As a student of thought leadership and brand building, I’ve watched with interest as the Brookings Institution has increasingly turned to owned media to tell its story.
David Nassar, who leaves this his role as VP of communications and the effective Chief Marketing Officer at Brookings later this month, led this effort. I appreciate David agreeing to an interview and taking readers behind the curtain.
You’ve got a unique background, combining traditional communications with public policy, digital expertise, content marketing and politics. Was this a conscious effort on your part? What was your master career plan coming out of George Washington University?
My master career plan coming out of grad school with a degree in international affairs was to work on promoting democratic institutions around the world. It sounds idealistic, I know, but there are a number of organizations doing very serious work, and I was lucky that I had a chance to work for one of them, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.
What did this work involve?
I was on the front lines of American engagement in the Middle East, and I’m proud to say that I helped contribute to a highly democratic election process in Yemen in 1997 and that some of the Institutions we supported across that region survive to this day and play a role in stabilizing democracy in places like Lebanon.
So, working on communications was not a conscious effort, but I realized early on in my career that everything I was doing was about marketing — who’s the audience, what’s the message, how are you delivering it, and how are you measuring your effectiveness. Once I understood that, then I could apply those skills across a variety of “products” whether those were ideas, issues, candidates or content. In fact, what I like to say now is that my career has been about marketing big ideas.
I want to spend most of the interview on your work at Brookings, but one question before jumping in. You started your job at Blue State Digital right after the election of President Obama and Blue Stage Digital being recognized as one of the “secret weapons” behind the Obama campaign. I’m curious once you were on the inside, did anything surprise you about Blue State Digital, how it operated and its services? Did you take away any lasting lessons from your time there?
I was surprised by how hard of a sell digital still was in 2009 to legacy brands, and frankly, I still am.
What did the Obama campaign do differently on the digital front?
They did digital well because of an operations decision they made to elevate the chief digital officer to the same level as the head of communications and to give them equal seats at the table. Most companies in 2018 still are not doing that. The impact of that operations decision is critical. Without it, digital remains an afterthought.
Any other lessons learned from the Obama campaign?
That all marketing is digital because it is just how people communicate today. At Brookings, for example, I put our events team inside our digital engagement team because events should be consumed more digitally than in person. Similarly, the marketing for our book press is integrated with our digital engagement team.
Back to Brookings, I get the feeling that part of the appeal of taking this job back in 2012 was a belief that there was considerable upside to the organization’s public profile. True?
Indeed it was. My philosophy was, and is, that an organization needs three things to communicate effectively in the modern era — a healthy brand, good content and effective distribution. Brookings had the first two, and those are the hardest. Brookings was in danger of losing its preeminence as a content provider because even its target audience of influencers was getting its information from platforms that hadn’t existed five years before I got to Brookings. We had to be aggressive or others were going to overtake our status as a leading global knowledge brand.
It seems like the core building block of retooling Brooking’s communications effort was what came to be called the Brookings Essay, transforming reports and academic-like viewpoints into immersive storytelling. How did you persuade your internal stakeholders on this approach? The resistance must have been similar to what we experience with technology companies in which the executives typically come from engineering orientations and often perceive storytelling as a squishy concept.
Squishy is a good word for describing how some of our scholars felt and some still feel about storytelling. Yes, I think it’s similar to the tech world, and the reluctance comes from a similar resistance to engage with an audience that didn’t used to be important, but as information has become more available and influence has become more unpredictable, the need to build broader bases of support has become more critical, whether it be around policies or products.
I wouldn’t say the Essay was the core building block, but it was our touchstone product, that demonstrated what was possible and allowed us to build a cross-functional team that could experiment. The core building blocks were really more simple products like blogs, email, and social and short videos. We built on those to make our efforts increasingly creative and pushed the boundaries. For example, we moved from better talking head videos, to videos of scholars using Legos to explain income inequality, to creating animations.
Can you think back to one particular Essay that symbolized that you had turned the corner and the organization truly embraced the approach as the new normal?
There have been a number of things, but I wouldn’t point to an Essay. Rather, I’d point to things that were less complicated to produce but easier to scale. I’d point to our Brookings Brief email product, the Lego video I already mentioned, our podcasts which have grown from zero to more than 10 million downloads, and our experimentation on social both with content and platforms.
Note: The Lego video referenced by David has close to 100K views and had made its way into third-party media such as CityLab.
I admire the storytelling that comes out of The New York Time’s T Brand studio. As best as I can figure, only 20 percent of T Brand’s talent do the actual writing (below). How did you transform what was a writing function at Brookings into a more holistic approach to content?
We really didn’t. We added on top of it an internal agency that looks and functions like one you might find at a Fortune 500. The scholars are our clients, and one of my strategic assumptions that underpins our work is that our purpose in Central Communications is to add value to what the scholars do. Another assumption is that relevance is the product of the quality of the content times the effectiveness of its delivery. I tried to make sure that my team both understood that they were here to serve our scholars and that their contribution to the scholars work had a direct result on its ability to create impact. I hope that created a mindset that was both appropriate for our role and empowering to them at the same time. I think that combination of purpose and responsibility is partly why my team has been so successful at achieving our objectives.
Related to the above, given the cost of doing this type of content, how did you secure budget without proof of concept? Or was it a more evolutionary process? I think there are lot of communicators out there trying to figure out how to crack the code on this one.
There are a lot of people who struggle with the budget issues. The answer is that this is an area where I don’t feel I succeeded. Initially, I generated savings through efficiencies and by offloading responsibilities that I didn’t think were value additive. My vision was that once we showed what could be done, that the company would invest more heavily in this kind of work. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and the lack of additional funding is probably the biggest reason that I started to think hard last fall about leaving and why I’m satisfied that now is the right time to go.
Of course, I have to ask about August 7, 2016 when The New York Times published a story questioning the independence and credibility of think tanks like Brookings. That must have been a fun way to spend your Sunday, figuring out how to respond?
Ha. Well, there are two things about that which I’ll share. The first is that I’d been working on that story since December 22, 2015 and had successfully gotten it kicked down the road at least three times, so when it finally ran on a Sunday in August, I felt a lot better about that than I might have on another date.
So you were ready.
Right. Since we had been preparing for so long, there was already a detailed strategy in place, and all that was left to do was write the response.
The immediate response to the NYT story impressed me. But share the rationale behind publishing a 6,797-word treatise on Medium. Did you consider conducting a handful of interviews with journalists at key publications?
As with any brand, we didn’t want to encourage conversation about a story unless reporters were going to pay attention to it, and for the most part they didn’t. We published a long detailed response because we are an Institution that deals in facts, and so we thought that a response spelling out the facts was true to who we are as an organization.
Stepping back to the big picture, I consider Google’s decision to communicate its decision to withdraw from China on its corporate blog — no news release, no media interviews — as a symbol of organizations recognizing the power of publishing and taking their story directly to the target audience. How do you see this dynamic playing out over time?
I’ve written publicly about the fact that I don’t understand why more brands don’t embrace their ability to tell their own story and instead insist on relying on public relations as the overwhelming vehicle to distribute their message. I think the example you cite showed Google taking this opportunity more by the reins. I see a few things happening. There will continue to be fewer and fewer reporters who matter on any given issue. However, because anyone can write on the web, there will be more opinionated articles being written online. Overall, this environment increases the pressure on brands to tell their own story. To get people to read it, brands will need to make it relatable to people’s lives. I’ve found there is an audience for every topic, no matter how niche, if you can accomplish this.
A couple final questions— the documentary “The Life She Deserves” on the use of marijuana for medical purposes was powerful. It humanizes the issue. Talk about the general challenge of humanizing the Brookings story. I would think it’s a never-ending challenge with a certain internal constituency believing the data wins.
Thanks for the compliment. I think most people agree that putting a human face on a complicated public policy discussion improves the chance of affecting change. Since I work for a nonpartisan policy organization rooted in facts, I have the luxury of focusing on the method of affecting change rather than the maddening policy debate. With that in mind, and since I serve as the publisher and the person responsible for marketing our content and our brand, I chose five years ago to start Brookings on the path of developing rich video content. Two years ago, I put us on the path toward developing a film.
But the idea must have come across as somewhat radical to the traditionalists in Brookings.
Like anything, there is some internal resistance to film as a platform and some overwhelming support, with most people in the middle willing to give it a chance. Another one of my strategic assumptions is that we need to be innovative, so we decided to give it a shot. It is an ongoing challenge to sell the idea for sure. Ultimately though, every policy debate has a human component, and the scholars who want to have their work create impact understand that and want to use it. I just think you have to build proofs of concept and then get others on board. This film was our proof of concept for the use of film to tell a story, and I hope Brookings does more.
It’s a crazy time to be in the business of communications. If you were counseling the communications profession on how to stay relevant looking out five or even 10 years, what would that advice be?
I don’t consider myself a communicator anymore. I consider myself a marketer. “Communicators” are marketers whose primary tool is PR. If I were advising marketers, I would say that you need to continue to diversify by embracing new platforms as they come, remember that creativity always wins and accept that advertising will be more rather than less important. I say the last because as organic messaging becomes more diluted by the array of sources, and less effective as social changes algorithms, brands will have to pay to distribute their message effectively online. Advertising done well can be a good thing.
Now that’s an interesting comment. You’re advocating for advertising.
I like what Joe Marchese, the head of advertising for 21st Century Fox, says when he talks about “attention” being a scare resource. We are all in the market for people’s attention, whether we are selling batteries or policy prescriptions. The issues remain the same — Who do you want to reach? What are you saying? How are you delivering it? How are you measuring it? Stick to that. Diversify. Be creative.