The Innovator 25 Aaron Shapiro
Charting the future of public relations

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The Innovator 25: Aaron Shapiro 

CEO at Huge since 2005
Brooklyn, New York
Creative Services & Digital Production, 8 to 12 years

"Today’s most powerful growth engine is users—people who interact with a company through digital media and technology even if they have never spent a dime. Become indispensable to users and the profits will follow."

For keeping tabs on how digital is transforming consumer behavior offline, for instance, with the transformation of stores into showrooms and places to form communities, or the way the Internet of Things is forcing brands to take stock of their literal ‘voice’ because of the rise of voice-based interactions. For coming up with a user-centric business model that calls for rethinking the emphasis on customers in favor of the user experience. And for Huge’s remarkable trajectory that started as a nine-person company when Shapiro joined and then mushroomed to more than 900 people with international offices while also being sold to IPG for nearly $40 million along the way.

How would you describe the communications/PR industry’s level of innovation?
Lagging the others

Where do you see the greatest opportunity for marketing & PR to become more innovative?
Social media & online marketing

Who most influences how innovative a brand’s marketing/PR is?
CEO

How do you define innovation?
Innovation is developing a smart solution to tackle a business problem or user issue; it’s designing something – whether it be a product or a service – to meet a greater need. If you solve a problem that has not yet been addressed, it is, by definition, new and innovative.

Will your company be ready when users want to interact with you using voice commands given to their smartphones and wearable devices?

Most innovative PR/comms campaign you’ve seen in the last 12 months?
The most innovative campaigns are ones where a company does something to enhance its brand. Innovative campaigns encourage people to engage with the company or to talk about the product. We recently launched a Snapchat campaign for Audi that achieved both of these things: Being the very first brand to leverage Snapchat during Super Bowl Sunday got people talking about the brand – while sharing snaps through the platform encouraged consumers to engage with Audi in a way that they had not done in the past.

What brands and/or agencies are most innovative when it comes to marketing/PR?
The most innovative brands are the ones that are creating things to get people excited and encourage conversation; these brands are makers in every sense of the word, creating digital products that change the way in which people interact with the brand. Nike has been incredibly innovative in recent years – not just with the introduction of exciting new products and services, but also in how they’ve launched new offerings. A few weeks ago, Nike launched the Nike+ FuelBox that’s essentially a vending machine that rewards athletes with exclusive Nike gear just for being active. There’s no exchange for money, just FuelPoints. Instead of launching a traditional PR or marketing campaign, the Nike team dropped the FuelBox off at unannounced locations in New York City, relying on word-of-mouth marketing and social media to drive success. And it worked.

Describe a moment in your career that you would consider ‘innovative.
There are two projects that come to mind when I think of innovation. The first being the development and launch of HBO GO – a multi-year project between Huge and HBO that completely shifted expectations of what an online content viewing experience should look like. HBO has a deep history of firsts: it was the first cable channel to specialize in films, the first channel to be delivered via satellite, and essentially the first movie channel to expand into original programming. We partnered with HBO to extend this legacy by creating a platform that allowed subscribers to view content anywhere, any time, and on nearly any device.

The second moment in my career was when The City of New York chose to partner with Huge in the redesign and relaunch of the city’s official website, NYC.gov. With the first redesign in over a decade, we used design and technology to create an experience that would serve all 8 million residents. By involving residents and government officials in the design process, the new NYC.gov is a best-in-class utility that has further empowered the City to extend the code framework and style guide to other city websites to create a unified look and feel across all digital properties.

Who is your mentor and why?
My father has always been my mentor. As an engineering professor, my father encouraged me to learn to code at a very young age. As a result, I grew up programming my own video games as a child, and was able to hone a skill that has proved invaluable. I strongly believe that anyone in a creative field should learn how to code because it can open doors to a multitude of career opportunities.

How do you get inspired?
I usually look to my colleagues for inspiration. We aim to hire the best and brightest across disciplines and encourage people to share industry knowledge, as well as projects that they might be working on, on the side. Through internal project shares and presentations, I’m constantly amazed by the diverse skill set that our employees embody.

Advice for people seeking to bring new ideas, ways of doing things to their organizations?
My biggest piece of advice is to fail first, ask for forgiveness later. I’m never afraid to make the tough calls and I expect my employees and colleagues to do the same. Don’t be afraid to take risks or to make changes to the status quo. If you take a risk and it doesn’t work out, you can always change course. Failing at something is not the end result; it’s a learning process that makes you a smart leader.

In your opinion, what’s the most innovative place in the world? This could be a city, a venue, a neighborhood, etc.
If I’m being honest, the most innovative places in the world are made up of all the ingredients of Silicon Valley. They’re comprised of technologists, media and a diverse population. If I had to choose specific locations, I would say Los Angeles (or Southern California) and Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood – two places where Huge has offices. Los Angeles is currently showing a lot of growth as far as tech and innovation are concerned. The LA startup and tech communities are rapidly growing – and with companies like Snapchat, Google, SpaceX, and Oculus in Southern California, I think it’s an exciting place to be. That said, Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood has always been a place of innovation – and one that is continuing to grow. Huge was one of the first companies to make DUMBO its home, and fifteen years later, remains part of our DNA.

What’s your favorite time of day and why?
Early morning is my favorite time of day. My mornings usually begin at 4:30 am when my youngest son awakens. By 5:30 am, all three of my children are awake and the house becomes a zoo. But I can’t complain. Mornings are family time, and despite being hectic, they help to clear my head and put things in perspective for the day.