Game Changers Live: Jim Tsokanos, President, MSLGROUP Americas
Dennis Troyanos: We’re delighted to be here visiting with Jim Tsokanos, President of MSLGROUP Americas. MSLGROUP Americas is a leading next-generation agency that offers trusted advisers and unbounded creativity in the always-on conversation age. In addition to serving as the agency’s president, Jim is a member of the global leadership team. He’s responsible for driving the firm’s growth strategy in North and Latin America, including business planning and management. Jim, welcome to the show. Jim Tsokanos: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here. DT: Jim, there’s lots of people out there who we talk to on an ongoing basis that feel that public relations is now entering a golden age. What’s your feeling on that? JT: Absolutely. There’s never been more opportunity. Today in a world of change there’s nothing more important than building relationships and telling your story. I think public relations is best suited to help companies, organizations and individuals do that. DT: If you were to talk about two or three key things that a public relations agency has to do to capture the high ground with clients, what would those things be? JT: Public relations agencies by nature are probably the best at listening. In this world of conversation, to provide value to customers and clients, consumers and NGOs, the ability to really listen to what is being said is paramount. Today, we live in a world of engagement and conversation, so the ability to do that is key. DT: One of the things that we think of when we listen to someone who’s in a leadership position, like you, talk about the importance of really listening to the client is that listening is an important skill, but there are a lot of great listeners. If you don’t know how to process that information to guide a client and consult with that client, all the listening in the world doesn’t help. What is that one special thing that you add on top of that listening ability? JT: When we repositioned and re-branded our company, our vision was to be our clients’ most trusted adviser and a source for unbounded creativity in the always-on conversation. The core of that is being a trusted adviser. While anybody can listen and there are better mousetraps, the ability to bring perspective and be able to synthesize and bring talents from around the world in vertical industries to help clients solve their problems is the science and the magic. DT: If we were to express the MSLGROUP experience that the client feels, what would be that expression? JT: We call it being boundless; the idea that amazing ideas can come from anywhere geographically, from beyond channel. They can come from social media, public relations, direct, advertising, and digital. Ideas can be small and beautiful and turn into very big, successful and important things. To think outside of the box culturally, beyond channel and globally is the ability to be successfully today in a world of change. You have to understand the world and the role we play in it. Norman Sherman: This is both an opportunity and a challenge for public relations agencies, right? The challenge is partially, one: are clients willing to see you in that manner? And two, to get the kind of people within your organization capable of delivering against that. Two-part question: first, let’s talk about what your experience has been and the receptivity of clients to see you that way. JT: I’m happy to say that this week is the Chinese New Year, and it’s the Year of the Dragon. The Year of the Dragon is about ambition, fortitude, and success. I think that public relations embodies all those key things. The ability to be able to try new things and test new things in new ways and be relevant, credible and authentic has never been more important. In a world where there’s so little trust, the ability to deliver credibility and authenticity is at the core of everything that we do. Most companies are open to that. In a world of change, everybody has a story to tell and they’re looking for credibility and authenticity. That’s a great opportunity that’s unique to public relations, and why more and more companies are coming to us for help. NS: So what do you have to do as an organization to really capture this? What’s the challenge that it puts on your organization to be able to deliver against this? JT: I would say the biggest challenge is technology and digital, and the whole world is trying to wrap its head around the transformative power of what is happening with digital. How can you understand it, harness it, measure it? Those are the big challenges that companies are coming to us for, because every company wants to tell its story. Every company wants to build stronger relationships with their most important stakeholders. The ability to measure that and show advocacy and success over time is the big challenge, and I think we’re uniquely positioned. In our business, we’ve always used third-party credibility for authenticity. We always have been advocates for brands and companies. Because of the power of social media and the idea of co-publishing and co-creation we can get these third parties to help tell companies’ stories for them in very authentic ways and in real time. I think we’re uniquely positioned to do that. In the creative world, advertising agencies have always been focused on a monologue, not the dialogue, and in this age we live in this multilogue. How do you create points of contact and conversations in real time? We’re uniquely suited to help companies do that. NS: So I understand conceptually where the opportunity is, and I understand conceptually what your vision and positioning is. Give us some examples of what you’re doing across the Americas that bring life to what you’re saying. JT: The great thing about MSLGROUP is that we work with some of the worlds’ most respected blue chip companies: Heineken, Procter & Gamble, Citi, General Motors; pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly and OSI… Microsoft. We have a diverse portfolio of business with a lot of different client needs. Whether it’s producing an event like the Consumer Electronics Show, where one of our agencies did an unbelievable job for the CEO, Steve Ballmer. There’s been some criticism of Microsoft and some of the stuff that they’ve been doing. We embraced it: We created a 50-person choir and we did a Twitter feed where the choir sang out all the issues and problems they had and Ballmer had to address it. The ability to use Twitter in real-time from a creative perspective to story-tell and take on the issues is a real example. To capture that moment; those keynotes at CES are so important. Just last week, we produced the World Economic Forum in Davos. The world’s leading group of influencers: CEOs, academics, Hollywood superstars. To help the World Economic Forum tell their story in this world of change and be positioned as leaders is another example of the work that we do every day for our clients. You don’t trust the World Economic Forum or the keynote for Ballmer to just anybody. We value those relationships and the things that we’re doing every day with out clients. NS: What is it about MSL that makes you different from other agencies out there? What is it that you stand for that differentiates you? JT: There are three key things that ultimately differentiate a company. One is the talent and the people: we have impassioned employees that will do whatever it takes to help our clients succeed. The second is our services. There are very few public relations agencies that have creative advertising boutique agencies and experiential event marketing firms and digital and social that are all part of our network, and we manage and own those assets. Third, our global perspective. We’re number one in China and India. In the emerging markets, which are just so important. There was a great article this week by Thomas Friedman about how to win in this new world: you have to be everywhere, create opportunities and enable economic power by sharing and building and co-creating. This idea of being boundless is a huge strength for us. A lot of companies are just trying to fill holes in the domestic markets; we’re looking beyond to the emerging markets, where we think clients will need these services and skills in order to grow. DT: Jim, in our audience is, I’m sure, going to be young leaders who are aspiring to be the next CEO of the competition, perhaps. What we’d like is your insight into some of the challenges that being the President, CEO, and leader of the agency of the future holds. What are the challenges from a leadership point of view, from a skill-set point of view… what would those be? JT: The Chinese have a word for both opportunity and threats. The word is wei ji ya. I think today we live in a world where in order to see opportunity you have to understand what the issues and the threats are. Being flexible is really important; everything matters and everything counts today. The other is being culturally sensitive: to understand that different cultures around the globe will contribute to success. The ability to figure out “Where can we create things? Where can we share things? Where can we borrow things and where can we own things?” is really going to be important. Understanding emerging markets and different cultures is just critical to being successful. The third, I would say, is digital acumen, because the world of social and digital has changed so much. The fourth is confidence and being battle-tested. The only thing that’s for sure is change, and to be able to manage that and see the opportunities is the biggest challenge. Our world needs leadership today, and the ability to lead people and lead ideas is what is in huge demand today. The ability to do those things and do them well creates leadership. The beauty of it is that because of technology, a leader can be 22 years old and start a company and be successful today. It’s a different path than what it was for many of us growing up in the business. NS: Change is really interesting. Jack Welch, the one-time CEO of GE, wrote in the foreword of one of his books: “Change has no consistency.” You’re living in a world of change; you’re trying to drive an organization through that change. It’s unlikely, if you believe Welch, that people are raising their hand and saying “Sign me up for change!” What do you do as a leader of your organization to get people to participate – willingly participate – in the kind of change that you’re trying to drive? JT: I think the first part is, especially with our clients, to listen. People will tell you, if you’re really open-minded and you’re willing to take advice. They’ll share with you what you need to do. That’s important: to start on the inside and understand what’s important to your stakeholders and constituents. Understanding what’s happening around you and what your most important stakeholders think about is the place to start. The second part of it is being able to make really bold decisions and living with them. In a world where everybody’s flip-flopping, it’s easy to lose your confidence and to fall back. You have to continuously move forward and have confidence, conviction and perseverance. The great Winston Churchill said that the people who are remembered in this world are the people who stood for something, and they’re never appreciated during their time. That’s a great example of sticking with the program through thick and thin. DT: You mentioned the 22-year-old leader who can be the CEO, and there are examples of that, but you’re a pretty young guy yourself. What are the factors that line up for you in public relations that really keep you engaged and excited? Presumably you could be the president of any kind of ad agency or any kind of company for that matter; why public relations and why does it keep you engaged? JT: It starts with the way you’re raised and understanding what your principles are. It transcends any industry or vertical today. Understanding who you are and what you’re about, and holding to those principles. For me, coming up in a family where my father was an immigrant, understanding who you are and what those principles are have always been at the core irrespective of the businesses that I’ve been in. The second part in terms of being a success is sticking with it and having a commitment to excellence. No matter what the chore or the task is, you follow through on your promises or your word and you stick with it beyond. Principles, integrity and commitment to me are the things that persevere. If I were Mark Zuckerberg, of course, being able to innovate is a huge point of differentiation. If I were to do my career over again, I probably would go to China or to Silicon Valley. In Silicon Valley, it’s about innovation and the new economy; in China it’s about the emerging markets and the next economies. DT: So what skills do you pick up as the kid of an immigrant that equip you for a leadership role in a unique way? JT: Running an agency, there’s no job too big or too small, so you need to be a five-tool player. Being the son of an immigrant you have to be unafraid to work hard, sweep the floors, come in earlier and stay later, and to persevere. You can’t take things personally, no matter what the challenges are. You have to succeed; there’s no room for failure. In a world where there are challenges everywhere, success is built on the ability to commit to excellence and execute it every day. DT: That explains what the inside value is. What does the client get that’s unique from that kind of heritage and DNA? JT: Again, a commitment to their success. You’ll do whatever it takes to make them successful, to solve their most important business challenges, to come up with innovative solutions. You’ll be their partner through thick and thin. Some of the best relationships I’ve ever developed with clients have been through the tough times, not the easy times. The ability to manage those relationships and those situations and help them win is what matters every day. Every detail counts. NS: Let me get back for a moment to the everyday issues that you face in the business. Social media and digital have really shaken up the world of communications. Everyone is trying to get more than their fair share of that pie. One, is that your impression? Two, what opportunities has it afforded you as a result of the shake-up that’s going on in that world of communications? JT: For smart, dedicated people there are amazing opportunities to re-invent yourself. That’s the key in business. Social media is an amazing channel, but it’s not the epicenter, it’s a channel. I think the ability to help our clients take on their biggest issue – whatever it is – digital allows you to move quickly and be much more efficient and accountable in this real-time, always-on environment. That’s the speed of things. Ad agencies, when they would do a campaign, it would take them months in advance to plan. We’re able to get real-time insights – feedback, listening – and execute an idea very quickly today. A small idea can turn into a big result. NS: So what are you doing within this organization to make sure that digital is part of the fiber of everyone who works for the organization? JT: We haven’t figured it all out; we’re all trying to figure it out. Anybody who says they’ve got this thing completely thought through and solved, I’m not sure that they have. Understanding your weakness is one of your greatest opportunities. In our world, we’re trying to train people and the other thing we’re trying to build is operational excellence around execution so we don’t make the same mistakes over and over again. Accomplished children need to have shoes. We have our own policies on social media and we’re trying to teach and train ourselves first on how to manage social media and the power of it. If you can’t do that for your own company, how can you do that for your clients? That’s the first part. The second thing is really understanding our clients’ problems, because technology isn’t the solution for everything. Making sure that if you’re going to use technology, it’s the right channel to meet their biggest need. If you take a look at television and the up-fronts, television is still the most powerful channel for delivery of a message today. That’s not down for the count; the world will continue to evolve and converge. You have to be open-minded, understand that that’s going to happen, and live in the world of change. DT: You’ve proven yourself to have a great eye for talent. What makes for a very successful person within MSLGROUP in terms of talent traits? JT: That they’re collaborative, that they have great values, that they’re hard-working, they have a level of humility to them, that they want to do that’s right, that they’re always intellectually curious about what the next thing will be, and that they can lead their teams and their clients. Those are the values that we live with. Collaboration has always been at the core of our company, and we think that collaboration is the greatest strength for us moving forward. The ability to work with others and bring the enterprise together is a huge strength in a world where people can’t get along. Take a look at our own politics in the United States. DT: Are these skills and traits being developed primarily in the public relations community today, or are they being developed in other kinds of organizations and agencies from your point of view? JT: Great leaders and ideas can come from anywhere. We don’t see ourselves as a hardcore, strictly public relations agency. We look at ourselves as trusted advisers. Trust and advice is something that is built in college and universities with the discipline of finishing a degree, but our business has always been built on relationships, so we do think that there is a training element that has to be put forth to cultivate that talent. It’s both cultivating them here at the agency and before they get here. We have an internship program that was designed to attract the best talent that we get thousands of applications for from around the country. We pick ten people for a highly-paid internship program. They have to compete against thousands of other interns to get a spot to compete for the internship! We take twenty applicants out of thousands and they come in to New York and they have to compete for ten spots. We believe strongly that it’s got to start before people enter the door and we have a responsibility to the community and to the marketplace. We also are heavily involved in multicultural. We won the Ad Age partnership of the year for an agency that we’re incubating called Agami, which is a diversity and urban marketing agency. We think it’s our responsibility to do it before they get into the doors, in new places that aren’t expected where people deserve a fair chance and an opportunity to compete. Once you get in the doors, we have a solid training and development program. DT: I know you have children. If you turn the clock ahead to their graduation day, do you see yourself wanting your children to go into the communications and public relations business? JT: I want my children to focus on what their passions are. If you do what you love, and you love what you do, you’re going to be successful no matter what you do. That to me is the most important. If you follow your passion and your dreams, everything is possible today. I would want them to have fantastic experiences in their life and follow their passions. I was lucky enough to find this industry and build my career; I would have the hope that no matter what they do, they’re successful at it. If they choose to go into our industry, fantastic; if they choose to create the next Facebook, I’d be equally proud. NS: Crystal ball time, Jim. I want to look into the future; let’s say five years out into the future. What do you see happening within the world of public relations within that five-year future, and where do you see MSL being five years from now? JT: I think in five years you’ll see the first billion-dollar public relations agency. That’s going to be very interesting. When you take a look at the largest clients in our business, you have thirty- and forty- million dollar clients. It was unthinkable five years ago to be thinking about that. To have networks that are operating in 130 countries is coming. In our own company, we can operate in 83 wholly-owned markets and the emerging markets. Truly being global and understanding what that means. Digital and social continue to transform everything that we do, from the way we consume media to the decisions that we make. Public relations, if we work really hard at it, we can continue to own that spot, especially in social media. If I were to break it down: one would be on the strategic side, the issues and the crisis management. The issue of privacy, the era of people making errors and mistakes and breaking the rules and laws… crises and issues will continue to emerge. The second thing on social will be social enterprise. The same way the clients took a look at IT in the nineties, during the data age, will come forward, where social media and their products and tools will be driving the enterprise, from how they communicate internally to how they work with their most important customers and key stakeholders. Social enterprise could be the next big thing in social and technology. Influencer management, which will be the new CRM, to understand what influence really means and how you connect one-on-one in this always-on environment, and deliver the message in authentic and credible ways. That’s always been the core of our business. Those are amazing opportunities that are boundless; transcend vertical and transcend industry that will be at the heart of it. MSL, as the fourth-largest global agency, can be that leading agency.