Approximately 75 undergraduates and Johnson School students filed into Barnes Hall on Thursday to hear from Scot Safon ’84 M.B.A. — who was recently promoted to executive vice president for CNN, overseeing the HLN network — to kick off the first annual Johnson School Marketing Challenge.
Safon, who was the keynote speaker for the challenge — in which six Johnson School teams will compete to design and implement the best marketing strategy for a given product — offered students his insights into marketing in the digital versus pre-digital age, advice on how to succeed in the marketing world, and some of his ideas for the future of CNN and HLN.
Light-hearted and humorous throughout the talk, Safon opened by saying that as a graduate of the class of 1984, he wasn’t qualified to speak about the products that the students in the challenge would need to market.
“These products are much younger than me. I graduated 26 years ago, so I am way old,’’ he said, pausing for a moment before adding, “but I am very wise.”
He said that he always knew he wanted to go into marketing. He said that, as a kid, he grew up “loving movie posters, movies and televisions shows about advertising,” and ultimately solidified his desire to go into the industry when he saw the movie “Kramer vs. Kramer,” starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep. Safon said that, in the movie, Hoffman plays a man that works so hard at an advertising agency that it “ruins his life, his wife leaves him and he has to raise his kids alone.”
“I remember seeing that movie and being like, ‘I really want to have that job,’” Safon said. “My friends said back to me ‘are you crazy that job ruined his life’ and I said yeah but what a cool job.”
After graduating from the Johnson School, where Safon said he programmed the Cornell Cinema for two years, he worked at an advertisement agency where he served as the assistant account executive on Pepto Bismol, a dog food company and Pampers. Though he enjoyed his work there, which taught him a tremendous “skill set,” his “passion” was the media and he he hoped to one-day land a job working in television.
So, in 1991, when he was hired to create ad campaigns for “TNT Original Movies,” he was ecstatic.
“It was my dream job, it combined every single thing I was looking for,” he said. “It was not immediate and I’m glad I paid the dues I paid along the way to get there because when that opportunity showed itself I was ready.”
After spending 10 years at Turner, he was hired to work as the chief marketing officer for CNN, where he worked until his most recent promotion.
Safon said that a lot has changed in marketing since he first began his career over 25 years ago.
While many of the same principles of marketing, including positioning the product in the marketplace, determining its unique role in the world, attracting consumers and pricing it, have remained the same, the ways in which one needed to go about it have dramatically changed, he said.
“Twenty years ago, marketers could sit in their room and make the decision and they controlled so much of what consumers would know about the product,” he said.
“Today [a marketer] could tell a consumer that it’s a thing for this that works that way, but [the consumer] will respond to you, your full of crap that product isn’t nearly as good as this product that I bought from a retailer in Belgium … the consumer decides,” he added.
He said that the nature of advertisements had changed too with the web and social media.
“If you had told me in 1984 that there was a way to serve advertisements to people while they were at their desk at work where they spend eight hours a day, I would’ve told them they’re crazy … you do that today through the Internet,” he said.
He said that before the Internet and the advent of social media, if you wanted to market a product, you would employ the most influential journalists and columnists to review it in magazines and newspapers. Today, he said, “everyone’s a marketer.”
“Whether you have 500 friends [on Facebook] or you have 50 friends, you’re a marketer, whether you’re aware of that or not … [Social media and the Internet] has fundamentally changed the role of what marketers are all about.”
He said that CNN’s most viewed column last year was thanks to a tweet from Lady Gaga.
“Lady Gaga wrote some op-ed article on CNN.com, and she tweeted that she did, and CNN.com had 6 million hits,” Safon said. “I was like ‘Wow, our most successful marketing campaign that we did last year and Lady Gaga was the head of it.”
Safon also took time to touch on some of the challenges that CNN will face in the upcoming months and years, as it works to halt a decline in ratings as compared to Fox News Channel and MSNBC, two of its major competitors.
He said that CNN’s “big challenge” has been being an objective news network without a particular agenda. He said that shows on Fox News and MSNBC draw crowds that like to see “big personalities” presenting news in a “very ideological way.”
“No one in CNN has emerged as a big personality that can draw viewers nightly,” Safon said. “Anderson Cooper is definitely there for breaking news stories, but on night when there isn’t breaking news, CNN has trouble drawing viewers.”
He maintained, however, that CNN needed to “absolutely stick with their platform” of reporting news in a non-partisan manner, but he thought that CNN needed to be “stronger in how they report the news.”
“They have to report the news on issues that journalists find troubling and journalists believe are issues,” he added. “You don’t need big personalities that report in an ideological manner if you have good, strong journalism on important issues that affect people.”
As for the marketing competition, the six teams will work over the next two weeks to design marketing plans for several well-known products, including the Axe Detailer, Listerine Strips, Irish Spring Body Wash and Johnson & Johnson’s new hand and face wipes, among others.
“This competition gives students the opportunity to get a hands on learning experience by applying classroom concepts to the real world,” Katie Schupham M.B.A. ’11 said.