A Conversation with AOL & Peggy Conlon, the Ad Council

Peggy Conlon was interviewed by AOL as part of a new speaker series on behalf of the NY Women in Communication Group (NYWICI) that highlights our industry’s female leaders. Here is the full interview.

This interview has been re-posted from Advertising.AOL.com


A Conversation with AOL & Peggy Conlon, the Ad Council

AOL is proud to be a sponsor of NY Women in Communication (NYWICI), the premier organization for women that work across all facets of the communications industry in the Greater New York area. We kicked off 2014 hosting two of NYWICI’s “Cocktails & Conversations” panels, and this month we’re excited to partner with NYWICI on a conversational series that spotlights its members, some of the industry’s leading female leaders. Our first conversation is with Peggy Conlon, CEO and President of the Ad Council, a private, non-profit organization that produces, distributes and promotes public service announcements on behalf of various sponsors.

Prior to joining the Ad Council, you had an extensive career in advertising. How did you get started and know that you wanted to pursue a career in advertising?

I majored in communications in college and I thought I would pursue a career in PR. One of my first jobs was in PR for an ad agency, and I found myself drawn more to the advertising side. When you think about advertising and communications–it’s even more so today than when I got into the business, it gives you a pretty broad range of things you can do. I’ve learned something valuable from every job I’ve had in my career, which helps me today. Throughout my career, I’ve also had very nurturing bosses, and every place I worked was a joy, so I never really thought of doing anything else.

You’ve been with the Ad Council for 15 years and seen a lot of change in the industry, which ad campaigns have touched you the most?

It’s hard to pin down just a few, but when I think about the work we have done over the last three decades, three campaigns come to mind. First is the drunk driving prevention with the Department of Transportation. It’s been socially normative in our country and today, as a result of the campaign, no one would even think to let someone drive if they were visibly drunk. About ten years ago, the research began to show that message was pretty well-seeded within society. What was becoming problematic was that young adults, particularly young men, were driving home “buzzed” after happy hour. They perceived their drinking as moderate and felt capable to drive, and so the campaign evolved from “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk,” to “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving.” Every year–because we measure outcomes, including attitudes and behaviors, we’ve watched the needle move with that cohort of men, 21-35, and it’s been extraordinary.

Another is our foster care adoption campaign. It’s so heartwarming, and over 18,000 children have been adopted out of foster care as a result… We know that because the campaign fulfills to a website where the adoption process begins, so we can actually track it through and see the direct outcome.

Smokey Bear is going to be 70 years old in August. He is just as relevant today. I’m from Southern California where wildfires and forest fires are rampant. Smokey Bear and his message about personal responsibility have helped decrease the acreage lost to wildfires significantly over the years. He continues to be a really beloved character; I think there was some research that showed that he is almost as beloved and well-known as Santa Claus. Everybody knows Smokey Bear and he’s really social now, too. He has a fabulous Facebook and Twitter presence.

How do you think social media has helped Ad Council’s PSAs?

It’s been tremendous. Social media is good for everybody, but it’s great for public service campaigns because social issues are things that people take with them everywhere they go. They become so passionate about them. Social media has been transformative for social issues.

The Ad Council is well into its 7th decade, what does the future look like? Other than social media where else are you investing time and effort?

You know, you have to be careful about being all things to all people. Everybody, including the biggest advertisers, have finite resources. So what we try to do is understand where the biggest return on our investment is going to be with these new social platforms, and it can be different for every campaign because every campaign has a distinct audience. We are on all of the major platforms – Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, and we’re always watching for the next great platform that is going to break through.

The good news is that these companies are really at the table for the Ad Council. Our executive committee board includes Tim Armstrong, CEO of AOL, who was our former Chairman. He has been a champion of the Ad Council for a long time. David Fisher from Facebook and Adam Bain from Twitter, are also board members; they are bringing their tools, platforms and support to the Ad Council, which benefits our campaigns significantly. Also our partnership with AOL gives us incredible exposure for our audiences. I will say that digital and social media is where we will continue to add and to staff, along with a greater investment and focus.

Another area of focus is IT platforms. We understand how important leading edge technology is in allowing us to be more effective. We’ve been leveraging Salesforce.com for a couple of years now, and we have built cloud-based IT platforms to help capture our media support, right down to the individual media outlet. We then integrate that into Salesforce so that we have a very robust CRM system.

The next stage after that is our analytics platform. We have a real-time dashboard across our 50 campaigns integrated with the other two platforms. It gives us a fabulous ability to customize the outreach on behalf of our campaigns so that we can understand what is resonating and report back on a real-time basis. We also do primary research that gets fed into that platform so we can see the growth in awareness and behavior change.

Very cool! I’d like to shift gears, and talk a little bit more about you. As a female role model and leader in the advertising industry, how do you think having a female president, as the president before you was also a woman, has shaped the DNA of the Ad Council?

The first thing I would have to say is that I don’t think being smart, being nurturing, being forward-thinking, is uniquely gender-based. My work, and the work of the staff here, is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the impact of the Ad Council. We organize and help facilitate all of the pro bono work that gets done here, but we have a huge footprint. If you think about all of the agencies and media companies that work with us and support us pro bono. It is a cross-industry effort and while people think of women as being nurturing, I know a lot of nurturing men, too. The first two presidents of the Ad Council were men, and the second two were women, and I don’t know if I had been a man if it would be any different.

I like that answer! Now getting back to the Ad Council’s work, you’ve talked about some of your clients, both organizations and non-profits. Is there anyone you haven’t worked with yet that you’d like to?

The one thing that is so wonderful about the Ad Council is 99.9% of the times we ask somebody to help us with a campaign they quickly say yes. And if they say no, it’s not because they don’t want to, it’s because they might have capacity issues, and so we might go back to them later. We have been blessed with all of the cooperation and participation that we’ve had from both the non-profit and federal government communities.

When I think about who I would like to work with that we are not working with right now, it really falls into the category of issue experts around campaigns we’d like to bring on board. For instance, we would love to have a clean water campaign, and although we’ve been trying, we can’t just decide we’re going to do something and then make it happen. We need to find the issue expert and they have to be able to provide the out of pocket costs for the agencies and vendors costs. It’s not inconsequential to do a campaign with the Ad Council. I would say on average it costs them about $1M a year to underwrite, though with that they get a fabulous return on investment with creative and donated media. That is the first hurdle we have to cross when we look to take a campaign on to our docket.

This next question is one of my favorites. What is the one piece of advice, career or otherwise, that you wish you had received when starting out?

Alright so I have two. One is kind of trivial and the other goes to the core of what I think people need to think about all the time. The trivial one…

Which I am sure is not at all trivial.

Well, I will let you decide: “No matter how hard you try, there are going to be people that don’t like you, and you can’t take it personally, and you can’t let it get in your way.”

Amen to that.

The second is a little more formal but is really true: “Find companies to work with that support and reward risk taking.” I think young people are a little afraid of taking risks and they don’t know that it is okay to fail. If you are at a good company they will want you to take risks–not reckless risks, but calculated risks. If you fail, they will step in to support and help you because they know that the next time you probably will not fail.

Amazing, now it’s time for the last question, as a NYWICI member, how do you think being part of a women’s organization has helped you in your career and in life?

Probably one of the coolest things that happened to me in my career was receiving the NYWICI Matrix Award–I get choked up when I think about it.

Well you’re in good company as a Matrix Award winner.

Yes, of course. But the other thing it gave me–because I don’t really like to talk about myself and my personal story-is it gave me the opportunity to share with such a huge room full of influential people, the story about the most important woman in my life, my mother. She had 15 children and went on to have her own career. She was just an incredible role model.

It is also great to be able to shine a light on the Ad Council and our important work. In that room were not only people we already work with, but through the telling of our story and how we help to make a difference, we’re able to get more recruits interested in working with the Ad Council. It is really such a privilege to be with this organization; it really is a calling. The mission is so noble. I knew it would be really rewarding coming to the Ad Council from day one, but what I didn’t appreciate at the time was how wonderful it is to be working with people every single day that are just trying to help their fellow man. I mean it is really inspirational and that’s what gets me out of bed every morning.

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