The Innovation SABRE Awards — North America 2020
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Gesine Maerten lives and breathes all things digital, and her tech-driven thinking has led to a complete digitalisation of all client and new business processes across Ketchum Germany. Maerten leads an interdisciplinary cross-office team for Samsung, one of Germany’s largest technology clients. She was a pioneer of virtual working long before the pandemic made it an industry standard, organising a permanent remote team across five locations in Germany to support Samsung in an agile fashion with new collaboration tools and methods to bring in fresh ideas and solutions. Through her close links to tech and digital thought leaders, she helps clients expand their own networks with innovative thinkers, political stakeholders and influencers, leading to partnerships such as Samsung and 5G Lab Germany. Maerten is also well known within the agency for coming up with new ways of engaging with brands and innovative approaches to client briefs, such as turning to women’s lifestyle media to promote technology storage, or working with Ketchum’s healthcare team to use VR technology to create a virtual surgery room for employer branding. Maerten started her career at Ketchum before joining sister agency Emanate, and returned to Ketchum in 2018 after eight years with technology PR boutiques.
Where is the most urgent need for innovation within the PR/communications industry?
It is still a challenge to show our business impact in a stringent, measurable and cost-effective way. We can demonstrate business impact, but often the procedures are complex, and customers are not always willing to pay for the extra effort. Furthermore, there is still room for improvement in all tools that provide us with important data for our work.
How would you describe the communications/PR industry’s level of innovation compared to other marketing disciplines?
I see no difference in the level of innovation in the PR industry compared to other marketing disciplines. But compared to other industries such as commerce and payment we are lagging. I have the feeling that our industry has not been disrupted yet.
How have the events of 2020 impacted innovation in the PR and communications industry?
I have been active in the field of crisis communication from the very beginning of my career and could no longer hear the phrase "there is an opportunity in every crisis". But now I use it myself, because 2020 has shown us once again that there is a lot of truth in it. The year has given us back a trial and error mentality – both in agencies and at client side. This is a wonderful development for our industry.
Where is the PR industry's greatest opportunity for taking the lead on innovation?
As communicators we should see it as our common task to find effective means against fake news. A great treasure also lies hidden in the meaningful linking of data, the automated evaluation of unstructured data – for example via semantic analysis – and the transformation into insights as a basis for truly relevant communication.
What is the ideal working scenario for innovation?
We built the ideal scenario for ourselves back in 2019 with a social experiment we called “pop-up agency”: eight colleagues from four offices spent nine days together to form a new kind of innovation lab. We were colleagues who had never worked together before, who were given an unknown task that they were only allowed to work on using working methods they had never tried before. To create full motivation, we opened our pop-up agency in Lisbon and attended Web Summit together. It was simply incredible how much inspiration this short time brought. This model cannot be transferred 1:1 to everyday work life, but the approach of consciously getting out of routines is.
Has 2020 changed the way you define/approach innovation? How?
Not fundamentally, but I think I expect more than before that innovation will have a positive impact on humanity, nature and society.
What is the most innovative comms/marketing initiative you've seen this year?
User-generated content is nothing new. This year, however, new approaches of remote and digital collaboration have emerged. These projects have created a sense of belonging through new quality of co-creation. One of my favorite examples is the #RatatouilleTheTikTokMusical. In times when it is especially difficult for independent artists and people working in the cultural industry, I love the initiative of actor Josh Abram, who mobilized the TikTok community to put together a musical for the Disney film Ratatouille. Without having had a recognisable reach before, he hit the nerve of the young generation, chose the right platform and unleashed incredible creativity. A beautiful stunt!
What is the most important lesson you've learned this year?
That you can feel closer connected to people than before, even you haven´t been able to meet them personally for months. For me this is true for family, friends and colleagues.
Describe a moment in your career that you would consider innovative.
It was the moment when we decided to make our experiment pop-up agency completely public and transparent, in real time. We shared our experiences 24/7 around the clock on social media and in a live blog for Germany's renowned marketing magazine W&V, never knowing whether we were going to fail or succeed. To learn out loud and publicly document all steps of your work in pictures and videos from breakfast to the wine at the end of the day was an overcoming in the beginning and released a lot of energy and fun in the end.
Any habit/activity that you have added to your life this year that you hope to take forward post-pandemic?
I have always loved to buy at local markets, especially when I was travelling. A new weekly routine and one of my highlights every week this year was shopping at the German version – Marktschwärmer – of the food assembly concept developed in France. You order online, but then pick up your purchases from the local farmers on market day. And the food usually travels no longer than 20 kilometres.
How can the PR industry make real progress in diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) and what is the biggest obstacle?
It’s my personal impression that our industry already offers quite balanced opportunities, but I feel that we are very homogeneous. This is a problem because our business is communication and we need as much diversity in perspectives as possible, in regard of social and cultural environment, attitudes, educational paths, fields of study and training. I often observe in myself that I like to hire people who fit harmoniously into the team, because we often must work very quickly and efficiently. So, I must start with myself and make a conscious decision that I want dispute, and then give people the scope to create diverse workspaces.
What are you thinking about most these days?
I remember a chart at a lecture of mine 10 years ago that showed how we move from one major public agenda to many small agendas of different subcultures. Even though the development was foreseeable, I am shocked today at how many people are turning away from established democratic opinion-forming and decision-making processes. I am thinking about how we can decrease the divide between more strongly manifested contrasting worldviews. And what we can do about it when untruth becomes fact for some.
Your bold prediction for 2021…
My prediction is that predictions are outdated. We will all be juggling and don't know from which direction the balls will come. The intrinsically motivated and clowns among us (those who stay positive, don't lose heart and can laugh at themselves) will be the ones who will be best able to cope with the new future. We must look after each other better than ever.
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