Marketing in the digital age is constantly morphing. If you tune into the Tonight Show and see Jimmy Fallon sporting a white lab coat with the GE logo for a segment on inventions, it's not by chance.
It's because folks like Alexa Christon, head of media innovation for GE, found a white space where multiple brands and the audience can co-exist.
Christon started out as an art history major. Her interest in language, culture, and communication via art led her to advertising. After college she went to work at advertising agency BBDO on the account side, and eventually moved over to creative, even spending time working on the PepsiCo. account at a time when the brand was trying to reposition itself.
"It was probably the best bootcamp understanding really rigorous planning, understanding CPG [consumer packaged goods], and beverages — and one of the largest advertisers," she said.
From there, Christon went to Ogilvy where there was an opportunity to work on the Yahoo account around 2003.
"It was early days where people were starting to just talk about in real product marketing, user experience," she said.
She got to work with engineers and talk with them not just about marketing, but about about catering to the user, like "what the user really wanted, what the user really needed, and putting user centric tasks and design forward in the process, which totally changed my perspective," she said. The experience made her refocus her approach to marketing and advertising — it was about the pull, not the push. And really, all about the user experience.
Another area of interest was the melding of technology and entertainment. A little while later, when Christon went to work at Time Warner Cable, she spent more time learning about that meeting, as Time Warner was working on TV Everywhere, an idea that essentially made television programming available on multiple devices. What that meant, though, was that Time Warner was crafting a multi-screen strategy for the first time.
Again, user experience with the brand came into play because in this case, it was largely being dictated by the users.
After Time Warner, Christon headed for Europe for about half a year, and came back stateside to work at GE and manage advertising in the US. The position morphed into a more media-centric role.
Finding media partners and the ways that they naturally align with GE plays into Christon's idea of pull versus push.
This year, GE worked with Jimmy Fallon and the Tonight Show on a segment called Fallonventions. Fallon meets kid inventors and they talk about the things they've made, from a stethoscope iPhone app to something called the Puff-n-Fluff Dog Dryer.
GE sponsors the Tonight show app, and there's a branded section of the Tonight Show website with more digital content relating to the segment, including GE scientists talking with the inventors. Plus, the kids get scholarship money.
All in all, it's a little like watching Burns and Allen dip into a plug for Carnation Milk mid-show.
"It's kind of funny, a lot of people have said it's like going back to the old school to create something that's like what people are calling 'native content' and 'content marketing,' but I think it's how it's being done now that's different," she said.
GE tried to find some overlap with Fallon and the Tonight Show. It turns out, Jimmy Fallon is a patent holder.
"There was a really similar ethos and we could geek out with the Fallon folks on science, and that's where the whole idea came from," she said.
This past summer, GE launched Pressing, a policy news aggregator. The basic idea was to pull in policy-related news from various media voices like Ezra Klein, Bret Baier, S.E. Cupp, and publishers like Politico, Fox, CNN, the Atlantic, and others, and run them across each others' websites.
It took getting all those people in the same room to pitch the idea, but Christon said it was surprisingly easy to get agreement.
"Those folks, they command a presence outside of their publishers, outside of their media network. People listen to them and they'll follow them, but no one was aggregating pure policy news anywhere across publishers, so we were looking at how we can really provide a utility," she said.
And in the end, all partners were able to stay authentic to their own voices — "it's about where our brand and that brand intersects, and is there a whitespace for the audience, is there something that we can provide that's authentic to who we are and who that partner is," she said.
In her own words...
How do you unplug?
"I have guilty pleasures. One is Real Housewives. I'm not even kidding. It's the worst and most embarrassing thing, but I watch The Real Housewives. I also love to dance and kayak. It's pretty much just 'give me a beat,' but secretly love hip hop."
If you could try another profession, what would it be?
"I've always thought about going into engineering. I think it would be phenomenal. I'd love to be some kind of software engineer. A long time ago when I was working with Yahoo, I was fascinated by the company. Sitting with some of their product folks and engineers and really understanding how they were thinking about products, they really had phenomenal minds. I love the idea of creating something that's not necessarily tactile, but still be able to create this world that's digital. I think that's absolutely fascinating. It takes me back to when I was in school, I studied Dada and I studied the Weimar Republic, and I studied communications through art and what was really happening in key periods of crisis like World War I and World War II and what kind of artwork was being created in those times, out of those times, and before those times, was really kind of fascinating to me, which was a whole level of communication. I think that this kind of communication and experience that you can create with software that has some kind of graphical interface that people can interact with is fascinating."
Is there a period in art history you favor?
"Between World War I and World War II. I'm a big fan of Dada art. It's a complete departure and the more you start really getting into it, the more you see it was appropriated from other war times, if you start looking at fascist art and Dada art. It's fascinating work, and I'm a big fan of it. Marcel Duchamp was my hero for a long time..."
"It's a really phenomenal period in time. I think we've moved forward from Dada. We're still in this post-modernist era and everyone questions 'what is the future of art?' And I think that relates back to why I think software and design and industrial design are so fascinating because I really think that's maybe the next era. I look at people like Laurie Anderson. She was way ahead of her time, and is way ahead of her time in terms of experimenting with sound and emotion and words and behavior."
- Rachel Tipograph: Former Gap director of digital. Burgeoning entrepreneur. Ex comedy agent.
- GE's Katrina Craigwell: Head of global digital programming. Instagram proponent. TV fan.
- Lindsay Crudele: Boston's social media director. Storyteller. Beekeeper.
- Harvard's Brian Kenny: CMCO. Perception Changer. Lead Singer.
Erin Carson has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.