Barby Siegel | The Innovator 25 North America 2019
Charting the future of public relations
2019-innovator-25-americas-barby-siegel

Barby Siegel

Chief Executive Officer

Zeno
New York

“We have had to innovate every step of the way – from our early days carving out our 'fearless' positioning to where we are today.”


This is Barby Siegel’s second time appearing on the Innovator 25. Making the case for her return was amazingly easy: 2018 was another year of double-digit growth for Zeno, continuing a pattern that has held since Siegel took the helm almost 10 years ago. It’s well-known that under Siegel’s stewardship, Zeno transformed from a small, unknown to an award-winning agency that is guided everyday by a non-negotiable, core set of values and its North Star – “Fearless Pursuit of the Unexpected.” When she arrived, Zeno was approximately 60 people. Today, Zeno Group is a global, integrated communications agency with over 500 people across North America, Europe and Asia. Siegel’s mark on the industry is so profound that many of those who have worked with her have awe-inspiring anecdotes that involve legendary feats of accomplishment.

In what way(s) does PR/communications need to innovate the most?
What I think about most around the evolution of PR/communications is the vastly different role we play today. We are at the top of our clients’ organizations, helping them tackle some of the most important issues of the day, impacting both their business and their reputation.

How would you describe the communications/PR industry's level of innovation compared to other marketing disciplines?
About the same as other marketing disciplines
 
Where is the PR industry's greatest opportunity for taking the lead on innovation?
Analytics and measurement
 
How do you define innovation?
Pushing the boundaries of what was once thought possible. Finding new approaches to solving client challenges. Central to innovation is the courage to test and try, not waiting for perfection but progressing to a new place. Embracing success – and failure – achieves true innovation.
 
What is the most innovative comms/marketing initiative you've seen in the last 12 months?
Fast food/QSR does a really good job tapping into the cultural heat of the day. Worth noting is the Taco Bell Hotel; Arby’s continues to impress - totally committed to their meat-loving selves, who they are and celebrating it in smart, authentic and fun ways. This year, Wendy’s made a splash at Cannes with its Fortnight integration. And not to be overlooked is some of the magnificent purpose-driven work.

Of note: Ikea’s “ThisAbles” campaign that spotlighted a collection of free adapters that make products easier to use for the disabled. J+J celebrated the San Francisco General Hospital nurses who established and nurtured a ward for AIDS patients, back in 1980 when little was known or understood about AIDS. J&J commissioned a documentary about the bravery of these nurses and the conversation that ensued as a result. Also a big winner at Cannes was The New York Times for its “The Truth Is Worth It” demonstrating the often times dangerous lengths to which journalists go to report the truth.

In your opinion, what brands and/or agencies are most innovative around PR and marketing?
See previous question 
 
Describe a moment in your career that you would consider innovative.
For me, it’s not just one moment. It has been a journey transforming Zeno from an unknown consumer shop into a global, integrated communications firm. We have had to innovate every step of the way – from our early days carving out our “fearless” positioning to where we are today -- advising some of the world’s biggest companies on the most pressing business and societal issues of the day. I am really proud of the new types of talent and deep capabilities that we have brought to Zeno over the last several years that has led us to advance various areas including data + analytics, research + insights, media relations and measurement.
 
Most underrated trait in a PR person? 
Quiet thoughtfulness. I think ours is an industry of big personalities -- “jazz hands” as we like to say. But for me, some of our best and most valued contributors are those who speak less and say more.

How do you get out of a creativity rut?
Stop and put it away. Give yourself permission to rest your brain and take a break. I go to the gym to lift weights and swing kettle bells; I go to my kitchen to cook…I lay in bed and watch a movie that does not require too much concentration.

What advice would you give to the PR industry around embracing innovation?
Take risks, experiment and try new things. Give team members of all levels the freedom to innovate. The greatest obstacle to innovation is not trying, or saying it cannot be done. Bring in new talent with the potential to disrupt and challenge the status quo. We have seen tremendous upside in this at Zeno – some of our best innovation has come from team members outside the leadership team — people at various levels of experience — just go off and build the plane. It is up to us as leaders to give our people the space to do this —even if it fails. Innovate, fail; innovate, learn. Innovate and change the world.

What are you thinking about most these days?
People. While our business is growing and our assignments becoming bigger and more complex, I wake up every day thinking our people, our teams that pour their heart and soul into their work. I want to be sure that we are doing everything possible to enable our people to thrive and progress in their careers and have a personal life. I want to be sure our teams around the world reflect the world in which we live and ensure Zeno remains the place where the world’s top talent wants to be.

And when I think about talent, I think about our next unexpected move – bringing people in with a new and disruptive point of view that will push us all to a better place. I also think about the incredible opportunity we have to help counsel and guide some of the world’s biggest companies on the most pressing issues of the day. More importantly, we are able to help them use their considerable resources to make an impact beyond the products and services they sell – including making sure their own employees are well-equipped to be effective advocates for the company and their purpose.

What one movie, book, TV show or podcast do you recommend someone rent, read or stream tonight?
I have been telling everyone to read MAID by Stephanie Land – a deeply moving, and at times raw account of a single mother at the poverty level, and her sheer grit and determination to climb her way out with her young daughter. A reminder to us all about the fragility and strength of the human condition.