Jennifer Rooney. Forbes
GE is a more than century-old company, but its marketing moves have rivaled any digital-era startup. Driving marketing innovation is CMO Beth Comstock and Global Executive Director of Digital, Advertising and Design Linda Boff.
Boff took some time to speak with me recently about GE’s agency relationships, particularly its rationale for working with a decidedly untraditional agency known for experimentation: Sub Rosa. The eight-year-old New York-based shop of 22 employees focused on building integrated branded experiences for clients, such GE Works Centre, has been working with GE since 2010.
Sub Rosa CEO Michael Ventura calls his agency a “scout ship:” “We are the generalist with specialties, who goes out into the world and explores things [the client] or we see on the horizon and might be interested in pursuing,” he said.
Other executions include GE Garages, which showcases the art and importance of manufacturing; For Women By Women, a program that re-imagines the mammography experience with input from women themselves as well as designers and thought leaders to develop an exam room of the future; and a photography workshop for Levi’s. Within the past couple months, the shop also has launched a campaign for Target and has lead the community launch strategy for Nike’s Flyknit in six countries.
“A lot of time [clients] don’t know what they have because they sit behind the curtain every day,” Ventura added. “We come in very sociologically and ask the right questions. We want to make sure that what we create doesn’t just elevate the marketing effort but elevates the business.”
GE also counts BBDO and The Barbarian Group as creative agencies, and collaboration among all has been key. Here, Boff explains why the unorthodox Sub Rosa has been a good fit for the iconic brand and its overall agency strategy.
Why Sub Rosa and why was the work was the best approach for GE?
We met Michael two years ago and were struck immediately by his quiet intelligence and the kinds of projects he was doing. I was very intrigued by how he was taking an iconic brand like Levi’s and taking a unique approach to connecting with consumers.
GE works with quite a few creative agencies, thinkers, and what I think is particularly unique about Michael and Sub Rosa is that they are true partners. I feel as though they get us, they know the brand, they embrace what we are about and what we’re trying to articulate.
GE is a large, diverse company with beautiful but intricate stories. Sub Rosa has been exceptional at connecting the diversity and scale of the brand to the end user in ways that are very human.
How does Sub Rosa augment the work of your other creative agencies like BBDO?
A company as diverse as GE needs to rely on the best of the best when it comes to creativity. [We work with] Barbarian Group and many others—where I think Michael brings a tremendous perspective is this translation of the brand into a physical structure that people can interact with. They’re all about some type of immersive experience that people have first-hand. We’re very fortunate to have a variety of creative partners and they work very well together.
How much of working with the shop is experimental in nature?
I like to think we are a company going a long way back to our history that embraces innovation. We like to be at the pointy edge of the spear when we can be. We are as comfortable and appreciative when our creative partners push the edge, [push us] out of our comfort zones.
What Sub Rosa does is in some ways often the definition of experimentation. I don’t think there’s a project they did with us that had anything that looked like a blueprint.
They have a lot of whitespace to help us create within, and they’re very good at doing it, but they understand the brand and they understand GE and have spent time not just with marketers and communicators, but they’ve walked the factory floor; there’s an innate understanding of the brand that they share with BBDO, The Barbarian Group and other partners.
We trust them, we trust all of our creative partners. There is a point that’s worth making: We often are sort of shoulder-to-shoulder with our creative partners. At GE, it isn’t just a creative brief—we are true partners in this. There is a lot of collaboration along the way.
We embrace partners on the marketing communications side and increasingly on the startup side through open collaboration. Sometimes we think of GE as the oldest startup on the block. We are keen to work with not just people like Sub Rosa. We openly embrace that and seek it out—we find it to be really tremendous. As we do that what we find is people like Michael look back at us and say, you’re the coolest company around. The technology that we’re involved with is—we’re our own version of Facebook. For us, we connect around this idea of innovation and technology. I would say they groove on it too.
What advice do you have for other CMOs based on your experience in this?
When brands work with multiple creative agencies, there’s more obligation on the part of the internal brand team to ensure collaboration, ensure brand consistency; people like me, my team, we need to step up and own that. We kind of love it, but I think that’s something to think about.