Convergence Conversation: Building Human-centric Business with Elizabeth Ross
It was a cold call that introduced me to Elizabeth (Liz) Ross. At the time, she was the CEO of Periscope, a full-service marketing agency, and was looking for a futurist to share the stage with her at a 2016 Advertising Week New York event. She was an avid reader of Alvin Toffler’s writings and we made an immediate connection. Together, we developed a presentation that would incite positive discourse with the audience. I furnished content about future shifts that were converging to impact marketing. Liz brought a position of experience and authority about the implications of those convergences on those responsible for marketing success. The event was a success, not only in the content it delivered but more importantly in the opportunity it gave me to know this amazing person.
Today, Liz is the Chief Marketing Officer at Bright Health. She remains a visionary and pragmatic leader. She balances her breadth of experience and human-centric business drive with an appreciation for what technology is capable of for a better future.
In this Convergence Conversation, Liz and I discuss the shifts happening with business, how marketing is keeping up, and the convergence of technology and humanity.
Discovering a Human-centric Business Purpose
Deb: What do you see as the primary purpose of a business?
Liz: This question in my mind, is really about understanding the driving reason why a company exists. And now, in my new role, I have a much different perspective on purpose. They aren’t the same. The way agencies tend to approach their purpose, it’s almost as if it gets approached as an ancillary topic not directly related to how and why they make money. I remember in my previous role; we were working with a national haircare brand. We were trying to support their corporate responsibility campaign. It was something environmental and it just didn’t seem to fit. We tried to get them to think about their reason for being. We observed that they are able to give a person confidence through the simple act of cutting their hair — that's actually their purpose. Businesses don’t have to bolt on some fake thing that isn't true to who they are. I think some of this type of effort is a reflection that companies have lost the sense of why they exist.
Deb: Why have companies lost their perspective?
Liz: Companies have lost their perspective because they are navigating business-speak and goal-setting exercises that are neither clear nor simple. In my current role, unwinding ideas taught in MBA programs has allowed us to connect important dots. We have a clear understanding that our Bright Health mission is making healthcare great. Together. It’s beautiful. Everyone can understand what this means. Everyone can understand their own perspective on what that means.
The Evolution of Marketing
Deb: How has marketing changed over the years?
Liz: In many ways, it has changed a lot. In many ways, it is remarkably the same. It has changed in the sense that we know more about who we're targeting and what they're thinking. We can see someone’s behavior right before they see our ad, during our ad, and right after. We have more input into our marketing decisions. Hopefully, this makes us better at creating tighter messaging, stronger calls to action, and helping people to feel something. All that input can make marketing do better.
What hasn't changed is that we're still human beings that want to be connected. We're interested in learning new things. We like the surprise and delight an ad can bring us, no matter the channel. I think the seismic change of being locked down brought out our desire for connection to things and people. Our understanding of the importance of connections has been magnified. I don't just mean connections with friends and families. I’m talking about the power of being around other people. The connection of being in a restaurant with other people you don't know. The connection we feel with brands and what they stand for. I don't want to be best friends with my toothpaste. But I do want to know more about the brand. I want to know how the brand thinks, how they design their products, what's coming next, or what they believe their unique thing is. I think the notion of has always been true. What has changed is what we know and how to make connections.
Technology as a Tool for Connection
Deb: Is technology helping or hurting our ability to connect?
Liz: Technology has made some aspects better for adults. There have been some positive aspects of being on camera and seeing people while we are virtually meeting. Prior to the pandemic, we thought of technology as being this incredible capability. In some cases, it can be, but it isn’t everything. I think we’ve realized it has limitations to the way we connect. We need to find better ways to connect, build relationships and trust. For example, every Wednesday for the last month, I buy ten pizzas and tell my team to come in and sit with me in a conference room. We practice safe distancing, some of us have been vaccinated and some of us have had COVID so we have antibodies, but getting together as a team has really helped. It matters.
I have three little kids. My seven-year-old is in first grade and has missed three-quarters of in-person schooling. Technology doesn't even come close to meeting all the needs of educating our children.
“The way we learn is by trusting. Someone connects with us and we open ourselves to trusting. That connection allows us to learn.”
- Elizabeth Ross
When we met, I trusted you. We were able to immediately start making a connection because it was built in a very human moment. The same need is true for our children. I can put my son in front of 90 instructional YouTube videos and has not even come close to sticking with him. The content is not connection. Technology is a sad substitute for education. I strongly believe children need to be in the classroom with a teacher. There is distance teaching but there's no such thing as distance learning. To learn, there needs to be connection and trust.
Driving Human-centric Business Connections with Technology
Deb: There is a lot of focus on executing digital strategies within business, but what you are talking about is human connection.
Liz: For any business that connects with people at any vulnerable moment, technology will never be enough. For the national hair-care brand, it was the intimacy of cutting someone’s hair. For customers, getting on the phone to talk to another human being who will hear them and help solve their issue is immensely important. There certainly are functional things that businesses need to provide in an online environment, like factual information, but if we’re talking about being aligned and focused on consumers, it is about people first. We can power the connection with technology, but technology is an accelerant, not a replacement.
Deb: How has decision-making in the c-suite changed because of technology?
Liz: How we’re investing in technology is changing. There are heavy discussions around the human components of technology implementation. For example, within a call center, there are a million functional technology components like the lines, routers, and even the hold music. But the truth is, how someone answers the phone matters the most. Technology can help us understand the person on the other end of the call when we go to answer it. Technology can help us get an understanding of a person’s emotional state before we answer the phone based on their vocal inputs. If someone is agitated or upset, the technology can interpret it. This is really smart technology, but it has a human basis.
Technologies that make our interactions with humans more powerful and more positive will command the premium; not the ones that make us more efficient.
In terms of standing up a data capability internally, the question for any company becomes build or buy. How much should we have and how much do we want to have? The way to evaluate the component parts to implement is around relative velocity. How much of an accelerant is it going to be or is checking the box in some digital plan? Leaders are working to make decisions about what is needed to function as a business in any environment. Those decisions inform what kind of things would be good to have for the future, but we might not really need them yet.
Data and Emotion
Deb: A few years ago, we presented a session titled Algorithms Can’t Understand Love at Ad Week, do you still believe this?
Liz: I do. You can't love something that doesn't meet the basics. For example, in my company, the basics around technology include things customers being able to access their member information and having the ability to change their address. We want to manage our relationships with these customers through a preference center. We need this as a business. Just to be in the consideration set for our customers, we have to check these boxes. We look side-to-side to determine capabilities that are making what we do ultimately easier for consumers, providers, and our team.
A great example is call center software that can connect emotionally. If you're working in a call center and you're on with a gentleman who is in a panic because he cannot pick up his insulin or the formula is wrong, you’re speaking with someone who is beside himself. Before you get on the call with him, it is good to know the situation so you can prepare yourself for the specific situation. It helps to know that this person is really upset and why so you can prepare to connect and help. Having a solid foundation of people-first is so important.
Mission and Investment
Deb: Thoughts on social conscious investment or the ESG?
Liz: Our mission and our business practice already aligned because most of our customers are federally subsidized or qualify for federal subsidies because they are at a percentage of the poverty line. So we're serving incredibly underserved communities with healthcare. Our social responsibility is naturally built into our business. Our consumers are at great risk. By using systems and technology to stratify the risk populations to deliver better care, we are already focused on doing right for customers and communities. There’s great purpose in this. So in many respects, we don't have to invent a purpose.
I do like that investors are thinking about how to support positive movements in ESG. Although there is the danger of going too far and becoming over-reliant on it. Many companies went too far down the shareholder value path. Now there is a potential to swing too far down the ESG path. The risk is that you’ll end up with a pretend mission that takes you off the path of why you exist as a company. I've been making everybody watch Simon Sinek's Golden Circles. Not because it's revolutionary, but because it's not. If everyone is clear on the why, we can get away from needing to create it. It is not always about making money. It’s also about serving the vulnerable public. When the why is understood and done, these things can go together well.
Deb: That's the danger. Purpose becomes a program. We tag it, brand it, and promote it without really making any real impact. If this is reality, it won’t change business behaviors.
Liz: We operate in a world of near-perfect information. It is both an incredible gift and responsibility. Back in 1999, I was working with a global consumer electronics company. They were working out pricing for their products in global markets. They were pricing exact products at different coats depending on if it was being sold in Brazil or South Africa. You can't do that anymore. The practice of obfuscating costs to drive profit based is gone.
The responsibility of marketing is to help people understand what choice they are making. It’s not to try to pretend that they're making a different choice. In the old days, you could almost pretend the choice to buy or not to buy was based on anything you wanted it to be. Now it needs to be based on the truth. Anybody can find almost any information they want so the truth is better than trying to hind bad news. My hope is people are able to understand if my marketing is honest and clear and helps make them smarter, they can make choices based on all of the information available.
Deb: What's the biggest challenge for marketing going forward?
Liz: The biggest challenge is to remain human. I’ve met with companies that do AI-generated creative to populate blogs and social media channels. It’s appealing in many respects because there’s a lot of content and information to be had. But does doing this really meet a need? Or is it just about satisfying a call for volume? How do we stay human in that world where technology can appear to be creating like one? Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should. As more and more data come in, how do we keep marketing in a way that is engaging and interesting without freaking everyone out?
Nothing is anonymous, everything can be traced to your living room. People were blown away by The Social Dilemma. I'm frightened when people don’t know that this is going on. The trick will be finding ways to move your business forward through marketing, but doing it with an eye on being human.
Deb: What's your greatest hope for the future?
Liz: That we remember the power of one another. The simple act of sitting in a restaurant or sitting in a movie theater is so powerful. We are herd animals, and we learn a lot from being around other people, from reading faces. I want us to remember that we're all humans with the same desire to connect and trust. It’s true for marketing and for just people in general. Connection and the act of people connecting with one another is the most important thing.
Liz reminds us that humanness is needed for our organizations to build trust with all the people we engage and serve inside and outside our organization. Technology creates physical connections, but people are the real emotional connectors. Humans bring energy and emotional electricity to build trusting relationships. While technology has many benefits, the question is how businesses can and should use technology, data, and insights to pursue human-centric business outcomes.
We know that most organizations are collecting and analyzing enormous amounts of data collected, much collected from us. We hear corporate messages about caring for customers, communities, and humanity. Yet we remain unsure about whether we should trust those commitments. Keeping people at the center of our decision-making will help to keep the balance between people, technology, and the purpose of our business.