely insane. That was a little crazy because that’s where the events were. There was no separation between church and state.
The idea of developing an elaborate experiences was interesting to me, but I still felt like the engagement was off because there were so many events in New York at the time and people would attend these events and then not know what the event was for. That inspired me to be able to have these intentional and very pinpointed marketing campaigns and experiential campaigns that could change the behavior of people after attending these experiences. Elaborate, but maybe not in the beginning. It’s a 21-year-old trying to make money on the side to make ends meet, but maybe they ended up getting more unique as years went on.
Living in a giant mansion though and regularly blogging for Huffington Post, that’s a lot of stuff that you’re doing at a very young age. Were you always a real curious kid? Have you always wanted to do a lot of different things? You’re like me, we talk fast, we’re hyper. Were you always curious? Do you think that you can teach somebody to be like how you’ve developed your sense of curiosity?
In school, I was always yelled at for talking too much in class and I was always given the poor grades. I was raising my hand, but I was like, “Why aren’t you calling on me if I know the answer? I want to have a discussion or a conversation, I want to be heard. This is so unfair that I have to sit here and wait for you to tell me when I can talk.” That was always my personality, but school could have easily deterred me from being engaged and curious and creative because the traditional education system is sitting in that seat and speak when I call on you. If we can create conducive environments for children, and we’re taking so many arts programs away from schools, it’s very devastating because these opportunities for children to be creative, that was why I wanted to write my thesis on what it looks like to take students outside of these four walls of the classroom and into their communities because I felt like there’d be more emotional and physical space for them to explore. We can create opportunities for individuals to be curious, to be creative, and to be engaged.
It does happen when they’re young. Kids have this natural sense of curiosity and sometimes it gets taken away from them because we have to stay in line with certain things. It’s funny when you say about your childhood because I always get the N, the Needs Improvement, for talking.
I remember my grandfather being like, “Why do you always have NA?” I’m like, “I don’t know, because I don’t know the answer. I’m bored. I don’t want to sit there.”
My first class at college, it’s the second one, English 102, but my professor, it was three weeks before the end of class. He looks at me and he goes, “You have an A. Please don’t come back.”
That was every single one of my teachers at all times. That’s a massive situation so I totally get you.
Kids get can get bored. You obviously were teaching younger kids. You said you taught second graders. What did you teach?
I taught first grade and then I also was in gifted learning essentially for middle school. That was fifth through eight during my masters’ year. When we used to do these events in Vegas with these Catalyst Weeks and these Creative Weeks, we used to ask adults what did you want to be when you were eight years old. It wasn’t about who you were, but who you want it to be before your parents told you what you had to be or before you had bills to pay. It wasn’t necessarily about what you did now, what was the job, it was about who you were in the inside. Even those experiences got people out of their own way because as adults, we’re all like little kids looking for approval and looking to be seen and heard. Sometimes, these adult-like environments are not conducive for our best behavior.
It’s fascinating because I’m researching the things that hold us back from our natural curiosity and a lot of it is environment. We’ve got social media. If you do something and you look goofy or your family will tell you look goofy or you’re afraid to look this way or there’s fear, there’s so many things that hold people back, and yet some people they’re fine with that. They go, “Too bad. I’ll do what I want.” How do you get that sense of, “I don’t care what you think?”
Social media is a disaster and we don’t even necessarily know the ramifications of what it’s doing psychologically. It can be used for good and the campaigns that we do on social media are always focused on that seven levels so they’re around user-generated content and asking people to tell their personal stories and living within their truth. Most of social media is this idea of creating this life that you feel like you need to represent everyone else, creating these personas, these caricatures of yourself so that other people can feel like you’re in this great space when you might not necessarily be. In the sense of creating spaces where people can feel like they can do whatever they want, be wherever they want, it’s based on emotional trust and it’s also based on confidence.
Social media can damage these ideas of being whoever we want and having that confidence. We need to have more honest and open conversations with each other and ourselves and recognize that not everyone’s lives are perfect. Even the lives that you’re receiving and that you’re observing on social media are not actual truth a lot of the times. That’s the first step into reality, reality checking ourselves and be like, “This isn’t perfect.” We all know there’s things behind the curtain. Let’s have a conversation about that and then let’s be easier on ourselves in the process.
It’s challenging because if you post something positive on it, then you’re leaving out the negative. If you post something negative, you’re a whiner. There’s no easy way to do that. I wrote a brand publishing course in my work with Forbes and I thought that it was fascinating to see all the challenges of storytelling and getting their messages out to people. A lot of the problems that I saw, I teach marketing a lot still, is trying to help people get messages out and do it at scale but make it feel personalized. It’s funny because I have Sarah Cooper on my show who has the Cooper Review and she has a book about how to look smart in meetings. One of the things she says is mention you’re trying to do something at scale.
There’s so many jargon words that we tend to rely on, which is not necessarily even being true to who you are because you’re overcompensating with all these words. There are hysterical videos out there that show all these marketing jargon words to use, like low-hanging fruit, synergy is another one, which come up obviously, but that’s hysterical.
For me, the ones I’m sick of hearing are tribe and value proposition. We have to use it sometimes, but sometimes it’s like how many times in one sentence.
There’s fillers around this idea of confidence. I was on a panel and it was interesting around women versus men and how women go in and when they present they say, “I think that this might be a good idea,” and then say, “This is the solution to the problem that we’re discussing.” Everyone generally would probably use these words to prove their point because maybe they don’t necessarily feel 100% comfortable in a room and so these words help them with that confidence factor.
It’s hard for a lot of people to know what to say and how to get noticed. You have gotten noticed at a very young age. I’m curious how you got Forbes attention.
I ended up working at a conference called Summit Series and that’s where I ended up meeting Tony because I was working at the event. That what inspired me to create those experiences in Vegas for the 99% because I wasn’t necessarily invited in the room, I was working in the room. As a part of that as well, I met one of the Forbes writers. I built a conversation with him and this was even before I started Catalyst. I kept in touch with him and then through the work that we had done, it was unique. Not a lot of “agencies” are doing work rebuilding cities and focusing on this educational lens and focusing on inspiration. It was this unique value proposition that might have garnered the attention of a Forbes.
In terms of being able to write and put on Catalyst’s name and my name out there, I started writing for Huffington Post seven years ago with the intention that I was transitioning from hospitality into this new life and I didn’t want anyone else to tell my story for me. I wanted it to feel organic and authentic and not like, “This girl was in nightlife and now she’s doing all this impact work.” I started using Huffington Post as a diary, writing every single week a diary entry to the world. I was so insanely vulnerable at the time. I was talking about anything. I look back and there are no regrets, but I want it to be able to share my version of my story before anyone else did. By the time I was starting CatalystCreativ, I had written close to 100 something articles. That also maybe helped get our name out there.
You obviously did something right. I had Jenny Rooney on the show and she handles a lot of that Forbes 30 Under 30 list and I’ve had so many of you that have inspired me and it has been so wonderful to have you on the show and I’m so excited for your wedding coming up. Congratulations.
I said to my fiancé, “I want you to plan the entire thing and I’m going to show up and be a bride.” I’m not a producer acting like a crazy person like, “Where are all the flowers, what’s on the food?” That’s how I’m going to my wedding.
You remind me of a good friend of mine, Dr. Katie, who I worked with at Forbes. I have to make her listen to this show because she talks like you do and you sound exactly alike. It’s so nice to have met you. If you wouldn’t mind sharing how people can reach you and find out more about what you’re doing.
LinkedIn is my favorite social platform, so you can follow me or add me on LinkedIn, Amanda Slavin. You can go to our website, CatalystCreativ. Follow me every other social platform @AJSlavin.
Thank you so much Amanda. It was so nice having you on the show.
You are welcome.
Thank you to Jenny and to Amanda. What a great show. I wanted to be sure I said that properly. I noticed with Amanda I said exponential, and that she has experiential services. She has a very interesting organization and I enjoyed speaking with Jenny and to Amanda. If you’ve missed any of our past episodes, there’s so many great connections through Forbes on the show, either from Steve Forbes who’s been on to a lot of the 30 Under 30s. We’ve had such great guests and I hope that if you’ve missed any of the episodes, go to DrDianeHamilton.com/Blog. After that, you can read the episodes as well as listen to them and you can find all the information there. I hope you join us for the next episode of Take The Lead Radio.
About Jenny Rooney
Jenny Rooney is editor of the CMO Network at Forbes, where she manages content critical to executive-level marketing decision-makers. She reports on industry trends, research and news; has interviewed hundreds of CEOs and CMOs as part of her ongoing Forbes CMO Interview Series; developed the ongoing Forbes CMO University Alumni Series, which connects marketing practitioners with marketing academics and students; serves on the advisory team for the ANA’s CMO Talent Challenge; annually oversees development of the Forbes 30 Under 30 in Marketing and Advertising list; and plays an integral role in the development of topics, content and programming for Forbes CMO Practice events throughout the year, particularly the annual, invitation-only Forbes CMO Summit.
About Amanda Slavin
Amanda Slavin is the CEO and Founder of CatalystCreativ, a full-service experiential marketing agency backed by Zappo’s CEO and venture capitalist Tony Hsieh. Clients hire CatalystCreativ to help them out with “designing their community” – this includes brand consulting, engaging the right thought leaders to further their strategic goals, developing educational content, training selected speakers or panelists, and providing detailed planning and execution of events. She has worked with many brands such as Harley Davidson, Axe and others to create grassroot marketing campaigns. She is a member of the Forbes 30 Under 30.
- Jenny Rooney
- Amanda Slavin
- CMO Network
- Forbes CMO Interview Series
- Forbes CMO Practice
- Forbes CMO Summit
- Steve Forbes’ episode
- Mike Federle’s episode
- Bruce Rogers’ episode
- Advertising Age
- Keith Krach’s episode
- Tai Tran’s episode
- Anda Gansca’s episode
- Roya Mahboob’s episode
- She Runs It
- Jenny Rooney’s LinkedIn
- Jenny Rooney’s Twitter
- Kim Komando’s episode
- Craig Newmark’s episode
- Shama Hyder’s episode
- Brian Wong’s episode
- Foundation Fighting Blindness
- Tony Hsieh
- Paige Hospitality Group
- Cooper Review
- Summit Series