December 11, 2020

How brands can impact culture to impact sales


Jaclyn Ruelle,

Managing Director,
The Martin Agency

Brett Lofgren,



After The Martin Agency was dubbed Adweek’s US Agency of the Year, Jaclyn Ruelle reflected on how the agency’s Cultural Impact Lab has laid the groundwork for brands to lead conversations, even during the pandemic.


Jaclyn Ruelle is the Managing Director of the Martin Agency’s Cultural Impact Lab, which is an earned media practice that fuses PR, social, communications strategy and creative media expertise. The mission: Impact Culture to Impact Sales. Also, you can follow Jaclyn on Twitter at @jaxbailru.

Brett Lofgren, who was the host for this episode of the Pulse, is the President and Chief Revenue Officer at NewsWhip. Brett directs overall growth and revenue strategy, helping brands and publishers use NewsWhip technology to grow their audience through social data.

Note: This transcript has been modified for clarity and brevity.

Brett: [starts at 0:33] Awesome. I’m really excited about today’s session for the Pulse. And as we know, culture is moving so fast. It’s changing public, social, environmental beliefs. We have a pandemic that’s changing behavior, and then we have technology that’s really shifting how we work and communicate and interact with each other. And today, we get to hear from one of the best in the industry and understands how The Martin Agency is connecting brand and culture.

Before we get started, I have to congratulate you and The Martin Agency on winning Adweek’s Agency of the Year. So, congratulations!

Jaclyn: Thank you. Thank you. It’s been an incredible week to just soak it all in. That announcement broke on Monday and it’s been a crazy, incredible year. So, I think, it’s such an honor to be the one in the US that got selected. And I think for all of our staff that have brilliantly figured out how to ebb and flow during probably the most unpredictable year in all of our lives, it’s just such a testament to us being resilient together as a group and just hunkering down and figure out how we were going to rise to the occasion on this year. So, it was so wonderful to be able to just celebrate from afar. I wish we could’ve done a big in-person celebration, but that will come later, just to celebrate with our staff that’s been working so hard. It’s quite validating.

Brett: Awesome. I think on that note too, when I was reading the release, I noticed a couple of stats that stuck out for me and 90%, right?

Jaclyn: Yes.

Brett: So, 90% of your clients, you guys did work for in those first few weeks during COVID. And then as it went down further in the article, you’re also closing 90% of the pitches that you’re involved in. And I think three years ago it was 20%. So, 90% is a very interesting number for the agency. How?

Jaclyn: Yeah, it’s a great question. I’ll tell you. So, I’ll dissect first the 90% of the work that we were able to do at the onset of the pandemic. I think we would not be where we are here today without one of the most incredible executive committees that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. They’re so aligned. They are so lockstep in every decision they make. And one of the most incredible things that we did as an agency was Wednesday, March 11th. Two days before we decided our first closing day was that Friday, March 13th, and we sent out an all-agency note. Anyone in the building on that day, no matter what you do at the agency. We called everyone into our gallery space. And we did an all-agency brainstorm on behalf of every single one of our clients.

Our roster is up around like 26 now. I think at that time let’s say we were hovering around like 21 brands that we work with. We had huge, large, sticky pad notes put up around every wall. And for hours on end, an entire afternoon, we thought about collectively, as a unit, what could we do to get ahead of every client’s business to help proactively power them through this pandemic? And at the time, we were like, “How do we get through the next three weeks?” No one was like, “How do we get through the next year?” at the time. We thought about, “Is there work that’s going to break that we need to rethink? What is going to happen to their industry?”

We work with B-Dubs [Buffalo Wild Wings]. So what does that mean for restaurants? We work with UPS and DoorDash, who are on the front lines of delivery. Old Navy, who has retail stores. So, how do we actually think about each part of their business with the directive that before we all closed up the day on Friday, every client partner was going to get a mini deck from us on how we were going to power them through this time of uncertainty. So, that’s what we did. And by Friday afternoon, every client had a set of ideas of how we were going to power through it.

The proactivity of that, the first 48, I’ll call it, was such an incredibly important moment in time. Then we woke up on Saturday morning with the brief from DoorDash that led to the first round of work that we turned around in a matter of six days, called Open for Delivery, where our directive was like, “We’ve got to step up and help save the restaurant industry.”

I think, there was a bit of a moment where we were like, “There are so many things that are going to come crashing into our world right now, that we have zero control.” We can’t control the pandemic. We can’t control what the world leaders are making decisions on, but what we can control is making sure we help our clients survive right now. Thereby, the reciprocal effect is that our agencies survive too, because it could have been a really, really rough time. We saw that across the industry, that effect over the months coming. Agencies shutting down, having to lose a majority of their staff.

It was this super specific, proactive play that we knew we needed to make. And in the meantime, we created space for all of us that work on our brand to focus on the work. And are there campaigns we need to pivot? Are there productions that need to shut down? Does that mean we just lost an entire campaign? So, what’s the new campaign?

When everyone was like, “How do I set up my technology from home?” our IT team figured out our technology. Our talent team figured out how to take care of our people. All of that got taken care of. All this stuff that was noise in a lot of people’s lives? Our teams rose to the occasion and took care of that, so we could hunker down and focus on making sure all of our partners survive this moment in time. And I believe, the ability to segment out what we needed to focus on and just double-down in the grind, that Martin agency has in its DNA, [helped us be] able to turn around so much work in a short amount of time.

Brett: Wow. Well, three days, 26 clients, and a bunch of ideas. I mean, speed, the creative insight, and thought processing? How do you come up with ideas for 26 individual clients in such a short period of time?

Jaclyn: I think we leaned on the power of a shared mindset in the agency, we just weren’t like, “Let’s go take this one client team and think about it.” We literally told anyone in the agency to come into the building, or to come into the space. An idea could have come from our IT team, an idea could have come from our project management team, people that aren’t always on the brief. So, I think it was the power of multiple brains en masse coming together to just think about all the potential scenarios.

I think that was important. I mean, we strive for the notion that a good idea can come from anywhere. So, in that moment, it was fact. We needed the good ideas to come from anywhere. We needed someone to think of something that maybe none of us would have thought of, because they’re just sitting there with a consumer hat on thinking about, “Well, what’s going to happen if the restaurants do close? Or how am I going to keep getting medicine that I need delivered to my home?” All of the things that people just started thinking about real life and that human nature started to pour into some of the ideas as well, which was incredible.

Brett: I think that gives us insight into the work being produced. Now how about the new business that you guys are closing-

Jaclyn: The new business, yes.

Brett: … the change in the last three years?

Jaclyn: Totally. I mean, crazier things have maybe happened, but pitching new business in the middle of a pandemic? I mean, not sure we can ever say we would know how to do that until now. We figured it out. I think, we believe at Martin when we think about new business we follow relationships and we foster those relationships. So, we have a mission that’s all about fighting against invisibility and impacting culture. So, we look for people, brand leaders out in the world that are mapped to that mission, that are cut from that same cloth, have that similar DNA in what we believe they could do together with us as a brand, as a brand partner.

I think the relationships matter moment has been ever more important in the midst of everything that has been going on, because we’ve been able to keep in touch with people across the industry that one day we’d love to work with. And I think also, because we were so fast to market and we were getting a lot of work produced, and that was our story, in like the first 60 days of the pandemic, people were taking notice. So, our new business phone continued to ring.

When a lot of other people were hunkering down budgets and things, we were finding that the phone was still ringing for us. So, I think it’s a testament to, again, what we did in those first 90 days helped us to maintain or increase the win rate potential. Stepping back to three years ago, when Kristen Cavallo, our CEO, took the helm and just took a step back and looked at how she wanted to reinvigorate Martin. She brought that relationship-first mentality to the forefront with all of the types of business that we were going after, but also brands that we knew wanted to sink their teeth into culture.

There are some brands we said no to, because they weren’t going to subscribe to that mentality. So, it’s also a quite fortunate position that there are moments when we can say no. That doesn’t always happen. So, I think we were able to be extra choiceful about the people that we wanted to work with, that we knew would be subscribing to this idea of impacting culture and leaning in on relevance as key drivers of how their business could shape out in the world.

We think a lot about how much people matter inside our own walls. And it rings true outside of the Martin walls as well. I mean, it really is about fostering the right types of relationships. You’re in the trenches together. The trench that we all had to climb in together during this pandemic has been insane. So, I think being a good partner to our existing clients, as well as showcasing how we could be that trench partner to new business potential, just really set us up for that win rate success.

Brett: That’s amazing. I mean, 20% to 90%? I’m taking notes. I think that brings me to your role and coming to Martin Agency, and maybe you could share with us the Cultural Impact Lab and how it fits in the overall strategy at Martin.

Jaclyn: Absolutely. So, I’ll celebrate my two year anniversary in February. I came to Martin with the vision of creating an amplification unit inside the agency that could help really bring the mission to life. We talk about impact culture to impact sales. Well, if we’re going to think about how we impact culture, how can we do things that make the work more talkable, more headline worthy? We love the trades of our industry. We know that we need to land there, we need to storytell with them. But also how do we transcend out into consumer outlets? How do we become part of pop culture?

The other night, quite serendipitously. This is when you just strike a chord and some magic happens. Jimmy Fallon, in his monologue, was metaphorically comparing a few things and referenced the genius of the writing behind the GEICO commercials. And GEICO is one of our clients. So, we can’t pitch that to make that happen. But if you take a step back and look and just see, the GEICO work is brilliant. It gets talked about quite often in the social feeds and the press.

When that type of talk can happen that’s really what the Cultural Impact Lab is about. How do we fuel the talk value and the buzz worthiness of anything we are producing inside the agency walls, when it goes outside the agency walls, that gets us to a point where we’re just getting picked up on late night monologues? That’s not something you can plan for. But what we do in the lab is to help lay the groundwork for stuff like that to be able to happen.

So, it really is about arming ourselves with the right type of people that are just culture obsessed. We have a lot of people that just mind the feeds day in and day out. We’re deep into storytelling about what’s resonating in pop culture. 

I think, literally one of the first things I did when I started is I called NewsWhip and I was like, “We need this. I’ve been trying to bring this into my world for the past couple of years. I’m in a new role.” This is going to fuel us in our mission to impact culture. It’s going to give us a leg up. It’s going to allow us to put that predictive model in place. And it’s really paid off for what we’ve been able to do.

So, we are constantly just living and breathing inside NewsWhip, which brings us into culture. And it enables us to think about how widespread we can make the work that we’re talking about. It’s not about TV spots, most of the time, it’s not. Yes, we’re going to have traditional TV campaigns that we need to put out in the world and they’re going to need to do hard work for our partners, but how do we spin off from that? How do we create digital and social? And we’ll get back to it at some point, but IRL experiences that put a brand in the catbird seat of culture and allow them to really further immerse into what we know people are talking about every day.

Brett: Well, the impact culture to impact sales definitely strikes a chord. Jeez, how do you understand the brand impact of culture? And how do you connect the dots there?

Jaclyn: That’s a great question. So, data’s important, we know it all… Everybody is talking big data, talking small data, but I think it’s important for us to be able to validate a statement like that. And I think as we look at how work comes to life and how it lands in culture, we do a lot of metrics against… And I’ve always been from the PR world and one day we will figure this out. I know the world of impressions just continues to be a slippery slope, I guess I’ll call it. But I think we look at how we can impact earned conversations, whether it’s lighting up the feeds, whether it’s digital news, broadcast news, anywhere where we can propel a conversation forward.

And we look at impressions, it’s hard to find a different metric other than that, that doesn’t at least give us some unifying benchmark. So, we look at how much volume of earned conversation can we catapult out into the world that can exceed the amount of money that you’d have to spend to get people to see it. And here’s the thing, the make it go viral brief, that does not exist. We don’t think that way. If something catches fire, some of it is a little bit of serendipity. But what we do look at is timing, relevance, alignments with things, people, partners, institutions, that we know, “Well, if we bring their voice in and their fan base in, by default, it’s going to make this thing scale a little bit bigger.”

I think, timing is a big thing we think a lot about, because you have this moment where you could have a really great story and you placed it in the news cycle at just the wrong time. It never sees the full potential that you thought it would. So, I will say, and for those people tuning in, I’m quite obsessed with the new NewsWhip Crisis Dashboard, which doesn’t have to always be about crises, but I love just timestamping our way through how things even just take off for three hours in the middle of the day.

I mean, we look at how conversations are sparked by a digital news story that might be The New York Times, but then it gets lift throughout the day, because everyone took to Twitter to share it, from The New York Times Twitter channel or whatever it may be.

I think we try to manually put a little bit of data and insight into this and we’re watching and we’re tracking, but then I think leveraging a tool like NewsWhip, that gets us into some more of the science of the velocity potential and the predicted interactions, that allows us to get a little bit smarter about when are we going to break into culture to actually break through culture. Because you could break into it and you could become a part of the conversation. You’ll get some love. But do you always break through to the other side and become the conversation? That’s hard to do.

We use a lot of data and insights on the front-end, and then we judge ourselves, but that actually helps us inform a little bit better, so we can strike a little bit hotter when we break an idea out into the world.

Brett: Yeah. From your perspective, how wide is the window for a lot of these cultural waves? I mean, the news cycle today is 24/7, there’s so much out there. With all of the clients that you’ve built campaigns for, how big are these windows to participate?

Jaclyn: I’m so glad that you asked, because I think I’ve always operated by the 72-hour rule, which is the bulk of action you’re probably going to get on a story when it really hits is in that first 72 hours. Now, I will tell you, there are probably a million examples that would squash that theory into the ground, just again, because of the news cycle. And I think we all know how valuable social is to the world of PR and to the news cycle.

It’s an inextricable link, we can’t avoid it these days, and I think with more people hunkered down at home, there’s probably a stat somewhere. We should ask Twitter how much time are people spending on it. I can tell you my little Screen Time updates I get from Apple. I’m like, “Oh my God. I’ve got to step away.” But I think we’re spending more time than maybe we were. We don’t have a commute anymore. We’re in the feeds now probably longer than we would have been.

That being said, I always like to think about that 72-hour window as like the power push of if we can get it out. And then, you don’t want the one hit wonder to like come and go. So, it’s almost like, how do you think about sustaining it? Are there ways to keep pushing the story?

Someone I’ve been watching a lot is Travis Scott. He just had an incredible article written in Forbes last week. The new brand darling, if you will. He’s doing so many incredible collabs. I think McDonald’s was probably one of the earlier ones, earlier in this year that broke out the scene. And I just happened to be watching that one.

There was just an article written two days ago about how he’s benefited from that collaboration. That thing hit three months ago. I think that there’s probably some very smart storytellers behind making that happen. I think that there’s depth to story that could go for months on end. But I also do think it can be down to the hours. Just stuff we’re watching could come up for a day and it could dominate maybe from 9:00 AM to 3:00 PM, but then you can watch, thank you NewsWhip, you can see it starts to taper off at times. And then, maybe the next day, it gets life again, because it comes back into a followup news cycle. But yeah, I think I would say the three-day is still my rule, so see if you can make it for three days in the feeds.

Brett: And that’s success. Right? Yeah.

Jaclyn: Yeah.

Brett: Cool. I’m seeing some questions come through here. I know we have a few minutes left. So maybe we’ll turn the attention to the audience for a bit.

Jaclyn: Do it.

Brett: Oh, here’s a good one. Business will continue to feel disruption next year and local will continue to become a key consideration, for retail, travel, and virtually every other vertical, how are you and your clients approaching this?

Jaclyn: Just approaching the unknown of what’s to come?

Brett: Yeah. I think it’s more about local consideration, again, Covid disruption into next year.

Jaclyn: Sure. You know what I actually love about local? Brett, you and I were chatting about this yesterday. There was an incredible trend report that I’m going to fail to source right now, because I honestly forgot where it came from, but they talked all about the 15-minute city and they’re talking all about the resurgence. Of course, we’ve seen the resurgence of suburbs and people are exiting the cities, but people are really being mindful of what is in their city in that 15-minute radius that is their life.

Whether it’s restaurants that they’re going to, or ordering from, whether it’s wherever they need to get their groceries, maybe they’re dropping their kids off to school or not. It is literally just closing in on that little home base. And I think that there is something incredibly interesting about going local. Actually, what if more brands were briefing about local? Granted, we work with a ton [of brands]. I mean, our whole roster is national brands.

Even I am one to strive for the national PR hit, but I’ll tell you, this pandemic has forced a mindset shift for me. We are looking more for the local stories and what are those backyard neighborhood stories that we can tell? I also feel like apps and communities like Nextdoor, for any of you that are on Nextdoor, in your neighborhood. I’m obsessed with that. It’s like, “What can we do with Nextdoor? What could Nextdoor be doing for brands?”

I think that’s probably a social community that maybe is a little bit untapped right now. Because it was made for local. I feel like there’s something so interesting there. So, back to what we’re thinking about with our clients, I think mindset and philosophy of what happened when we were stricken down by the pandemic is going to hold steady until we figure out what life looks like post vaccine. And I think what we’re also being mindful of how anxious this entire country is to get back to whatever people defined as normal and get back out of their homes. I think we have to be patient is the word I would use on what will transpire as the vaccine scales.

Because we don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re predicting, we’re all predicting. I think us remaining diligent with our brand partners and being as proactive as we were on March 11th, 2020 is us continuing to think ahead and peek around every corner. Question if we think another disruption is coming. And what will that do for any of our clients? I mean, restaurants are shutting down again, cities are going into lockdown again. We are in some instances back at March 2020.

We are being overly proactive about looking at what’s going on in the world and what’s going on in each of these cities and just being extra communicative with all of our brand partners about, “Well, what does this mean?” And how can we think through, together, about what the potential business implications are or what they could be? It’s like you got to dream a little bit about a crisis scenario and just try to be smart about getting ahead of all of that. So, I think, we’re proactive. We’re thinking ahead, we’re putting measures in place. We’re putting backup, to the backup, to the backup scenarios in place ahead of time. So, we don’t get caught by any surprises.

Brett: Well, listen, I could sit here and ask a million questions, because I just love listening to you and I’m learning a lot. I feel like we need to do another one of these to go through everything else. We had a lot of audience questions come through.

Jaclyn: If anyone wants to find me on LinkedIn, I love connecting. So, hit me with the questions there.

Brett: Awesome. Thank you, Jaclyn, for doing this and for participating in the Pulse. Thanks to everyone for listening. We are going to be posting this on YouTube next week. So, that way you could watch again and listen and share with your friends.

We do have one more webinar next week. It’s the last one that NewsWhip will be hosting for 2020, and we’ll be welcoming Aubrey Quinn, the Managing Director from the Clyde Group. She’ll be joining us to close out the year.

But, Jaclyn, thank you so much. You’ve been an amazing partner. We really appreciate this opportunity here and, everyone, enjoy the rest of the day. Thank you.

Jaclyn: Thank you. Bye, everyone.

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