Ann Barlow, West Coast President/ Head of Employee Engagement at Peppercomm, a strategic communications and marketing firm whose purpose is promote, protect, and connect clients—and “to use its innovation and imagination to inspire people to come to know and trust the organizations it works with.” The 23-year-old Peppercomm has its roots in PR, and, although its focus today is on integrated communications, the PR influence persists in the questions it asks: What do clients need? What problems need to be solved? and What is the agency trying to create?
Ann participated in a panel, “Prescription for Sexual Harassment,” at the March 2019 South by Southwest creativity conference in Austin, TX. She places the onus on companies to create opportunities for people to “actually listen to each other.” Solving workplace problems like sexual harassment will require open discussions about things people might think are okay, but actually are not. Clarity about such issues . . . and working toward solving them . . . will improve individual and business performance. People work better in more collaborative, purpose-driven, listening environments, which Ann calls “cultures of innovation.”
Ann sees a difference in what the younger generation of workers demands as employees from the companies where they work—that their companies take a stand on social issues. She feels that companies that have a “North Star” will have an easier time attracting and retaining talent . . . and that companies that are purpose-driven perform better financially
Ann is researching what needs to change inside organizations . . . and the interrelationship of employee engagement, business structure, how people within organizations listen to each other, and productivity. She intends to publish the results of that study on her company’s website at: http://www.peppercomm.com/
Ann can be reached at her company’s website or on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ann-barlow-4a42371/
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I am your host, Rob Kischuk. I am joined today, live and in person at South by Southwest, by Ann Barlow. Ann is the West Coast President and Head of Employee Engagement at Peppercomm. She’s based in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the company also has offices in New York and London. Welcome to the podcast, Ann.
ANN: Thank you, Rob. Glad to be with you.
ROB: It’s a pleasure to have you here. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about Peppercomm and what you’re excellent at?
ANN: Oh, thanks for the opportunity to talk about a favorite subject. Peppercomm is 23 years old. Our roots are in public relations, and over the years we have added capabilities based on what you would expect, which is what do our clients need and what can we be good at and offer them?
We’re now more integrated communications, but I think having the roots in PR helps us to really start all conversations with “What is it we’re trying to solve? What is it we’re trying to create?” and then building from there.
ROB: Peppercomm has really thrived at a time when you’ve probably watched some other fledgling agencies that you knew who were in PR wither with some of the industry changes. What are some of the things that people didn’t keep pace with and didn’t adopt that really hurt them?
ANN: I honestly think, Rob, it starts with culture and being willing to, even as leaders, understand that in a new environment and a new world, you do not have all the answers. The important thing is to change the dynamic. We’re not a hierarchy. It’s about, how are we going to solve what could be a business problem if we don’t do this right?
We try to listen to our employees, who know an awful lot about the things we need to know. We tapped into talent where we needed to, and then tried to be agile. I think a lot of agencies – change is hard for anybody, and when you’re changing a business model that might mean “Hey, we might make less money over the short term or be less profitable,” it’s hard to do. We just took a deep breath and said, okay, let’s go. Let’s do the right thing here.
ROB: It’s interesting how the company has lasted quite well at times when there are entire disciplines – there are digital disciplines that have come and largely gone. People who started an SEO agency and just stuck to their guns on SEO are really probably in a tough spot right now.
ROB: How did you come to be a part of Peppercomm? What brought you in?
ANN: Well, I was at an IPG owned agency when the bubble burst in 2001, and I had always heard great things about Peppercomm. I went to talk to them, a few other agencies, and they just stood out. The reason they stood out is because I loved the entrepreneurial spirit.
The ability to explore, try new things, really is what not only drew me in the first place, but has kept me there. Those of us in the agency world seldom spend as long as I have at Peppercomm, which is – gosh, coming up on 18 years. But because we get the chance to grow and thrive and try new things and create new products – who doesn’t want to do that?
ROB: For sure. Did I hear you correctly that they were hiring in the Bay Area after the dot-com boom went bust?
ANN: I should clarify, I was in New York at the time. Even so, we were hiring, yeah – and actually thriving in San Francisco, at least for a while. No doubt we suffered, and of course we all suffered the dot-com bust followed by 9/11. It was a tough time. But again, because we were able to pivot when we needed to, I swear that has helped us to survive and thrive.
ROB: That’s pretty exciting. You are here this week probably to learn a lot, but also to help people learn. You had a panel called “Prescription for Sexual Harassment.” Tell me about that panel. What were you sharing, what came up, what were people wondering?
ANN: Yes, as a matter of fact, we just finished. It was really a great panel. I was with a man named Greg Morton, who was the moderator – he has a background in leadership and HR – and with the head of the CHRO for OneLogin, and then if you know the Center for Creative Leadership, a woman named Chris Downing, who is a VP there. All very knowledgeable people.
What we were asked to do is talk about, how do we get here? How do we reach this tipping point? And then more important, what are we going to do about it? That was what was, to me, really interesting. It’s one thing to talk about the problem, but much more important to talk about the solution. That was what we talked about.
ROB: Got it. Where are we right now compared to where we’ve come from, and what are the next couple of steps?
ANN: I think the most important thing that’s been happening, probably – at least according to the research – since January of 2017, it was not an accident that people found their voices again after the election in the U.S. Like it, don’t like it, the research has said that’s exactly what’s happened. That was the beginning of people finding their voices.
Then you layer on things like the power of social media. You still have to be brave and speak up. The women who spoke up, especially around the Harvey Weinstein stuff – man, that was scary, scary stuff. The people who do this are amazing.
I think the biggest thing that we’ve gotten from that is awareness and some justice, and some understanding among all of us that some of the things that we think are okay actually aren’t okay. Let’s get a little more clarity around that. I think that’s where we are now.
Where we need to be is just to move our company cultures into a place where we understand each other better and we respect each other better. That’s when we stop doing things like that. I think what happens with businesses is that they don’t necessarily appreciate the fact that by solving problems like this, you’re actually going to have better performance as a business because you’re creating a more collaborative, purpose-driven, listening environment. People are just going to be more productive in an environment like that.
ROB: I may paraphrase – I may not understand this; I’m going to put something out there and you can correct me towards what you really mean. It almost sounds like having a healthy connectedness at work between people and a legitimate working relationship is part of the solution to thinking of your coworkers as coworkers and not as something inappropriate.
ANN: Rob, I think you nailed it. You mentioned that I’m Head of Employee Engagement, and what we are really looking at right now as an organization is the fact that, first of all, we as human beings, despite the two ears and one mouth, are not really wired to listen.
There’s this great quote from Celeste Headlee, who’s an NPR anchor and an author. She says that “Humans are really the only species who come out of the womb and yell at the top of our longs as our means of survival. Every other species listens.” We’re not really predisposed to listening.
What’s happening is that experts like at Gartner, for instance, say if we want to achieve what we have to achieve – we’re facing automation, other kinds of transformation, change in the future of work, all these things – we cannot get there unless we create cultures of innovation, and the way that happens is to create the opportunity for people to actually listen to each other.
ROB: I imagine you can almost get into some different cadences of types of activities. What are some rhythms of connectedness that a company might think about executing?
ANN: Some companies are doing this well already, and I think even as they’re doing it well, they’re still figuring it out. But one thing they’re doing is just building into regular meetings – you know how it usually goes with our meetings. We meet for an hour, except it’s an hour and five, and then we’re running to our next meeting, but oops, we’re a little late. On the day goes, and we never really have time to stop and create room for dialogue.
So, they’re doing that. They’re saying, “Okay, this meeting is an hour. Are we fully productive for this hour? Probably not. We’re probably productive for 40 minutes. Let’s leave 20,” and they start having structured conversations. We have to learn, so they also provide training, because most of us aren’t taught to just ask open-ended questions to one another and actually listen. So that’s one thing that companies are doing.
They’re also applying technologies aimed at really, again, listening to employees. Going beyond the survey, for example. There’s a company in the Bay Area called Waggle that says basically the problem with surveys is that all the power is with the surveyor.
It’s getting in and asking a few questions, allowing people to have a conversation online, share ideas. If I like your idea, I’m going to like it and vote on it. So, that’s another way. The point is there’s some technologies and there’s some training and there’s being very deliberate about face-to-face communication.
ROB: Then there’s this whole online meeting tsunami that I feel like has been coming through the workplace. It seems like possibly a double-edged sword, because you might meet more when you’re in different places, but you might also meet less personally. Are there ways that that technology can be used better versus worse for the purpose of connectedness?
ANN: It’s interesting. The woman I mentioned, Celeste Headlee, said that the research she’s done – because she’s done quite a bit of research in this area – is that video can be nearly as effective as in-person, which I found very interesting.
My feeling is: up to a certain point. For one thing, if there are 10 of us on video, at some point that gets diluted, don’t you think?
ROB: It’s like the Brady Bunch intro.
ANN: Exactly. And then somebody turns off their camera because they want to multitask, or “I’m working from home and I didn’t shower today,” whatever it might be. Engagement starts to lessen. So I would say up to a certain point. That should never take the full place of in-person, human interaction.
ROB: Agreed. That’s why we’re here in person.
ROB: What are some of the lessons you may have learned along the way, as you’ve been with Peppercomm for a while, growing the agency? You mentioned that you’ve been very agile; you’ve been able to evolve. But maybe some lessons you wish you’d learned a little bit faster that you had to learn along the way?
ANN: I think if we had probably come together – we’re talking about the need for conversation. These are hard problems to solve. When the world is changing, we all know as humans we’re not wired to like change. We’re actually wired to resist it. So even when everyone says our world is going to look different, you really have to work through this stuff. It’s hard.
I don’t think, looking back, we spent quite enough time really puzzling through and then consistently meeting and saying, “What’s working . . . what’s not?” and adjusting as we went. Especially in the agency world, where you’re in a client service business, you have billable hours or projects or whatever it might be, you’re not exactly predisposed to sitting around and talking things through.
But I would say to anybody, spend the time to do it. It’s worth it in the long run.
ROB: Right. To the point of your own passions, it probably takes a certain degree of trust to be able to talk about the things that didn’t go well, because without connectedness that can come across as personal. It can come across as negativity on the work, and it’s not. It’s . . . we want to get better together.
ANN: Right. It means a certain amount of vulnerability. It’s okay – I screwed up, I made a mistake here, and everybody else being okay with that too. It takes trust to do that. So you’re right, having that sense of trust, cohesiveness, “I’ve got your back; we’re all going to screw up; let’s get it out so we can get better” – I think that’s one of the major things.
One of the other things that you and I have talked about is you have to be in a constant learning mode. That means taking the time, having the discipline to see what is out there, what people are creating, what you’re creating. Learn about those things. Get smart, because not only does it help you to offer better services to clients, but it opens up your mind to the possibilities.
If we’re just doing things – “This is how we do things and this has been the model that’s worked for us” – well, we’re not going to be all that smart for our clients.
ROB: On that topic of learning, we’re here at South by Southwest. Lots and lots of sessions, lots and lots of conversations. What are you learning or looking to learn while you’re here so far?
ANN: It’s tempting to go and see the famous people. I know Brené Brown was here, and actually I saw her just a couple of weeks ago. It’s great to see somebody like her – but also because someone like her is able to help you think differently, see yourself differently, and anybody who can do that, for me that’s my number one criterion.
Then I am interested in seeing some of the political people. I mean, boy oh boy, stakes couldn’t really be higher right now. I would like to hear from them because I can.
I think that’s where I’m starting. To be honest, I was only today really taking a closer look at what is available because I wanted to get through my session first. [laughs]
ROB: Yes, you’ve got to get through that session. I saw some police cars pulling through town just a moment ago and I wondered if we had a politician or another coming in. I think that’s a really interesting change that at least I’ve seen on the schedule for South by Southwest: the degree of engagement with politicians and government.
ROB: What do you think is going on that has elevated that position within this environment and people are interested? “I’m here for interactive and marketing – and by the way, let me go see a Senator.”
ANN: [laughs] Exactly. Well, we’re in an election year, or coming to an election year I should say, so for the politicians, they know this is a smart place to be. I would hope that the best thing that we would get from something like this is, man, we’ve got big problems. Big problems. Economy, environment, pay equity, future of work. We could go on and on.
It’s probably the reality that these things are so big that in an ideal world, government and the private sector would work together to solve them. I think the spirit of this is—Is there a public/private partnership still to be had at a time when we’re all so divided?
ROB: Got it. Going back to your work a little bit and overall what Peppercomm does – I know this is a little bit of a complicated question with so many people, and as you mentioned, you’ve gotten more diverse in what you offer – but what do some typical client engagements look like? And maybe there’s been an award recently or something you could share, a particular piece of work that we could just get into a little deeper and understand the stuff you’re proud of.
ANN: Oh, thanks for asking that. A couple of areas where I think we’re spending a good amount of time right now – Peppercomm has always done a fair amount of prices communication. Historically, that has been on things that you would expect – a product problem, economic/financial issue, we put something in the water or the ground that isn’t so smart in retrospect, those kinds of things.
But what’s happened, I would say starting in the last 18 months to two years, is that companies are being blindsided by these societal issues like Me, Too. We’re working with clients now to say, are you vulnerable to these things?
I think we’ve seen in the news – who would’ve thought an airline would be related to gun control or gun violence? We have to make those connections for clients, even to the point where our hope is at some point that we can actually look at, what are the events that get layered on top of each other that make something a tipping point?
Me, Too was around since 2006, right? Tarana Burke first came up with the idea. But it wasn’t till 2017 when it really exploded on the scene. What were the things that led to that? We’re spending quite a bit of time with clients on those issues right now and helping them prepare for it.
Kind of related to that, then, is around – the war for talent right now is huge. How are you going to be a good employer? What’s your employer brand going to be? How do we really make ourselves the place where people want to come and stay? We’re finding that we’re spending a lot of time with companies on attracting and retaining talent, and that’s really interesting work.
ROB: For sure. You mentioned some of these topics that reach a tipping point. Is there anything you’re seeing where there’s some pressure building up behind something, but it really hasn’t burst into the public consciousness yet? Issues that are going to hit somebody?
ANN: We’re looking at a few things like environmental impact of certain products. Just watching that and seeing – again, you start to see things layered on top of each other. Let’s say there’s a lawsuit, and then perhaps social media starts to pick up, and then somebody perhaps very influential starts talking about it. There are certain things that happen that we start to see, okay, this might reach a tipping point.
Impact on environment is one. I think automation – the transformation of what’s happening to the workforce is something that is maybe not so much a societal issue like a Me Too or an immigration issue, but the impact of that I think is coming in such a big way.
ROB: Right. We’re not really feeling that yet.
ROB: In particular on the environmental stuff, is there a timeframe where companies that are involved in the production of meat have, full force, public backlash against them? Are we too early for that?
ANN: Maybe now, say I as a carnivore. But I would also say look at the things that we never expected. I think that’s one of the things that we as advisors have to do, to never say never and put those assumptions aside. It’s really our job to say, well, what could happen?
It’s interesting; I came back from Europe a few weeks ago, and in England – which really surprised me – there was a real strong sense in London in particular that if you’re a meat eater, that’s not so great. It was about the animals and it was about the environment. If it’s already happening in places like London, yeah, your point is well taken.
ROB: You mentioned the things that stack up upon each other and make these issues emerge. I think about companies that are out there working on growing meat in labs. You have Impossible Burgers, which are pretty good. Not perfect, but…
ANN: They look pretty good, yeah.
ROB: You can see where if you can economically grow meat in a lab, then why are you growing that animal out there and killing it?
ROB: I eat meat, too, but you just wonder where it goes.
ANN: I think it’s entirely possible that that’ll happen someday. It is almost inconceivable right now, but when you think about it, considering who’s investing in it, all things are possible.
ROB: What are some other things that are coming up for Peppercomm that you’re excited about, that we should pay attention to?
ANN: Let’s see, what are some exciting things that are happening for us? I think it is in particular around some research that we’re doing. We’re about to start some research when it comes to – I was talking to you a little bit about the employee engagement work that we’re doing. What we are understanding is that how we’re structured and how we listen to each other is going to have to change inside the organization.
We’re about to undertake some research with a couple of partners aimed at really understanding that more and providing solutions to that. We’re really excited about that. We love to do that kind of research and say, okay, we’ve crystallized an issue here; how can we help be part of the solution? That’s the next wave of research for us.
We’ve done some over the last couple years with the Institute for Public Relations really around these societal issues and how people are dealing with them, how companies are dealing with them – which, by the way, is really a challenge. If you think about it – let’s take immigration. Does a company say, “Hey, we need to be kinder to immigrants than we’re being right now?” And how do we make the decision on the stand that we take?
Companies are saying, “Well, I know my employees feel that way, but I have a certain customer segment that absolutely doesn’t, so I’m a little worried about what to do.” And by the way, employees are saying, “I expect you to take a stand.” The percentages of employees that are asking for that is significant.
We’re trying to guide them through that. What we’ve been doing is building around helping companies to have more of a purpose as their North Star. While it sounds like a soft, “Everybody hold hands” kind of thing, it actually really helps companies to make decisions like that, and in fact do better business all the way around.
The fact of the matter is that companies that are purpose-driven perform better financially. So all the work we’re doing around that, we’re excited about.
ROB: Interesting. I think what you’re getting at is if there’s a vacuum of purpose, then your employees are going to start trying to tell you what they think the purpose should be.
ANN: Yeah. Or tell you to do something, and where are your criteria to make a decision? Other than, “Well, our shareholders might feel this way” or whatever it might be. You need more of a North Star than that.
ROB: Right. That has changed certainly pretty quickly as well. In Atlanta, I see plenty of tech companies I know having large cohorts in Pride parades, and that was not a thing that would happen. You’re in San Francisco; you’ve probably seen it sooner.
ANN: Right, probably.
ROB: A lot of these things probably vary by office. There are very different cultures in New York versus London versus San Francisco.
ANN: Yes. We hear that from clients too, which is also interesting. Again, in a world that’s increasingly bifurcated, especially around some of these hot issues, how do you manage your way through it?
Also, how do your respect the fact that, for example – it’s one thing when it’s employees feeling one way and customers feeling another, but let’s say when you have a set of employees feeling different ways. We’re definitely seeing that, and what we’re hearing is that the brave companies are still allowing purpose to guide them, and they are willing to make a decision and take a stand, and they know they’re going to upset some people.
Now, some of them don’t necessarily go public with it, although these days, of course, we all know if you’re saying something inside, you’re pretty much saying it outside. [laughs] But they’re careful.
Yeah, it’s an interesting time. But again, it comes back to the fact that employees are demanding of their leadership to take a stand on these things.
ROB: That research that you mentioned, Ann – will we find that on your website when it’s out?
ANN: Yes, you will
ROB: All right, we will put that in the show notes so that people can find it.
ANN: Awesome, thank you.
ROB: Thank you so much for your time, Ann. It’s been a privilege to have you on the podcast, and a pleasure to meet you. Congrats on the session and enjoy the rest of the conference.
ANN: Thanks, Rob. Nice to be with you.
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