Discerning Who and What to Listen to Inside/Outside Organizations Can Mean the Difference Between Failure and Success  

One of the more intriguing aspects of a digital world, especially in business, is not the number of conversations or discussions surrounding a brand but the ability to identify them and determine their requisite importance and relevance to everything from customer satisfaction, future viability, strategy interpretation, and employee engagement.

As I spend time at clients traversing from meeting to meeting with different teams and functions it’s amazing to see just how different, interesting, and difficult people’s perspectives, opinions, and beliefs about the business and its strategic intent have become in an era of information overload. Similarly, looking outside the company, employing an array of proprietary analytics we can truly understand the granularity of opinion formation and perception influencing brand efficacy, product usage, purchase behavior, and share of voice.

What does this all mean?

The volume and diversity of inputs regarding a brand or company has grown exponentially and with it the challenge of filtering what’s important and strategically critical vs. what’s noise. In my opinion, the result is a combination of analysis including machine learning with human insight and experience. To that end, there are four considerations in gauging the most productive and useful techniques in being an effective interpreter of your company’s or brand’s position:

  1. Internally, look for discrepancies on how employees at different levels and in different groups are discussing and sharing their understanding of the business or situation with colleagues and peers.  This will provide a clear indication of whether they are working to solve the right problems or address the right priorities.
  2. Study how discourse is taking place in social and digital channels and platforms including forums and chat rooms.  Doing so will open a line of sight to the marketplace.
  3. Map these conversations back to leadership directives, strategy, and messaging emanating for the company.  From here, you can ascertain linkages and gaps.
  4. Recognize the new expectations as a byproduct of today’s digital environment. The need for context, discovery, and consistent communications is now the norm in both marketing and communications.

The combination of technology and human values is a powerful and essential combination to making sense of an ecosystem that by default can lead one down multiple pathways in search of solutions.  Information is a powerful tool on many levels.  It can inform and influence opinion, shape confidence, and encourage trust.  It can also initiate conversations and debates or perpetuate falsehoods.

As professionals, we are exposed to myriad voices in our work on behalf of our client partners. Utilizing the models and methodologies we have at our disposal along with our intrinsic curiosity and work experiences create clear and critical pathways to focusing on the truth regarding organizational viability.

In our work, it’s ok to “hear voices” as long as we interpret their accuracy and meaning!



Many of the answers in life are common sense.  We just choose to ignore them.  We always have a “good reason”, but every now and then, we just have to call ourselves out and say to ourselves “nope, you’re not as smart as you think.”

Slightly more than one year ago, I finally admitted this to myself and on November 17, 2016, I received a vertical sleeve gastrectomy performed by Dr. Paul Cirangle.  This is otherwise known as “making my stomach smaller”.  Today, I am 95 pounds lighter and a lot smarter about how I stay healthy.

I like to say that the answers were always hiding in plain sight.  I just chose to ignore them.  In the spirit of inspiring others to think about their long-term health, here are my top 11 insights.

#1 – Listen to your friends – Jim Weiss, who had similar surgery nine years ago, is someone I talk about business with on a regular basis.  He would occasionally ask me about my weight, mention his experience and provide me with Dr. Cirangle’s information.  Jim knew I would eventually see the answer right in front of me and act before I knew it.  I’m thankful Jim cared more about my health than I did at the time.

#2 – Focus on the numbers that matter – what’s your waist size and your BMI (body mass index)? If you are putting on weight, just admit it.  Don’t rationalize that it is ok.  Weight gain is a slow-motion movie.

#3 – Weigh yourself every chance you get – maybe your blood pressure is fine.  Or you don’t have diabetes.  You have some rationale.   You are ignoring the part of the iceberg you can’t see.

#4 – Think of fuel vs. food – my food pyramid starts with protein, then vegetables and usually ends there.  I don’t start with carbs or sugars or anything else with no real value.  I think of how the body is fueled, not how it is fed.

#5 – Imagine your coach blowing the whistle – would your coach say it is ok to sit on your butt watching games or would they tell you to get moving?  I imagine my coach is there every day.  So, if I need to, I do a workout at 10pm or go out for a 2-3 mile walk at night in whatever city I am in.  It’s not that hard actually.  It’s really just taking that first step each time.  Right coach?

#6 – Partners matter – my wife, Donna, is highly focused on eating right, exercising and staying in shape.  It allows us to keep a clean house and limit temptations.  If you live with someone else, you are in it together.  So, if you are that other person, ask if you are helping or hurting.

#7 – Don’t overthink devices, but use them – I didn’t sleep enough.  I didn’t weigh myself often.  I didn’t track what I ate every day.  Now I do via a Fit Bit watch, a Fit Bit Aria scale and the MyFitnessPal app.  For the cost of one expensive dinner, I can now track myself every day all year round.

#8 – Realize why we overeat – our stomach contains cells that contain Ghrelin, the hunger hormone that drives our appetite.  With far less Ghrelin receptors, I am just not all that hungry.  Your need for that next slice of pizza is more your body playing with your head than it is a physical need.

#9 – Who needs sugar? – I drink my coffee black, drink water with crystal light and just don’t drink sodas anymore.  The world hasn’t ended.

#10 – Moderation is my middle name – I took a one year hiatus from alcohol. It wasn’t really that bad.  And now I have new rules in place.  I won’t drink unless I am at a special event on a personal level.  Gone are the days where I will drink on an airplane, for example.

#11 Establish new rules – I exercise 3-4x per week.  I don’t miss.  I always reach 90-120 grams of protein a day.  I don’t miss.  Basically, I have rules for how I will live each day.  None are hard, all are easy to follow.

So, on a weekend of being thankful, I want to express thanks to my wife, Donna; my surgeon, Dr. Paul Cirangle; my friend, Jim Weiss; and all of my friends who have been encouraging, inspiring and behind me 110% to get healthy for the rest of my life.

Note: surgery is a personal decision.  I found that the surgery was the right move for myself.  I can take the weight off and keep it off forever, which is my goal.  How you lose weight is a personal choice, so I will never advocate one way. 

This fall I chose a theme of “science and technology” and then realized via this reading list how, once again, teams are so important to anything successful that occurs in life.

Here is what I read and learned about:

No One Cares About Crazy People – by Ron Powers – the author’s family includes two sons with schizophrenia, which provides Powers with a bird’s eye view into our broken mental health system.  In great detail, he interweaves the history and failures of our approach to mental health in parallel with the struggles and bias his own children have faced.  A worthy read and one that you hope becomes outdated soon.

Machine Learning: The New AI – by Ethem Alpaydin – the MIT Press has an excellent series of books describing what’s next in as close to laymen’s terms as you can hope for with otherwise highly technical subjects.  Machine learning (ML) is a discipline that we use every day at W2O Group to power our analytics work. In my view, ML will be mainstream knowledge for every communicator and marketer within five years.  We all tend to think that new technology is just for the geeks, but advances like ML are actually making it easier for all of us to geek out and make a real difference in how we analyze our world.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End – by Atul Gawande – Dr. Gawande is an exceptional author, who chooses, in this book, to make us think about how we age in U.S. society and how we can improve on a healthcare system unprepared for change.  My biggest takeaway is that we’ll do more for those in the last years of their lives via common sense decisions than we will, in most cases, through medical interventions.  A wake up call on how to think about geriatrics.

Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes – by Richard A. Clarke and R.P. Eddy – the authors illustrate how “Cassandras” often tell us what will happen, but we choose to ignore them.  From Katrina to Fukashima, few disasters were surprises.  I found a real parallel here for all of us who innovate.  It is often hard to convince people about how the world may change, since they like to root their decisions in the current environment.  It’s more comfortable.  Until ISIS forms or a city floods or a power grid is shut down.  Exploring why we fail to listen is…..worth a listen…..

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry — by Neil deGrasse Tyson – this is the holiday gift choice in this list by a wide margin.  Neil does such an excellent job of explaining our universe in bite size chunks that we can all understand.  I know more about our moon, supernovas and how the universe is expanding from this book than what I learned from all prior books put together.

Together is Better – by Simon Sinek – you know him as the famous Ted Talk guy who “starts with why”.  Using a similar approach, he talks about the power of teams and how we can all more effectively work together.  I found it particularly resonant as I thought about how important it is for the mental health world to partner more effectively or how the best care occurs when healthcare professionals team up to provide the best care for the aging patient, regardless of their position or how we could all do a better job listening to new ideas to further our goals.

It was an interesting set of books to read.  Now, for the winter, I am planning to focus on individuals who have impacted our history (e.g. Kissinger) and just read some books for fun, many of these books are past recommendations from all of you.  Thank you to Will de Groot for the Being Mortal book and Jim Weiss for Together is Better.

Best, Bob


In 2018, we will celebrate 17 years in biz.  Much has happened since our humble beginnings. For many years we flew below the radar. The entrepreneurial spirit that formed the business was alive and well in all we did and accomplished.  The goal was providing exceptional service and support, partnering with clients to innovate and grow their businesses as well as growing our own people from within.

The goal was always “To Be the Best” not necessarily the biggest. Because that’s been the focus, we are now over 600 strong and growing.

And we have an incredible group of leaders at all levels of the firm.

Which leads me to a very insightful piece I just read in the Harvard Business Review (HBR).

The premise is that even leaders that didn’t found the company, including CEOs, need to think with the mindset of a founder.  In effect, to approach the business with a new-found zeal and energy to build new capabilities, enter new markets, focus on long-term vision and investment and develop new solutions vs. only optimizing current ones (though we have to do that too).

And in so doing, breaking rules and taking risks along the way just as a founder would.  Just as I did and still like to think I do.

I encourage you to read the article and reflect on what it says about your approach and thinking. It provides some very practical advice and also aligns with or belief in metrics and analytics.

As a “re-founder” and CEO myself, I offer you the following three actions to change your game:

  1. Know Your Stuff Information, facts, analysis and insights must drive your planning and key decisions. These are the tools for growth and also for ensuring employees participate and engage in the journey.
  2. Be Courageous – You cannot let too many opinions and faulty thinking infest your thought process. As the article describes, consensus is another way to destroy an idea. If you believe people would have predicted the growth and success of W2O Group over 16 years ago, well, you would have been wrong.
  3. View Obstacles as Traffic Pylons Have you ever seen those orange cones blocking parking spaces or other areas often with no reason?  Let me tell you what I do when I see them: I move them. Do the same with obstacles. Negativity. BS.

Seeing your role as that of a “re-founder” is a fresh take on leadership in a time of new expectations, developments and market competitiveness and will help drive our valuation higher faster.

I hope you enjoy the article and more importantly, I hope you take its message to heart and mind!



W2O Group has experienced growth by welcoming new team members, unveiling new tools and celebrating program milestones. To continue the momentum, we announced today three new hires: Jeff Burnett, Donna Duncan, and Chuck Hemann (returning W2O-er) who will further strengthen our Chicago office.

As an NYC transfer myself, I’m thrilled to be part of this exciting expansion of our office. I sat down with our three new team members to gain more insight into their background, their vision for their roles, and to learn more about their favorite things about Chicago!

Jeff Burnett
Donna Duncan
Chuck Hemann

AnitaWelcome to the Chicago office! We’re so excited to have you all here. Can you share your background and how that is in sync with your role here?

Jeff: I’ve had the pleasure of working with a wide variety of clients over the course of my career on both Rx and OTC products with many pharma and CPG giants – from toothpaste to transplantation, GERD to gut health and COPD to constipation.  I love digging in deep with clients, helping them solve problems and bringing innovative programming to life.  My role allows me the flexibility to do just that as well as grow our base of business in health and wellness.

Donna: Thanks for the warm welcome – I’m delighted to be part of W2O Group. My passion for healthcare communications started here in Chicago about 20 years ago, leading community relations for the regional organ bank. On the agency side, I’ve led integrated teams across the health and wellness spectrum – including pharmaceuticals, hospitals, associations, advocacy and consumer packaged goods. As part of the growing office in Chicago, I’m excited to be leading teams in the development of insights-driven activations that optimize the right marketing communications mix.

Chuck: I started my career in public relations/investor relations research, and have since transitioned into social and digital analytics. I’ve spent most of my career in agencies, though I did just complete a tour of duty in the big company world (Intel) leading global media and digital analytics.

Anita: What is your approach to learning and staying up to speed?

Jeff: As someone who started my career looking up media contacts in Bacon’s…I find the best way to stay up to speed is to stay close to the work.  I am also a pop culture junkie and firmly believe there is no better way to know what is going on in the world than to follow societal trends.

Donna: I’m a digital and audiophile when it comes to gathering news and insights. I read The New York Times Morning Briefing each day before my feet hit the floor, and I can tell if I’m running late based on when the theme from NPR’s Marketplace Morning Report kicks in. I love podcasts for learning and for deeper dives into specific topics. A new one I’m enjoying is I Hate My Boss, which despite its name, takes a very positive look at strategies that help you love your workplace and be a better leader. I also think it’s critical to learn from other people’s experience, which I find through storytelling podcasts like The Moth.

Chuck: This is a really hard thing to do, believe it or not, because there are so many sources of information. I typically rely on two places: My LinkedIn newsfeed and an occasional glance at Twitter.

Anita: What is your “super power”?

Jeff: The early bird gets the worm – which also could be the best piece of advice I ever received. For me, the height of my productivity is from 6 am – 9 am. I take advantage of that time to power through key materials that require deep thought and send off key correspondence that I know I won’t be able to get to once the day takes off.

Donna: I’d have to say adaptability. For me, adaptability means moving through difficult situations with a goal in mind, being open to new ways of working, seeking out others with knowledge and expertise, and collaborating to find solutions and new opportunities.

Chuck: Wow. Great question. My super power? I think if I were to pinpoint just one thing it would be that I’m pretty low key in almost every situation. I don’t have very many highs and lows.

Anita: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Jeff: The time you have is the time you need.  You can’t add time to the day and while I could wring my hands and worry about how little time I have to accomplish a task, all I am doing is wasting time by doing so.

Donna: Leave time for listening. We pride ourselves on preparedness and counsel, but in the rush to present our good thinking it’s easy to sweep past the pauses. When we leave time to listen, we open doors to conversations that help to re-align against our goals, set priorities and discover unexpected opportunities.

Chuck: Always be curious and open-minded. There have been a number of people throughout my career who have tried to impart on me the importance of being curious, but to me it is the most important part of our profession.

Anita:  Ok. Now for the speed round.  All about Chicago! Favorite pizza place?

Jeff:  Dark horse entry from the suburbs, I have to say Viccino’s in Glenview.

Donna: Lou Malnati’s. It’s all about the butter crust.

Chuck: Full disclosure: If you would’ve asked me this question about two years ago I would’ve told you Lou’s. Hands down. Now, though? I love Pequod’s.

Anita:  Favorite Chicago neighborhood?

Jeff: West Loop – so many great restaurants, so little time.

Donna: Logan Square, for its great mix of people, always-growing list of bars and restaurants, and beautiful parks and boulevards.

Chuck: I’m biased, but I love the River West neighborhood.

Anita:  Favorite Chicago landmark?

Jeff: Chicago features some of the world’s best skyscrapers in many styles by many prominent architects.  One only has to look up.  I’ve had the pleasure of working in 2 iconic Chicago landmarks – the John Hancock and Aon buildings.

Donna: So many amazing choices, but the Chicago Cultural Center comes out on top for its architecture, amazing Tiffany glass dome, and its history of free public access.

Chuck: Any place with a rooftop? Just kidding. I love Wrigley Field.

Anita:  Cubs or Sox?

Jeff: Um yeah, not a baseball fan but to be fair, not a sports fan, in general.

Donna: Sox during the regular season, but neutral enough to root for the Cubs when they make into the playoffs.

Chuck: I’m originally from Cleveland so this question hurts my sports soul a little bit. But I think I’ll answer by saying Cubs. Who hates the Cubs, really?

Anita: Thank you, all – that was fun! Looking forward to working with you all to #MakeItHappen here in Chicago!  And as we always say here at the office, it’s all about #ChicagoRising…

View the official release for more details around the announcement here.


Want to hear our thoughts on industry news? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter! Here are our insights from our favorite recent stories.

One of the most important aspects of a growing firm is to constantly look ahead yet be grounded in improving core aspects of the business and ways to truly deliver for clients, accelerate growth and create an environment of learning and opportunity.

This is a major balancing act we seek to master at W2O Group on our mission to Become the Best.

Our ability to do this lies not in the tangible assets we develop or acquire but in the recognition and assimilation of how we work together, learn from one another, interact, focus, ideate and solve problems for our clients and for ourselves.

As we evolve based on the shifts in business, something we’ve managed over the last 16 years, there are some key learnings – or what I’m calling our 5 “truths” – that guide our thinking and provide the context necessary to do our jobs every day:

  1. Digital is Everything and Everything is Digital – There has been much discussion and even debate over PR vs. marketing. The truth is that digital envelopes everything. Digital is a way of life. Digital gives consumers and employees the power in relationships with brands, redefining expectations and value propositions. We all must become “digitized” or see what we’re doing through a digital lens. We must all become “marketing scientists” leveraging analytics and insights to guide what we do. We all must read and embrace the gospel of our already published textbooks PreCommerce, Digital Marketing Analytics, Location Based Marketing for Dummies and Storytizing and two new ones we will publish next year The Agency of the Future and The Future of Data.
  2. We are Interdependent – Each and every one of us is critical to our success and we can only succeed if we work together, respect each other, and rely on each other in delivering for our clients. Do we see ourselves and our colleagues this way? We need each other more than ever to navigate what is becoming an increasingly complex marketing and business environment. Are we talking with each other and with our clients in a dialogue that makes things better or talking past each other?
  3. Our Business is Getting Bigger So We Need to Think Bigger –As we scale and grow, our perspective must get larger and wider. We must see things from a higher perch. Client expectations are rising in terms of ideas and solutions.  Are we thinking and delivering at the highest possible level for them?
  4. We are One of the Big Kids Now – While it may seem odd to say this since we always see ourselves as the underdog, the profession increasingly views W2O as a major player they can’t quite figure out. Our new brand platform conveys this positioning. But, are we ready to act like a leader and come ready to play to win each and every time?
  5. Curiosity Rules – Regardless of where you sit in the firm, the one constant for all of us remains – curiosity. Why? Curiosity makes you smarter and benefits our clients more. The more we probe, delve, inquire, ask and seek, the better we understand and the more confident we become. What are you curious about?

As much as we work to design the most effective system to deliver “unfair advantage” to our clients, these basic truths of our firm will persist.

Imagine how far ahead we can get if each of us made these “truths” a personal commitment?

Think about it and continue to BUILD. Yours with these in mind.




Reflecting on Five-Year Journey with Syracuse University and the W2O Group/Newhouse Center for Social Commerce; And Second-Year LAGRANT Foundation Fellowship Program

This November we will celebrate the five-year anniversary of the W2O-Newhouse Center for Social Commerce at Syracuse University. It has been an incredibly fast five-years and I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to all the W2O folks who have participated in the Center’s activities and interacted with students and professors during this time.

All of us at W2O Group should be very proud of the Center for Social Commerce (CSC) as it has become one of the most successful industry-academic partnerships in the profession. When Audra and I decided to establish this program our only goal was to offer students the opportunity to better understand the changing communications and media landscape so they could make an impact on day one of their careers.  To date, the Center has enabled more than 1,000 students to immerse in the thinking, models, methodologies, and approaches inherent in today’s digital and social marketplace.

Each year, the CSC:

  • Conducts twice annual “Social Commerce Days” immersing students and professors in the latest thinking on social and digital strategies, tools, techniques and models
  • Welcomes keynote presentations by major thought leaders from automotive, energy, financial services, medical technology, consumer brands, and technology
  • Leads interactive workshops, classroom visits, and career guidance opportunities with students

In addition to “Social Commerce Days,” the CSC:

  • Spearheads several initiatives and opportunities to help students gain an edge, including a year-round Student Ambassador program, wherein two SU students are selected to represent the CSC and intern with W2O Group
  • Publishes notable research in the field
  • Sponsors a trip to the firm’s digital-focused SXSW events in Austin, TX
  • Provides a Newhouse student for an internship at W2O client, Medtronic, working in both the firm’s Minneapolis office and the company’s headquarters on its business providing a dual experience.

Both the Center along with W2O Group’s second-year relationship with the LAGRANT Foundation, which is a first-of-its-kind healthcare communications fellowship for ethnic minorities, are making it real in terms of ensuring the next generation of leaders are ready for the challenges ahead and the organizations themselves are creating diverse workforces and inclusive cultures to provide maximum value to customers and employees.

The W2O Group LAGRANT Foundation Fellowship in Healthcare Communications is a three-year commitment to support ethnic minority candidates pursuing careers in healthcare communications.

The Fellowship:

  • Exposes candidates to careers in healthcare communications with major pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical device, and digital health companies via a 10-week paid fellowship each year in one of our offices – San Francisco, New York, Boston, Austin, or Minneapolis
  • Promotes a diversity workforce in a truly meaningful way

We often talk about the need to give back and reinforce our purpose throughout the business and marketplace. Supporting students in their career development and providing opportunities for young professionals in an important field such as healthcare are excellent examples of making a difference.

On behalf of Audra, thank you for making these initiatives the “Best” they can be!

“BUILD. Yours!”



If you’re a client (or potential client) there are so many reasons to choose W2O Group – like our ability to provide insights-driven, custom-developed, marketing communications (across PR, advertising, digital marketing, corp comms as well as paid, earned, shared and owned media); Or the fact that when it comes to healthcare marketing communications – specifically the intersection of healthcare and tech – we are leading the way!

But actually, this post isn’t about clients. It’s about YOU and about building your career at W2O. It’s about why now is the perfect time.

I joined W2O with an incredible optimism about what could be possible, a bit of pragmatism about what was probable, and a healthy dose of skepticism. Fast forward six months and I couldn’t be more thrilled at the speed of our progress thus far, and more optimistic about our collective future… as well as the future of those joining us now.

Here’s why:

1. We’re ahead of the curve as it relates to the agency business model.

We’re not a holding company. And don’t intend to become one. (In fact, we’ve remained independent.) And it’s interesting to note how the holding companies are looking to replicate our model. Our client-centric approach, which we’ve undertaken from the beginning, allows us to deliver excellent service to clients and a great platform to build a career (few silos, few egos, and even fewer competing priorities means there are few limitations to your career growth and trajectory). It’s also helping us achieve double-digit growth.

2. We’re maintaining our ‘start-up’ DNA while maturing in our processes.

The agility and uniqueness of a start-up is something we continue to nurture, even as we grow. And we’re beginning to shed the frustration that goes along with the lack of process at start-ups. About 18 months ago we moved from being completely founder-led, to bringing in an investment partner so we could put in place better infrastructure and systems to deliver work – like smarter finance systems and tools for real-time decision-making, or leaders with expertise to scale. There’s still more to be done, of course, but these new systems are the foundation of our continued growth.

3. We’re making strategic investments (in people, process, technology, and capabilities).

Investments in our business have allowed us to expand our reach and capabilities, increase people and training to improve benefits and programs (like unlimited PTO, 16 weeks of maternity leave, and a unique offering for new parents). These investments also allow us to recruit talent with broader and deeper skills to better balance the workload (a 60% increase in new hires over last year), and really beef up our analytics tools and offerings (like MDigitalLife, Call-Center Analytics or Linguistics to name a few).

 4. We’re still evolving so it’s easy to make your mark here.

Since its inception some 16 years ago, W2O continues to shape itself into something new and different. To be successful at W2O, you will need to thrive on ambiguity, challenge, and collaboration; and get energized by constantly challenging the status quo.  Doing so here allows you to make an incredible impact on your clients, on the firm, and on your career.

Take Brian Reid, for instance. He realized that pricing and politics where going to take its toll on our clients’ business. So rather than wait to be asked, he developed a proposal. And in a matter of months, it was funded and turned into a new  practice that is helping to change the way the industry approaches this issue.  Or Rob Jekielek who is finalizing a new approach to corporate reputation with our Relevance Model and Index as a leading indicator of corporate brand health.

We’re looking for more people who have that entrepreneurial drive and grit to help shape our future.

5. We’re making it easy for you to find purpose here.

Selecting a job is easy. Finding a career that truly resonates with your “why” isn’t. But when you do, it’s very rewarding. At W2O, what you do contributes to improving lives or transforming the world – whether it’s working on business that helps those with cancer or other debilitating illnesses; or helping to drive transformation through technology and reinventing how we live and work.

So, if you’ve never considered W2O, we’d love to hear from you… and if you have in the past but weren’t sure the time was right, perhaps this glimpse into what’s been going on might give you reasons WhyW2O Now More Than Ever! Here’s a link to our latest jobs: