Rema Vasan | The Innovator 25 North America 2020

Rema Vasan  

EVP, Chief Innovation Officer 

Marina Maher Communications (MMC)  
New York, NY

“The ability to adjust and speedily innovate new products and services for the greater good of the world is something we see as a permanent part of innovation and the heart of a company.”

Rema Vasan has built a career around advancing the communications industry by anticipating change — and figuring out ways to adapt to it in ways that yield results while disrupting traditional business models. In the year-plus she’s been at MMC, Vasan has demonstrated the value of her ingenuity by creating and implementing new approaches, using new technologies, that have made concrete strides in helping clients deliver business results. Among her recent feats: the creation of MMC’s Empathy IndeXX, a proprietary capability designed to help propel women into Corporate America’s leadership roles; ad Audiential, an influencer marketing tool which switches the target of efforts from influencers followers to brands’ audience.

Where is the most urgent need for innovation within the PR/communications industry? 
I came into the PR/Communications industry from advertising and digital marketing nearly five years ago because I fell in love with earning consumer and stakeholder attention…and if there ever was a critical time to truly EARN that attention, it’s now. This year has proven unexpected in many ways, completely changing the way people think and act, not to mention shifting their values and priorities, making trust and emotional connection more important than ever before. 
This IS the time for PR/Communications to take the lead, and brilliantly innovate in the way we challenge conventions, showcase our inherent agility and digital-first storytelling chops.
We are no strangers to disruption - now the norm rather than the exception - and the most urgent need is how we lead “Earned-First” ideas.

How would you describe the communications/PR industry's level of innovation compared to other marketing disciplines?
About the same as other marketing disciplines

How have the events of 2020 impacted the the industry's innovation?
More innovative. The COVID-19 pandemic, along with the ongoing social unrest, has made it critical that we as communicators find new ways to innovate on a daily basis. The world has been forever changed by the impact of the events of 2020. The phrase, “time is of the essence”, has never before held as much significance as it does today. People are consuming more than ever before, in different ways, at different times. When and where brands deliver relevant messages is absolutely crucial. Additionally, content creation has been completely revolutionized. The need for real-time content minus access to fancy studios and in-person interactions has pushed content creators to change the way they produce content.

This reinforces the benefits of tapping into influencers - who have long been producing “scrappy” content with nothing more than an iPhone. Influencers provide incredible value, acting as everyday spokespeople with the ability to pulse-check what people care about. They have access to actionable feedback and data based on audience interests, and can quickly pivot and adjust content accordingly, which is absolutely necessary in the current cultural climate. The entire world is facing these challenges together, and it’s extremely important that brands find ways to emotionally connect in a relevant and resonant manner. We must innovate to ensure there is a two-way dialogue between brand and consumer, giving rise to new voices and proving that earned has always been at the core of communications.

Where is the PR industry's greatest opportunity for taking the lead on innovation?
Integrated marketing

What is the ideal working scenario for innovation? 
Whether it’s remote work or in-person collaboration, what’s critical is a diverse workforce married with an innovative culture that celebrates independent thinking and creative nourishment of talent. Diverse talent offers diverse perspectives, new ways of thinking, and together, we can push boundaries and innovate in ways that are absolutely critical for our clients and the communications industry as a whole. Inclusivity is key. No idea goes unspoken.

Has 2020 changed the way you define/approach innovation? How?
Innovation is about going beyond the obvious to create and operationalize new products, processes or services that deliver value.
2020 has not changed this definition but it has certainly emphasized the need for thinking outside the box, agility and speed of implementation in an ever-changing landscape. For instance, we have seen this year that innovation can simply be reimagining what you do/offer in a more timely and relevant way. For example, perfume companies turned to producing hand sanitizer, car companies adapted to produce ventilators, fashion designers launched lines of face masks. The ability to adjust and speedily innovate new products and services for the greater good of the world is something we see as a permanent part of innovation and the heart of a company.

What is the most innovative comms/marketing initiative you've seen this year?
Lego #letsbuildtogether which brought learning through play to children stuck at home with the pandemic – I should know, I have an 8 year old! The content is highly engaging, drives education, and supports rather than sells with videos such as Chris Pratt and Elizabeth Banks reprising their Lego Movie roles to sing “Hands, Elbows, Face and Space”, and much more. And the results: 80 million unique users reached, and sales up 14% in the first half of 2020.

What is the most important lesson you've learned this year?
Perfection is the foe of innovation, strategic agility is its friend.

Describe a moment in your career that you would consider innovative.
The leap of faith in January 2016 into the important role of leading Communications for the global P&G business having never worked in PR/Communications prior.

Any habit/activity that you have added to your life during Covid-19 that you hope to carry with you when the pandemic subsides? 
I’ve gotten completely hooked on fitness over the last few years, and that passion has gone into overdrive during the my utter shock, I can now hold a 5 minute plank! Working out early every morning sets me up for a successful week, and I sincerely hope this habit is here to stay when the pandemic subsides.

How can the PR industry make real progress in diversity, inclusion and equity? What is the biggest roadblock standing in the way?
Real progress requires diversity, equity and inclusion to be core to the values of the PR/Communications industry. 

We must make tangible commitments across recruitment and retention, provide a strong culture with training (including bias training) and mentorship, with an emphasis on sponsorship of diverse employees, safe space forums to drive employee education, and more. It is critical to set inclusion goals and track progress towards them. With these diverse hiring practices, including in leadership positions, we will see more diverse storytelling with insights that more directly connect with a variety of audiences in a truly resonant way. 

Committing to the above practice will help eliminate roadblocks and ensure real progress.

What are you thinking about most these days? 
Innovation across the 3 “P”s - Products, Processes, and importantly, People, to continue to deliver brilliantly against our clients’ business objectives and talent needs.

Bold prediction for 2021 
2021 will be the year of the hybrid - no, not cars - but virtual + IRL. 

Streaming conferences and events are here to stay, but the hunger for human interaction, thirst for travel and new experiences will test the best of us. Even with the hopes of a vaccine coming to fruition in the near future, what we’ve learned and the ways the world has adapted and fast-forwarded technology, will keep us in this virtual world, and we will need to find the balance between that and IRL.