A sea change is happening in the dynamic between ad agencies and brands. As more creative content is going on the Web and becoming an integral part of brands’ identities, companies are bringing creative minds in house.
Some experts say that this is an inevitable part of the shift wherein brands are becoming publishers. Others say that the balance between in-house teams and outside creative agencies is a delicate and necessary one. Either way, many top brands are rethinking their strategy.
Enter Andy Goldberg, the first chief creative officer at Fairfield, Connecticut -based General Electric Co. (GE). He runs GE’s Creative Lab, a department of marketers with the creative license to experiment with new media projects, including a new TV show created for the National Geographic Channel called Breakthrough!, and a serialized, fictional podcast called The Message. Created in partnership with the Slate Group, the podcast was the third most popular podcast on iTunes by its second weekly installment. Goldberg’s GE commercials include “Childlike Imagination,” which was nominated for an Emmy award for outstanding commercial in 2014. Other commercials made under his direction include “The Boy Who Beeps” and the “Owen” series.
According to Goldberg, the decision to move him from the agency side at Weiden + Kennedy to the brand’s in-house team, and then swiftly move him up to the chief creative officer position, was confirmation that GE is putting more and more emphasis on not just creative works but brand cohesion. Goldberg sat down with Marketing News to talk about how the creative process is changing for global marketing teams, and how thinking of campaigns in terms of B-to-B or B-to-C is quickly becoming outdated.
What led you to marketing?
I majored in marketing, and right out of school, advertising was where I wanted to focus my efforts. I started at a small firm in New York City and was there for almost nine years. It allowed me to get into a lot of different businesses at once. When you’re on the agency side, you learn a lot of other people’s business and because it was a small agency, I had the opportunity to work on a number of the businesses at the same time. I wasn’t stuck on one account for three years. I worked on everything from financial services to the NFL to Godiva chocolate—you name it, it was part of the mix. It was exciting and different. I spent a lot of time with the creatives there, learning production and working with them more than any other account people, but I was also able to learn the business side of how things work.
From there I went to BBH, which is a great international agency. It was sort of a great time at BBH because when I got there they were just rolling out one of the first epic viral videos, “Tea Partay,” for Smirnoff Spiked Tea. It was incredible to be around that and soak it in.
Then I went to Wieden + Kennedy in New York, then from there went on to be director of product services at a small experiential shop, and that was like an opportunity to run an agency, to be in management. And the past five years have been at GE.
I came into GE as director of creative content. About a year and a half in—and this is where it gets interesting because the rest of my experience was pretty standard agency stuff—I began really working with [GE’s CMO] Beth Comstock and BBDO, our ad agency, defining what our positioning would be going forward, taking a really strategic role in developing what at the time we called GE Works, doing documentary style work and ad work. … After about a year of really working that and coming up with new ideas and evolving what the work really was, I got deeply involved with the creative team at BBDO, really working on new forms and new platforms and new ways to express ourselves.
What did it mean, at the time, to head up the ‘creative’ department at GE?
I was responsible for the media, and I was truly directing creative and working with the agency and really figuring out the strategy and positioning. Obviously there are creatives working on the ideas themselves from the genesis of it, just like any agency, but I was truly determining which was the best, how to add to it and what was going to make it grow and give it life. More recently I started running a group called the Creative Lab where it was digital content, branding, strategy, experiential, advertising and media working together. That was to round out our whole offering to one system and make it much more cohesive around how we go to market with our strategy and work. That’s how I got into this role recently, being chief creative officer—GE’s first creative officer—to really help define how we go to market. What is our strategic position, but more importantly, how do I up our game creatively to stay ahead of the curve?
We launched a podcast called “The Message” through our GE Podcast Theater, and it’s a narrative, fictional podcast that, very much like any well-done podcast out there, is an eight-episode story. I had to ask how we do something fundamentally different in storytelling. That’s the type of thing that goes beyond just the advertising. That’s where this next round goes. We just launched a TV show called Breakthrough! on the National Geographic Channel. That’s what this new role is entailing: figuring out how the strategy will marry up to new forms of creative expression and how we guide that through the system, whether it’s through the team here or agencies that we work with.
GE has worked to find that balance between B-to-B and B-to-C messaging and storytelling. While you’re marketing massive commercial verticals, you have a very public-facing image and brand recognition. What was your directive in terms of finding that balance?
It’s not actually about finding a balance in there because while we’re technically a B-to-B brand, we’re a business-to-human brand. At the end of the day I’m talking to people. If you’re a business person, a consumer, a viewer who is watching TV or a tech enthusiast, if you’re following us on Instagram, you’re human. That’s where most brands, especially a brand like GE, have the ability to connect. When people want to engage with a brand, it’s because they’re doing it on a personal level. Everyone in their soul is human. They’re people, and they want to connect, they want to be talked to, they want to be story-told to. That’s how we are, that’s how we’re wired.
I don’t think about it like, ‘I have to get out my B-to-B message,’ which is different than my B-to-C message, which is different than my broad-based message. The guy who’s sitting in his office is the same guy who’s going to be sitting on his couch watching football. You don’t go home and become a different person. Reach that person, talk to that person that way, be human with them. Connect to them on a regular basis versus trying to define someone differently. That’s been the directive, and that’s how I think about it. When you think about doing a TV show and an ad, something online, a digital content piece, or a podcast, they all are fundamentally different because you think, How is someone going to engage with it in that medium?
Talk about the commercial ‘Childlike Imagination’ and how it represents that content philosophy.
GE is a very complex business—lots of different verticals, story lines, lots of different efforts going on. It’s always hard to encapsulate everything GE does into one creative piece, almost impossible. But BBDO came up with the idea for “Childlike” off of the systemic ask to tell the story of all that GE does. And what really works about “Childlike” is in its core, it’s a simple idea. It’s a little girl talking about what her mom does every day. But even closer to that is the DNA that comes through about what GE is. ... What she says and what we tried to capture in the spot is what is pure about our tagline, our DNA, which is “Imagination at work.” You could have done that same execution with adults talking about the reality of their work in a very B-to-B setting and corporate world, and it would have lost all of the emotion, all of the connection, all of the essence of why it works. When you capture that emotion, capture that love and true imagination and do it in an unexpected way that isn’t corporate-y, you’ve told the ultimate story of a big corporation in a beautiful, human way. As great as the story is, it also comes down to incredible teamwork, incredible partners, and fantastic production skills. That idea could be so poorly produced, but it was so beautifully produced. And the line there is very fine.
You’re the first chief creative officer of GE. What does that mean about the weight that a company like GE is placing on creative?
It shows a few things. First, it shows the value of creative work. GE is a powerful, big, important brand. We do big, important things, and to put the value there on something like creativity, and having a chief creative officer to drive that, says that just having great products isn’t enough, or just having great service isn’t enough. Having the ability to tell our story and do it in a way that reaches multiple audiences, [and doing it] in a way that engages people and makes them feel good about the brand … is extremely valuable to the future of the company.
All too often you can get caught up in the product in front of you versus the story that the product can deliver. And the senior leadership here, especially Jeff Immelt and Beth Comstock, really believe in the story of the brand and the value that creative brings to it, and the value you can put on work that tells that story. This is something we value and something we want to put energy behind. … It’s great to have that confidence coming from the top.
What does this move toward storytelling mean for marketing in general?
In the next two or three years, the landscape is changing. You need experts in verticals. You need subject matter experts and then you need some experts who can see the bigger picture of a whole landscape. Media and creative are changing. It’s funny, we’ve been in this trajectory of technology and media dictating how stories are told. I feel like were now re-balancing, [and] the story and creative itself are going to help dictate where the technology will go. It’s a balance I’ve seen happen, and it’ll recalibrate. That’s the directive, that’s the goal: staying ahead of the curve and being unexpected and pushing the envelope of what great creative is, what great media is. It’s developing new ways and new pathways that are more than just what’s offered in the marketplace, but creating our way to tell our story. At the end of the day, that’s what I want to do. It’s creative, but it’s creative across everything: across media and brand and the actual storytelling. I don’t look at it as one thing, I look at it as an amalgamation of how you tell the one GE story so that it becomes clear to the marketplace, but do it in the right way so you’re not repeating yourself.
GE Creative Lab is a team of branding, media, digital content and programming, experiential, and advertising and content development. The lab is a place where people have a directive to tell the story of GE, and bring that to life through those mediums, to experiment and to try new things. I don’t know if that happens unless we call ourselves a lab and have the ability to try things out and test them and see how they work. If you don’t make your team a place of experimentation, then you create strict roles: One person will be in charge of advertising and they’ll only come up with advertising ideas. That is limiting. The lab opens up other possibilities. It also allows different businesses within a larger company like GE to call upon my group to help them out for quick creative projects. Our goal is to incubate new ideas.
What’s in store for the next few months of your new role? You’ve said that you want to be a part of creating the next GE. What does that mean, and how does creativity help with that?
We’re working on some ideas now: There’s the story in the “Owen” commercials out there right now, about us becoming a digital industrial company, so we have to keep telling that story. Also, how do you explain the benefit of the multiple businesses and knowledge share that goes on within GE? Those are the two big initiatives from a strategic standpoint. From a creative standpoint, I don’t know yet. The other goal is to be truly global. We operate on a global mentality, but it’s not fully global yet and we’re working to make our stuff integrated across the board.
“One GE” is about speaking from a similar voice and knowing that there is one GE. When you think about GE, there’s one GE and then there’re businesses within GE. If someone sees a jet engine or a health care machine or a piece of content, I want them to feel like there’s a creative essence behind it. At our core, we are “imagination at work”: We are inventing and making the world work better. And that story, no matter where you experience it, should come from one GE and not different GEs. You shouldn’t feel like you’re experiencing different brands.