Diana Marszalek 16 Jun 2021 // 1:03AM GMT
In April, Outcast promoted Elizabeth McNichols from president to CEO following the departure of Alex Constantinople after roughly a decade in the position. Having joined Outcast as president in 2012 from Cisco, where she led communications in the Americas, McNichols was certainly no stranger to the tech-focused agency, whose longtime clients include the likes of Facebook, Amazon, Adobe, and Intuit. McNichols talked to PRovoke Media about how Outcast has evolved in tandem with the tech industry over its 24-year history and what that means in terms of today's client expectations and communications. An edited transcript:
Outcast has been in many ways has grown up alongside the tech clients it serves. Where does the agency stand now?
This year will be our 24th anniversary. So, we’re no longer the new kids. We have spent a lot of time over the past 10 years or so reinventing ourselves and growing and testing some new things, and a lot of that has really solidified in the last couple of years. I think it’s nothing new that I am bringing. But I think we are at a tipping point for some of the work we’re doing.
What is that tipping point?
Our roots have been in traditional media relations and public relations and, by extension, working with executives and founders on all things communications. Obviously that world has changed so much … how different it is today … and what that means for the reporters that we work with, what that means for the companies that we work with. And where we have come to is that your story and your narrative as a company or as an individual is at the heart of everything, and there are new ways to tell it. So we have tried to branch out.
This has probably been a 10-year journey. We started doing social media … we have worked with Facebook for forever, almost since they were founded, so it was almost a natural place for us to jump in as an agency. I think we have developed some incredible work in social media campaigns. But you think beyond that and how much more sophisticated things are today in digital marketing. We’re evolving our services to really be delivering the best of that to clients. I would say that is a big change over the last 10 years, but it has accelerated over the last two or three, at least in our business. And then we’re about one-third digital and creative. We have a full creative studio now, and a very robust and creative digital team. So, we can do everything from build a microsite to design your packaging for a product to running really sophisticated paid campaigns.
How much does Outcast’s trajectory mirror that of the tech industry you work with
The company was started in San Francisco and grew up with the tech industry over that period. I think that says a lot about the way the company works. We’re a little over 150 people now. It’s still not huge but we’re not boutique anymore, we are in that midsize, and yet it still runs in that hyper-growth mode of some of our tech clients. We have to match them in some respects and the way that they work.
When I started at Outcast, we saw a lot more traditional companies coming in and saying we want to learn from Silicon Valley or we have an innovation angle or we’re starting this innovation office and we need help getting the word out, or we’re hiring lots of engineers and you guys know how to get to engineers and we need the help. Our client roster really diversified over a small period of time, and it’s pretty much stayed that way. So, if you look at who we work with today, and who we have worked with in the past … we have worked with Patagonia, and Nike, and Bloomberg Philanthropies. We also work with the small tech startup that has10 people and they are trying to solve a really hard problem and we’re helping them get ready to come out to the world.
How do you create and maintain these long-lasting relationships with companies like Facebook and Amazon, both of which have been clients for more than a decade, that are always changing?
Partnership can be a sometimes-overused word. But it is really, really important to the relationships that we have. When we are walking in the door with a client, we really emphasize that. We have clients that have brought us with them when taking other jobs because of that partnership. You are one team, you share success, you are honest about obstacles and where things aren’t working. You treat it like a relationship. You have to nurture it. That has been an important part of the foundation.
Also, we are always stretching and always trying to grow along with them, and that has certainly not been without challenges. You have to evolve the way they work as they grow, and their internal dynamics change. Their brand changes over time. There is an element of flexibility and a willingness to change and an embracing of change that is important.
We also try to bring a lot of the outside into these clients. I was in-house for most of my career, and you can get wrapped up into what’s happening in the walls of conference room. Having people come in from outside and speak to you about what’s going on the world and deliver great news and bad news and be honest about where things are going outside the walls of the company can be a real advantage as companies are looking at their brands and their communications.
How has the agency adapted internally to meet clients’ needs?
Just in the past couple of years we hired some incredible new talent in new areas. We have an executive creative director who started two years ago and has really taken our creative studio work to another level. We just hired a new head of brand strategy coming from BBDO and AKQA. The senior VP of our digital practice was at Red Bull running its digital marketing. So, we are bringing in people who have talent and networks and have a history of thinking in these newer categories and I think it's helping our team step up in the work they are doing. It’s helping us speak to new kinds of clients. The kind of clients we had eight or nine years ago were traditionally chief communications officers. For the startups, it was often founders or that C-suite. Now we can go in and have conversations in the digital realm, somebody who is running aspects of digital marketing, and having somebody who has had that job, and who can speak to all the opportunities and considerations that you must have in running campaigns. It’s a super exciting time for us.
It’s also fantastic on the communications side because what we are seeing happen is the sort of marrying of the digital and the comms side has created a lot of new opportunities for people. When you think about the narrative and storytelling that we do, that is so fundamental to our communications clients, that hasn’t changed and so there is a lot of incredible creativity and thinking going on in that world. But what we have said more directly is that we want the digital side of our business to grow, and we see it as an opportunity for the agency to grow, and we are going to invest to make that happen.
The theory of the moment is that every company is a tech company. Does that make every agency a tech agency or does that still require niche skills?
What may be more interesting is looking at the way the tech industry has changed. There are probably a lot of similarities between a startup today and a startup 10 years ago. But I think there is an element today that they also are thinking more like traditional industries. So, One Medical. Is that a tech company or is that a healthcare company? GoodRX. Is that healthcare or is that tech? And maybe it doesn’t matter. We’re also seeing a lot of the bigger companies, like financial services companies, treating tech less like part of an innovation practice, or arm that does online banking. They are thinking about these businesses as core to what they offer to their customers. So, then every company isn’t a tech company.
What are your goals in your new role?
When I took the job, I wanted to look at the agency with fresh eyes as much as that’s possible. We just did a rebrand in February, so in terms of our mission, vision, values that’s not changing. I am, though, trying to get in and see what I'm thinking about for the company if I were not looking at this from my perspective. Some of that is how we work. Some of that is who we work with. I have been doing a listening tour with everybody at the company. I’ve talked to some clients. I’ve talked to past clients. I’ve talked to people in other agencies. I think I need to sit down and distill all that.
My short-term goal is that I want to make this an amazing place to work. I think that it is today. And I want to keep that up and think about how we make it easier for people to do excellent, innovative work. I’m learning a lot in this process about potential ways to do that. That’s a real focus for me. because people are so essential to what we do. And I want people to feel like they are working in a place where they can build a career and they are growing and feel like they can innovative and that they can have ideas that then get implemented. Outcast has such an incredible history and I feel lucky and honored to walk into this job. We have such an incredible legacy, both the work that we’ve done, the people who have come from here and the clients we have worked with over the years, and long-term I want to do more. There is a way that the brand shows up in the market, and I just want to amplify that. I want it to be as good and as meaningful to work with Outcast as it has been for 24 years.