On July 1, 2021, at 3 PM CT, we will talk with Ryan Pirkle, the Director of Marketing at FFW, a global digital agency intent on building world-class digital experiences and platforms for leading brands such as Lush, General Electric, Stanford University, SmileTrain, among others. Before joining FFW, Ryan worked for Gravity Payments, where he orchestrated one of the biggest news stories of the last decade, announcing a $70k minimum wage, which transformed Gravity’s business overnight and elevated Gravity’s CEO, Dan Price, to a high-profile thought-leader, author, and speaker.
Q: Who are you, and what do you do?
I’m Ryan Pirkle. As the Director of Marketing for FFW, I lead FFW Americas marketing strategy, manage the Americas marketing team, and contribute to FFW global marketing strategy and initiatives.
Q: Do you have any nicknames you care to share?
None that are suitable for your upscale and refined audience.
Q: What do you love about marketing?
Overall, I love exploring the strategic and psychological aspects that are necessary to truly resonate with audiences.
Q: What do you loathe about marketing?
There’s not a ton I loathe about marketing but pressed to answer, I’d say two things:
- Internally within organizations, I am not a fan of the perception of marketing to those outside of the field. Unfortunately, it’s something many of us are continually battling. These misunderstandings can hinder the ability to gain resources and approvals and alignment of major strategic initiatives and inhibit the perceived value of our perspective to larger issues and opportunities within an organization.
- In general, the increasing pervasiveness of marketing in our daily lives – specifically paid media – is concerning on many levels. On a personal level, the constant barrage of sponsored messaging – at seemingly every touchpoint of my day – is insanely frustrating. As a jaded consumer, it feels like companies are spending every cent of a budget and share of creativity on finding new avenues (often increasingly intrusive) to reach audiences, rather than investing that time and creativity on the quality of their message. And as a marketer, this is concerning to me as it will only make all of our jobs collectively more difficult every day. The barriers of skepticism will grow higher, as will the barrier to accessing our audiences as they further insulate themselves from intrusive and constant marketing.
Q: What’s one thing you’d like people to understand about marketing?
For those in marketing or marketing-related fields, I think the most important aspect of marketing to understand and appreciate is the power of ‘showing vs. shouting.’ This is a simple, yet not easy, nuance to effective marketing. Telling someone something will never be as effective (and in many cases can be counterproductive) as showing somebody something so that they can arrive at the idea themselves. It’s much easier and tempting just to shout, “We make the hands-down best pizza in the city!” But why would anyone believe you? After all, anyone can say anything.
Instead, suppose you show people pictures of your chef hand-selecting fresh ingredients from the market and the independent Wisconsin cheesery where your mozzarella is sourced. Next, you tell the story of how you only use vine-ripened plum tomatoes in your sauce. Then you share the story of your pizza-maker who spent three years in Italy to hone their craft. Ultimately, you leave these authentic blocks of proof, which the audience can construct into the same idea that was shouted at them in the preceding example.
What’s funny is that the examples above of showing your audience versus shouting at your audience likely appear to be non-impactful, warm-and-fuzzy marketing busywork to those outside of marketing. They may lean towards the mindset of, “Why are you using this month’s newsletter to tell the story of one of our pizza makers?! That’s not going to help sales! Just tell them about our $4 off a large pizza special.” But this is the difference between building a customer, a loyalist, and someone clipping a coupon for that night’s dinner.
Q: What’s one thing you’d like people to forget about marketing?
Forget any notion that marketing is highly complex. At the risk of my own job security, marketing ain’t rocket science. Any person, in any department, in any company can have terrific marketing ideas or valuable insight to influence or shape marketing strategy in one way or another. Though marketing concepts are relatively simple, by no means am I saying marketing is easy. It’s all in the execution.
Q: What has been your biggest mistake in your marketing career? Lessons learned?
Not trusting myself nor asserting my marketing expertise-based point of view. The lesson: Trust my instinct and not assume everyone has the context they need to understand or appreciate an idea. Reflecting on my career, there have been many times I’ve had a concept I was so excited about. When I proposed it to other stakeholders, it was shot down. But knowing what I do now, I realize I failed to provide adequate context and rationale relevant to the stakeholders. I didn’t drive home what’s in it for them. Frankly, I did not apply the basic tenets of our profession to my own ideas.
Another mistake is thinking too narrowly. Over a long enough period of time, I think this happens to even the best of us marketers. We fence ourselves in by subconsciously establishing artificial constructs. I wrote a Forbes article about this several years ago.
Q: What has been the most satisfying victory in your marketing career? Lessons learned?
My most satisfying victory was at my last company, where I orchestrated a major PR push around our CEO’s decision to set a $70K minimum wage at our mid-sized payment processing company of 200 employees. The story ended up being one of the biggest news events of 2015, garnering coverage (and multiple follow-ups) in The New York Times, NBC News, interviews, and lengthy profile pieces by Today Show, Good Morning America, CBS News, Forbes, and Esquire. The story went viral as a daily top-trender on Facebook eight times, Twitter six times, and the Reddit front page 14 times. The PR firestorm resulted in international acclaim for my CEO. He received a $500K advance book deal from Penguin-Random House and representation by William Morris Endeavor’s (WME) entertainment division.
But the real ‘win’ was this simple lesson that transcends PR and can be applied to any marketing endeavor: To make an impact with a message, it must mean something to everyone or everything to someone.
I had to find a way to make this story about an unknown CEO of a middle-sized company in Seattle, in a non-visible and completely unexciting industry, mean something to everyone. So I connected our story to several national conversation points, including the then-pending $15 per hour minimum wage discussions in Seattle, NYC, and LA, as well as the CEO-to-median-salary ratios that were (and are) spiraling out of control. Aligning our small story to these salient national conversation points took our story from regional marginalia to a national headline representing one solution to this debate.
But my team at FFW and I apply this lesson daily, without a focus on PR. We always want to align our message and content to something that means something to our audience. It could be using a heavily empathetic message addressing the audience’s emotional desires and anxieties or aligning our solution with a broadly known headline, buzz-topic, or widely-felt concern.
Q: What sort of questions would you love for our guests to ask you on Being Marketers?
I would love any questions related to marketing strategy, approach, and the ‘big idea’ (as opposed to specific technologies and tools) such as:
- Public Relations, building a brand with purpose
- The power of empathetic messaging
- Fostering brand affinity, turning your clients into connectors driving new business opportunities
- The power of being relatable and the disadvantage of trying to sound like the smartest person or company.
Q: What are you reading or listening to (webcasts or audiobooks) that you would recommend?
I’m currently re-reading the book “Decisive” by Chip and Dan Heath. I have never liked business books, nor found much practical advice in them. In my last company, my CEO absorbed business books constantly and charged me to do the same. I read a lot of them: business books, marketing books, biographies, etc. Almost all of them were immediately forgettable. But “Decisive” was different. It deconstructs how people make decisions and guides you to recognize subconscious, unnecessary limitations, and artificial constructs. It helped me make better decisions, make them faster, and have more confidence in these decisions.
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