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This article was created in paid partnership with Amazon Ads
In the last decade, the entertainment marketing landscape has evolved at breakneck speed. Social media has become brands’ primary avenue for building relationships with users. Data informs nearly every decision marketers make. And with the Internet making information so accessible, putting out topical, relevant content is more important than ever before.
After the isolation and uncertainty of the last two years especially, people are craving connection, community, and meaningful stories. Audiences want to see more diverse and accurate representation not only in film and television but in digital advertising as well. Hollywood Reporter spoke with three leaders in entertainment paving the way for thoughtful innovation in the marketing space. Read on to hear what they had to say.
Puja Vohra, Showtime Networks, Executive Vice President, Marketing and Strategy
Growing up, New-York-based marketing executive Puja Vohra felt her career choices were defined more by what she didn’t want to do than what she did: “At the time in India — I’m getting close to 50 years old now — I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor, engineer, architect, or accountant. And that pretty much cut out 95% of what I could do at the time when I was growing up in India,” Vohra says with a laugh.
On a journey to find a career path she was passionate about, Vohra ultimately ended up at business school, where she discovered her love for psychology, behavioral analytics, and consumer research: “The mindset of a consumer and how to win them is very fascinating, so my first job out of business school was at an alcohol company in marketing. From there on, I’ve pretty much stuck to marketing ever since,” she shares.
In the time since, what Vohra has accomplished in her career has been nothing short of amazing: She’s worked as CMO for BSE Global, where she directed all digital and creative efforts for the Brooklyn Nets and the Barclays Center. She’s also worked as EVP Marketing and Digital for truTV, SVP of Marketing at Oxygen Media, held senior consumer and sales marketing roles at Bravo Media, and also held marketing roles at Seagram India and MTV India. Now the Executive Vice President for Marketing and Strategy at Showtime, Vohra will oversee marketing of all original programming, including award-winning series like The Chi and The L Word: Generation Q, as well as full-fledged media efforts, promotions, digital strategy and social media.
Can you tell me about some of your favorite campaigns that you worked on throughout your career?
This is going back 15 years, but I think one of my favorite campaigns was at Bravo. Buzz and breaking out was crucial then. At the time, when I was at Bravo in 2005, we were an older-skewing arts and culture network, and we were trying to get much more into being a purveyor of pop culture and being more Zeitgeist-y. And so, I was there, a team of one. I had one other person, but we were a very, very small marketing team working on the first campaign for Top Chef and the Season Two campaign for Project Runway.
We had to do such different, innovative things. I connected with the mayor of New York — I think it was Bloomberg at the time — and we worked with them to support a fund in the fashion district around Project Runway. I also connected with Myspace; it was really our first big partnership with Myspace — this is really dating myself — and we gave them the 12 contestants of Project Runway exclusively. In exchange, they gave us seven days of homepage editorial coverage, and Runway blew up. It used to be a much smaller show, and I think that was certainly one of the reasons why it did so well. Top Chef, we tied up with FreshDirect at the time, worked with Food & Wine magazine, and integrated them into the show. At Bravo, we did a lot of really breakout, impactful, and organic campaigns that taught me a lot about buzz and how to drive buzz. That was kind of game changing for me and how I thought about my work.
At Showtime, I’ve been really proud of a few campaigns we’ve done for The Chi by working with the city of Chicago, Black artists, and Black creators to tell the story of the show, especially the live concert event last June, “The Chi with Love.” Driving social and digital buzz for that show has been really, really valuable and fascinating. Dexter — we are still a few weeks out. But the team has put together such smart plans and what we call breadcrumbs: Drip, drip, dripping content out over the last few months in very key environments and specific times to drive buzz.
Then, going back to India, I was at MTV in India when I was 24 or 25 and did massive campaigns for Coca Cola and Pepsi. We did all sorts of huge campaigns that were later adopted in other parts of the world, which was very gratifying. It was very early days of MTV in India when I was there; we had very small teams, but big ambitions — big, big, big eyes and big stomachs for big marketing campaigns. Those are some of the campaigns I look back on and feel very proud that I was a part of.
How do you find inspiration for new campaigns or initiatives?
Oh my god, it sounds very new age-y, but I am so inspired and enthused all the time, because there’s so much good work happening. There’s change happening on almost all levels. The consumer landscape changes so rapidly, whether it’s via technology or new brands and businesses being launched. In terms of content, media just gets more and more competitive. The last five, six, seven years of streaming changed everything. Media tools have changed, too. There’s so much information that comes in about the ways in which we can understand more about our consumer — it’s almost more important to know what not to pay attention to than what to pay attention to because there’s such a plethora of data that comes through our systems.
How do you feel technology has pushed the boundaries of what’s considered marketing?
I think about it in two different ways. One is how technology has changed what consumers are using, how they’re finding content, and how they are curating and engaging. And ways for us to think about that in relation to our audience, particularly in terms of new social platforms. I often see brands go out and get on a new platform for the sake of being there, and I think that that can often be a mistake. Sometimes it can be right to be on an emerging platform, because you’re trying to talk to a very super selective target group. You just really have to ask: Who’s your audience? What are your goals? What are you trying to do? But thinking about context, content, and consumers on the platforms they’re using is one very important way to think about technology and trying to stay on top of it.
And then how we really change how we go to market is all in the back end. So the tools that we have — and those tools change every day — in terms of finding insights around consumers, how consumers are engaging with content, and what the full funnel looks like to help us go and find them at the right time in their consumer journeys. Social data, attribution data, what’s working well, how to be most effective in reaching our audiences, how much time they’re spending with our content — getting all of those insights around what’s driving users to consume our content or data about competitors is really important, too. The stuff that’s on the back end isn’t that visible, of course, but we and our agency partners use that very effectively to make the best decisions to then go out and create content. And testing, AB testing — there’s so many different tools that are now at our disposal that it pushes you to have to be smarter and more efficient because otherwise, you can drown in the amount of detail that you can get.
Our partners, be it Google or Facebook or YouTube, are also evolving quickly both on the front-end and back-end, so looking at how they’re serving up content to our consumers, but also seeing what data they’re sharing with us. So again, I give full kudos to my team’s and our agency partners who help keep us abreast, up to speed, and actually ahead of the curve a little bit.
As a team leader, how do you build a supportive, creative work environment?
I’ll start by saying that any leader is nothing without their team. Absolutely nothing. So keeping them happy, energized, nurtured, nourished, and challenged is almost the most important thing that I can do in my job. I joined Showtime a little over a year ago, so I’m relatively new, and a lot of people at Showtime have been there a long time. And so, as a woman of color, I think the challenge is always to go into new environments where you don’t know a lot of people and you need to start from scratch. Sometimes you have to work extra hard to prove your worth. And given that I’m also an immigrant, I just have a different journey: I didn’t go to school here. I didn’t have a very strong network here, certainly, when I came here 20 years ago. So it’s about setting that bar for myself really high, and I think it’s a balance of inspiring my team, I hope, with a high level of excellence myself. I’m very ambitious for Showtime and for any brand that I happen to be a part of. Sometimes it’s about the little things that you do every day, and sometimes it can be about just bigger, broader statements.
But then it’s also about being connected to them. I really, truly care about the people I work with. Showtime is filled with wonderful, hardworking, passionate, and smart individuals. I find it a very apolitical environment: Everybody’s pushing to do the best. So I think it’s about connecting with the individuals, and really being accessible. I care about my team as humans, and I care about them as professionals. Sometimes that means giving them really difficult feedback, either on a campaign or on something that they can get better at. But it also means giving them really good feedback and celebrating their wins.
Right, it’s about fostering genuine relationships with one another.
And I also think that it’s having humor and being cool and casual — like, let’s respect the work and take the work seriously, but not take ourselves too seriously. Because we’re making great content, not sending a rocket to the moon. So how do we keep perspective around stress? How do we still push hard, but also not let failures or things that could have gone better keep us down?
I’ll just say this. I’ve heard that from other places that I’ve been at that I really encourage people to speak up. I call on very junior people on the team — there might be a coordinator in a meeting who is quiet because they’re overwhelmed by the situation. But I know them; I know their story. I want to hear from them. So I might encourage them specifically to speak or ask them for their opinions, in an effort to encourage people to find their voices and to own the spotlight. We have very, very famous talent that we work with, big name writers, producers, actors, stars, and I try to push the younger folks forward, for them to present so it doesn’t feel that hierarchical. I always think about making big waves to try and change the culture so that we truly think of ourselves as one team rowing in the same direction versus silos and hierarchical layers.
I feel like that’s really effective, because a lot of companies have a top-down mentality.
Right. That’s not the case at Showtime. David Nevins, our president, really sets that tone. You know, I’ve also worked in entertainment for a long time in the U.S., and he’s open and accessible. He’s very thoughtful. He loves to be challenged. He’s not defensive and doesn’t push back. He wants to know what you think. I think it’s really important to set that tone at the top.
How do you feel like brands can go beyond individual campaigns to show their commitment to social impact?
For me, I don’t know if I can speak for my peers in the industry, but it’s such an important part of what we do every day at Showtime, for us to make a true commitment as a brand that’s important to us, that improves or helps the world around us. I say this a lot, but I think that marketing for good can also be good marketing. Not in a way that’s obnoxious or trying to give ourselves kudos. But rather how we think about setting that into as many of our campaigns as we can in ways that are authentic and credible. So for us, given our product, which are individual shows, series, and content, the way we do it is directly through all of those. That’s how we are pivoting.
Like I shared earlier, we’ve done a ton of great work on The Chi to give back to the communities, or to support the communities that are part of that story. We are thinking of doing that alongside many of our bigger shows as well. We also have more freestanding campaigns that we are creating nationally. One campaign that really meant a lot to the team was “Queer to Stay,” where we worked with LGBTQ+ spaces across the country. We’re working with HRC (Human Rights Campaign) to help support these individuals or businesses, especially in COVID when they’ve had a lot of issues and many of them have shut down.
When speaking up about these social issues, is it important that the message aligns with your brand values?
As brands today, we have to be very thoughtful about what can feel performative and what feels authentic. I think there are several issues where Showtime — and I speak for Showtime, the brand that we are — where the consumers we talked to felt we had to stand up and speak up. But not all issues may be one where we have to step in and do exactly what everybody else is doing. I think that’s that fine dividing line of work — because it’s the right thing to do, but to also not feel the pressure to have to do it every time just because everyone else is doing it. But I think be thoughtful about our brand, our audience, our content, and show up. Show up and support. It’s also important to do all of that work internally as well. Not everything has to be for external consumption. A lot of it could be to make sure that our internal culture is supportive, accepting, thoughtful, open, and transparent, as well. So I think it’s both what you say externally as a brand, but how you show up as a leader or as an employer internally as well.
Ryan Crosby, Riot Games, President of Publishing
Riot Games’ new President of Publishing, Ryan Crosby, has always known that he wanted to go into marketing: “In order to get into marketing on the agency side of the business, I started by answering phones at Chiat/Day for a short period until I could get a role within one of the account teams — remember when people had to dial into a central switchboard to get connected with people?” Crosby laughs. “It was a crazy time, and now I’m just showing people how old I really am.”
After years at brands like Activision (which publishes Call of Duty), Microsoft, Netflix and Hulu, it seems only apt that Crosby was recently promoted to his current role at Riot Games, where he’ll lead the company’s worldwide publishing group, marketing strategies, localization, and commercial initiatives. In his time at Riot thus far, he’s already helmed the go-to-market strategy and built anticipation for Riot’s upcoming Netflix animated series Arcane, launched the Sessions: Vi lo-fi music album, and drew viewers to the interactive concert experience featuring the League of Legends band Pentakill.
As someone who’s always been deeply passionate about gaming, Crosby feels like the opportunity couldn’t have come at a better time: “In my time in gaming and entertainment, I’ve been lucky to be part of many companies at important moments in their histories, but I believe that Riot is truly on the cusp of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
What originally drew you to gaming?
I’ve always been attracted to gaming, and I’ve always played games. A big part of my childhood was spent gaming, either on PC or console, but mostly console games. One of the first accounts that I worked on while on the agency side was PlayStation. I worked for years on the PlayStation account and fell in love with the culture and fandom and took it from there. That actually drove a lot of my career moving forward — I ended up working on other gaming accounts on the agency side as well. Eventually, I was at Xbox in Seattle, spent years there, and then went to Activision back in L.A. working on Call of Duty. So I spent a lot of years in gaming before I actually switched over to the broader entertainment piece.
Even when I was working at Netflix and Hulu, I always still very much kept my finger on the pulse of what was going on in gaming. And I always sort of believed that game companies would be the generators of the next really big IPs (new games) and big entertainment companies in the future. I think we’re seeing some of that come to fruition now.
Why is that opportunity particularly important for game companies?
Gaming is an incredibly interactive medium. It’s very different from TV and film in that you’re actively involving yourself in the story, and you’re engaging. The opportunity for games to create incredibly deep and complex worlds is a very real one. And I think a lot of game companies are sort of testing the waters. I mean, you’ve seen different game companies make movies and TV shows and things like that. And we’re seeing more and more of that out in the world today. But I think there’s a big opportunity and one that I would expect to see more game companies diving into.
Interactivity is huge, especially for the younger generation.
That’s right. And so many of the younger generation are spending so much of their time in games that it’s sort of a natural expectation that we’d be expanding into other mediums.
What have been some of your favorite campaigns throughout your career?
From my career, some of the most fun stuff that I’ve worked on was — and this will date me as well — Halo 3. It was a long, long time ago, but it was a really interesting campaign because it was built on the simple premise of belief in a hero. We built out all sorts of really interesting expressions of that: Live action pieces that were interviewing soldiers from the future. A museum of humanity where people were looking at the world in a different lens. And we built this amazing, massive diorama that served as the focal point for the primary TV spot and expression for what was going on within the world of the game. That was a really, really fun campaign.
On the entertainment side, Stranger Things Season One obviously was a lot of fun. Watching that show, seeing the interest in it, and just the nostalgia that we connected to the campaign, as well as the adventure that was promised through the campaign was really important to drag an interest and pick up in the show. So in that instance, we stayed very true to the intent of the Duffer brothers and the intent of the source material, but we were able to kind of leverage it to make it really interesting to audiences.
And then the last I would say, is a campaign that we’re actually working on right now. At Riot, we’ve got a TV show that will be on Netflix and on Tencent Video in China. That launches in November, and we’re building a campaign around the show called Arcane, which is essentially a focus on some of the major champions from the game. But the really interesting thing about this campaign is the tools at our disposal through our game properties and through the fandom we’ve gotten our own channels to be able to drive interest in the show, and drive them to either Netflix or Tencent Video to watch. So that has been a lot of fun, because it’s given us a whole other set of tools, through the games and through our own channels to engage with people and drive interest in the show.
How do you find inspiration for new campaigns?
Spending a lot of time looking at and reading things. Like old stories, I think there’s a lot that can be done there. But a lot of it is also through fantastic internal creatives and our fantastic agency partners. Spending time and allowing yourself to get deep into the world of the story that you’re telling and sharing that with your partners, whether they be internal or external, is incredibly important. And, of course, being open to new and interesting ideas. So often, we can find ourselves trapped in the box of what has traditionally been done. And I think the most interesting pieces tend to be things that are taking a different look at [traditional topics], or a slightly different view on the world.
In that vein, what are some of the ways that you feel like the marketing landscape is changing?
I think the marketing landscape is changing a lot when you think about the use of technology and the use of data. We’re all in a world where the relationships between brands and consumers are much more one-to-one and much more direct than they have been in the past. There’s a bigger set of interactive channels through which we’re not just brands pushing information out — we’re actually having a two way conversation back and forth. So I think that’s a big deal. I also think the way that we’re able to target marketing, and the use of data in how we even think about audiences and the markets that we’re going after changes the way that we do it. It’s much more personalized. It’s much more direct. And it drives a much bigger two-way conversation than probably was happening in the past.
Do you have an example of an experience where data changed the course of or directly informed a campaign?
Yeah, certainly. Particularly on the streaming video side of the business, data can have a huge impact. All of the streaming companies now have predictive models for expectations on how big shows or films will perform on service. We often find that even within two days of a show launching on service, it can impact the degree of media spend and exposure that we do. It may impact the way that we talk to an audience because we’re realizing that there are certain things happening in a show or film that people like more or less. So we often will change creative or even media spend based on what we’re seeing in the data.
Gaming also has the connotation of being a very technology-led industry. Has that pushed the boundaries of the creative work within gaming marketing at all?
I think so. It’s interesting because gamers expect more from gaming brands than they maybe do from traditional brands. There’s a high level of desire to interact to engage both on the social front and in other, more static mediums. There’s also an expectation of creating things that are novel and interesting, being more personalized, rewarding people for their engagement, and even to some degree gamifying some of the marketing activity. So I think most definitely, we focus a lot on player experience and making it better to be a player making them excited about the things that we’re doing.
Because they’re spending so much time engaging with the games, it’s fun to engage with them in different mediums in different ways, and give them new things to love and care about. I mean, the simple fact of what we’re doing with the development of a TV show in Arcane — it’s not marketing, but it most certainly is driving more love, engagement and interest in our fan audience. So it really is meant to be a singular story told on its own; it’s very much directed at giving people a wonderful thing to love. But it also does the double duty of also making our fans hopefully become even bigger fans of the IP and the brand.
It sounds like improving on the core user experience is almost a form of marketing in itself — is that something you guys focus on?
Everything that we do is focused on the player experience. Our focus and our goal is to give people more to engage with, more to love, and to have fun in what they’re doing. People play games for a lot of different reasons. But one of those reasons is to escape into a different world. And our goal in everything that we do is to make those players’ lives better and more fun.
As a leader, how do you create an environment that pushes for out-of-the-box ideas?
There are a couple of things that come to mind when we think about that. The first and most important point is probably creating space for taking risks. Oftentimes big creative leaps are unproven, and it can be hard to greenlight. Especially in a big corporate environment, it can be hard to take those risks. So the first thing that we do is create space for that. And it’s important to celebrate those risks, even if they don’t work out. We try really hard to create an environment where creative risk taking is not just acceptable, but is rewarded. I think that’s really important.
Secondly, as far as the environment goes, we spend a lot of time and energy sharing ideas and discussing with creative colleagues. We want to create a world in which creatives work together to make each other’s ideas better. And if you get the right people that truly are open to listening to each other’s ideas and pushing each other further, I think the work gets better for it, and we get better results.
What are some ways that you’ve found are effective in being able to put forth social values and purpose, as well as reflecting that within your own internal work culture?
You have to make it a priority and be committed to social impact. For us, it’s more than just talking about it or building campaigns around it. The goal here is to get involved and help. To give back and ask others to give back as well. Part of what we do at Riot is make it part of our culture and the way that we do business, and stay focused on that. I think a good example of somebody who’s done incredibly well is Patagonia. They’re a purpose-driven brand that’s successfully built campaigns that have defined their meaning to the world over and over. But the reason they were able to do that is because that’s truly what they’re about — not all companies are like Patagonia, but I think they’re a good model for us to look at and say, How do we take it beyond just social impact campaigns, and truly involve ourselves to try and help?
Christian Parkes, Neon, Chief Marketing Officer
A long-time marketing veteran, Los-Angeles-based Christian Parkes has always had a penchant for moving others. From the very beginnings of his career, he sought to bring together disparate ideas to tell new and exciting stories: “I always had a really inquisitive perspective, even before I was working. I’d see connections that weren’t necessarily apparent on the surface — I think it’s really the idea of shifting people’s perspective and bringing them along for a journey was something that appealed to me and pushed me into the marketing space,” Parkes shares.
After 12 years at big-name brands like Puma, Nike, and Levi’s, Parkes entered the film marketing space as Chief Brand Officer of Alamo Drafthouse in 2014. In 2017, Parkes moved into his current role as Chief Marketing Officer of NEON, a film production and distributor that has released acclaimed films like Parasite and I, Tonya.
As someone with a deep-rooted love for cinema — “My first job was at the age of 13; I worked at a video store because I just wanted to literally be around and consume movies,” he says — Parkes is excited to create novel, innovative works that can complement the filmmaking experience he respects so much: “My fondest, earliest memories are of watching movies…Fast forward 34 years, and what I’m doing now is essentially what I dreamed of when I was young.”
What was the first project you worked on that really illustrated your passion for marketing?
At Nike I was focused on all of our non-performance products. We weren’t allowed to work with athletes, because those were the priorities of the athletic performance categories. So I thought, ‘Well, let’s play in the cultural space instead and make nice, culturally-relevant, off-the-court work.’ I was working with artists like Kaws, who’s now selling million-dollar paintings. Thinking about that timeframe, we were the first company to build a creative space outside of retail that was dedicated exclusively to storytelling around product and programming around product.
You’ve worked in many different fields, do you feel like you need to adopt different creative approaches for different markets?
I think if you understand marketing — if you understand the pillars of marketing — you could go from marketing a Porsche to a paintbrush to Parasite. If you understand how to market and how to connect with audiences, the only thing missing is that the Porsche audience is very different from the Parasite audience. There’s a steep learning curve there because ultimately we’re trying to convince people to invest in whatever it is that we’re selling. As much as I am part of the audience that I should be marketing to, there are so many different people out there; there are so many different tribes.
What are some ways that you feel the marketing landscape is changing because of emerging technologies?
The film industry as a whole, I think, was a late adopter in building out a digital-first standpoint. Today, the visual departments are blown out. The budgets are blown out. It’s really interesting seeing the companies that have been heavily investing in experiences dedicated exclusively to film, and that’s awesome, because they want to deepen our fans’ relationship with film. You’ll see them investing in crazy takeovers and insane build-outs that are really fan-focused. That playbook was written — we were doing that stuff at Nike, as I said, 17 years ago. So they’re finally catching up to that.
But they’re also catching up because they realize the value and importance of Instagram. It’s one thing to push out a bunch of content and then expect people to share it. Well, people aren’t that interested in sharing your content, but they will share their own content because they want to present the best possible life that they can within the digital space. So if you’re able to take someone and put them into an experience around a blockbuster, then they’re going to carry that weight for you.
From a budget standpoint, you can see a shift has happened there. That’s really shifted less from an innovation standpoint, but it’s shifted as a result of consumer behavior. And that’s the critical thing: It’s always about the consumer. It’s always about the audience. The audience that will dictate where you go.
Totally, it all comes back to the audience at the end of the day.
You can do everything that you can, but the audience will tell you. The market is the market. But you also have to do everything that you can to support your film, your series, whatever it is, to get it in front of the right audience.
How do you inspire your team to find inspiration for creative campaigns?
Inspiration, which is the most important thing, exists absolutely everywhere. If you’re wide open to seeing and being inspired, you’re not going to have a problem being creative. If you’re open and you’re able to look at things on paper that don’t have any relationship together, but you can find a way to bring them together to create something new — that’s the goal. That should be the goal of every creative person, at least within our space: to create something new that you can put in front of other people and get them invested. Creativity and inspiration can come from absolutely anywhere, and absolutely anyone. It doesn’t matter if it’s an intern that suggests an idea or a CMO, a good idea is a good idea. The challenge, then, is how do you take a good idea and make it as big as you can to get as many people excited about it as possible?
When it comes to purpose-led marketing, what are some ways you build authenticity?
One of the key factors for me is consistency. You can’t dip in and out. If you’re going to take a position, you take a position and you ride that thing out. If you’re doing it because it’s a hot topic and you’re not being true to your brand or your audience, ultimately, your longevity is in question and will be compromised. Consistency is key, and this kind of ladders up: Honesty is key, and integrity is key. At NEON, we’ll release films that are comedies. Then we’ll release films that are documentaries that challenge the president, the government of the United States and their handling of the worst health crisis in a century.
If you’re consistent, you can do that. You can do that if you’ve got integrity; you can do that if your actions are something you can stand behind. Your world doesn’t have to just be built around COVID documentaries. The types of films that we’re releasing, a lot of them speak to disenfranchised minority audiences — Parasite is a story of class. Portrait of a Lady on Fire could be the greatest love story in the history of cinema, and it’s about two women. From a positioning standpoint, those two films back to back really set you up as a company and a team of people that are willing to do the right thing for the world that we live in today.
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