Esther Raphael, Chief Marketing Officer, Intersection (New York, NY)
Esther Raphael is the Chief Marketing Officer at Intersection, an out-of-home media and technology company that uses proprietary technology to electronically paint its client’s stories on busses and city, transit system, airport, and interior and exterior “destination” walls around the country . . . anywhere outside the home where brands can deliver content, information, and wayfinding to consumers as “they journey through cities.” Intersection’s technology supports dynamic program execution and unique campaign flexibility. A Harris Poll survey reported that 69% of urban consumers are noticing “out-of-home” now more than they were pre-pandemic.
Headquartered in NYC, the agency has offices around the country, so the six-year-old agency has always had a bit of “remote” about it.
Esther was on this year’s South by Southwest panel discussing “When ‘Go Away’ Is a Powerful Brand Message.” The agency partners with Foursquare and uses that platform’s aggregated location data to display hourly traffic levels in vicinity grocery stores and pharmacies – optimizing safety by providing consumers with information on the best times to shop to avoid crowds. Intersection also partners with Foursquare on content – showing client ROI and tracking opt-in user experience data.
Intersection is best known for “Link NYC,” a product which provides “localized messaging, transit and community information, and creative partnerships with local nonprofits and institutions. Consumers have come to rely on the wealth of curated advertising and editorial content displayed on Intersection’s screens as a source of information as they travel around the city. Just as on other media platforms, advertising partners with content. “We don’t have any billboards,” Raphael says. “We are focused on being alongside a person while they’re walking around the city.”
Intersection started its first branding campaign, “Go There,” in spring of 2020, which has been “taking off” this spring. Initially, Go There was about “those first places you would visit when they opened in spring of 2020” and thinking about that feeling. The meaning has expanded to include “the places Intersection can take a brand to” . . . but also to “do something you have never done before.”
Esther says that out-of-home creative can be powerful and drive results. It can also drive “social media interaction and engagement” because of its large and unique canvas. She says, if you only deploy a mobile/desktop strategy, “you’re missing people when they’re (outside) feeling joy.” Intersection just launched its first in-house creative agency, Creative Lab, to help small- to medium-sized businesses understand out-of-home marketing campaigns.
Esther can be reached on her agency’s website at: https://www.intersection.com/
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and we are diving into our annual South by Southwest series. Of course, South by was virtual this year, so we are virtual. We can’t wait to be back next year at the lounge at the Four Seasons, recording with some awesome guests live.
But today I am joined virtually by Esther Raphael. She’s the Chief Marketing Officer at Intersection, based in New York, New York. Welcome to the podcast, Esther.
ESTHER: Thank you, Rob. I too cannot wait to meet you live and be there live next year.
ROB: We’ll buy you a coffee or a beverage of your choice at the lounge. It’ll be fantastic. With our South by Southwest series, on an average episode, we’re talking to marketing agency owners, founders, etc., but we find really interesting opportunities within the South by Southwest speaker ecosystem. Esther, why don’t you start off by telling us about Intersection and where you sit in the marketing ecosystem?
ESTHER: Love that. Intersection is an out-of-home media and technology company, and we have advertising products in cities, transit systems, airports, and key destinations all over the country so that brands can speak directly to consumers as they go about their journey through cities.
We know from recent research that people are more engaged now than ever with out-of-home. Think about the past year and everything that we’ve all experienced. Being able to leave your home sometimes was that moment of fresh air, that moment of relaxation, that walk around the block, running an errand. 69% of consumers that live in urban areas are saying that they’re noticing out-of-home now more than pre-pandemic, and that’s according to a Harris Poll survey. We are right in that sweet spot, right in the place where brands can speak to consumers in a way that they feel engaged and happy.
ROB: Very interesting. It seems to me, my perception, that out-of-home continues to digitize. I’m in Atlanta and we have more and more digital billboards going up. Is there even something in perhaps the technology that’s going into out-of-home, even in terms of brightness in the product that’s being put out there, that’s increasing the visibility/noticeability of it?
ESTHER: For sure. On one side we have proprietary technology that gives our partners – the transit authorities, the cities – the ability to deliver information and content and wayfinding and all these services to their consumers. Then on the advertising side, one of the things we’re most known for is our technology, allowing brands to do dynamic executions and unique campaign flexibility. It’s something we’re pretty proud of and focused on.
ROB: It’s kind of happening before our eyes, but it’s really fascinating to get an expert like you in place to really illuminate. It happens slowly but quickly at the same time.
If we tap in a little bit to your South by Southwest panel, the topic was “When ‘Go Away’ Is a Powerful Brand Message.” Take us into the details of that session and what you were sharing with the community in that talk.
ESTHER: One of the products that we’re most known for at Intersection is Link NYC here in New York. If you ever come to visit, we could take you on a market ride. We have an editorial team who is dedicated to curating content on the screens – thinking about the consumer experience as they journey through that city, not only from the advertising perspective, but from the editorial side. Our content suite includes localized messaging, transit and community information, and creative partnerships with local nonprofits and institutions. Because of this, consumers look to our screens for important and helpful information.
As COVID entered the story, we had to quickly pivot some of our content and our storytelling to better serve the community as they were dealing with this new world. We all were. One of the ways that we did this was through our partnership with Foursquare.
If you think back to one of the greatest everyday stressors we’ve all experienced over the past year, it’s getting groceries and supplies. When do you go? How do I avoid the lines? Is it going to be safe? That’s really what we wanted to solve for.
Using Foursquare’s aggregated location data, we were able to display the average hourly traffic levels for nearby grocery stores and drugstores on thousands of Intersection streets. This was designed to give consumers a heads up on the best time to shop to avoid the crowds.
The title of our South by panel was so catchy, and I think what’s really important to point out about this partnership is that it’s not about deterring visits. We weren’t telling people, “Don’t go grocery shopping.” It was more about optimizing, how do we help people do it safely?
ROB: Right. It’s sort of in theme with – I’m getting a sense as you talk about the Intersection product line – and I can certainly picture an experience, and I can’t wait to be back up in the city and I can picture those Link NYC displays. A lot of out-of-home advertising – historically, billboards, now digital also – you don’t really get an impression of it being helpful. So I wonder a little bit, how do you keep that conviction of being helpful throughout? It seems like it’s a real core of your product and something a great deal of thought goes into instead of just maximizing inventory and then throwing in some wayfinding.
ESTHER: That’s right. When we really were evaluating our product line, and right when Link came out, one of the things that we spent a lot of time thinking about was media in general. When you think about other media platforms, like TV, magazines, which is what my background is in, podcasts, even – you come for the content, and advertising is a partner in that. They’re along the journey.
The exception to that was out-of-home, and that’s what we really wanted to change. We wanted to be the first, and we were the first, to do it in the out-of-home space – creating content not only for Link, but for our entire network across the country so that consumers and people walking around the city would look to the screen for information that was interesting to them.
During COVID, of course we worked very closely with the city and with all different government agencies to put up really important, relevant, timely information – campaigns like the Foursquare partnership. But year round, we do things like events in your neighborhood, local offerings, things that are helpful, interesting, something you’d be excited to see or would be helpful to your life while you’re walking around the city.
ROB: The company has been around for a little bit now, right?
ROB: How long has it been around?
ESTHER: 6 years, about.
ROB: It’s interesting, that inflection point of digital displays. As you talk about that sort of editorial approach, I’m picturing even let’s say 15 to 20 years ago, you started to see these little tiny displays pop into elevators. The philosophy seemed a little bit similar. It was a little bit of what’s helpful to you and a little bit of news or editorial content, but the screens were tiny. Now the screens are – I think Times Square, at least for a while, had room for people to spend however much money on a digital display for the attention. But it seems like the economics of these displays must be shifting radically at this point.
ESTHER: We at Intersection are very thoughtful about our screens. We don’t have any billboards. We are focused on being alongside a person while they’re walking around the city. Street, maybe exterior of buses, inside transit or airport systems, or inside destinations. We have a network at Hudson Yards, New York inside the shopping complex and outside.
We really want to be a part of your experience, not necessarily something you just pass by in your vehicle. So that’s also a very big part of our strategy at Intersection.
ROB: That’s fascinating. Again, you’re making me long to be back up in New York and back up to Hudson Yards. All in good time, and possibly quite soon.
I think one part of this conversation that may be surprising to a lot of people is your mention of Foursquare. Foursquare, formerly one of the breakout darling hits of a South by Southwest once upon a time, and still kind of useful at South by, since fractured into the Yelp-like Foursquare app and swarmed still for those who can’t keep themselves from checking in, which is admittedly kind of me.
But I think a lot of people might turn up their nose to the idea of Foursquare as something that is a thing from the past. What’s their data quality looking like, and how are they pulling that off when they’ve left the zeitgeist? They’re not the “it” thing anymore, but there have been some very interesting campaigns and studies around Foursquare that I think surprise people when they look at it.
ESTHER: We’ll have to save that for our next podcast when we bring on the Foursquare team. [laughs] They can speak more to you about their data. But we partner with them on a lot of different things. This is one of our partnerships on our content side.
We also partner with them on the other side of the business, which is showing our clients’ ROI. Foursquare has a ton of data capabilities. Based on their opt-in users who share their geographic location and allow them to collect research and survey information, we’re able to tell our clients who run with Intersection a little bit about that user experience when they see their ads and the interactions and actions they take after seeing it. Foursquare has a whole data side of their business which I’m not an expert in, but we are lucky to have them as a partner.
ROB: Excellent to hear. It’s definitely become such a key revenue stream for them, if you get in and do a little bit of homework.
One transition we’re clearly getting into a little bit is reopening. I think marketers everywhere are having to think a great deal about what reopening looks like, what things to promote, what things to hold off on. How are you – probably obviously with data, but how are you navigating this next stage where we’re not quite wide open, or not at all, or maybe somewhere in between, and how new messages enter the conversation?
ESTHER: I love this question because I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I’m one of those people who’s so social that this year’s really taken a toll on me, especially in the beginning when we thought about sitting in our home offices – which for me, it is my bedroom. [laughs] I sit in here all day. You lack that interaction with your colleagues who once brought you this tremendous amount of energy, or your friends who make you smile in a different kind of way that you really miss.
One of the things we started at Intersection in spring of 2020, but it’s coming back full force this spring, is a campaign called Go There. It was our first ever, really, branding campaign at Intersection. Go There to us has so many meanings. It was thinking about those first places you would visit when they opened in spring of 2020. Go back to that feeling. I know where it was, and I will be vain and share it: it was to the hair salon. [laughs] As I am sure so many other women would admit to. I remember sitting in that chair thinking, wow, these moments that we have taken so for granted are so special all of a sudden.
So Go There really plays off of the hope of the places we’ll return to, but then it also has this business side of the places Intersection can take a brand to, really go there to the cities with us, but also go there with your creative. Do something you have never done before. Really dare to challenge yourself and to speak to people in a different way.
That’s something I am working on for a huge launch in June, which I am really passionate about. Yes, we’re all going to turn to data, but I think we’re also going to turn to what’s inside of our hearts and makes us happy when things open, and that’s the part I think there’s so much to be said and done around.
ROB: You raise a meaningful point with your home office in your bedroom, as I imagine is quite common. I’ve stayed in Airbnbs and different places, and the ones in the five boroughs tend to be a little bit tighter, shall we say, space-wise. So I can picture things.
How has Intersection overall navigated probably having a deep concentration of your team in the city where their home office is a bedroom? And then you probably have some folks who’ve been commuting in from an outer suburb that are on cloud nine. How are you handling geography as things come back? Have some people distributed out to the winds? Is it going to be completely back in place in the office?
ESTHER: We’re figuring that all out right now. One of the things that’s so wonderful about Intersection is that it is and always has been people first, really thinking about what’s best for the employees and for the team that makes us Intersection. They’ve done the best to keep us happy from home, give us the resources, the tools. I told you before we logged on this call, IT helps you the second you raise your hand that you need help. People just seem to want to roll up their sleeves and make sure you are extra comfortable, extra productive.
The truth of the matter is, though, Intersection has so many offices around the country. We were always slightly remote. So while I am physically based in the New York office, my team was in West Coast, central region, all over the East Coast. We were always on video. This isn’t that much of a change. I think the thing that’s new for us is that people don’t get to go to the office. Sitting in your home, that’s the part where you have to personally reflect on change and think about how to be more productive, especially when there’s little children running outside your door.
But I think as a business, we figured this out long before we had to be home because of our offices geographically being located all over the map. We will come back; we’re planning a return, and hopefully it is very soon.
ROB: We are hopefully planning a team gathering in June or July, but it’s all subject to what people feel comfortable with to a certain extent.
It’s interesting how you mentioned the distribution of the company. It really reminds me, too, of some of those old TV and radio stations, the local media conglomerates with the local offices. It seems like there’s probably an extent to which you’ve been taking the lunch of the local TV and radio station. Has that been a significant factor? Were you missing that in-person salesperson in Topeka, Kansas – I don’t know if that’s even a place you’re at, but it might be – talking to the local car dealership?
ESTHER: That is exactly why we’re in all of those markets. We have offices in almost every market that we represent, and we have people on the ground going to those local car dealerships, local businesses. I think it makes Intersection feel like a small business within each city that ladders up into the unit that we are. I think it’s one of the beautiful pieces about having a regionalized business like that.
ROB: I wonder a little bit, as we get past the initial reopening, it seems like there is this – we all talk about the things we’re going to do next, where we’re going to go. There’s going to be a pent-up demand for, I think, advertisement as well. How are you thinking about inventory, and how should marketers be thinking about your sort of inventory as we move into what could be a little bit of a super-heated time for competing for eyeballs?
ESTHER: This is something that I also addressed at our South by Southwest panel, so great segue. People have been living their life outdoors in a different kind of way – working out outside, restaurants outside, dining outside, curbside pickup, walking, biking, more than ever before. Because of that, people are feeling an extreme level of screen fatigue. They’re on their computers all day, they’re looking at their phone, they’re working. When they finally go outside, they’re ready to leave that screen behind.
We talked a lot about how if you were deploying only a mobile and desktop strategy, you’re missing people when they’re feeling joy. When I get my screen report on Saturday or Sunday night, I feel such a pit in my stomach. The phone knows how long I’ve been texting people, the phone knows how long I’ve been on social media. It’s not a good feeling. [laughs] Whereas on the other side, when you go outside, you feel that breath of fresh air, and that’s where out-of-home sits.
I think advertisers have noticed that over the past year, and we’ve seen a huge shift in some business categories coming to the out-of-home space. I think we’re going to continue to see that. The out-of-home space was actually having a huge uptick in business in 2019. I imagine this little blip in all businesses in the world over 2020 and the first half of 2021 will have a quick departure and we’ll continue to see people outside, advertising outside, being a part of that journey, that experience, that breath of fresh air. Here’s to the second half.
ROB: Indeed. When people think of the future of out-of-home, I think one version they probably think of, if they think about it for a little too long, is the sort of Minority Report, screens everywhere, scanning your eyes and spamming and whatnot. That’s probably not where we’re going, and even that vision of things is probably 10 or 15 years old now. When you think about the next 5 years of out-of-home, what do you expect we’re going to see?
ESTHER: I think you’ll see more content, more and more out-of-home publishers using those screens to talk to people, to talk to them in a helpful way. I think you’ll continue to see technology improve in a way that will just blow our minds. If you think of where we were 10 years ago and where we are today, you can only imagine where we’ll be 5 years from now. I think those would be my top two answers.
ROB: Got it. One company I encountered was heavily digitizing advertising in places like NASCAR tracks. What’s going on in the sports venue side of out-of-home? Is that something you intersect with at all?
ESTHER: We have such a big network outside of sports arenas, specifically in Chicago, in Philadelphia. It’s a huge part of how we speak to our clients in those markets. If you think about fans of sports in Philadelphia and Chicago, that is a world I cannot even begin to understand. [laughs] But we do a lot of work with our partners to make sure they’re there on opening day of the Cubs. So yes, sports is way on the top of the list as it returns where you’re going to want to see more people talking to that audience. That’s a special group of enthusiasts who people want to talk to and reach.
ROB: Link NYC from a transit perspective is one of those crown jewels where there’s a sufficient critical mass of people, there’s a critical mass of network. I imagine, because you’re in these different local markets, some of the things that you see in New York start to move downstream – in other words, smaller and smaller transit networks and places become valuable to do this sort of thing. Where are the places you think we’re going to start seeing digital out-of-home content that we’re not seeing? Maybe it is in a smaller town, maybe in a smaller place.
ESTHER: Austin, we just won the Austin market. It’s such a hot market. I think you’ll continue to see tremendous growth in the digital out-of-home space and even the static out-of-home space in Austin.
We also have moved into LA, which of course is so well-known for their billboards and driving down Sunset and seeing every single celebrity pay homage to themselves on the screen. [laughs] But we have all of the transit system there, which we will also be investing quite a bit of time into thinking about what those screens look like and the type of information that is given to them.
I would say LA and Austin are way at the top of certainly our list at Intersection.
ROB: Got it. With Austin, is that primarily the transit system, or are there other adjacencies there?
ESTHER: Right now it’s the transit system.
ROB: How do you think about, then, scaling down editorial a little bit? Or is it not necessary anymore? Is Austin still big enough you can have a pretty meaty content organization around it?
ESTHER: We haven’t started Austin yet. Austin right now is predominantly static for us. We’re looking into how we bring content to all of our markets. We have Link in New York, Philadelphia, and Newark; they have a large content suite. Then all of our other digital markets – LA, Minneapolis, the list goes on – we do quite a bit of content. It’s not the same level that we do in New York where we focus on events and Heritage Month and things that are so unique and special to all things New York City.
But we’re spending quite a bit of time now thinking about how we do the same, how we mimic what works so well in New York and Philadelphia and Newark and bring that to other cities so that consumers begin to understand that out-of-home is a different kind of media, and that you should think about it, you should look at the screens in the same way you do other media formats.
ROB: Esther, you certainly put a lot of time into preparing for a conversation like the one you had at South by Southwest. What have I not touched on yet that we should be talking about?
ESTHER: One of the things we really should cover is creative in out-of-home. I think there’s this renaissance right now where you’re seeing people do things in the out-of-home space that are so breathtaking, powerful, but also effective, also drive results, but drive social media engagement, drive interaction and engagement because of the canvas that out-of-home gives you.
Because of that, we’ve just launched our first in-house creative agency. It’s called Creative Lab. Even advertisers, specifically on the regional level – or beyond; we’ll help anyone – but we talked a lot about how smaller businesses on the SMB side of the business in each of our markets want help thinking through what a campaign in out-of-home looks like. How do you do something so impactful, just a wow moment, but also that will drive results for your business? We have a team of designers around the country who are ready to go.
ROB: With that creative agency aspect, it seems like it naturally flows into the conversation around measurement. Obviously, measurement has been a little bit different over the past year, but do you have anything before then or even leading into post-COVID to think about measuring results outside of just, obviously, impressions and people in the area?
ESTHER: Yes, absolutely. We have spent a lot of time pre-COVID, but also during, making sure that our clients know the level of return on their investment that they’ll receive. We have a complete measurement team dedicated to attribution, thinking about brand awareness. If you want to measure actual store visits, if you want to measure digital event measurement – did somebody actually download my app? Did somebody actually make a purchase?
Pre-COVID, there were so many stats about consumers’ behavior and the power of out-of-home driving, for example, in-store traffic. If you look at the Nielsen out-of-home study that came out at the end of 2019, you saw this wonderful story of 39% of people noticing their out-of-home ads, 20% of them immediately visiting a business after seeing that ad, but 74% of those visitors making a purchase as a result of that ad.
There is definitely this power to out-of-home to take action. It’s one of the beautiful things of media.
ROB: It makes sense and it’s believable, and I know I find myself noticing so many more of what’s around me. I know you’re not in the billboard land and I’m not on Atlanta transit lately, but definitely seeing a lot of that good information.
Esther, thank you for sharing your insights from your talk at South by Southwest. I’m really eager – I think we all are – to meet back in person and do Austin right next year and see some of those campaigns going up there as well.
ESTHER: Sure. Can’t wait. Barbeque next year.
ROB: Oh yeah. I had a reservation for some barbeque. I have 5 pounds of the best stuff that they owe me on credit. Literally. They wouldn’t give me a refund. They just said, “Hey, come back and tell us we owe you. Bring the email.”
ESTHER: All of our South by Southwest media posts said “bring your own barbeque,” so you’re onto something. I’ll have to follow up with a brisket tonight. [laughs]
ROB: Love it. I’m inspired as well. Thank you so much, Esther. Be well.
ESTHER: Thank you. You too. Bye.
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