Digital Conference

Andy Goldberg of GE Says Sci-Fi Is Now Becoming Sci-Real

'The Message' Podcast Was a Big Hit for GE, Which Is Embracing New Forms of Storytelling

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When GE launched "GE Podcast Theater" -- a revival of the "GE Theater" TV show from the 1950s hosted by then-actor Ronald Reagan -- it was looking for new ways to tell the story of how GE is evolving as a science and technology company.

Andy Goldberg
Andy Goldberg

The first podcast series, called "The Message," was a sci-fi thriller about a team of cryptographers deciphering a message from outer space. It quickly became the No. 1 podcast on iTunes, after 1.2 million downloads.

Andy Goldberg, chief creative officer at GE, will delve into how GE created "The Message" with its ad agency BBDO New York; podcast network Panoply Media; and The Grid, a joint venture between Giant Spoon
and OMD, at the Ad Age Digital Conference in April. Here, he shares some insights about what GE wanted to accomplish with "The Message" and how it is expanding its reach to the sci-fi audience. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Ad Age: Tell me about the creation of "GE Podcast Theater." How did you come up with the concept?

Andy Goldberg: "The Message" was our first go-round at this. It was to tap into what was going on with podcasts and create a sci-fi podcast to reach an audience that plays into that. We went back to the original "GE Theater" with the idea of rebirthing it a little bit, using it as our way to do unique storytelling from a production side -- not ad work, but interesting content.

Ad Age: What was the creative strategy for "The Message?"

Mr. Goldberg: It was an original treatment: How do you tap into some of the sound technology GE is using in different areas of health care -- using sound as a way to detect different things. The concept started with that and grew into sort of a one-page treatment about what if sound was used to detect a message from an alien life form.

Ad Age: Why do you think this has resonated so much with sci-fi fans?

Mr. Goldberg: I think for a couple of reasons. It was digestible and easy to listen to, with 10- to 17-minute pieces of content, so it wasn't a long investment in time. But I think it was the storytelling itself that really captured the imagination -- some people thought it was really happening. It felt like you were tuning into something vs. something in a studio that was overly produced. And we had cliffhangers to keep the audience coming back week after week.

Ad Age: Is the sci-fi audience a new audience for GE?

Mr. Goldberg: It's an expanded target we've been growing over time with our science and technology audiences. Sci-fi is now becoming sci-real. Everything we've talked about in the past and things you've seen in movies and with "The Jetsons" is sort of happening now -- driverless cars and talking on little things in your pockets, and watches. We've been doing some different things to show that GE is also a science brand and a technology brand.

Ad Age: How do you want audiences to think differently about GE, and how does "The Message" do this?

Mr. Goldberg: The biggest thing for us is to look at our evolution into a digital industrial company -- and that involves the big industry stuff tied with digital. At our core we are an innovative science and technology brand that is doing real things that impact people. Stories like "The Message" help convey that.

Ad Age: What are some of the challenges in getting a 140-year-old industrial company to embrace new media?

Mr. Goldberg: Not as many challenges as one might think. From a marketing perspective, we try to be cutting-edge and progressive and walk the talk when it comes not just to the content we create but the media we are in. It's part of the philosophy and the leadership here between Beth (Comstock, vice chair of business innovations) and Linda (Boff, CMO) and myself to push new media opportunities and break the mold of what is expected. And I think that is the key -- we always try to be unexpected with who we are and making the message work harder.

Ad Age: When you look at new platforms for storytelling, what are the most important considerations?

Mr. Goldberg: One is, is it a place where an audience is gathering -- is it a place where we can engage really well? Is the content going to be right for the medium, and at the same time, is it content we want to put out there that will be effective? When we look at new mediums or new areas of storytelling, what is going to tell the GE message in unique ways, and it doesn't always have to be over-the-top with 'This is GE.' The podcast is a perfect example -- there is very little GE in there. The storyline itself is a story. It is meant to build fans and build listeners and build affinity with the brand.

Editor's note: Hear more from Andy Goldberg in person during the Ad Age Digital Conference, April 5-6 in New York City. Find out more here.