Scot Safon, Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of The Weather Channel, on the importance of forging an emotional, everyday connection between consumer and brand
At the advent of mediums such as television, radio and film, powerful figures and the purveyors of them from all over the world recognized their capability to speak directly to the populace. From President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats” to Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite’s unflinching presentation of current events in real time, media in America has in its history a legacy of close communication with its citizenry.
For lifelong media enthusiast and television marketing veteran Scot Safon, the ability of commercials, news programs and even movie posters to resonate with him personally drew him in and fostered a “monomaniacal” desire to, from a young age, be a part of all things media. In his time working with TNT, CNN, HLN and now as Executive Vice President (EVP) and Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) of The Weather Channel, not to mention with brands such as Pepto-Bismol, Safon has sought to create emotional connections between his brands and their consumers and to produce products they can keep coming back to on a regular basis.
Made for TV
Although his bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia came in History and Economics and he earned an MBA from Cornell, Safon knew early on that his future would be in media. In fact, it was an essential part of many of his extracurricular activities through high school and college.
“I was obsessed with the media world from the time I was a little kid. The notion of ultimately working in that world was very top of mind to me,” Safon said. “I didn’t know what form that would take, because I didn’t think of myself as a creative person. I thought I might be a businessperson and I’ll try to work at a media company. I figured I’d probably have to be in management or be a lawyer, because they all needed to have lawyers. So when I went to Virginia, I studied economics and history thinking I’d either go to business school or law school, but all of my extracurricular activities would be media related. At Virginia, I was one of the people running the college radio station—the largest NPR affiliate and public radio station in central Virginia—and I was one of the editors of my high school newspaper.”
While media has been Safon’s life passion, it was only relatively recently that he realized the underlying emotional relationships he has had with the brands at which he has worked.
“I didn’t realize this until I got to The Weather Channel, why these brands work so well for me. One of the reasons why they do is because you’re so aware of them, and they’re a part of your life and you think of them as saving your life during a crisis. You have a very emotional relationship with them,” Safon said. “So what my focus always inevitably goes back to is trying to understand that emotional relationship and trying to point it out to both the people making the brand as well as the consumer and saying, ‘There’s so much deep feeling here. What would this mean if this was something I could appreciate and get an emotional benefit from, not just in extreme situations, but on an everyday or every week basis?’”
“With something like The Weather Channel, you have two levels of relationship with the brand. One is very utilitarian, where you check it five times a day. You check what’s happening now, what’s happening next, what’s happening in a couple of days. You have that kind of utilitarian relationship with that brand, but at the same time, as we’re struggling through the Polar Vortex or a big winter storm, suddenly that brand is an urgent brand for you. So that’s a starting point for all of this thinking, but then trying to figure out how to translate that into something that can be more regular and more daily is really an effort that you really have to enlist the customer in as well as all the people making the product. For CNN and The Weather Channel, that’s a lot of people making that product and we’re literally making that product every minute of every day. It’s responsive in real time to events beyond your control.”
From Marketing Cheerleader to Managing Realist
As Safon has progressed in his career, from a marketer to an executive in charge of the managerial as well as creative aspects of his departments and continually encompassing more of the business side of the work, he discussed the consumer-oriented perspective he has learned to take on when assessing a given idea or product. He looks first to his General Manager position at HLN, then to his current EVP and CMO role at The Weather Channel.
“What I learned from the HLN experience was that [as a manager] you really need to be a consumer representative at the table and somebody’s who’s willing to tell the truth about what consumers are really feeling,” he said. “You have to be the person who says, ‘Wait, we actually don’t know if customers will want this.’ You’re still shooting from the hip, as a marketer, but you don’t really shoot from the hip in the same way. When I say now, ‘That show’s now working’, in the past I might have said, ‘You should cancel that show.’ But now I’m much more likely to take an empathetic look at what might need to be done to make things more successful. Once you’ve sat at the table in that other role, you do tend to look at things differently.”
“In a lot of my previous jobs, the role of the marketer was to be the cheerleader and the optimist. I think what the experience as the general manager made me realize was that sometimes being the optimist and the cheerleader was not what was needed. I need to also be the realist and the solution person.”
In bringing all of his cumulative marketing, managerial and executive skills to bear now at The Weather Channel, the ever forward-thinking Safon explained some of the organizational principles he has attempted to bring in, as well as the culture of collaboration he has sought to promote.
“Like many businesses, you wind up having an umbrella organizing principle for the company, and then every business unit wants to be accountable for their own marketing messages,” Safon acknowledged. “The Weather Channel has separate marketing functions for television, sales, digital and professional, which is the business-to-business product. My original concern was, how do I do the best job in television alone if I can’t also push some of those other levers? Will I have to act like the digital part of the company is an outside partner?”
“Luckily, there is a strong commitment to working together, tied together by a great brand that we’re all committed to,” he continued. “What I’ve focused on so far has been really trying to learn to speak the language of all these different divisions, because they are really different. The biggest adjustment for me personally has been staying on top of innovations in the data and digital worlds. The mobile platform at The Weather Channel, and the localization it allows, really leads our consumer growth globally. It’s a hugely important and growing section of the business.”
“The culture of digital is very much the Silicon Valley culture. For instance, I could speak the language of the advertising community because I’d handled that in my other CMO jobs, and I could speak the television language. Digital, even though I’d been working on digital marketing while working at CNN, there was a different level of it here because the mobile platform [for The Weather Channel] really leads the consumer touchpoints. It’s the global growth engine.”
In terms of breaking down silos and barriers between marketing divisions, Safon talked about an emphasis on collaboration rather than mere cooperation.
“I’m trying to get everybody to speak everybody else’s language. I think a lot of companies try to break down silos by encouraging cooperation, which is achievable because no one is going to say, ‘I’m not going to cooperate,’” Safon noted. “But what’s hard to get people to do inside businesses is to collaborate and really build things together. That requires you to put aside so much else. You have to invest yourselves, roll up your sleeves and sit side by side and make things. You can cooperate in a very transactional way with inside and outside partners. Collaborating, you’re really committed. To get that underway has been my biggest mission.”
Stay Current & Close to Your Dream
Lastly, so far as advice he has for young marketers and those seeking to one day become CMOs, Safon suggested sometimes adjusting your realism and also staying exceedingly current with regard to pop culture.
“Your own sense of realism is tempered by your accumulated history,” he said, “and history is sometimes a terrible predictor of what’s going to work in television. I have to watch myself and not be that guy who goes, ‘We tried that 20 years ago and it didn’t work.’ I don’t want to be the old man of media. I really want to be as current as possible.”
“In this business, you have to stay current. The conversation around pop culture is really important if you’re going to have a job in the media because it’s just the way people traffic in social currency, which is now on steroids. You can now graph it, read it, share it, see it, cultivate it, curate it. It’s amazing! And now that we live in that world, it’s ripe to be studied and to be manipulated, and marketers have to do that—even the ones that have been around awhile.”
More broadly, earned wisdom that could apply to any range of aspiring young professionals, Safon advised tracing back to the basics and asking one very fundamental question.
“When an MBA, college or high school student is asking me, ‘What should I do?’ my first question is, ‘What do you love? If you could read any magazine in the world right now, which one would you open?’ And whatever the answer is, if it was Sports Illustrated or The Atlantic, I think that’s the industry you should be in and pursue a job in.”
Speaking to his own dream of being in media, Safon said that he loved it enough to love it even when he was in an undesirable job.
“I think some people conflate this issue with wanting to climb a certain corporate ladder,” he said. “I think if you confuse the two things, it will be hard to get that job that you love. I have a lot of friends in the media world who took a lot of jobs because it was their chance to get a Vice President title. I understand that money is imperative to afford the kind of life you lead, but then you are choosing lifestyle issues over career issues.”
“I didn’t have the media job that I envisioned and dreamed of until I was 31,” Safon continued. “That was seven years after I started. You can’t sit there and say, ‘I need to make this amount of money. I need to have this kind of title.’ Titles, especially, can be a killer. I have never moved to get a better title.”
Safon’s love for and appreciation of media has driven him to constantly search for ways to make it more accessible and woven into the fabric of consumers’ lives. With his boundless enthusiasm and earnest efforts to refine and move forward, it seems a safe bet that viewers and users of The Weather Channel’s products will keep coming back—all through the seasons, in the sunshine and the rain. ♦
Forefun Q&A with Scot Safon
Favorite quote… “You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.” – John Irving, “The Hotel New Hampshire”
Books I recommend… “Hello, He Lied” by Lynda Obst—one of my favorite books about how movies get made, or don’t get made.
Things I carry with me… A yoga mat (in my car).
Apps on my phone I can’t do without… The Weather Channel. Also, Stitcher and I Heart Radio.
I can’t start my day unless… Unless I do a vigorous yoga class.
I don’t consider my day done unless… I’ve had some kind of meaningful contact with my daughters, ages 16 and 20.
My definition of retirement… The freedom to just do the stuff I want to do—preferably outside, and preferably surrounded by family and friends.
I unwind from my day by… Reading, walking and downward dog.
One of the best lessons I’ve learned in my career is… You are never as bad as your worst reviews or as good as your best.
It’s 5:00 on Friday, and my drink of choice is… Maker’s Mark Manhattan
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