DePaul University Commencement Speech

Good morning parents and graduates. I am delighted to be delivering the commencement address at DePaul to the College of Communication and to the College of Computing and Digital Media. You need to know that I have a long relationship with your school. As a teen growing up on the north side of Chicago, I was an avid follower of Blue Demon basketball, with Coach Ray Meyer, his son Joey as the star guard and future NBA great Mark Aguirre slaying such national power houses as Notre Dame and Marquette.

I stand before you today because I chose a career in communications. I joined our family public relations business to work alongside my father who had invented marketing PR and the media tour. We had 35 years together, building the largest PR firm in the world and we have kept it family owned and operated. We have worked on some of the most important programs in past several decades, from the first prescription to over-the-counter switch for Advil, to the first environmental initiative for Star-Kist on Dolphin Safe Tuna, to the reputation management program for Walmart around sustainability.

I was invited by your star teacher, Professor Ron Culp. Ron was a client of Edelman at three different companies: Pitney Bowes, Sara Lee and Sears. He helped to define the modern chief communications officer role. He pushed CEOs on corporate social responsibility in supply chain and to do proper corporate philanthropy, notably in support of the arts. He was a counselor beyond compare, deeply knowledgeable about media based on personal relationships with senior journalists. He was a pillar of the Chicago community, serving on non-profit boards and involved in social issues. He was a great friend of my late parents, who adored having him and his wife to dinner or to the Lyric Opera; even as they aged, he remained loyal and devoted to them. Ron, thank you for your friendship and leadership.

Graduates, you enter a world that is changing more quickly than at any time since the advent of television two generations ago. So let’s conduct a quick test.

  • How many of you go first to Facebook in the morning?
  • How many times a day are you searching on Google, whether for restaurants or news topics?
  • How many of you read a daily newspaper?
  • How many of you go to BuzzFeed and Vice every day?
  • How many of you are posting photos on Instagram or SnapChat as we speak?
  • Will you binge watch House of Cards’ 13 episodes over a weekend?

We have entered a new period where platforms, notably Facebook and Google, have supplanted media brands as the first stop for news and entertainment. The primary source of credibility is recommendation from friends or family, not advertising. Cable packages are being unbundled by internet providers such as Verizon so that you have choice of channels. You can get your HBO anywhere, notably on your mobile phone, through HBO Now.

Where will the media world be in a decade? We may well have no more nightly news broadcasts on the networks; the average age of the viewer is already 60 plus. The newspaper may be in print only two days a week when there is revenue from circulars for shopping. Corporations will continue to drive owned content and we will see much more “creative-corporate” collaboration between media, brands and storytellers.  A good example of this is the new partnership deal between top film producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, GE, Imagine Entertainment, Asylum Entertainment and the National Geographic Channel to create a new TV series about innovation called “Breakthrough.”

There are three important trends that you graduates going on to careers in journalism, public relations, advertising, design, digital or research must understand.

First, there is dispersion of authority. A person like you or fellow employee is three times more trusted than a public official or a CEO. The democratization of production means that the older mainstream media have lost their monopoly on opinion. Aggressive new platforms such as Business Insider, where journalists are expected to write eight stories a day with search-friendly headlines and attractive graphics, have more unique visitors than The Wall Street Journal. That is remarkable!

Second, there is dispersion of audience. There will still be big live events such as the Oscars or the Super Bowl. But the dominance of network television, with 85 percent of households tuned into popular shows, which occurred as late as the 1990s, is over. This has huge implications for advertising, which relies upon a broadcast model of one to many and will have to become more subject-specific and targeted based on data, programmatic buying and the ability to test several hundred ad executions by niche before going to market.

Third, there is dispersion of experience, with every consumer now a publisher, an employee, a voter, and member of community. Influence moves from the few opinion leaders to the many. Impressions are fleeting and not trusted until five or more exposures to the message.

In this world, one dramatically different than the one I entered as a young graduate, the key to success will be powerful ideas. Your ideas will be based not on creative alone, but on tangible actions that bring real change. It is what you DO, not what you SAY. You must take dreams and find a way to deliver commercial and societal benefits. You must catalyze change by becoming the initiator of movements, creating a connection within communities that stimulate action. You must morph from agent to partner, from muckraker to actor, from generator of sales to builder of relationships based on trust.

This is far beyond what has been demanded by prior generations of those who worked in marketing services. We have been trained to deliver compelling messages that build awareness and preference, ultimately leading to sales. Your parents and I grew up with advertising icons such as Charlie the Star-Kist Tuna. We believed it when celebrities such as baseball great Nolan Ryan told us that after a hard game, all he needed was two Advil. Not anymore!

So how do you get to a powerful idea? You need to bring together the creative talent of the agency with the business affairs team at the client responsible for strategy. You have to imagine changing the course of the company or one of the primary brands. Find a cause, a bigger purpose that gives you an emotional as well as rational connection to stakeholders. Make sure that the idea translates through the entire business and that it ultimately makes money.

In today’s skeptical world where reality is built one experience at a time, we have to flip the traditional model. To deliver these kinds of ideas will require a re-invention of the Marketing Communications sector. To date, advertising is the dominant player. Between media buying agencies and ad agencies, advertising accounts for two-thirds of spending by clients, with the balance at 25 percent in digital and under 10 percent in public relations. I predict that in the next decade, those percentages may well be reversed, as earned and social take precedence over paid.

At Edelman, we have issued the clarion call to rename the sector as communications marketing. In this new world, you will see an equality of the communications and marketing functions. You will have the story-telling and reputation management elements of communications blended with the selling and quantitative rigor of marketing. Communications marketing returns marketing to its roots. In 1959, Northwestern Professor Philip Kotler defined marketing as, “Creating, delivering and communicating value to customers and managing customer relationships in ways that also benefit the organization and its shareholders.”

You will see the continuing integration of the chief marketing officer and chief communications officer disciplines as the roles increasingly overlap and merge. Beyond that, powerful ideas do not respect normal corporate boundaries. Specifically, these ideas require executives to surrender their turf and to work collaboratively, from marketing to communications to human resources to sales. These ideas require spontaneity and a willingness to take risk (yes I am talking to you, lawyers).

The changed role for those entering a service business is profound. You help to make the reality, to enable discontinuous, large steps forward. We will help our clients to move their businesses in new ways, not to manage perceptions or images alone. We will see around the corner to predict what will happen, make alliances with partners such as non-governmental organizations, you will listen to community feedback online and then enable the client to adapt to meet the needs of the marketplace.

A good example of this is CVS*, which boldly stopped selling cigarettes and walked away from $2 billion in sales. The company then renamed itself CVS Health as a clear signal of its path forward. There is now a 13 percent likelihood that U.S. adults would consider shopping at CVS, up four points from the beginning of the year. I’d also like to mention that students from DePaul were the winners of the Jack Koten Page Principles Case Study Award competition given through the Arthur W. Page Society for their work on CVS Quits.

Another is the bold step by GE* to launch Ecomagination, an initiative based on the idea that efficiency can help customers transform industries while reducing environmental impact. The Ecomagination portfolio at GE continues to evolve with industry and society. These products have cumulative sales of $200 billion since 2005, accounting for 30 percent of industrial revenues in 2014, or more than $30 billion.

Unilever* is one of the most advanced companies in recognizing the possibility of powerful ideas that fuel engagement and an emotional connection around issues that matter. How many of you have heard of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty? Now in its eleventh year, the Dove brand most recently launched Choose Beautiful in 70 markets, a program that encouraged women to think about the choices they make every day about their beauty and how those choices make them feel.

Other powerful ideas come true. Shell* imagined a run-down soccer field in a Brazilian favela that was well lit at night. The source of the energy is generated by the players’ footsteps on the soccer pitch and converted through energy panels installed underneath the playing field. Pele, the Brazilian soccer icon, said it so well,“The more you play, the more energy you create.”

Powerful ideas come in all shapes and sizes and can actually be employee-focused. Led by CEO Howard Schultz, Starbucks has invested in full tuition coverage for every U.S. employee to finish an online bachelor’s degree through Arizona State University. The company has also embarked on an initiative to employ at least 10,000 veterans, military spouses and reservists by 2018.

Powerful ideas are central to the future of the media as well. Forbes has reinvented its business model by reducing its number of full-time journalists and adding 500 contributors who have credentials in an industry and a desire to post frequently. Nate Silver, now editor-in-chief of ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight blog, has made statistics the centerpiece of his publishing thesis, from voting trends to consumer behavior. Again, reinventing the game.

Powerful ideas put a new burden on the communications marketer. Your programs are now not just your own, they belong to the community of fans and consumers who want a voice in the outcome. In our recent program for Heineken*, which promoted “Dance More, Drink Slow,” we found that people drank less on a night when there was a superb DJ. The client took responsibility for change in behavior, selling better experiences not just more beer.

To gain acceptance of powerful ideas will require a deeper knowledge of the industry and the organization in which you work. As communicators you will have one foot in the world of the company and the other in the outside world of media, NGOs and consumers. You are the essential bridge, the ones who balance the often-competing needs of shareholders and stakeholders.

So leave today with a strong sense of your destiny, to lead by the power of your ideas. Make communications marketing your version of the Avengers, the force for good, aspiring to change the world.

* Edelman client