- Larry Stevens
Coffee Talk With Barista Media - Issue #1
Barista Media Newsletter
Monday, May 20, 2019
COFFEE TALK WITH: JONATHAN ROSOFF, CEO OF FORMATIVE
“I believe strongly in the power of social and digital media for brand building.”
- Jonathan Rosoff, Formative
Jonathan Rosoff is the Founder and Executive Officer at Formative, a Seattle-based strategy and digital marketing agency. This company has worked with Microsoft in reshaping the stigma around AI, The Gates Foundation on influencer activation for global health initiatives, and Malaria No More in redesigning their website to more effectively drive advocacy, among many other organizations. Barista Media sat down with Rosoffto discuss his career path, his daily routine, and the media industry as a whole.
Q.Given that most people who work in the media business don't have a degree specifically related to what they do, how did you end up falling into a media/marketing career?
A.Well, for me it was about the opportunity to use ‘hard’ analytical skills in creative and interesting ways. I started my career in economic consulting and then got an MBA with a concentration in marketing. The thing I loved in both of these contexts was learning about human behavior and how to use insights to deliver data-driven recommendations. Then I took a ‘left turn’ and went into consulting at an investment bank. It was a great job, with a top-tier company, with a ton of upside potential…for someone else.
After a few years, I realized that I needed to focus on marketing, and applied for a role at Digitas. At the time it was a direct marketing organization with the pithy moniker, ‘Bronner, Slosberg, Humphrey,’ that had a fledgling digital appendage called the Strategic Interactive Group. They were doing weird and interesting things in digital media, design and development, and needed someone who could analyze programs and recommend new approaches, and I was hooked.
Q.Tell me about your company and the work you do. When did you start it and why? How has your vision for your company changed since you launched it? What's one unique trait that has made your company successful?
A.Formative is a strategic marketing agency that develops programs and campaigns for organizations in the social impact sector. We work with the Gates Foundation, Gates Ventures, Microsoft’s Policy organization, Vulcan, and a number of other Foundations, NGOs, not-for-profits and purpose-driven brands in global health, global development, public health, education and technology policy.
I founded the company in 2013 with the idea that we could bring deep digital marketing skills to both private and public/social sector organizations. My partners and I were always interested in serving social impact organizations, but weren’t sure we could sustain a business with this as our sole focus. Over time, we learned that this work can be both rewarding and scalable, and focused our efforts exclusively in this arena. This focus has been key to our success. It guides our business development efforts, hiring, learning and knowledge management priorities, partnerships, product and service offering, and operations, including plans for geographic expansion.
Q.In hiring people for your company, do you rely more on experience or on your gut? We've grappled over this for years and managers/leaders pride themselves on relying on their gut, but is there something to this?
A.I think they’re very much related. Your gut is based on experience, and I do think there’s a lot of value in listening to your gut. But I also try to be careful about how I do this, because my gut belongs to a 50-year-old white guy, and that can lead to a narrower perspective on candidates. One of the values in our company centers around ‘productive debate.’ That’s how we get to good answers for our clients, and it’s how we come up with new and interesting ideas. This requires diversity of opinion, experience, and perspective, and a willingness to speak out about what you think or believe. So I try to find people whom my gut says are a good ‘cultural fit’, who are clearly able to solve hard problems, and who have the right sets of experience. But I also want different people at Formative who look and think differently from me, to weigh in. I want their ‘gut’ on people as well.
Q.Given the immense amount of automation already in place with digital, which seems to be migrating towards other media, what does that mean for creative agencies and companies looking to help achieve their clients' marketing objectives?
A.Consolidation of media options to a few, mature ad platforms — FB, Google, Amazon — and growth of programmatic buying across publishers forces agencies to specialize and rethink their value propositions for clients. This trend will only accelerate as automated offerings -- like AI-driven services that segment audiences or identify elements of ads and change imagery and messaging on the fly to align with different demographic or ethnic target segments. -- begin to replace basic services from media and creative production agencies. So agencies and organizations need to adapt, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
Many have already moved to more sustainable propositions. Some have developed deep expertise and partnerships with platform players like Amazon or Google that allow them to drive results for their clients. Others increasingly focus on more strategic uses of media to engage audiences. For example, we’ve used highly targeted, geofenced or geo-targeted digital media to drive audiences to client locations or to enhance experiences within locations that move them down the purchase funnel. We also regularly partner with news outlets and niche publishers for deeper content integrations, storytelling, and access to highly targeted lists of influencers or other hard-to-reach audiences for more impactful programs.
And, more than ever, those that focus on insight-driven creative concepts have the power to build business and create emotional and rational connections with audiences. Much of this is predicated on data, and the associated power to target and personalize content. This too remains a critical differentiator for many agencies. So while the days of relying on scale and market power are dwindling, there are still substantial opportunities for smart agencies to do great work and deliver outsized results for their clients.
Q.Do you use social media to promote your personal brand? Do you think it's an effective way to promote yourself? If so, can you tell me about a person that has utilized social media effectively in order to move their career in a positive direction?
A.I believe strongly in the power of social and digital media for brand building. At Formative, we build brands for executives at some of the largest, most sophisticated companies and organizations in the world using social channels. In many cases, this serves a dual purpose; it helps build a brand presence for the specific individuals we serve, and it drives a policy agenda or changes perceptions of engaged audiences on topics that they and their organizations care about.
For example, our team works with leaders who care deeply about the ethical uses of technology and equity in access to education for women and girls around the world. We develop strategic plans, develop short-and-long-form content for them, and execute on channel plans that help drive the changes they want to see in the world on these topics. Not surprisingly, these executives tend to be thoughtful about their objectives for social media, and we help them tease out different objectives for different social channels that align with functional capabilities and audiences.
On a more micro-level, I meet with a group of other agency CEOs on a quarterly basis, many of whom use social media channels – primarily LinkedIn and Twitter – to raise their profiles and generate business leads for their companies. I do little in this arena, and need to do better!
Q.What's the biggest challenge you face on a daily basis with regard to the media industry and how it works? How are things different now from when you first started the company?
A.Fraud, fraud, fraud. From bots that create fake email signups (thank you recaptcha!), to incentive seekers acquired through mass channels and remnant inventory buys that try to game campaigns and programs, to fake content that calls into question all content, even well-crafted articles, fraud has become the bane of the industry. This has grown dramatically over the past decade and will continue to be a major challenge for all industry players.
Another big challenge that goes back a while is the issue of ‘walled gardens’ around media data. The largest publisher platforms have proprietary ad serving platforms that function well within their respective platforms, but not across. During the first decade of digital media, third party ad serving platforms enabled advertisers to have a common view of a browser across publishers and websites. While not a simple task, it was possible to associate media exposures across publishers, to websites and channels. Advertisers could not only deliver personalized and consistent messaging across publishers, but could also make media optimization decisions to shift dollars towards the publishers and placements that worked. That’s a lot harder now.
Q.What book, blog, podcast, or streaming media are you enjoying right now?
A.Just finished Bad Blood, the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s a compelling story, very well told, with broad implications for how we think about ethics in technology and entrepreneurship. It’s damning, and calls into question the culture of Silicon Valley and the surrounding ecosystem.
Q.How do you get industry news on a daily or weekly basis? What regular reading, if any, would you recommend for industry insights?
A.I read multiple feeds every morning that range from news cycle content, sector updates in Global Health, Development, Education, and Technology, and specialized industry pubs. These include the NYT, WSJ, The Economist, Recode, Geekwire, Devex, Politico, Chronicle of Philanthropy, AdAge, EdWeek, and others. I’m also an avid listener to NPR…is ‘Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me’ industry news?
Q.What draws you to the media industry? What do you love about your work? What would you like to see happen in the industry or in your company in the next five years?
A.For me, the media industry is a mechanism to have a real impact in the sectors I care about. It’s a way of creating momentum and amplifying content on topics that matter. And it’s evolving quickly, which presents new opportunities for savvy marketers
In the future, I’d like to see substantially easier and better ways of tying together customer information across channels and devices, as discussed above. It’s also imperative we as an industry work with policymakers, regulators and innovative companies to come up with better solutions around data security. We need stronger governance, better tools and increased transparency for consumers, who are losing trust in brands and data platforms.
Q.Now for a personal question. How do you take your coffee and what's the best dish you like to pair it with?
A.Double short Americano with room: one sugar, half & half. COOKIE!