American Express Executive Explains the 'Content Conundrum'

John Hayes tells NATPE attendees that there are many more opportunities being thrown at Amex than it can respond to or use.

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- At NATPE, American Express chief marketing officer John Hayes said he has been deluged with people offering ideas and asking how they can do business with his financial services company.

"I had no idea I had so many friends in Miami," he joked.

Hayes, though, said there are many more opportunities being thrown at Amex than it can respond to or use. "That is both the trouble and the opportunity," he said Wednesday during a keynote address.

Hayes said things used to be simple when there were three big networks with three initials each and you just had to decide which to use and when. Now there are dozens of networks and a multitude of new-media entities that all want attention.

It has created what Hayes calls "the content conundrum," which means there are lots of things to consider yet no one actually "has the right answer."

So Hayes has developed three things he uses to judge every opportunity. First is the question of how much. "From an advertiser's point of view," he said, "what is the optimal mix for our content investments? How much do we spend, especially on things that are impossible to measure?"

Second is which media or delivery system or platform provides the best return on investment. He called that "confusing."

Third is the question of whom to work with "to be on the inside looking out," Hayes said, "instead of on the outside looking desperate and hopelessly out of touch."

The rule of thumb Amex has developed is to spend about one-third of its marketing budget each year on things that are new and often can't be measured by the usual standards of success. "You have to push your organization to turn on change," he said.

The rest is spent in more traditional ways, but that doesn't necessarily mean buying more 30-second spots. For Amex, it has meant developing content that it can brand from an early stage, like its American Portrait Series. The first effort under that banner was Martin Scorsese's HBO documentary Public Speaking about author Fran Lebowitz.

The strategy also seen in a digital concert series called Unstaged, which was done in partnership with YouTube and Vevo. It matched top musicians like Alicia Keyes and Jay-Z with feature directors including Spike Lee and Kenny Ortega. The series comes with interactive features to involve the audience even more.

"We simply want the best minds in the world thinking about our brand," Hayes said.

When they do put money into a program, concert or event at an early stage, Amex also expects to be given a role in what that becomes. "We want to be treated like an investor in a project when we get involved from the very beginning," he said, "because that is what we are."

No every project works. "But even when we don't succeed," Hayes said, "we learn so much."