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The outgoing president of BrewLife reflects upon her journey and shares some hard earned wisdom in the world of communications and agency life.

In 2004, Carolyn Wang joined what was once called Weiss Comm Partners (now W2O Group) hoping to bring her experience from Ogilvy & Mather to a fledging firm specializing in biotech communications and investor relations (IR).  In the following twelve years, she solidified her career in healthcare corporate comms, advised a multitude of clients and ultimately helped grow the firm from six people in the San Francisco Bay Area to over four hundred across the globe. It was most recently recognized as The 2016 Holmes Report North America Midsize Agency of the Year. She now prepares for her new role as chief communications officer at Verily (previously Google Life Sciences).

Howie Chan: Today is your last day, how are you feeling?

Carolyn Wang: Last night I had trouble sleeping, there are emotions that are floating to the surface I have not quite acknowledged yet. But this is definitely a bittersweet time for me. Following 12 years with such an amazing team – it’s one of the main reasons I’ve stayed here – it’s those close interpersonal connections. Knowing I’m not going to see the same faces everyday… it’s tough.

How would you breakdown the phases of growth throughout the last 12 years?

I do feel like I’ve worked at a few different companies throughout the 12 years, just because of the change and the evolutions. We started out as Weiss Comm Partners, and we were a strategic consulting firm focusing on corporate communications and IR, working with a certain type of biotech companies, mostly small to mid-size. We had a couple of bigger players, but we weren’t working with big pharma, and we certainly weren’t working beyond healthcare. I think that was one of the first phases of the company.

The next phase was building the New York office with Jennifer Gottlieb and others – branching into big pharma and growing up as an agency. I was one of the first coming in from a big agency, and knew how to build a team and manage agency projects. Jim Weiss (W2O Group founder & CEO) was working with a team of pretty eccentric, very smart and senior communicators but none of them had agency experience, at least to the degree I did. Then Diane Weiser (now CCO at Cytokinetics), Jennifer Gottlieb and others came on board to continue growing and help put the right infrastructure in place.

The phase where we became an integrated firm saw the acquisition of multiple disciplines starting with ODA. All of a sudden, with Paulo Simas, Tom Haan and Matt Dong, we had brought branding and creative capabilities in-house. We were able to work hand-in-hand to achieve the vision and allowed to flex different muscles. It was really fun to play in their world.

Around that same time, we acquired social media and engagement capabilities with Paul Dyer and others. This started our expansion into the digital world in a way we hadn’t done before.  It was an intense period of learning for those of us going through these integrations. And then we just started to build and expand across the country and then London. It was amazing, we were growing at 20 to 30 percent year after year, and that didn’t plateau for sometime. When you’re growing at that rate in revenue and the number of people, it was inherent that the type of work was a lot broader, and there had to be continuous learning and growth.

What would you say was a highlight during all those years?

I must say working with and seeing the evolution of Jim Weiss has been extraordinary. It could be a graphic novel, a TV series – it’s been a wild and wooly trip but always engaging! That’s the nature of working with someone who is super driven, super smart and highly entrepreneurial. I feel fortunate to be a part of his trajectory and to be part of that ride. It’s amazing to see where we’ve come. I came in as employee number six and now we are over four hundred people with offices around the country and in London. That is no small achievement – force of nature type stuff (laughter).

There is a lot of risk. That’s the great thing about Jim too, he is really intuitive and like I said, highly engaged. He’s able to course correct whenever needed and continue in a positive direction. That whole ride has been pretty awesome.

What were examples of difficult but important learning moments?

I’m thinking about situations where you have someone, be it a client or someone from the media or an investor, somebody who is very upset and perhaps putting you on the spot in a way that is really uncomfortable – sometimes maybe even inappropriate. The way that you react to that and handle yourself in the face of that person is really important. I know I’ve been in those heated situations many times. Taking a deep breath in that moment and listening to the words versus that tone of voice, reading between the lines and understanding what the key issue is is very important – then asking the question or making a point to that person. And doing it calmly, that’s definitely a skill worth attaining. And it’s something that I had to learn over the years.

What is a trait that you value that most people often don’t see?

One thing that is probably more of a hard skill is preparation. Someone who is dynamite at that is Jennifer Gottlieb. She will not walk into any client situation without being as prepared as possible – she’s got a process and she is an expert on it. If anyone who has the opportunity to work on new business with her, you should take it. Because you’re going to learn, and she will micro-manage the hell out of it. Turn yourself over to the process and you will learn a lot.

Preparation is something that is very highly valued in our world and it’s not something everyone is necessarily great at – definitely something worth working on.

What would be your advice to junior folks just entering the world of communications?

I would say to build those hard skills, work on your quality of writing, work on your ability to tell a compelling story and to be able to pitch media and audience members. Get experience reaching out to media, be it online or offline. Get into it. It’s going to be uncomfortable at first for most people but you’ll feel so happy you did it. You will learn that it’s not that scary, it’s really about building relationships just like it is anywhere else. But media is a specific headset and a specific type – you have to learn to communicate with them how they like to be communicated with.

Treat agency like finishing school. This is the time for you to practice your skills to learn and grow. I would say jump into the swamp of integrated work and raise your hand for new experiences. At about five or six years at the firm, I did my first advisory meeting, my first drug launch, and there were all these firsts. There is a first time for everything, and you want to experience as much of that possible.

I’ve talked to people and they say that they want to be doing direct to patient and physician communications and want to work on sexy brands and drugs. That’s great, but you really should get the corporate perspective too. People want well-rounded individuals. The great thing about an agency is that you are allowed to build out the base of that pyramid – you can decide you want to specialize later. But get as broad of experience as possible.

The other thing I would say is, particularly on the agency side, there are many opportunities to learn from your colleagues on softer skills, which is more about business acumen and learning to have really difficult conversations with one another and with clients. Those skills are very important and most highly valued by organizations. Their value has less to do with our industry specifically but it’s important that we are working on those.

Talking about advice, what would you say to your 30-year-old self?

When I was 30, I’ve been here for two years, and I was pregnant with my son Owen, who is now nine years old. It’s funny – I’d been in the business by then for about seven years, and I never intended to enter the public relations or communications world. That was an unexpected foray that kinda’ turned into a career, and one that I really enjoy. I think there was a part of me at the age of 30 thinking, is this what I’m meant to be doing? I was pre-med in college and thinking I was going to go back to school for one thing or another. And there’s a part of me that has never been satisfied with where I’m at – my career trajectory. I think what I would say back then is that you’re in the right place; it’s the field for you. It’s the right place, and its actually pretty perfect. You should be confident and don’t worry so much, it’s not going to get you anywhere. Just dig in and have fun, don’t worry about it. It’s amazing what happens when you do that. There is a flow that starts to happen, you know?

As your enter into your new role as CCO at of Verily, what kind of a client will you be when working with an agency?

I want to be a really good partner. I want them to be an extension of my team. Literally, I want to be thought partners. That means they are as deep into the business and at least can see out ahead in terms of where we need to be.

I believe in really transparent direct communications. I have worked with clients with a variety of different styles in terms of keeping some information confidential from their agency partners, versus being more liberal with that information. I always feel like we’re a better partner as an agency when we have access to that information. Often times the information that’s held back is based on ultra conservative philosophy that has neither basis nor any real risk. We are under CDA for that reason and can act as that in-house strategic partner and advisor. I want to build that type of relationship with my agency and they should really feel like an extension of the team.

Anything you absolutely will not do as a client?

What I will not do is be disrespectful to my agency partners – I will treat them how I would like to be treated. That means I will not treat them as a vendor. It’s also understanding that it is a business. They have to be paid – justly and fairly for their time. While conversations could be difficult and while budgets could be difficult, it’s a part of the work relationship and shouldn’t be such a hairball.

I think it’s really simple, follow the golden rule – it’s a really small world and life’s way too short to get into silly fights and burn bridges.

How do you think you’ll feel tomorrow morning?

Well, I do like a certain amount of routine in my life. I moved around a lot growing up, which may be part of the reason why I like being with one company for as long as I have. I do like routine and the banter that I have with the team and the broader W2O team. There is a level of comfort and intimacy with a lot of the people here by virtue of the fact I’ve work with them for so long. I’m going to be leaving all that behind. There is going to be a lot of stuff happening without me, and I won’t know about it. It will be okay, but that’s what’s going to make me sad. And it’ll hit me later! I’ll be watching Finding Dory with Owen and bawling in the theater, and he’s going to think it’s about the movie and obviously it’s not. That’s how I handle sadness – freaking out people in the movie theater (laughter).

What most excites you about your next move?

Well that’s what it’s all about. I’m going to a company whose mission I feel very passionate about. It’s in a space where honestly I feel my skillset fits perfectly with what they need – that I’d be a fool not to give it a go and pursue it. I mentioned this idea of flow earlier. The way that this opportunity came about for me, the nature of the conversations with the team over there, the skillset that I feel I still need to build – all of this synced up in my head. I’m very excited about the work ahead of me with this team and this company.

Like I said, it’s a mission that I feel very strongly about in terms of making healthcare accessible and more affordable to millions of people.

It’s been a true privilege to work with you closely at BrewLife, any parting words for the team?

Don’t screw it up! (Laughter) Look at how amazing BrewLife is, don’t screw it up! And I know you guys won’t. It’s so funny. I’m leaving and on the one hand I feel like I don’t have a succession plan in place, but that’s not really true. I’ve said this before – I feel like I get a lot of credit for the culture here, for professional development, for multiple people on the team. I’m simply amplifying a lot of the ideas that’s brought to me by you, Howie and Nicole and others. The fact of the matter is that you guys are fully capable of running the show, will do a great job and will continue to develop the culture at BrewLife.

I was recently interviewed by David Pembroke, leader of the contentgroup, based in Australia, about Storytizing and what it means for the public sector.  My thoughts, of course, apply to both public and private.  Here is the podcast.

David, by the way, runs a cool weekly podcast, called InTransition, which is dedicated to the practice of content marketing in the public sector. Every week David interviews leading experts in public sector communications from policy makers, to agencies with government clients, to journalists and technical specialists.  Worth a look at what topics he is exploring.

Enjoy!

Interested in learning more about Storytizing? Check out my latest webinar!

With the cost of healthcare on the rise, it’s no surprise that players from across the health ecosystem are coming together to solve some of our biggest problems in terms of ensuring access to the right care at a reasonable price. That’s part of the work that Yousuf Zafar, MD has been focused on for the last several years.

It’s should also be no surprise that as leading thinkers like Dr. Zafar grapple with this thorny problem, that one of the tools fueling his research and spreading the results of his findings lies in YZafarsocial media.

Dr. Zafar is a GI Oncologist at DukeHealth and a health services researcher with a focus in improving care delivery for patients with advanced cancer. He has participated in multiple studies focusing on access to care, cost of care, and comparative effectiveness of care delivery between health systems. His primary area of interest is in the cost of cancer care with a special focus on its patient impact. His current work in this arena is focused on patient preferences regarding cost-related communication and decision-making.

Dr. Zafar was a very early adopter of twitter, having been active on the platform since 2007. “I use other platforms personally, but for professional purposes, twitter is definitely the best tool for me,” he told me in a brief interview yesterday. He’s been identified as one of the “Featured Voices” at the ASCO annual meeting in Chicago (#ASCO16), a good choice – the number of Dr. Zafar’s physician followers on twitter puts him in the 97th percentile of all US oncologists. He has been actively involved in the online backchannel of #ASCO16 this far. Below is a map of the physician-to-physician conversations on the first day of ASCO (June 3) – as you can see, Dr. Zafar’s twitter handle (@yzafar) is quite central to the conversation. [NOTE: Click up the number of nodes on the chart to see the full conversation; it’s even more dramatic when you “zoom out.”

That active involvement has resulted in additional visibility for Dr. Zafar and his work – and bringing increasing attention to the issues around healthcare costs is really important to him. “One of the things that has been great to see at ASCO is that we’ve not only been using social media to help connect physicians to the latest research, but also to help patients relate their own stories and experiences to that research,” says Dr. Zafar. In fact, Dr. Zafar tends to learn as much from patients and their experiences as they do from him. “It’s really tough for a clinician who typically only has a few minutes with a patient to truly understand all of the issues associated with their broader experience of care.” Social media has helped to fill that gap.

In one of Dr. Zafar’s abstracts, he summarizes the situation in a very powerful way:

“Long-term solutions must focus on policy changes to reduce unsustainable drug prices and promote innovative insurance models. In the mean time, patients continue to struggle with high out-of-pocket costs. For more immediate solutions, we should look to the oncologist and patient. Oncologists should focus on the value of care delivered, encourage patient engagement on the topic of costs, and be better educated on financial resources available to patients. For their part, patients need improved cost-related health literacy so they are aware of potential costs and resources, and research should focus on how patients define high-value care. With a growing list of financial side effects induced by cancer treatment, the time has come to intervene on the “financial toxicity” of cancer care.”

– S. Yousuf Zafar, MD (JNCI J Natl Cancer Inst (2016) 108 (5): djv370
doi: 10.1093/jnci/djv370)

That shared responsibility for driving change is very consistent with what we’ve seen in the online health ecosystem – the convergence of health conversations among clinicians, patients, caregivers, policymakers, the media and the industry itself. Our thanks to Dr. Zafar for his great work & for taking the time to talk to us. Be sure to follow him on twitter (@yzafar) and in the media.

For more information about the MDigitalLife Online Health Ecosystem and to download the 2016 Social Oncology Project report, just click below.

TheSocialOncologyReport-Cover-HiRes

Click to Download the 2016 Social Oncology Project Report


Learn more about W2O Group:  About  Work  Contact

Over the last several years, we’ve had the opportunity to study several people in the online health ecosystem who play multiple stakeholder roles (e.g., Patient-Peschattnerhysician or Patient-Journalist). Today I’m featuring one of the rare people who actually plays 3 pivotal roles in the online health ecosystem – Elaine Schattner, MD.

When she was practicing, Elaine was highly respected for her clinical acumen. But she’s also a breast cancer survivor and a noted healthcare journalist (she’s a regular contributor at Forbes, among others). This has given her a truly unique perspective on the way that different populations perceive and interact with the healthcare system – and their own health.

The way that Elaine engages online reflects her multiple perspectives – and her broad interests. During calendar year 2015, she mentioned 1,327 unique twitter handles (including at least 171 doctors, 77 patients, 173 reporters and 134 media outlets). She also shared links to 570 different outlets (including sources as diverse as Medscape, Nature, the New England Journal of Medicine, StatNews.com, Brainpickings.com and PeterUbel.com.)

And her audience is equally diverse. Among her more-than 11,600 followers are at least 1,200 physicians (putting her in the 99th percentile of doctors most followed by her US peers) and remarkably over 1,100 patients, caregivers and patient advocacy groups – more than any other US Oncologist. And it’s not just Elaine’s following that’s particularly strong and diverse; she also engages that audience broadly with the content she shares. During 2015, she was mentioned (or her articles linked to) over 3,600 times by nearly 1,000 people and organizations in the MDigitalLife Online Health Ecosystem database. And those engagements reflect her audience’s diversity as well:

  • 42% from fellow physicians
  • 35% from patients, caregivers and patient advocacy groups
  • 10% from reporters and media outlets
  • 13% from people and organizations in the healthcare industry

It’s a rare individual, physician or not, that can reach an audience of that size, breadth and relevance to the healthcare system. What is it that’s makes Dr. Schattner so successful in building and engaging that audience?

“On social media, as in real life, many people – in their social groups, or among colleagues – tend to nod their heads, to reiterate or rephrase what’s popular, or what they think their employer or network will favor. On twitter, that ends up generating a lot of retweets within groups of like-minded followers. But that kind of chatter doesn’t broaden anyone’s knowledge base; it reinforces silos. It’s neither interesting, nor helpful to science, or health, or anything really. I like to add new ideas to a conversation. Otherwise, what’s the point?”

– Elaine Schattner, MD

SchattnerMostFollowersSnapshot-300x203Dr. Schattner has been particularly impactful in the online conversation about breast cancer. Among the tens of thousands of participants in that conversation from the MDigitalLife Online Health Ecosystem, Dr. Schattner is the 3rd most-followed, behind only USA Today healthcare reporter Liz Szabo (@LizSzabo) and #BCSM twitter chat co-moderator Deanna Attai, MD (@DrAttai) – and followed closely by #BCSM chat co-moderator and breast cancer survivor Alicia Staley (@stales). This is even more intriguing, because Dr. Schattner rarely participates directly in the #BCSM chat – a huge driver of conversation in the breast cancer community.

“I don’t often participate in twitter chats. They provide great value for many people, but don’t fit very well with my preferred mode of engagement. I tend to have more one-on-one or small-group conversations. When things move so quickly – as they do in twitter chats, it’s harder for me to be able to do really get to know people and to understand their perspectives.” – Elaine Schattner, MD

The rise of the social media has completely changed the way that the health ecosystem interacts. As health becomes an increasingly important topic in the 21st century, the ability to connect the stakeholders – all of them – is both valuable and necessary. Led by pioneering bridge-builders like Dr. Elaine Schattner, we can be confident that a shared understanding is both possible and on its way more quickly than we could have imagined.

“I’ve always been the kind of person who speaks her mind. I’m not afraid to say and write what I think, and as an independent journalist I am free to do so. I’m not afraid to challenge the opinions of powerful individuals, including physicians in positions of leadership, journalists and others. People know that about me, and maybe some respect me for doing so. Pretty much everything I say, or share on-line, reflects what I think matters for patients. Some may trust me for that reason, even when they disagree.”

– Elaine Schattner, MD

TheSocialOncologyReport-Cover-HiRes

Click to Download the 2016 Social Oncology Project Report


Learn more about W2O Group:  About  Work  Contact

Advocacy in the age of social oncology is no longer about simply “raising awareness” or boosting funding. According to Samantha Watson, who founded the The Samfund after her own experience as a young adult with cancer, those who are battling cancer, and those who did, are clear that they are looking for community and emotional support as much as they are financial resources.

While the analysis of hashtag communities that provided the backbone of this year’s edition of The Social Oncology Project found that advocates have huge influence in drawing attention to high-quality information resources, Watson’s experience suggests that information-sharing is just the tip of what can be accomplished through online networks.

Watson’s primary goal is providing grants; her group has given nearly $2 million to young adults dealing with cancer-related challenges, from medical care to financial assistance for adoption. But Watson said that the Samfund recognizes that they have a role to play in building online communities, too.

Watson discussed the new realities with us in advance of the ASCO meeting; if you want to carry on the conversation, please seek out Watson’s booth on the expo floor:

Samfund is mostly young adults. Is there a sense that this new generation of survivors is connected differently because of technology?

“Social media makes it much easier to reach people we could never reach via traditional media. Peer-to-peer efforts are critical for our fundraising. We have all of these people who are connected to Samfund, and each of them has online networks, so there is a ripple effect. We can share stories, and it’s amazing to see how so many people share them. We couldn’t do that if we were relying on newsletters and emails.

The online community has been huge. Half of our grantees are part of a private Facebook group. Watching them support each other has been huge. Social media gives them a place to assemble.

There will always be some problems that we, as an organization, can’t help with. But with our network, with our Facebook group, there is always at least one person, often more, who can chime in and say ‘I’ve been there.’”

You’ve written about crowdfunding before. How does that element intersect with this new type of communication?

“Crowdfunding is huge for our community. I was treated before social media, but an earlier version of crowdfunding helped me. It was totally lifesaving. When someone you know goes through an illness, the impulse is to ask what you can do to help. But for people who are far away, there hasn’t always been a good answer to the question ‘what can I do?’ That’s changing.

We still have to deal with how uncomfortable asking for money makes people. But that isn’t something that the young adult with cancer has to deal with. Setting up a campaign for someone is a great way for friends or family to help out.”

Are there drawbacks? Does building a national—but virtual—network isolate in its own way?

“We’ve tried really hard to get the best of both worlds. It’s important to have real-world experiences. But having a connection even with those far away is important, too. For someone who is skipping their meds and is geographically isolated, finding a community online is critical. We keep our eye on that a lot.”

What online resources have you or your grantees been able to tap into?

“We send every grantee all of our resources: our webpage and the private Facebook group and Instagram and Twitter. And we ask our grantees to help us out by sharing. We learned at our recent meeting for ‘Sambassadors’ that that is what is most important. In talking to them about what we do, no one mentioned the $1.6 million we’ve given out in grants. Instead, what they kept talking about was feeling hopeful again and feeling confident again, and how that came from being a part of a community.”

Download The Social Oncology Project 2016 here.

As I mentioned in my kickoff post, we are hosting a series of blog interviews pre and post SXSW with speakers from our PreCommerce Summit (March 10) and Movers & Shapers Summit (March 12). Today’s interview is with the Kyle Flaherty, VP of Solutions Marketing at security company, Rapid7. Kyle spoke yesterday on the topic why marketers are easy targets for cyber security breaches. To say that it was eye-opening would be an understatement.a - KyleFlaherty

Before we jump into our interview, here’s a little bit more about Kyle. According to LinkedIn, Kyle is a “technology marketing executive [who has] worked with early-stage startups to $1 billion+ high-growth companies changing the worlds of big data, IoT, BYOD, SaaS, open source software, network security, fraud detection, data analytics, marketing automation, and network management. Known for launching high profile technology startups, with four successful exits, [his] passion is to not only message technology and brand an organization, but build award-winning marketing teams that work in lock-step to rapidly produce marketing campaigns that drive measurable results to impact the bottom line.

Now on to the interview:

  1. Aaron: How do you define innovation?
    Kyle: The word innovation is so overused it’s makes me nauseous to even think about the definition. Honestly we must start to think way beyond innovation and start thinking about technology aiding human life; what I call human-driven alteration (well I didn’t invent the words, just the use). For two decades we’ve seen a rise in ‘innovation for innovation’, with technology being spit out that does pointless things like order us more Amazon boxes via a mysterious cylinder cone in the corner of our house. That’s not what I call innovation, it’s laziness masked as technology. The next few years will see a good healthy dose of closure around pointless and directionless innovation, instead a focus will be held on pragmatic uses for technology that will actually make us more secure, our earth cleaner, and our bodies more healthy. That’s what I call alteration.
  2. Aaron: What are you or your organization doing to drive innovation?
    Kyle: Working in security the past two decades I’ve seen my fair share of “innovative” introductions and great new technologies. Yet we are now in an era where we are more insecure than ever. We have all been hit by data breaches, and if you think you haven’t it’s simply because you don’t know yet. One of the reasons is that our industry often times focused from the outside in, building a stronger or smarter firewall, rather than helping to amplify the talents of security pros to make them smarter or more talented — because we all know the attackers can get past the preventive security solutions. I recently joined Rapid7 because they have a vision of creating products that have the human-being in mind, not simply the bits and bytes. Our entire mission is to build technology that restores confidence and control back to the security team, and ultimately back to the business.
  3. Aaron: Who is someone in your industry (or outside) that you admire? Why?
    Kyle: Jennifer Leggio, a mutual friend of ours. Fortunately I met “Mediaphyter” many moons ago when she just happened to sit in on a webcast I was doing for a PR agency about this new-fangled technology called Twitter. Ever since that time we’ve crossed paths and have even been able to do some work together in the security industry. Jen is a rock star in our community and has taught me that it’s not enough to just know marketing, you have to understand the community that makes up security because not only is it truly unique, it will feed your soul. I consider myself blessed to have her as a contemporary and a friend.
  4. Aaron: Where do you see your industry being in 3 years? 5? 10?
    Kyle: In the next few years the security industry will begin to understand that we can no longer prevent attacks, and thus the era of rapid detection, fed by user behavior analytics, will take hold. As we move into the 5 to 10 year frame we will actually see the security teams begin to better mesh with their contemporaries in IT as they understand their shared resource of the data that courses thorough their company and the ability to harness it so that security becomes only necessary for incident response, and IT is now handling the rest. That would be a monumental achievement if it can happen.
  5. What book are you reading right now? How did you choose it?
    Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ by Giulia Enders. I’m trying to better understand the effect different foods have in my body, not only so that I’m not a big lard ass, but also how it changes my moods, triggers my Psoriasis and arthritis, and more. It’s a fascinating, and often times disgusting, read.
  6. For fun: what three things would you make sure you brought with you in a zombie apocalypse?
    Kyle: Chuck Hemann, Pops, and a bottle of great bourbon.

Thank you Kyle. Good choices for the zombie apocalypse. I’ve heard that that Pops is a really zombie killer.

Austin means music, tacos, and innovative new ideas (AKA “weird”), and our SXW2O events definitely incorporate all of these. But when it comes to great local music in particular, our Austin office employees are passionate fans. To make the perfect local playlist, we asked these local music experts to curate their favorite tracks from Austin artists.

spotifyCheck out the Geekaque playlist on Spotify here.

 

We’re also beyond excited about our 2016 SXW2O artists (some local, all awesome) we’ve lined up for our events:

  • At our annual PreCommerce Summit Reception, we were lucky enough to hear some mellow tunes from The Autumn Defense, a side project for WILCO band members Pat Sansone and John Stirratt. Thanks to our premier sponsor Bayer for bringing them down to Austin!
  • Texas’s “original recession era string band” Hot Nut Riveters provided some Southern Hospitality at our Digital Brunch, led by Guy Forsyth.
  • We’re especially excited for tonight’s Geekacue lineup featuring Black Pistol Fire and Red Bull Select band Not in the Face, both of which cnall Austin home. Email info@w2ogroup.com for an invitation!
  •  lionelLionel Menchaca – Director, Corporate & Strategy
    Artist: Willie Nelson, Song: Whiskey River
  • How long have you lived in Austin? Hard to believe, but I’ve been here just over 25 years.
  • What is your role at W2O? I work with our team to help clients implement digital tools in everything from internal communication and collaboration, external communication and issues management, and how to empower employees through advocacy programs.
  • Why did you pick this song/artist for our playlist? It’s Willie. He’s a Texas legend who calls Austin home. I chose that song because it’s the one that makes me think of Willie more than any other. There’s a reason why he uses it to start the set of his live shows.
  • #WhyAustin? So many reasons. The great live music scene, the cool outdoor options, great events like SXSW, Austin City Limits Music Festival, the food: Franklin, La Barbecue, Fonda San Miguel to name a few favorites, and the people.
  • Favorite Taco: Hard to list a favorite, but Taco Deli is my go to place for tacos. Hard to go wrong there.

darron

Darron Davis – Art Director
Artist: Shapes Have Fangs, Song: Dinner in the Dark

  • How long have you lived in Austin? 9 years
  • Why did you pick this song/artist for our playlist?: This album reminds me of the time I volunteered for SXSW in 2010. I saw them play at a tiny venue on Red River called Beerland. They were insanely loud and enjoyable.
  • #WhyAustin? Austin is a progressive city where you can still carry a pocket knife without getting side-eyed.
  • Favorite Taco: The Smoked Brisket Taco at Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ

angieAngie Gette, Senior Director Strategy & Insights
Artist: Wood & Wire, Song: Anne Marie

  • How long have you lived in Austin?: 8.5 years
  • Why did you pick this song/artist for our playlist?: Tons of energy and pure folk spirit.  Love seeing this band live. Check them out!
  • Favorite Taco: Migas from Veracruz- can’t believe how good they are!

colleenColleen Hartman, Group Director, Social Commerce
Artist: Tameca Jones, Song: Hot and Bothered

  • #WhyAustin? For me personally? As a child, I spent a lot of time each summer with my grandparents in Dallas. They took me all over Texas and loved the unique culture. After living many places in my adult life including a stop in Waco home to Baylor University, my family unanimously wanted to move to Austin. As a then W2O client, when the opportunity came to join the agency, I was thrilled especially with the opportunity to move to Austin. The rest is history with my new “forever hometown.”
  • Favorite Taco: The steak taco from Veracruz All Natural’s food truck. It’s hard to eat other tacos once you’ve had anything from Austin’s best taco spot. (Migas and fish tacos are amazing too.)                                                                                                                    

bob pearson___
Bob Pearson, President, W2O Group
Artist: Black Pistol Fire,  Song:  Suffocation Blues

  • How long have you lived in Austin? We’ve lived here for ten years. I told my daughters when we moved here that when we reached ten years, we could start to call ourselves Texans.  In our case, we say we’re “Jersey Texans”, a rare breed.
  • What is your role at W2O? I spend most of my time with clients discussing what is important to their business or working with our teams to talk through how we build or refine our models. The role is President, W2O Group. My mission is to ensure our clients build unique advantage and succeed and our team members at W2O learn and grow professionally every day.
  • Why did you pick this song/artist for our playlist? Black Pistol Fire is symbolic of Austin. Originally from Toronto, now splitting time between Canada and Austin.  Austin just has a magnetic draw for innovators to head down here and never leave.  And, I love rock ‘n roll and these guys know how to have some fun.
  • #WhyAustin? I came here to work at Dell and our family fell in love with Austin. I love how supportive the community is of each other, whether you are an entrepreneur or you have fallen on hard times.  Austin is a city with a soul.
  • Favorite Taco: There is a small stand one block from our office behind a building that has amazing breakfast tacos. Few know it is there. Small stand. One woman who runs it. Amazing tacos and the hottest sauces around.

Out of all the great speakers that took part in W2O Group’s 2016, PreCommerce Summit, the fireside chat between Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive Festival and NewCo CEO John Battelle was one that I personally was most excited to hear about. Though it’s huge now, it didn’t start that way. Beginning a few years ago, it surpassed the music festival in terms of attendees—a trend that continues in 2015 and probably beyond.

Hearing the humble beginnings (Interactive started as the SXSW Multimedia festival in 1994… anyone rememeber CD-ROMs? Heh!) from Hugh’s perspective to what it’s grown into now (Hugh expects about 35,000 will attend Interactive this year) was worth the wait in my book. He covers a lot of the history and the evolution of the festival. And maybe next year we can expect a single ticket for all SXSW? And BTW, Mr. Robot fans can check out the Ferris wheel(!) on 4th and Congress.

If you want to watch John’s interview of Hugh, tune into the #SXW2O livestream at just about the 7 hour 40 minute mark.

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Here’s an edited summary of the Q&A between John and Hugh.

Q: When was the first year of SXSW Interactive?

A: The Music part started in 1987. In 1994, we added SXSW Multimedia because we thought multimedia was the future back then. With CD-ROMs, there was a lot of potential there, wasn’t there? 🙂

Q: In 1994, how many people attended?

A: That first year, we combined it with the Film part, so it was SXSW Film and Multimedia. If you counted all the volunteers, we had about 1,000 attendees combined. We thought at the time it was a good first showing. After that, we split it into two separate events, one for Film and the other for Multimedia. In the startup world you have concept known as the Valley of Death. For startups that survive, it’s usually a period of  about a year to 18 months. We had about a 10-year Valley of Death, where we were really struggling to find our voice, to find our market to understand what we were doing. The reason we survived during that 10 years was  of the success of the SXSW Music event. It was paying the bills during that time. If we’d have been a standalone event, we would not have survived that difficult period.

Q: During that period, did you have a lot of difficult meetings where people thought. Maybe this multimedia thing isn’t working. Did they ever think: maybe we should just stop doing it?

A: Many things keep me humble. This was one of them. I remember an above the banner headline in the Austin American Statesman from 1998 that was something like “Excitement Coming to Austin: Music, Film, Rodeo, Multimedia!” No disrespect to the Austin Rodeo, it’s a cool event. But we were slightly below that. In terms of meetings, it was more me wondering to my boss, why are we doing this Multimedia thing? It doesn’t make any sense. We can’t find our audience. The Music festival brings the rockstars from all over the world. We’ve got this film event that brings in movie stars, and all I’ve got is a bunch of geeks.

Q: When did it tip?

A: Certainly the biggest tipping point was 2007 with Twitter. But, we started to see a little bit of an uptick in growth in 2004. A keynote speaker that year was a guy named Jonathan Abrams from Friendster.  I had seen him on a late night TV show, and I thought this guys kind of interesting, let’s try to get him for SXSW. He turned out to offend about half the audience. That’s a common theme in many of our keynotes.

John: I remember in the early keynotes, those people in the audience were really quick to tell you if they weren’t pleased with what you were saying.

Hugh: Are you saying that from personal experience?

John: I’m saying it from watching it happen to someone I interviewed onstage. I don’t remember all the specifics, but that person answered a question and got hisses and jeers from the audience.

Hugh: It’s a tough crowd, not like this one… Jonathan’s keynote in 2004… when he offended some people here coincidentally or not, that was about when Friendster hit it’s peak uaage in the US. I think it is still popular in Asia. But that was our first real foray into social media. Who could have known in 2004? I mean, in retrospect it makes sense, but we didn’t know back then that social media was going to be such a big deal, so much a part of our lives. Many things contributed to our eventual growth after 10 years of non-growth. I would say that startups and social media are two of the biggest things. Again, particularly Twitter in 2007 [was the big turning point]. The irony of the Twitter story is Ev and Biz have always credited SXSW as the place they launched, but the fact is they actually launched about 6 months earlier. Thanks to both of them for that.

John: I know I wasn’t there that year, but I was following what was going on, somehow, before Twitter… maybe e-mail. Everyone was talking about Twitter. I knew it, because I knew Ev, but it became a big deal here…

Hugh: Yes.

Q: So, how many people are copmong this year

A: Probably about 35,000 total.

John: So about 35x growth, with most of it coming in the last 10 years?

Hugh: We were lucky enough to experience a hockey-stick level growth from about 2004 – 2014. It leveled off at that point simply because we really hit capacity in Austin. There were some years where the growth numbers were crazy. On the one hand you’re happy after not growing, after struggling so much for so many years. But it’s just as mystifying [to think] why are we growing now when we couldn’t grow before?  Now, it’s the challenges of growth, of scale, of trying to retain the user experience that helped growth is very significant in and of itself.

Q: What year did the marketers show up?

A: You should ask these guys in the crowd… they’re the ones who know.

Q: The startups obviously caught on at some point. Was there a tip to that piece?

A: There wasn’t a Twitter-like tip there, but again, Twitter just changed things so much for us. More startups wanted to come to SXSW to be like Twitter, more venture capitalists came looking got the next Twitter. Branding and Marketing people wanted to come to discover the next big thing before their competitors did. Twitter was 2007. 2009 was Gowalla… remember them? And 4square actually launching the same day at SXSW.

John: Yeah, it was like a duel for the location-based services with the local favorite, less highly-funded Gowalla.

Hugh: Right. And Gowalla is in the digital graveyard at this point. What’s interesting here and even going back last year to Meerkat is the products, apps, services, startups that get the most buzz out of SXSW are the ones that help people digest SXSW. Twitter got so much use because people used it to find which parties their friends were going to, where they were eating breakfast or lunch, what panels they were going to… it helped the crowd digest a large event. Same thing with 4square and Gowalla… and Meerkat. You can broadcast you’re in a session that’s great or horrible. It’s simple, but it can be complex. If you want the most buzz at SXSW, figure out something that helps people better digest the event.

Q: Do you see anything this year that is an emerging possibility to break out the way those did?

A: It’s interesting on the eve of their one year success at SXSW, that Meerkat announced that they were pivoting, essentially changing direction, changing business models. Facebook Live is certainly doing a big push here, and it’s essentially an updating of that type of app. Again, we’re seeing more functionality with mobile devices that take advantage of increased broadband in terms of personal broadcasting. I think that if something breaks out, it could be that. We were surprised as anyone that Meerkat got so much buzz at SXSW. It was a perfect storm for them. I remember the Apple Watch press conference had been on Monday before SXSW. People were using it there, it got featured on Product Hunt. It had some buzz going into the event. It kind of broke all the rules that we thought had become rules in the sense that it didn’t have a whole lot of money, was a relatively small startup, and all the sudden it got huge traction out of the event. The common wisdom at that point was that SXSW had grown so big… to rise above the noise you have to have a huge budget, it’s impossible to do. But again, something that hits that sweet spot that helps registrants better absorb, digest or discover the event is what popped. Who knows if that will happen this year?

Q: How has Interactive grown compared to Film and Music and is it the muscle that’s driving the business as much as Music was before?

A; Interactive is the biggest industry portion of the event in terms of people buying badges. The tables have turned around from 15 years ago. Part of that growth came from people who were buying badges for Music started buying badges for Interactive to understand how they could navigate the change in the [music] content industry. Over the last 15 years, geeks have become the rock stars. That narrative of Mark Zuckerberg dropping out of Harvard, creating a startup, getting crazy rich… that so much powers the startup ecosystem, the startup mindset of people much younger than us doing cool stuff out there.

Q: Has Interactive has kind of consumed the film and entertainment industry?

Hugh: Is this your Marc Andreessen moment where you say software is eating the world?

Q: I notice you have a Convergence Track where you’re sewing the two together. So people who have both (Film and Interactive) badges can go to both?

A: Yes. We have more and more convergence stuff that tries to bring these industries together. The idea being that 25 years ago,  it was easy to tell the difference between Music and Film, and this weird thing called Multimedia. Now, years later it is all so interwoven and blended together. We argue, discuss converse within our staff: if you have a session about a YouTube or Vine star. Is that Interactive because they’re using technology? No it’s film because they are the film stars of 2016. Or it’s Music a song that way. These lines are completely blurred at this point.

Q: Will it come to the point that you just sell one ticket to the whole deal?

A: That’s a pretty good idea, John.

Q: So will we hear about that more next year?

A: I’m saying there’s a lot of good ideas that come out of this event on March 10 right?

Q: What lessons do you have for marketers or brands who are looking to make the most at SXSW?

A: We’ve seen lots of interesting, crazy, fun, weird promotions at SXSW over the years. This year it’s the Ferris Wheel on 4th and Congress creating the buzz. But the things that will create the most buzz with this audience. the visual trend setters, the forward thinkers, the people with huge social media followings  are things that help people better absorb the event. We’ve been lucky to have automobile sponsors like Chevy and Mazda. The thing they do best? Provide rides to people. That solves a problem for people since it’s so difficult to get around. The program was called Catch a Chevy and they provided free rides to people. That’s where they got the most buzz out of the event.

Q: Without naming names, I’ve seen some [brand] activations that seem a bit off… do you or a team approve how marketers get to activate?

A: We’ve taking a much more active role here.. in the wake of some activations that weren’t quite right.

John: Can you give us examples?

Hugh: No, there are too many people tweeting in here. I don’t want to do that. But we do try to give brands guidelines to help them be successful here. As the event has gotten bigger, we know there is more noise. Now, rising above that noise is always a challenge. It’s harder and harder for a brand or startup like Meerkat to gain traction. A story that I still love is that when foursquare launched when we thought location-based apps were the next big thing, the promotion that Dennis Crowley did was he drew a four square with a piece of chalk outside the Convention Center. He was playing foursquare with people.  I mean you’re playing four square with the founder of foursquare. It wasn’t reaching huge numbers of people, but it was reaching people who could create buzz about it. It’s harder to do that now since we are more strict about brands using chalk on the sidewalk, but…

John: Admit it. This year, you would have kicked Dennis off the sidewalk.

Hugh: I like Dennis. I wouldn’t kick him off. Maybe others.

Q: What people find most valuable are the vast number of get-togethers that happen all over town. So much good stuff. What’s your point of view? Is there an official view toward the unofficial side of SXSW?

A: We are much more aggressive in terms of trying to control unofficial events. That’s mainly due to safety, since we take safety more seriously than some of the pop-up events do. As organizers, we try to bring those unofficial things in. But, most attendees can’t tell the difference between what’s official or unofficial. Attendees know, I went to Austin, had a great time at SXSW, went to a party, met great people, I made connections, I got business opportunities out of it, it was a worthwhile experience. It’ s a cops and robbers game. As soon as we bring them in, other unofficial things come up.

Q: SXSW really lights up the city.

A: It does take over the city. That’s a good thing for a lot of people. But lots of people don’t like this week because it’s a huge traffic disruption. For many years, some will tell me, “I’m not a huge fan of SXSW, but I rent my place out via Airbnb that week, so you paid for my vacation. There’s a thriving under-the-radar economy there.

Q: Lastly, tell us the story about President Obama speaking here:

A: We have been working, cultivated relationships in the White House, particularly in the Obama administration, for many, many years. There have been speakers from the White House who have participated in panels, other speakers who’ve moved onto the White House. We’ve had pretty strong context there. There has been interest in previous years, but the timing didn’t quite work out. This year it did work out… I will say that the White House was very easy to work with throughout this process. There was very positive conversations. It wasn’t confirmed until we announced it last week, so we were sweating it out. I’ve said before that in the State of the Union address in January this year, the president mentioned Austin, at one point, while talking about startups.

Q: What’s President Obama going to talk about?

A: He’s going to talk about 21st century civic engagement. That geeks should go to Washington D.C., help reinvent government, help make it more efficient and effective. I think it’s a really good message for SXSW. We’ve pushed community good social causes for a while, and this fits well into that. That said, we also know a lot of the audience isn’t particularly political and believes that the government doesn’t understand technology all that well. They’ll be somewhat skeptical of this message.

Questions from the audience:

Jessica Federer, Global Head of Comms and PR Bayer Healthcare Animal Health:

Question for John: Are we going to ever see NewCo Austin together with SXSW?

A: We avoided SXSW. I’ll tell a story. I thought in 2007 or 2008, I noticed marketers were coming to SXSW when I was with Federated Media and we were doing events. One of them was called Signal. I actually called it Signal SXSW. Big mistake. I had Marissa Mayer come and asked other people to come a day early. It was kind of like the PreCommerce Summit. I reached out to Hugh. We worked it out. I changed the name to Signal Austin. Ever since that time I was one of the unofficial events and I was making such a bad mistake… Fortunately, I got pulled into the tent. From that point on I made sure I got Hugh’s permission and that I didn’t schedule anything around SXSW. Now, NewCo Austin will happen in July.

Rohit Bharghava, CEO & Founder, Influential Marketing Group

Question for Hugh: With so much activity in terms of content sessions, are you looking at the TED kind of model of making video stream recordings available?

A: We do record audio of the sessions and make them available as podcasts after the event. We’re doing more with livestreaming. TED is this finely curated meal. And that’s wonderful. [SXSW] is a 24-hour all-you can eat buffet, and that’s wonderful at times too. Presentations and panels are great, but ultimately what people come to events to meet other people, make connections, have face-to-face conversations that happen outside the panels, at the bar, happy hour. Panels are just the hook to get people in and to market the thing.

As I mentioned in my kickoff post, we will host a series of blog interviews over the next two weeks with speakers from our upcoming PreCommerce Summit (March 10) and Movers & Shapers Summit (March 12). Today’s interview is with the Associate Director of the Borlaug Institute, Julie Borlaug. Julie will be part of a panel called “Future of…” at our PreCommerce Summit on Thursday, March 10.a - JulieBorlaug

A little bit about Julie… She is the granddaughter of Nobel Peace prize laureate and father of the Green Revolution Dr. Norman Borlaug. She is an advocate for innovation and technology with an eye toward ending hunger and poverty. She takes pride in continuing the Borlaug legacy and strives to inspire next generation Fighters.

Now onto the interview:

  1. Aaron: How do you define innovation?
    Julie: I believe innovation is the constant desire to create better systems. The more out-of-the–box and creative the better.
  2. Aaron: What are you or your organization doing to drive innovation?
    Julie: Personally, I am advocate for the agriculture sector and speak often about the need to drive innovation as well as support and fund it. Educating a public far removed from agriculture is a priority in order to gain their acceptance and understanding.
    In regards, to the Borlaug Institute, we are fortunate to take the best research and technology from Texas A&M, as well as our private and public sector partners and create self-sustaining projects in developing countries to further their agriculture systems. We work both with high-tech and low-tech innovations.
  3. Aaron: Who is someone in your industry (or outside) that you admire? Why?
    Julie: Of course, I will always admire my grandfather for his passion & never-ending fight to end hunger and poverty through agriculture and innovation. Additionally, Bill and Melinda Gates. I realize you asked for only one but I do not think you can mention one without the other. Because of their commitment to agriculture, the public, governments and other foundations are finally recognizing the important role agriculture plays in creating stable, healthy, educated and food secure societies.
  4. Aaron: Where do you see your industry being in 3 years? 5? 10?
    I hope that agriculture will not have to continue to fight the uphill battle against the anti-innovation & anti-science movement. This anti- backlash has blocked critical innovation from reaching those most in need. Innovation in all sectors is a must including agriculture. It helps create more sustainable & resilient farming systems, and a safer more nutritious food supply.
    Additionally, we will see more start-ups and young people involved in agriculture and high tech/data science that will help create a more sustainable system. Synthetic biology will be accepted without the concerns surrounding GMOS.
  5. Aaron: What book are you reading right now? How did you choose it?
    Julie: I am reading an advanced copy of Roger Thurow’s Frist 1,000 Days: A Crucial Time for Mothers and Children – And the World. It’s the 3rd book in a series in which Roger explains the complexities of national and international agriculture and the flight of small-holders farmers. These are compelling books that everyone wanting to understand agriculture and why it is so critical need to read.
  6. For fun: what three things would you make sure you brought with you in a zombie apocalypse?
    Julie: I would just bring Chuck Norris.

Thank you Julie. And maybe the best answer yet on what to bring to the zombie apocalypse. We look forward to hearing more from you on the future of agriculture at our PreCommerce Summit.