Is This Thing On? Ep 3 with Truth Initiative’s Eric Ashe

In this third episode of “Is This Thing On?”, GALE Head of Integrated Strategy and Media Assembly President Michael Fanuele and Truth Initiative Chief Marketing & Strategy Officer Eric Asche get to the heart of creativity, marketing to youth, social good — and the ways they can co-exist.  

We’ve included the full transcript of the conversation below for easy reading, and please make sure to have a listen on Amazon, Apple Podcasts, Audible, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, and wherever else you get your podcasts!

Episode 3: Michael Fanuele & Eric Ashe

Speaker 1 (00:01):

Is this thing on?

Speaker 2 (00:06):

Welcome to Is This Thing On?, an audio series from GALE, exploring marketing, life, and random thoughts with business leaders from around the globe. On this episode, GALE president, Michael Fanuele speaks with Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer of Truth Initiative, Eric Asche. Let's join the conversation.

Michael Fanuele (00:29):

How have you helped to make Truth the more creative and innovative organization in this environment? What have you done to bring folks in with fresh perspective? How have you created a culture of creativity and innovation here?

Eric Asche (00:47):

It's a really astute question. I think part of what we do really well at Truth — we are the most diverse organization I've ever worked for, and diversity being the broadest term. And I think what that's actually helped us do is keep our finger on the pulse of what's happening around us. And we service young people. We're focusing on youth and young adults, and you will see if you were to walk the halls, you would see individuals that represent the audience that we're trying to impact. And we pull a great deal from the colleges and universities around us; Howard is a big feeding pool for us in terms of getting new talent. And I think this idea of having people in our midst, in positions to help influence the messaging and have those people being the actual consumers who are using the technology, who are engaging in culture, who are helping shape the conversation themselves, we have creators, we have filmmakers, we have writers on staff, we have artists on staff, those individuals have found a home in DC.

Eric Asche (01:48):

Because I think DC has significantly changed over the past 15 years, where if you look at the food scene, José Andrés, as an example, this ability to be a world-class foodie, a chef, but also have a vision of how to make the world a better place. I mean, the things that he does on a humanitarian level are just unbelievably inspiring. He has multiple restaurants, maybe four or five right around our building here, where we're based in DC. And so that is an indicator, I think of how the city has changed. He has thrived here, he has pushed the culinary envelope, but also does fantastically outstanding, good humanitarian things. And I'd like to think we are of the same ilk, where we are producing, arguably some of the world's best creative when it comes to messaging advertising, if you will, but at the same time, it is doing an immense amount of good. And those two things can coexist, and they can coexist in a place like DC at the same time.

Michael Fanuele (02:48):

Yeah, I sure hope so. I mean, I'm really struck by what you said earlier that you don't need to be in a not-for-profit world or a social good world to look at marketing a tool that can leave people better than it found them. I remember growing up, too much of marketing worked by making you feel crappy about yourself: "I'm not good enough, stylish enough, beautiful enough." And it feels like no matter what product or what category or what brand, as a marketer you've got an opportunity to touch people in a way that leaves them feeling better about themselves than worse about themselves.

Eric Asche (03:29):

Can I ask you a question on that note?

Michael Fanuele (03:31):

Sure.

Eric Asche (03:31):

I'm curious, from your background, I mean, I'm fascinated to be sitting across from you now knowing your track record, so not only did you leave a very high-profile client job, you came back into the marketing and advertising world, but you came back to a media agency.

Michael Fanuele (03:47):

I did.

Eric Asche (03:48):

And so, I'm curious, how and why and what has that transition been like for you?

Michael Fanuele (03:53):

Yeah, it's been exciting. So, I was lucky to work at some really exciting creative agencies. My background is as a brand strategist, and I got to do some really fun work on The Most Interesting Man in the World, and Arby's, but I was enticed to go to General Mills because they were on a mission to prove that a big food company actually could be a good food company. José Andrés was a hero of mine, still is a hero of mine. I love the idea that we are in some way what we eat, and if food makers can make better things to eat, we'd all be a bit better off, especially the big food companies. And we did some great work at General Mills. We quickly became the number one natural and organic food maker in the United States, a lot of people don't know that.

Michael Fanuele (04:49):

We bought Annie’s and Cascadian Farms, and Epic from Texas, Lara Bar, and it was exciting. And on the back of that, we were doing some exciting marketing, but leadership changes. And I think the values of that leadership really have an impact on an organization. And it got to a point where the fit between my values and the organization's values just weren't right. It was heartbreaking for me, but I left. And the only thing I knew I wanted to do was write a book that I'd wanted to write for years and years. And I got time to do that. And it was exciting, it was thrilling, it was the most grueling thing I've ever done, and the most rewarding. But we then moved to New York, which is home. And I got an opportunity to go to Assembly and help lead this media company.

Michael Fanuele (05:51):

And I was very resistant at first, because I don't like media, media just pushes messages at people. I like creating the stuff that doesn't need to be pushed, that culture wants. And I took a deep breath and I realized there was so much I had to learn about the growth of analytics and data-driven performance marketing. And Eric, I've got to tell you, a couple years into this, my marketing brain works differently, it's reconstituted. I mean, we have the opportunity to be what's arguably the most important thing in marketing, relevant, because we have an opportunity to know people where they are and meet people where they are. And I certainly believe in big, bold brand ideas and the culture-shaping power of creativity, but geez, why would you want to deploy any of that with the other arm tied behind your back? So, for me, the integration of media thinking and creative thinking fueled by data, and yes, fueled by whimsy, is the cocktail that tastes the best.

Eric Asche (07:09):

It's interesting, you said, "If you were to ask me, what is the number one thing that keeps me awake at night outside of my three young children and the city noise, it would be fear of being irrelevant as a brand." And I think that it's interesting you picked that term. If you were to look back at a dozen of the presentations I've done over the past several years, that has been the one theme that for us as a brand, as me as a leader, that I think we have to rally against, is making sure that we are relevant. And it seems to be on one hand so much harder today, and on the other hand, the ability to pinpoint how to become relevant to perhaps micro-targeting with the masses seems to be we're in an unparalleled opportunity, the way the technology affords us that luxury. Do you feel the same way about that?

Michael Fanuele (08:06):

I do, but I want to ask you, I mean to me, relevant is the thing you've cracked here at Truth. Years ago, when I was growing up, the people who hated smoking had one message, "Smoking is bad, smoking kills you, smoking gives you cancer." Which only in hindsight, thanks to your work, have I realized it's a really irrelevant message to 15-year-olds who think they're going to live forever. You really shifted the proposition from, "Smoking kills you," to, "Big Tobacco, this institution doesn't like you, they're out to get you." Because you realize that what's relevant to a 15-year-old is giving them something to rebel against, to give the big fat teenage middle finger to. How did that happen? Tell me the story about how you went from your father's Oldsmobile anti-smoking marketing to something that felt more relevant to what it meant to be inside the psyche of a teenager.

Eric Asche (09:12):

Yeah, that's a great question. I'd say there's probably three main drivers to get us to where we are today. Number one, I'd be remiss if I didn't say the Truth Campaign launched in the state of Florida. And so, a little-known fact is Florida was one of the first states. We were founded [crosstalk 00:09:31].

Michael Fanuele (09:31):

For the record, you are a Florida man?

Eric Asche (09:35):

I don't have the mullet today, nor do I have a mustache, but yes, I am a Floridian, which when I tell people that—someone recently said, "That's like saying you're from Vegas, no one's from Vegas." Like, "Contraire, I am from the Jersey of the South, if you will." And so, yeah, when we were founded, I'll try not to get too deep into the history lesson here, but the states were suing the tobacco industry. And there were a handful of states that sued the tobacco industry as one-offs. They won, and then the other state AGs collectively came together and sued the tobacco industry, and we were a byproduct of that settlement. So that money that the big tobacco companies paid out helped form us. Florida, they went alone and they won their litigation with the industry and they developed a campaign in Florida, it was called the Truth Campaign, and Crispin did that. And that campaign was transformative. And there are a lot of reasons why that campaign worked in Florida.

Eric Asche (10:37):

In part, I think it was because it was under the radar to a certain degree, and nothing else, to your point, had worked. There may have been an air of desperation. And I think when people saw the way that the agency and the decision makers at the state—it was a very, very brave decision to put that campaign on air—and when we saw that the campaign actually worked, Truth Initiative, we took that campaign and scaled it. And so, I think, nothing gives people confidence like success, that's number one. So, we are standing on the shoulders of a long track record of success of people that made very brave decisions that predate me, number one.

Eric Asche (11:21):

Number two, I think in some way, it's the way we're organized. Our mission is to educate people so they make better choices, full stop. I'm not measured on the number of people that are buying tickets for an airline flight. I'm not measured by the metric of volume of cell phones that people are selling. It's a unique value proposition in terms of a marketing job or marketing gig, if you will. And so that has given us significant clarity. I know what success looks like, fewer people dying ultimately of a tobacco-related disease, fewer kids vaping, smoking, abusing opioids. It's crystal clear. Now, there's lots of variants in terms of how you measure that, but it's binary, are people engaging, are they not engaging? And so, I think the clarity of the mission, the clarity of what we're trying to do, the fact that it's not tethered to a tangible product with all of the challenges that come through the production and the shipping and the liability of that, I have to change your mind.

Eric Asche (12:30):

Not an easy thing to do, but in my mind, that's very clear, it's attainable, I can see the battlefield very clearly, and I'm not distracted by those other factors, number two. Number three. Man, if you have a teenager in your house, you know the complexity, just the challenge of staying engaged in conversation with them, primarily through the use of technology, but the culture is changing so quickly that it's impossible for me to rest on my laurels. And so, if you were to look back at the hundreds of awards that we've won, I don't know how many FEs and MEs and Cannes Lions, hundreds of them, literally. That is all prologue to today. It is, it's all prologue, it doesn't mean anything to the 16-year-old kid who is talking to his buddies right now and he's considering, should he vape or should he not vape. He's not thinking one iota about me as the CMO and truth in our success record.

Michael Fanuele (13:36):

He never saw the body bags.

Eric Asche (13:37):

Never saw it. He never saw it. He may not have even been born at that time.

Michael Fanuele (13:41):

Right.

Eric Asche (13:41):

And so, I think the other thing that has helped us stay relevant, is we have to compete. We are the small fish, not the big fish. And that either motivates you or it doesn't. We'll never be in a position where I can lean back and go, "That fall campaign is out. See what the numbers are. Just going to relax." Because my competition is like a roaring lion in the marketplace. And so, for me to be competitive, I have to lean forward and get after it. And the landscape is changing so quickly that we just have a persona of looking ahead, what's next? What's next? What's next?

Eric Asche (14:23):

And we are very forward-looking, that just by nature, we have to be, "Where's the industry going? How is the epidemic evolving? How does COVID interfere with our trajectory and where we were, and how kids are thinking and behaving today?" And so, I'm sure there are more than those three, but those three things are top of mind, nothing builds trust like success; Florida was a case study. Number two, we are very clear on what success looks like. We are very mission driven; our resources are all dedicated to having an impact. Number three, it's a David versus Goliath scenario. And we are all, if you talk to anybody in the organization, person answering the phone downstairs, they are motivated by that relationship. And maybe that's the Florida in me—my time—but I love a good fight. God, I love it.

Michael Fanuele (15:17):

That's awesome.

Eric Asche (15:18):

And so, I think we're, in some cases, the people that work here and succeed are built for this.

Michael Fanuele (15:23):

It strikes me that when you talk about your competition, there's the obvious competition, these big tobacco companies, but it seems to me that over the last, I don't know, dozen years or so, another competitor has reared its head, which is, "What the heck is true?" Obama in an interview with Anderson Cooper just last night said, "There's no more Walter Cronkite." And what he meant is there's no more source of truth in a world in which people are in their own social media echo chamber, it's what's fact? What's news? What's fake news? What's fake facts? As an organization called Truth, you certainly believe that there are some facts.

Eric Asche (16:11):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Michael Fanuele (16:12):

How do you, as part of your mission to educate kids and to change their behavior, how do you contend with, how do you deal with the world that has gotten skeptical and shoulder-shruggy about almost everything?

Eric Asche (16:30):

Yeah. It's a sad state that we're in. I mean, it does sadden me just as a parent and as a citizen, of where we are. In some cases, I long for the Walter Cronkite days where things were so simple.

Michael Fanuele (16:46):

My 16-year-old, the other day, I swear this is true, my 16-year-old said he saw a YouTube video that said teenagers don't need as much sleep as they used to.

Eric Asche (16:56):

Wow.

Michael Fanuele (16:57):

It's nuts.

Eric Asche (16:58):

That's crazy.

Michael Fanuele (16:59):

He's a smart kid.

Eric Asche (17:00):

Yeah. We live in a post-truth world, which is a major challenge for a brand called Truth. And the answer I'll give you today is probably not going to be the answer tomorrow, I think that's part of the answer to the last question, is that this is going to be a very fluid process because people are learning, consuming, their attitudes are changing. And so, I think part of the insight around, particularly when you're talking about youth and young adults, we were having a sidebar conversation earlier, if you have a young adult or teenager in your household, you have seen this struggle between the logical and the illogical play out in real time. Some of it, it's just developmental, it's biological. So how old is your son you were mentioning?

Michael Fanuele (17:47):

16.

Eric Asche (17:48):

So, my guess is—

Michael Fanuele (17:49):

Yeah. He has no prefrontal cortex. He's just all id.

Eric Asche (17:52):

Id. And so my guess is, I won't ask you to call him out on this podcast, maybe the second, you probably engage with him and you see him, in a sentence, make a very rational, logical decision. And you think, "I am encouraged as his father, I've done something right. There's a responsible human being in there." And then in the same breath the id will take over, and there's a very illogical or emotional factor that rears its head, so to speak. And those two things are at war all the time. If you look at cigarette smoking, just the easy one, combustible cigarettes, if I could convince every kid not to smoke based on the merit of the argument, I win that argument every single time. Why do kids smoke? Because they don't make decisions based solely on the facts and the logic.

Eric Asche (18:42):

So, number one, I have to bear in mind that we... I make the same decisions. We were talking about the COVID seven, the COVID 10, the COVID 15, whatever it is, I know what the right thing to eat is going to be in the situation, I choose not to do that. Why? Because I'm self-medicating in some way, I really enjoy it. I just want it.

Michael Fanuele (19:00):

Ravioli and bourbon.

Eric Asche (19:01):

I mean [crosstalk 00:19:02].

Michael Fanuele (19:02):

Tastes great.

Eric Asche (19:03):

Better mixture. Bourbon does help bath time go a lot easier. And so, I see that in myself. And so, I think the idea that we can certainly win the argument with the fact, and the winner just doesn't pass the smell test when you're looking at the way people make decisions, void of the marketplace we're in today. Number two, it also does a real injustice to understand and have empathy for the reason why people are using these products, I made a hint at this before, but cigarettes in particular, I'll switch to vaping.

Eric Asche (19:37):

We were talking to a gentleman that we've focused on some of our advertising, and he was a vaper, struggled with addiction, had seizures from his addiction early on. And we were like, "Why did you do this to yourself?" "Well, I was definitely a kid who was like, 'I don't do these things. I'm not going to vape.' And then I entered into high school. I went to a football game, and I saw the older kids sitting down and watching the game. And I wanted to sit with them, and they said, 'To sit with us, you got vape, man.'" And he was like, "Okay." And that was it. And why did he do that? He wanted to connect with people, he wanted to fit in, he didn't want to be left on the outside. I understand that; we all feel that way.

Eric Asche (20:17):

And so, I think for the brand to not pretend like that's a very real emotion, that's a real state that the individual is in and to have some empathy for that, is a very important thing for us that gets us out of the shouting match. If I can start with understanding your motives and have empathy for you, "Why did you make that decision?" In some cases, maybe you didn't know any better, great, let's have a conversation about that. And other cases, the product has a real utility to you and your social construct, it's real. And for me to pretend like that's not happening to you, I'm just noise and I'm an authority figure. I don't really care about you; I just want something from you. And so, your 16-year-old son would sniff that out of our campaign immediately, he just would.

Eric Asche (21:09):

And I think that's something that we have had to really infuse more consciously in this time frame, is to be cautious not to shout, to be cautious not to leap... Because we know better. We know that if we're seen as the authority figure, we're going to get tuned out. We are best when we are at eye-level with the teen or with the audience. One way to ensure that I'm eye-level is to make sure I'm understanding the decisions they're making and try to put that into some context of, there's a method behind that decision.

Michael Fanuele (21:40):

Yeah, that's awesome. How do you personally stay eye-level with teens? What do you listen to? What do you watch? What do you read, to keep a finger on that?

Eric Asche (21:53):

Yeah, it's a bit of a smorgasbord, if you will. And I rely on a lot of people around me. So, I mentioned earlier our staffing compliment. If you were to look at the people on our team, our agency partners, you won't see a lot of people that look and think and act like me, you just won't. And I think that's a very healthy thing, because I can only consume so much of, the wheels on the bus go round and round, with the kids being the age that they are. And so, a lot of that onus is on me being curious, being hungry. I try to consume as much of the technology, the literature, culture as I can. And I'm surrounded by people that just consume high volumes of what's going on in culture, and they pull me along in some cases for the ride.

Eric Asche (22:42):

Some if it's more methodical, like we do things operationally to make sure we have quarterly, monthly culture reports, we're looking at all the trending topics, all the things, the blocking and tackling that brands do to make sure they understand their consumer. But at the end of the day, I can't really engage with TikTok as a platform and have a point of view on the type of creative that’s going to live in that platform if I'm not consuming that content, if I'm not trying to actually produce it myself, if I'm not actually following people and understanding the mechanism and how people engage, what it's good for versus what Twitter's good for, what Instagram's good for. And so that puts an onus on me to get in those swimming lanes and get after it.

Michael Fanuele (23:23):

Yeah, it does. I'm also conscious though of, because I struggle with the same thing, I'm conscious of the irony that the more people like you and I try to get into those swim lanes, the more those swim lanes change.

Eric Asche (23:39):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Michael Fanuele (23:40):

TikTok today, it's got me and you and Gordon Ramsey on it, it's a very different thing than it was a year ago.

Eric Asche (23:47):

It's sign that it's dead. Sorry, TikTok.

Michael Fanuele (23:49):

It is. Maybe, right? Or just that it's used differently.

Eric Asche (23:53):

Right. I think that's fair. And yeah, I mean, I think again, it goes back to the point that we were talking about earlier, where it's impossible to lean back, it just requires a forward-facing posture. It also requires, if you're someone like me, to have the right partners around you to help fill in those gaps. And so, in many cases, some of those platforms are the best educators I could possibly have. I mean, granted in many cases they have an objective because they want to get more advertising dollars pumped into those platforms, but at the same time, they understand that for them to have that sort of transaction, they have to have someone on the other side that actually understands the power that they wield. And so, we do a lot. I personally, as a CMO, spend time with the platforms directly, I try to understand and engage and hear from the variety of sources.

Eric Asche (24:49):

And then to your point, on the other side, I have to listen to the people around me. And so, it will be impossible for me to consume enough media content to understand the platforms to make an informed decision, I have to trust the people around me to help inform. I think, the burden has been on us as a brand to figure out the intersection of what I care about versus what the audience cares about. And so historically we could draw that line to things like the environment, cigarettes historically have been the most littered item on the planet, the toxins that leach into waterways, the impact it has on fish and wildlife, immense. So, there's a great overlap between organizations that care about those issues. We did a campaign a few years back on the impact of secondhand smoke on pets.

Eric Asche (25:38):

And so [crosstalk 00:25:39] this idea that if you, particularly if you're a youth, young adult, very high percentage of youth, young adults have a pet in their household. But if you were to ask those individuals, what is the likelihood that your smoking would impact your pet? Virtually none of them would see any connection at all because it's not a human. And so maybe you didn't care about smoking before, but you certainly care about your pet. So, trying to find a way that we can triangulate the two things that we care about. Dating's another example, when Tinder was the rage, I don't know what the rage is now, admittedly, but when Tinder was the rage, they had a, I believe it was Tinder, they had a stat that if you posted a picture of yourself smoking in your profile picture, you got half the number of clicks or likes on your profile picture.

Eric Asche (26:24):

And so, the very thing that you were using to try to make yourself look muy macho and sexy was having the opposite effect. And so, our pathway in, through that example was to say, "We know you care about connecting with people. We know you want to put your best foot forward to make a connection. This thing is actually doing the exact opposite." So, the brand has tradition in history of finding the things that you care about, that are most important to you, and connecting the dots back to the thing that I care about. And that's always the burden for us. Your kid, your son, 16-year-old, he's never going to give me a pass to have a conversation with him just because I'm the good guy trying to give a good message, he's not.

Michael Fanuele (27:02):

Right.

Eric Asche (27:03):

There's so much noise and filter, I have to make myself relevant. Your point earlier, the burden is on me. I do not get a pass for being a good guy from a non-profit.

Michael Fanuele (27:12):

And to your point, you've got to do it emotionally with things that they care about.

Speaker 2 (27:18):

This has been Is This Thing On?, the GALE audio series. For more information about this or any other episode in the series, visit gale.agency/ideas. And to learn about GALE and how we can help you with your marketing efforts, visit www.galepartners.com. On behalf of the entire team at GALE, thanks for listening.

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