CXO

Percolate's Ian Hopping. Digital problem solver. Surfer. Podcast aficionado.

Ian Hopping told TechRepublic about his approach to digital marketing and how he plays therapist with big brands.

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Image: Ian Hopping

There's a piece of advice Ian Hopping has always taken to heart, perhaps before it was ever given to him.

"Think about your day and finish up all your work. Look around and see what's interesting or what other cool stuff you could be working on because when you start working on it, people rarely tell you to stop," said Hopping, who is digital marketing company Percolate's director of sales.

Hopping went to Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he majored in pre-law and minored in digital studies. His plan post-graduation was to move to New York City and eventually get into environmental law.

But on a whim, he saw a poster for an extra credit class that focused on using photography to tell stories about the history of Cambodia, specifically during the the Khmer Rouge era in the 70s and 80s.

He applied to be a teaching assistant and got the job.

So instead of New York City and environmental law, he was off to Southeast Asia.

When Hopping took this somewhat unplanned detour, it did something important to his timeline. It set him back just enough that when he got back to the US, he saw that his friends who were on the track he'd planned to take were miserable.

"They just basically mapped out for me a future where everyone seems unhappy. Their bosses seemed unhappy — overworked, not feeling satisfied in the work they were doing, and that threw me for a loop," Hopping said.

Given that he'd always been interested in media, Hopping found a job in sales at Hearst.

"I learned a lot about the media space during that time. Pretty quickly, I realized that if I had any interest in staying in this space, I needed to get much closer to digital," he said.

That meant a move over to New York Media Holdings, which owns New York Magazine, NYmag.com, and other properties. His role involved working with some of the biggest brands in the portfolio and helping build out custom experiences for the them that spanned print, online, and even events, developed in conjunction with the marketing and editorial teams.

The experience was pivotal for two reasons. First, day-to-day he was dealing with the traditional perspective on the lines between editorial and advertising, how to strategize, and what value could be derived from it. Second, there was the issue of social media, which was cropping up.

"Not only did brands not know how to get their arms around it, but they had no process in place, even if they could figure that first piece out," he said.

In one instance, a client who was a Fortune 500 company asked for support in social, specifically in crafting tweets and Facebook posts.

Hopping worked with editors started writing, and when they were ready to hand the project back to the client, the client didn't know what to do with it.

With exposure to these issues that were cropping up for brands in the digital space, and because he enjoyed getting to think creatively, Hopping thought more about moving into marketing.

As luck would have it, around this time he received a note from a childhood friend who he hadn't spoken with in about five years. His friend suggested he talk with James Gross, the founder of a startup called Percolate.

Percolate had eight employees and no business arm. Hopping had no intention of working for a startup, but agreed to meet with Gross for a 45-minute conversation over coffee.

Three hours later, he was less opposed.

Gross followed up with a note.

"It ended with him saying something along the lines of 'You can either go where you're going, trying to fight change, and hold the status quo, or you can come here with me and we can disrupt and create change together because this is the momentum, the momentum is with our side,'" Hopping said.

They'd established enough common ground and like-minded thinking that Hopping turned down a more traditional job offer to go and work for Percolate.

"It was that silence on the other end of the line when I asked the client how we were going to approach social media and that was a huge turning point in my career," he said.

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Image: Ian Hopping

In the three years since, Hopping's gotten to work with brands like GE, Unilever, and ABInBev. His title is sales and account management, but his role encompasses working with Fortune 500 companies and dissecting the challenges they face in terms of the development, planning, and execution of their global marketing strategies.

Sometimes that still means having to have a conversation that starts with "we don't know what to tweet."

"It's almost like if you're a therapist," Hopping said, "and someone goes to the therapist and says 'I'm just really feeling dissatisfied with life right now.' That's actually not the issue. We're going to have to peel back a lot of layers right now and figure out all the issues you have. There's so many contributing factors to you not knowing what you want to tweet about and I would argue that most of them have very little to do with that statement."

Often times the problem stems from how a company's various in-market teams communicate — or don't.

"The first thing I would say is knowing what you should tweet about should be perfectly aligned with the other activities you're doing as an organization," he said.

What he frequently finds out it that teams are siloed. That means not only inefficiencies in communication and coordination, but data loss and inability to track stakeholders.

"In that scenario, you have too much noise to know both what you should be doing on any one channel and what you should be learning to then optimize," he said.

Much of the conversation how to turn that into a closed loop system, and then they have a single close loop system, how to bring that to all of the markets so they can communicate with each other.

One of the chief ways Percolate addresses problems is through products. As an example, take the idea of a document about brand strategy. It's something that should be referred back to, but ends up getting lost in email or on a desk.

Percolate's approach would be to work that into a system where people are creating, developing, and publishing their marketing collateral.

The information in that document gets turned into inputs that guide the planning process. That is connected to asset sourcing, which leads to a tool which ensures that a logo in your custom typefaces and text colors are all set, and that logo always goes in the bottom right hand corner of marketing creative globally. And through this whole process, there are insights on the process itself.

"Everything can be turned into a product," Hopping said. "The value of minimizing the chaos of our modern lives is developing replicable systems that allow us to streamline and make things more efficient."

His other thought is this: "If someone dropped that on my plate today and I hadn't spent the last three years sitting in these meetings thinking about this stuff, I think my head would explode."

In his own words...

How do you unplug?

"I listen to a ton of podcasts. I really enjoy storytelling and how stories are constructed. Also, anything that's how things work. I probably listen to an hour and a half of podcasts a day. The other two things, [one of] which I feel like I almost hate to say it because it's so cliché for the tech startup guy, is surfing. I grew up surfing year round — in winter hoods, wetsuits, boots, gloves — and so when I'm not working, I'm thinking about how to get to a place where I can surf or travel to surf or carve out time to surf. When I can't surf and need to unwind, I just run. I think the most beautiful thing about running is it requires nothing but a pair of shoes and you can pretty much be off."

If you could try out another profession, what would it be?

"I guess it's a good sign that I don't have anything that immediately jumps out. That means I'm not denying myself my true passion, at least that I know of. On probably the podcast front, while I don't know that it would be this burning desire to make a lifelong career out of it, being involved in creating a really fun podcast would be something I would like to spend some time doing at some point. Or really, any creative medium. I do think there's something special about audio. I don't know exactly what that podcast would be, but I like the idea of the rush and excitement of putting a story together, time constraints, and the ability to drive a dialog around that. I'm super impressed with what Serial has been able to do and effectively bring back the old school radio hour through this podcast that has everyone gripped."

Do you have a favorite social media account that you follow for fun?

"There's a website I enjoy, and often they tweet and I'm grabbed by — it's called Letters of Note... Just reading those and thinking about how at a certain time and place with certain events happening, are shared human existence that someone communicates — something that is representative of our whole humanity."

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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