Interview with Drew Neisser, Top Renegade, CEO & Author

Most employers struggle to engage employees in wellness programming and let’s face it…when’s the last time you poured serious effort into the marketing of your programs? That’s why I was thrilled to hear Drew Neisser speak at the most recent Wellness Underground Workshop.

Drew owns Renegade, LLC, a social media and marketing consultancy based in New York City. He’s also author of “The CMO’s Periodic Table: A Renegade’s Guide to Marketing”. If you are lacking some marketing skills, read his book (and this interview) and pick up some tips from top CMO’s around the world.

As wellness professionals, we need to look to experts outside our field to help us solve the “wicked problem” of poor health. Enjoy learning more about Drew!

What inspired you to create your company, Renegade, 22 years ago?

Drew at Podium
Drew Neisser, CEO of Renegade, LLC

Way back in 1993, I was working for Dentsu, the global agency network and they invited me to form a group to get some business in the US from Panasonic, one of their largest clients in Japan.

Since at the time, Panasonic was working with Grey and were happy with them, we became the anti-Grey and focused on all kinds of non-traditional marketing.  In 1996, we incorporated as Renegade Marketing Group and in 1998 they allowed me to buy 20% of the agency.  In 2008, I bought the agency outright from Dentsu and reincorporated as Renegade, LLC.

How and when did you know you were on your way to building a successful company?

I once was quoted as saying “business history is strewn with the carcasses of the overconfident.” Taking my own advice, I have never paused and said, “okay we’re successful now” and instead have focused on finding fresh ways to help our clients cut through.

Did you have any low moments (oh crap moments) as you were building your company?

Oh yes.  The biggest “oh crap” moment was November 1st, 2008 when my wife and I become sole owners of Renegade and the headlines warned of a crumbling economy.  Had I known we were about to be hit by the worst economic conditions in 80 years, I’m not sure I would have gone through with the purchase.

Add to the economic situation the fact that 70% of our business was walking out the door in the next 12 months and you have a true recipe for disaster.  Hunkering down, the only thing that saved us was a laser-like focus on social media for the next two years.  Since then we’ve built back our range of services but if there is one lesson I can offer to any entrepreneur it’s the importance of focus.

Tell me a bit about Renegade’s marketing as service philosophy (in non-marketing speak).

The idea behind Marketing as Service is pretty simple. We could boil it down to the expression “actions speak louder than words.”

Or my favorite quote from Benjamin Franklin, “well done is better than well said.”

We have all become masters of tuning out brand messages, zapping TV ads and blocking mobile ones. By turning marketing into a service that has real value to the target, your brand becomes a welcome friend as opposed to shunned huckster.

American Express is the master of this approach having created the Open Forum and Small Business Saturday for their small business customers.  This is marketing that has utility, that favors actions over words.

In 2003, Renegade created the BankCab for HSBC, a Checker Cab that gave free rides to HSBC customers for over 11 years driven by the most knowledgeable cabbie in NYC. Again, this is marketing that is a genuine service.

What inspired you to write your book “The CMO’s Periodic Table: A Renegade’s Guide to Marketing”?

As an agency, Renegade is focused on helping CMOs find innovative ways to cut through. In order to help us understand our target, I started interviewing CMOs over 5 years ago. In addition to helping me understand their needs and challenges, it also helped them gain exposure for their companies and their personal brands.

After completing about 100 interviews, I realized I had collected a heck of a lot of marketing know how from these CMOs, more than enough for a book that would be useful not just to senior marketers but also anyone coming to the realization that understanding marketing could help them in the workplace.

I believe that we all need to be marketers, to understand the key elements of success and apply these to our personal brands if not our jobs.

I imagine interviewing so many high-powered CMO’s was not an easy task. What techniques did you use to gain access to them?

While it took me a long time to conduct all of the interviews, getting them wasn’t as hard as you might think.  Most senior executives will be flattered when you ask to interview them (as I was when you asked).  The key is to not just get the interview but then to turn it into something more than a puff piece, something that will be interesting and informative to a broad range of readers.  Once you have a reputation as writer who can be trusted to tell a compelling story then very few potential interviewees will turn you down.

Which was your most memorable interview and why?

I’ve had way too many interviews to pick one and I’m also too grateful for all 64 of the people who are in my book to highlight just one.

That said I was really inspired by Daniel Lubetzky the founder of Kind Snacks.  He has built an amazing business with tremendous vision and the desire to do well by doing good. I also love the fact that he remains a brand ambassador, handing out Kind Snacks on the subway when he sees someone else doing a small act of kindness.  He’ll tell the good Samaritan, “here’s one for you and one for you to give to someone else you see doing kind things.”

Another favorite interview was with John Yembrick of NASA. John’s passion for social media and all things related to astronomy and space is definitely contagious.

You recently attended the Wellness Underground workshop and got a taste for what we face as wellness professionals (nudging employees to live healthy lifestyles). Are we any different from your common client? Why or why not?

There always similarities and differences between clients. It would be insulting to say that your problem is exactly the same as someone else’s. That said to attack the wellness challenge I’d certainly take the same approach that I would for any of our clients.

First, make sure you really know the target, their likes and dislikes, their hopes and dreams. Second, we figure out not just the rational benefits of the wellness programs that you’re offering but also the emotional benefits.

Finding the right blend of rational and emotional triggers will lead to marketing that can cut through. And it is important that you cut through.

Everyday you’re competing for mind share with all other communications, whether internal or external.  If your program is not communicated in a compelling manner then it will be ignored.

Do you think it’s important for the wellness program within a company to be branded or does it dilute the internal company brand?

I’m afraid I need to waffle a bit on this answer because it really depends on the situation. If the employer already has a branded initiative that covers a broad range of employee benefits, then it may not make sense to create yet another internal campaign. However, if there is no internal campaign, then building one around a special Wellness initiative could make a lot of sense.

If so, what are the first few steps we should take to brand our wellness program?

One thing I would suggest is that you don’t try to do this alone. Work with other departments (even the marketing department) and talk through not just your messages but also the media that you use to communicate your message.

Don’t claim this to be a very exciting new mind blowing program and then just send an email out about it. Think about innovative ways that you can communicate to your employees. You need to make them feel special and you need to make the program feel special.

And of course, think about the idea of Marketing as Service – maybe there is a way to get your story out there by doing something rather than saying something.

How do you develop yourself professionally?

One obvious ways is all of the interviews.  These are like “Vulcan mind melds” for me – I learn so much from the marketers that I talk with.  I’m also a voracious reader and conference goer.

Do you have any habits you feel contribute to your success?

I practice what I preach. All of the marketing for Renegade is in the form content creation – content aimed at enlightening our current and prospective clients.  This “service” also keeps Renegade top of mind with a select group of marketers looking for innovative ways to cut through.

When you’re not working, what do you do for fun?

I’m obsessed with Benjamin Franklin and so some of my free time is consumed by researching his life and times. He is endlessly fascinating to me and I have come to think of him as America’s first and most important, Chief Marketing Officer.

Parting thoughts/words of wisdom for non-marketers trying to market health and wellness?

Sure, read my book!  This will help you get to know the basics of marketing strategy along with a wide range of sophisticated approaches to solving challenges not unlike your own.