Verizon's CMO on marketing in a pandemic, the industry's diversity problem and the battle for 5G dominance
Diego Scotti, chief marketing officer at Verizon since 2014, doesn’t understand why more CMOs don’t take action to improve diversity. “You have the power to ask your agencies to see their diversity numbers and hold them accountable,” he says. “I don’t know why they don’t do that.”
In 2016, Scotti sent a letter to Verizon’s 11 agency partners saying that the number of women and people of color in all roles needed to improve. The latest figures show 37 percent of the partners’ combined workforce are people of color while 53 percent are women, up from 32 percent and 50 percent, respectively, in 2016, the company says.
Ad Age asked Scotti—one of Ad Age’s Creativity Award recipients for Diversity and Inclusion Champion of the Year—about diversity, lessons learned from marketing during the pandemic and the competitive 5G landscape. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
The average lifespan for a CMO is about three years. You’re now in your fifth year. What were your expectations when you joined?
I never felt like it was going to be five years and counting. Five years ago, our category was being commoditized, it was competitive and 5G was on its way. I wanted to create change so the goal was to prepare for that to happen. But I knew it wasn’t going to be a straight line getting there. I knew that from the beginning it was going to be a wavy line.
I think that one of the problems CMOs face is the end goal of where you are trying to get is not very clear and you’re thrown from one side to another and, eventually, lose your way.
What was Verizon’s path forward?
When I came, we had always been about network quality. It was like Volvo being about safety. I said we have to double down on being a premium network. So a big pillar of how we execute everything is leaning on what is true and what is real. That is why our messages use real people, real employees and real stories. I don’t make anything up.
Why is that?
Every time you lean on the truth and what is authentic about the brand, people want to have that. People are so tired of bullshit marketing in terms of what brands want you to believe and buy or whatever. We don't want to be that brand.
Most brands paused ad spend during the initial phases of the pandemic, but Verizon didn’t. Why?
We were one of the first brands to have a spot in the middle of March. We told consumers our network was going to be there for them. Everyone followed us after that, but we were first. Our strategy is going to be very focused on telling the truth and being helpful. Being truthful means we are going to tell exactly what is going on with how our network is performing. And we are going to be helpful because our customers need us more than ever.
Can you give an example of how Verizon helped?
We paid restaurants to prepare meals and take them to hospitals and those who were on the front lines. We gave 600,000 kids access to the digital edition of the New York Times through an amazing partnership. We donated PPE products. We helped small businesses with "Pay it Forward," which was so successful.
We wanted to help small businesses but we knew there was no money we could give them that would make a dent. And that’s how we created "Pay it Forward." The premise was simple: To sponsor weekly, virtual concerts every Tuesday and Thursday where the artist would tell the viewers to go out and do something for small businesses like buy a gift card, food, whatever, just do your bit. At the end of 10 weeks we reached 85 million unique people and 91 percent of them took action to help small businesses. It’s an incredible demonstration of how purpose can help inform through a marketing program.
What did Verizon learn from its marketing during COVID-19?
Actions are important, not words. That is the big lesson. Second, lean into your strategy, your governance and processes. That is what they are for. Don’t change your strategy just because there is a crisis. Third piece is you need to work across all of your stakeholders—customers, society, shareholders and employees.
What advice would you give a brand or agency that is starting to pay attention to diversity?
You have to facilitate a conversation that is open and authentic about what is going on. I have been calling people in the black community and asking them how I should think about this. I tell them I don’t understand this or that because I don’t have the same life experiences. You have to listen. And don’t just listen to one conversation. Listen to as many as you can have.
Is it hard to find diverse talent?
I get angry when I hear that. If you can’t find talent, you’re not looking hard enough because there is so much talent out there. The problem is, it’s not being put on the table. You have to do the work and go to the universities and work with the grassroots organizations that have that talent. It takes a little bit of work and you have to commit to it, but the talent is there.
What does the overall industry need to do?
The industry needs to get on with it. You need measurement, consistency and commitment. It isn’t rocket science.
Can you give an example?
We created adfellows. It’s 100 young professionals who are from all over the country. They come to New York and rotate working with Verizon and our partners for eight months. We pay for everything and hire 90 percent of them. This year was interesting because the graduation came in the middle of COVID.
What made it interesting?
There were discussions from our agencies and even in our company about not hiring them. Companies are struggling. But we just invested eight months of training to get these young professionals ready for the next step and we made a commitment to hire 90 percent of them. If you can hire them, but don’t, then shame on you. It was a moment of truth and we hired 94 percent of them
Verizon was among the first companies to put its Pride campaign on hold to support the Black Lives Matter movement. What was that process like?
It was a very thoughtful and easy decision for us because first of all, we had a situation where the black community is suffering ... and we have to be respectful to them.
I spoke with all of our LGBTQ+ employees that we are going to pause the work that we had with Pride out of respect for what is going on. That doesn’t mean they matter less—to the contrary. I didn’t bullshit anybody because it was about applying common sense and people understood it. And I’m proud of that.
How do you market something you can’t see like 5G?
Our focus has been about demonstrating what 5G can do because there is so much misinformation. We want people to experience what 5G can do so a lot of the work we’ve been doing is going to events like the Super Bowl, NBA and demonstrating what 5G can do. It has been very helpful for us because it has really created credibility.
Do you think there’s a lot of misinformation with 5G?
There is so much misinformation. People think, ‘What is the big deal? It is just another G.’ Other people don’t believe this thing is real. But our strategy will continue and our messaging is, ‘There is 5G and then there is Verizon 5G.’ Everything will be about differentiating our product, which is better than others because not all 5G is created equal.
Is that a shot at T-Mobile, the first carrier to roll out a 5G network?
There is so much misinformation. When you compare speeds between our 5G and our competitors you will see that our 4G performs better than their 5G. Why call something 5G if it doesn’t have the correct level of performance? We need to be clear with that to our customers.
T-Mobile now owns Sprint. What can we expect to see from Verizon’s marketing?
At the risk of sounding boring, we will continue to play our game. I’m not paying attention to what T-Mobile and others are doing. If my strategy was to react to everything they do then I’d just be reacting, reacting and reacting. Our strategy is to build the most powerful 5G experience in America. We will be the premium brand that people keep choosing.
You were ranked No. 1 on Forbes’ Corporate Responders list for the work you’ve done in response to COVID-19. T-Mobile was ranked No. 5. How did that make you feel?
I didn’t notice they were on the list.