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Audio Interview with Avi Savar, Founder of Big Fuel Communications

I was recently interviewed by Benzinga on one of their Podcasts.  We covered a lot of ground in 22 minutes!  Here is the audio and also full transcript:


Benzinga: How are you doing today, Avi?

Avi Savar:I’m doing well, thanks so much.

Benzinga:Could you start off by giving our listeners some background information on your career, how you got your start in the marketing world, and the founding of Big Fuel?

Avi Savar:I’ve actually never worked in an advertising agency other than the one I started seven years ago; my background is in entertainment. My entire professional career up until starting Big Fuel I was a producer. I used to produce programming for networks like MTV and VH1, and before that I was a producer for Good Morning America. So, I pretty much spent my whole life, my whole professional career at least, telling stories, making people laugh, making people cry, and engaging with audiences through storytelling.

I think that has been the basis of what Big Fuel has become, and through the evolution of the marketing landscape in the digital world through social media, the notion of engagement, telling really great stories, and connecting with consumers is really what the company is all about.

So I started Big Fuel seven years ago, before Youtube and Facebook, and we started as a branded content agency working with brands and publishers to create branded content for the web. Within our first year, we probably produced about 100-150 webisodes before people really knew what a webisode was. That paved the way for us to be in the right place at the right time, as social media became the next big wave.

The moment in time when we shifted was about three years ago when social media became mainstream and jumped to everybody’s mind. We repositioned the company: branded content is still a big part of what we do and how we connect, but social media became the driver. Now we are one of the dominant agencies in the digital marketing world, and we help big brands like McDonalds and GM and a number of other big brands that we are lucky enough to call our clients. We continue to pave the way and look at what’s going on in the digital world, and try to stay ahead of it and connect with consumers in most relevant ways we can.

Benzinga:There’s been a lot of attention recently on how dealing with Twitter and how we’re getting these quick snippets of information, consumer’s attention spans are dwindling. In light of this new consumer that is quickly bored, how do you go about maintaining audience engagement?

Avi Savar:For us, it is about being relevant. I always say that what we do is the reverse of traditional advertising. Traditional advertising is based around telling product stories. If you’ve ever taken a marketing class, or studied any type of marketing principles, the basis of it is about identifying the unique selling proposition of your product or service, what makes your product different. If I’m selling toothpaste, does my toothpaste have 20% more fluoride than the competition; if I’m selling a car, do I have the most horsepower. That’s the basis for advertising.

What we do, and what I think in this new on demand world where consumers are actually in control, it’s actually less about product stories and more about people stories. It’s about connecting with consumers in a relevant way, and finding a point we call the “point of engagement” where product and people connect. So rather than leading with product stories, we as an agency lead with people stories, we find out what people are talking about, what are the conversations they are having on Twitter, what are they posting, what groups are they fans of, etc.

We connect with people in a way that is meaningful to them first, and then for the brand second, rather than the other way around. I think if you can do that, than you become top of mind, and people will talk about you or at least pay attention to what you have to say.

Benzinga:That’s interesting– can you give an example of a recent campaign you’ve worked on and how that exemplifies this idea of people stories?

Avi Savar:We recently helped Colgate-Palmolive launch a product called The Wisp. It’s a mini disposable toothbrush, the first of its kind, and comes in a pack of four. The idea is to compete with gum and breath strips and mints, etc. The traditional ad campaign that introduced the product into the market–the 30-second commercial, the print advertising, the online banners–was based around this one concept of “just brushed clean, anytime, anywhere.” In one line, that is the product story. That’s the unique selling proposition. When you only have 30 seconds to sell your product, that’s the way to do it.

In social media, that does not apply. People don’t want to friend or follow a toothbrush, they don’t want to have a relationship with a toothbrush. So, “just brushed anytime, anywhere” is a good way to tell the product story, but in social media, it’s not about that. We had to come up with a way to connect the product to an audience based on what is important to them.

Through our research and going through our processes, we came up with, and what we went into social marketplace with, was this concept around something we called “be more kissable.” And the idea isn’t actually around kissing, but more about the fact that we saw in social media, and specifically within our young urban professional target audience, was about confidence. The people story that we attached ourselves to was this idea of self-confidence, and always wanting to be at your best. That isn’t necessarily about a toothbrush or a product, so what we went to market with was content, and a marketing initiative that helped people be confident.

The line we used was “be more kissable”, and everybody wants to be more kissable, whether you walk into an interview or are getting ready for a date, you always want to be at your best. So that is a simple example of our manifestation of “just brushed clean anytime, anywhere” into a social platform that we were able to generate a tremendous amount of momentum behind through online videos, photo-sharing, through a contest we held through a Facebook application that we built that was all around this concept of “being more kissable.”

Benzinga:Big Fuel is not just a marketing company, but is “One part marketing, entertainment, distribution company.” What are some of the upsides and challenges of being three companies rolled into one?

Avi Savar:Our company works to give our clients an end-to-end solution in social media. The world of social media, especially for big brands, is very complicated. It is evolving very rapidly: every single day we learn about new tools and platforms. So there is a lot for big brands to digest.

Also, big brands tend to move slower, and rightfully so–they have to be smart about their decisions. So our model is those three components: we offer strategy, planning and insight. It’s also about content creation and building assets, and it’s about distribution and making sure the right people see those things, and all along the way providing what I call “one throat to choke”. The brand can pick up the phone and have one place to go, whether it’s about the tools they’re using to measure, or to publish content, or about the strategies they are implementing, there has to be one place to go.

So when we walk into big brand, that’s a big part of our value proposition, to say, you don’t want to have relationships with 15 different companies doing 15 different things. You want to have one company that can manage everything that is happening in this crazy place that is social media. Our job is to make sense of it, and to ensure that the brand is getting the right advice, the right initiatives to drive objectives forward, and to make sure their business mandates are being achieved.

So that’s the full service offering we provide. We tend to work with big brands, we understand how to navigate big complex organizations that require a lot of risk management, and require processes to drive governance and legal. Those are things in which social media is still the wild west, and we have to make sure to tame the horses, so to speak.

Benzinga:Looking at the past few years and seeing social media evolve as rapidly as it has, how does Big Fuel stay ahead of the game?

Avi Savar:We have to make that a priority as an organization. We have an unbelievable team that is responsible for evaluating platforms and partnering with different companies. We tend to be platform agnostic: we use every platform if it’s right for our client. Every client has different needs, so for example for social listening and social intelligence there are probably 30 different tools to monitor conversations. Depending on what kind of a brand you are and what your goals are, different tools tend to make sense for different initiatives. It is our job to evaluate all of those tools and partnerships, and provide our clients with a baseline of information and best practices.

We have a team we call the network services team, who is responsible for making sure that we are managing enterprise platforms across the digital landscape, so that we understand exactly what these platforms do. Every week we have vendors and partners come in and demo the latest and greatest, and a big part of our job is making sure we are not just on leading edge but on the bleeding edge of technology.

Benzinga:What resources and tools do you as an individual rely on to help you stay ahead of the game in terms of marketing and social media?

Avi Savar:This is probably the hardest part of the job as a founding partner and one of three executives that run the organization. I have two partners who are phenomena: one is gentleman by the name of Mike McGraw, who is our COO and a legend in the advertising and marketing business. The other is Jon Bond, who started Kirshenbaum and Bond and partners about a decade or so ago, which grew into the largest independent ad agency in world. These are very smart folks whom I get to call my friends and partners, and we work very hard to slice and dice our responsibilities.

In terms of staying ahead of the curve, it’s about terrific relationships, and being at the right conferences. I do a lot of speaking, I get to write a fair amount, and I do thought leadership as much as I possibly can. Just by the nature of what we do and who we are as an agency, we surround ourselves with the newest and best. Because we’ve built a reputation for ourselves, and I am very grateful for this, people seek us out. We get the benefits from representing a lot of great brands, so just by the nature of who we are, a lot of the stuff tends to now find us.

It’s our job to evaluate it all, because there is a lot of clutter and noise in the marketplace. The hardest part is making sense of it all. Surrounding yourself with the right people and right tools to do the job, and then making smart decisions is what it comes down to.

Benzinga:Mobile devices are dominating multiple aspects of consumer’s lives—how is Big Fuel getting in on the action, and making itself relevant in the mobile sphere?

Avi Savar:Mobile is a big part of connecting to consumers, and you can leverage mobile in a lot of different ways. I look at mobile and see it as a bridge to the offline world. We do a lot of things in social media and in digital that tell really great stories, and what mobile allows us to do is to be with the consumer at any given time, and connect them to activity.

For example, it could be about tapping into the new hyper-local trend to provide context to what a consumer is doing every day, because a consumer who lives in Manhattan is very different and has different needs than a consumer who lives in Detroit. So understanding where the people are, what they are doing, and how to make their lives better is a great way for us to use and leverage mobile. It provides a point of contact. It’s a bridge from offline to online and vice versa.

Benzinga:What do you think is the most valuable social media tool for companies and products– Facebook, Twitter, blogging, etc?

Avi Savar:I don’t want to dance around the question, but it really depends on what you want to do. Twitter is a very different platform than Facebook, for example, so understanding what the objectives are, and not to say that a brand unequivocally must have a presence on Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter—the Big Three–but if you’re a big brand you probably do need to have your bases covered.

What you do within those channels is up to what you want to do as a brand, what your goals are, what kind of content you want to invest in, and what kind of time and resources you have to manage those channels. So, it really does depend. We have clients that want to create deep and longstanding relationships and who are willing to invest in time and resources needed to do that.

This is different from clients who just want awareness, and are not looking (yet) to invest in long term relationships in social. It’s very different. There are different publishing and CRM platforms that help brands manage day-to-day interactions with consumers in social media; it all depends on what kind of relationship you want with consumers. You can have a lot of thin relationships with consumers, or a few deep relationships with consumers, it depends on what your product or service is and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Social is different from any other medium in that is never shuts off. You can spend a certain amount of money on a 30-second piece of video or print ad, let it run, and then turn it off whenever you want. The social media game requires what we call an “all the way on” mentality, if you want to get into it, it’s more like a marriage than anything else: you have to commit to the plan, so to speak.

Benzinga:I’m going to give you the loudspeaker now, so you can sound off on anything that’s going on in the world that you think needs your attention or is not being sufficiently reported, or so you can simply give your opinion on any issue that you really care about.

Avi Savar:I think the thing that I would talk about is our position on social media within the overall world of marketing and advertising: I look at social media as a new seat at the table. We’ve been saying that for the last 2-3 years, that social media is such a different platform and channel than any other marketing channel that has ever existed. So, if you’re a big brand, and you have a complex structure which most big brands do, you have complex needs. Social media is not something that you can have a traditional digital agency handle for you, or even a PR agency handle for you, because the requirements for managing an infrastructure to support social media, we believe at Big Fuel, requires a dedicated social media agency of record.

The things that we do on a day-to-day basis on social are really infrastructure based. A lot of our competitors in social media are very creative driven, are all about latest greatest coolest little campaign that they run. It’s really important to have great creative and great strategy, but that is probably 20% of the overall game.

The other part of social media is actually the non-sexy part of it, it’s the legal and governance, it’s the account management, it’s the analytics and reporting, it’s the integration with other agencies, it’s the management of brand channels, and coming up with an architecture for Facebook pages. That’s more of consulting than it is campaign oriented or idea driven. Social media as a marketing platform is more than just a creative outlet, it is also a pipeline that needs to me managed and cultivated, and that’s a big part of what we do as an agency.

We have 125 people right now in our agency in three locations, and I would say less than a third of them are creatives. We have really strong creative and really strong campaigns, but a lot of what we do is supporting, integration, relationship management, etc. So social media, in my opinion, needs a dedicated agency, dedicated resources, and it needs to be managed in a very different way than any other marketing channel.

So, having your traditional digital agency that is in the business of managing websites manage your social channels is a mistake, because social media by default is not about mass audiences: it is about small communities. So taking that big idea and trying to deliver it through social media in a mass awareness kind of way tends to not work. Social media is about understanding communities of interest that are relevant to a brand.

If I am Fisher Price, for example, there are communities online that are more relevant to me than others. Entrepreneurs, moms, college students, Nascar enthusiasts–it’s very affinity-based rather than based on big mass awareness ideas. It’s about very targeted communications, and that requires a new seat at the table: you need a creative agency, a traditional brand agency, media, digital, and today you need a social media agency.

Benzinga: Where do you see social media in five years? Do you have any idea as to what the next big thing in the industry is going to be?

Avi Savar: Five years is a lifetime, especially in what we do– five months is a lifetime. If you would’ve asked me that question seven years ago and I actually gave you an answer, I would’ve been crazy. The world is changing and evolving so fast, that I honestly don’t think anybody can answer that question in a meaningful way.

Ultimately I think consumers are taking more and more control over the mediums and the channel, and that trend will continues. The more successful brands will be more authentic and transparent, and will build relationships with consumers in order to be successful in social media. I don’t think television or mass awareness is ever going to go away–it’s just shifting and broadening. We’ve seen it with digital ten years ago: it was a new channel, and social is just that, it’s a new channel, and so for brands to be successful in that channel, they must migrate towards more one-on-one communications. There are more platforms in mobile and social that are going to help brands connect on a one-on-one basis with individuals within specific communities. That’s where the world is going.

It’s funny, I spent the better part of my professional career in entertainment, and you see the progression over time in entertain industries and in the media world. Twenty years ago, for example, we had three channels: it was ABC, NBC, and CBS. Then, all of a sudden, there was Fox, and then there were broadcast cable channels, and music channels, and sports channels, and women’s networks, and as time progressed and the world evolved, everything became more and more targeted.

Now it’s not just about having a sports channel like ESPN, but we have the tennis channel and the golf channel and the outdoor network. Everything is getting more and more specific, and audiences are getting smaller and more fragmented. The idea of having one big brand concept reaching everybody is unlikely. There’s only a few times a year you can actually do that.

The Super Bowl is an example of that. It’s one event that draws tons and tons of people, and I don’t think that’s every going to go away. Where I think social is going, however, is the same way the overall media is going. It’s becoming more and more fragmented, and we need tools and processes to help brands connect in relevant ways to individuals and smaller communities. How that progresses? I can’t answer that. But I do think ultimately that is where it’s going.

Benzinga: That’s all I have for you Avi, thanks for coming on the show it’s been great hearing your insights.

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We Are... BIG FUEL

Hello! Big Fuel is a full-service marketing and communications company based in New York that takes brands from Content To Commerce. A unique approach that bridges "people stories" to "product stories" through social media and branded content.

Big Fuel is one part marketing agency, building brands through consumer insight; one part entertainment company, creating content that people love; and one part distribution company, driving guaranteed results by delivering content to targeted audiences. We work with major brands, leading agencies, publishers and platforms to help marketers achieve true consumer engagement.

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