Steve Denker, most recently Vice President of Marketing and Digital for Turner Classic Movies, chats with Rob at the virtual 2021 South by Southwest. In this interview, he gives his perspective on what he looks for when “working with agencies.”
In the mid-90s, Steve worked for Aramark at Fulton County Stadium/Turner Field, managing relationships with the brands and products that were part of that stadium experience. He observed how fans interacted with Coca-Cola and highlighted opportunities for Coke to increase sales and strengthen the link between the experience and the product. Coca-Cola liked his approach and brought him onboard to develop the experiential look and feel of Coca-Cola in a wide variety of venues.
After a while, Steve understood that Coca-Cola was large enough that it would be a long time before he would have the opportunity to manage people, explore the emerging field of digital marketing, and gain product sales experience.
He took a position with RentPath, leading the marketing and advertising outreach for apartment guide publications at Apartment.com. From 2001 to 2008, Steve worked directly with companies that “touched” the rental process . . . selling digital advertising to utilities, renters’ insurance companies, and movers and helping people find the right place to live. “Moving is an incredibly stressful time,” Steve says.
In 2011, Steve joined Relocation.com, doing lead generation and business development out of New York. He connected with an individual who owned the Beach.com domain. Together, they planned to build the world’s largest and most comprehensive database of beach and beach destination information. When heavy competition from Travelocity and Expedia prevented Beach.com from getting the desired level of traffic and sales, Steve decided it was time to move again. He values his involvement in this “failed venture.” “I can’t tell you the lessons learned from that experience I have taken through everything else I’ve done, both personally and professionally.” All that “good stuff” found its place when Steve joined a consulting firm in Atlanta. (Steve’s Beach.com partner still manages the reimagined site.)
In 2016, an old buddy from his Coca-Cola days invited him to build a marketing department at Turner Classic Movies. Steve was at TCM for 4-1/2 years. Outsiders may think large organizations have such a wealth of internal resources that they don’t need help from agencies. Far from the truth, Steve says. Agencies are important for their unique talents, expertise, efficiencies, and ability to help “execute the vision.”
Steve describes what he looks for in agencies. Once agencies get past the first cut of “Do they have the ability to do what we need them to do?”, he needs to know that they “either already understand our business and who our customers are or have the capacity to understand that in a very short period of time.” He thinks organizational leaders need to have a laser focus on what they are trying to accomplish and understand both functional and emotional business priorities.
Steve recently started thefasttimes.net, a weekly culture e-zine for Gen-Xers and wannabes, and reaching out on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and continuing in our South by Southwest series, I am speaking today with a friend, a friend of the podcast, and not an agency owner but a marketer with a tremendous history that I think we will all benefit greatly from. My guest is Steve Denker. Steve was most recently Vice President of Marketing and Digital for Turner Classic Movies. He’s based in Atlanta like me, but we are still in COVID quarantine, talking online. Welcome to the podcast, Steve.
STEVE: Thank you, Rob. Thanks for having me. It’s been great running into you at local marketing and industry events over the past probably 8+ years, and at South by. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to work with Converge and/or Bellwood Labs in the future.
ROB: I appreciate that. I think I met you one fine day when you wandered into the Flashpoint Startup Accelerator here in Atlanta in the season of Beach.com. At least, that’s a memorable moment in your career. But you’ve done a great deal of things. Why don’t you start off by running through your journey and path in marketing, to give us an idea of the context you come to us from?
STEVE: Sure, thank you. And I do remember that day when we met downtown. I started out – I’ll back the train up a couple of stops. I grew up in Philadelphia and went to school in New York and came down to Atlanta in the mid-90s for a company called Aramark that was responsible for the concessions, the merchandise, and general operations at stadiums and arenas around the country, among some other businesses that they’re in.
I started working at Fulton County Stadium and eventually what became the new Turner Field. My position really was more in an operations role, but I was responsible for the relationships with all of the brands and products that were part of that stadium experience. I was working with the Budweisers and Starbucks and Bluebell Ice Cream, Coca-Colas of the world. Any product that was looking to get in front of those fans.
It’s interesting how I eventually used that relationship to transition to a role at Coca-Cola because I was watching the fans and seeing what they were doing at every game. I had the opportunity to watch their behaviors and see their traffic paths and their buying habits and so forth. So when Coca-Cola brought a team down once or twice a season to take a look at their assets, I had the opportunity not just to nod my head and say, “Yeah, the umbrellas are faded” or “We need new menu boards,” but really share with them what was going on and how the fans were interacting with Coca-Cola and how it was part of the experience to watch a Braves game.
By putting together some plans and sharing with them where I thought they could not only accelerate sales, but also make the brand more part of the experience, I caught the attention of a few folks within that sports and marketing group, at the time called Presence Marketing. Not long after the Olympics, I transitioned over to that group at Coca-Cola and was then part of that experiential look and feel of Coca-Cola at stadiums and arenas, Disney, Universal, and so forth, in a creative capacity.
It was a terrific move. The group was run by Steve Koonin, who is just Atlanta royalty and the CEO of the Hawks and State Farm Arena. He really was bringing so many innovations to this group and to the way that Coke was marketed. I was really fortunate to be part of that team and that group.
From there, a couple of years later, I had an opportunity to go to a company most recently called RentPath. At the time it was called PriMedia. Also here in Buckhead.
What was missing at Coke at that time when I left – I think there were three things I was really looking for that were going to take a while. I was looking to manage people and learn how to do that. I felt that was a good next step for my career. That would’ve taken a while within that multinational structure.
Digital was something that, in the early 2000s, was really the forefront of what the next part of marketing was. Coke wasn’t paying as much attention to it as other companies were.
Then finally, I was looking for something that would give me real sales experience, not just internally and working with other groups, but actually selling products. Again, I thought that would be something at the early stage of my career that I would learn and use for the rest of my days in terms of working in any capacity.
So RentPath offered those and more, and I went over and led the marketing and advertising for the apartment guide publications at Apartment.com. This was early on lead gen and getting folks into and around their apartments, their living situations. It was really interesting, because it was working directly with any company that has to do with that process, whether it’s your utilities and your phone, renter’s insurance, physically moving – anything like that were opportunities for myself and my team to sell advertising to.
These were the early days of digital advertising, if you can imagine: banner ads with CPMs of $60-75 and relatively no accountability. Not even serving accountability. Forget about click-through rates; did you actually serve the ads I just paid for? That was even, at the time, a little murky. Companies just wanted to be part of it. As long as they went onto the website and saw their ad, they said, “Keep serving it.”
It was really interesting to see the growth of the industry from, again, banner ads and text ads to what it is today – particularly at that time of 2001 through 2008, when it really exploded into the framework of what we see today with data and analytics and accountability. It was exciting to see that grow.
I left for a company called Relocation.com, which was lead generation and business development out of New York. I’d spend a week a month in New York and then back to Atlanta again.
I connected with someone in New York who owned the Beach.com domain, and we had plans to build the world’s largest database of beach information. Not just every beach in the world, but hotels, vacation rentals, restaurants, activities, local information, local concierge services – really anything that would have to do with a beach destination or vacation, and build out this massive portal.
At the time in 2011, this is when people really were using Travelocity and Expedia. There was heavy competition from these other sites. We went ahead and raised some money, built a plan, and it just didn’t take off. It didn’t get to the level in terms of traffic and converting users into revenue and sales that we had hoped for.
All shook hands a few years later, back in 2013, and the site is still live right now. My partner at the time is still running it with a couple of different objectives. But I can’t tell you the amount lessons learned from that experience I have taken through everything else I’ve done, both personally and professionally. I look back at that and have no regrets on taking that business risk. I think if we had done a couple of things differently – many things differently – we would’ve had a different outcome. But again, we pivoted. A lot of key learnings from that that I’ve been fortunate enough to share with other folks.
That’s what I did after that at a consulting firm here in Atlanta and had some great client relationships with companies like PDS and a company called AGRO Merchants Group, a healthcare company, we did some work with Blackstone.
Eventually, one of my earliest relationships from Coca-Cola, a woman named Jennifer Dorian, who is a mentor and a friend and could not be a bigger rock star – she’s now the CEO over at Atlanta Public Broadcasting & Radio. She was on Steve Koonin’s team as well. I worked with her in the Coca-Cola days and had stayed in touch with her really for 20 years. We were having coffee or lunch once or twice a year just to catch up and so forth.
She at the time was general manager of Turner Classic Movies and gave me a call and said, “Hey, we’re looking to build a marketing department and expand what we’ve been doing.” This was in late 2016. She said, “Would you like to come over and interview with a bunch of people?” I did that, and a couple of months later I had moved over to Turner and had an amazing four and a half years there.
ROB: It’s quite a journey. I think it’s interesting to point out that all the way through Beach.com, and probably a little bit after that as well, you were in early on the customer journey. Moving, to an extent, is kind of the ultimate customer journey. You combined that in the digital space. You mentioned the high CPM, but the customer lifetime value is also quite high if you can get somebody into an apartment for a couple of years.
STEVE: Absolutely. That’s a great point. Not only is it part of that initial customer journey – wherever that came from and whatever company claimed to own that verbiage and so forth, it was the beginning of that – but it was also, I think, a very critical time when working with customers. I was working in industries where you really can’t screw it up. In other words, moving is an incredibly stressful time. If someone doesn’t find the right apartment, if you haven’t given them all the information – and again, we were the connector. We weren’t the apartment complex, but we were certainly helping them find that right place.
But if they didn’t move into the right place, if they found out it was an hour commute from where they worked and they didn’t realize that, or if they moved into a place in Alpharetta and their friends were all in Buckhead and they didn’t realize it was a 45-minute drive, not 10 – all of these different things, they looked back and they were upset with us and the recommendations we made.
And on the moving side, same thing. Again, it’s very stressful. If that moving truck doesn’t show up on time – think about all the things physically connected to moving your stuff. You’re trying to time everything out on a particular moving day. It could be hooking up utilities or having to be out of one place and into another. If something isn’t right and you realize that all of your possessions are now on an 18-foot U-Haul and that is broken down on the side of a road, it’s not good.
So I think it’s understanding how important it is to take care of the customer and really understand what it is emotionally they’re going through when they’re finding a place to live, when they’re physically moving. At Beach.com, it was your vacation. Most people have two weeks a year, and that vacation is very important for them to recharge and connect with family or friends. It’s an important part of your life. If somehow I was part of an organization that screwed that up, it was on me, and it was something that I took very seriously.
ROB: Definitely a lot at stake there. Steve, one thing I think you can shed particularly interesting light on is maybe your time at TCM. You have a unique perspective for a guest on this podcast. You’re kind of on the other side of the table from the marketing agency, so I think it would be interesting to explore TCM through the lens of what that brand–agency relationship can look like.
STEVE: Sure. Absolutely, I’d love to do that. At TCM, we really looked at ourselves as part of the larger Warner Media portfolio. I think every brand looks at themselves as their own business, and we were certainly no different in that we had a very clear set of objectives and goals in terms of growing our brand to the audience, making sure that people not only tuned in and watched, but also couple participate in other ways if they didn’t have TCM on cable. Now there’s HBO Max and ways to watch, but also, there are a lot of other events and other enterprise businesses that TCM was a part of.
Running all these events, I think some people from the outside may look at a company like Warner Media, AT&T being the parent, and say, “Oh, there’s got to be so many resources within the company that there wouldn’t be a need to tap into agencies.” That couldn’t be further from the reality. I’ve worked with agencies for a very long time; they bring unique talent to a company like Warner Media and particularly TCM. We would work with agencies for their expertise, for their efficiencies, and for them to help us execute the vision. They were a very important part of what we did.
We had a couple of different ways we could structure relationships. Certainly, there were some contractors or freelancers that could come in for some very small projects or very specific projects that maybe had to do with production or one part of a creative execution. But for the most part, working with agencies was something that we did, and we worked with a couple of Atlanta agencies that really knocked it out of the park for us.
On the TCM side, early on when I started, we had a product called FilmStruck, which was this amazing streaming service of independent, foreign, and arthouse films. It was the first streaming service that Turner had launched, and eventually it was shut down to make way for HBO Max. But as we launched it, we worked with Nebo here in Atlanta. This team really dove into that customer journey and what the needs were, really end-to-end, of generating subscriptions and long-term value from those users, and ways to distribute and share what we were offering and get it out there.
Again, these were not things that internally we had access to. I think a lot of us had pieces of the puzzle in our backgrounds and we had some very good folks internally that had acquisition experience, subscription acquisition experience even.
But tying it all together – if you think about every customer touchpoint from copy for the website, both the frontend and the backend, things like thank you emails, things like the weekly newsletters and drip campaigns to get people excited about new content and new programming coming, ways to reengage folks, knowing how much time they’re spending on the service and ways to get them excited about spending more time, sharing with friends, seasonal deals like “Hey, get this for someone for Mother’s or Father’s Day or a holiday subscription” – all of these different occasions to buy and reasons to stay are things that they helped us with in terms of those campaigns.
ROB: How did you think about the agency selection process? Did you have a bake-off of some sort? Did you know what direction you were leaning? Because knowing the Turner/Warner Media ecosystem – I know local shops who have built web games for Falling Skies; I know global agencies on the PR side who’ve done analytics work for TBS and TNT. So you could really run the spectrum. How did you approach that selection process?
STEVE: Right now – and this wasn’t available for a couple of years while I was there, but has come on – there’s now a database within Warner Media. Folks that work with agencies all around the country or international ones put in – it’s not a scoring process and you look for the 90s or above, but it’s more or less, “Hey, I had an experiential agency work on a large outdoor event with us. They did an amazing job. Here’s the contact information, here’s what they did, here are some pictures.” That exists now. So that’s certainly a tool that I think some folks at Warner Media are using.
When we selected Nebo – and more recently 9Rooftops, which has a great office here in Atlanta, that did some great work for us as well – so much of it is word of mouth and being in the Atlanta community, being part of AMA. That’s exactly what I did. I reached out to a good friend of mine, Joe Koufman, at a company called Setup, and said to Joe, “Listen, I’m looking for an agency. This is what we need them to do. This is an outline of the project. What do you recommend?” He came back with three or four really strong recommendations, and that’s where I started.
Then from that, we sat down with the agencies – and I’m not a fan of having agencies do work for free. I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think that’s a way to start the relationship. So we didn’t ask any agency to produce work; we really just had conversations with them to share ideas. We said, “Here’s what we’re looking to do. Come with some ideas.” Each of them got a time slot, and we, again, just had a conversation with them.
For Turner Classic Movies – and I imagine this is the case with a lot of either networks or other brands – the number one thing that I look for in an agency is that they either already understand our business and who our customers are or have the capacity to understand that in a very short period of time. Certainly the agencies that I spoke with all got it. They came to the table with ideas around that. Now, they don’t know all of our business, and that’s completely to be expected. We didn’t expect anyone to understand some of the internal ways that we connect with our audience. Those are things that as soon as we awarded the business, very early on we sat down and shared that. It may have even been at a late stage pitch that we shared it.
But we’re looking for an understanding of what we do and why we do it. If an agency gets that – because every agency we’re talking to already has the technical capabilities. There’s no doubt. There’s a ton of talent. But it’s a matter of, do you understand what we’re trying to do? And then really understanding the logistics of who’s going to be working on this and your process, the best way to establish how we communicate together, how we discuss the deliverables together, and who leads that on each side.
ROB: That’s a great client-side perspective. The empathy required, the value of reputation, the value of community engagement. It’s so interesting.
I’m in this mode now where people we’re talking about working with – people still want to get together for lunch. In spite of, and maybe especially because we’ve all been in our houses for the most part for the past year, people are like “Let’s catch lunch outdoors.” That’s in bounds for me right now; some people are holed up. But geography, it seems, is still going to matter quite a lot. At least people will say, “I want a company with a local presence.” Nobody really even knows what that means sometimes, but it’s what we want.
STEVE: Again, there’s so much talent in Atlanta. I think looking outside of Atlanta in most cases is really not necessary. The talent is here. It is really nice to have face-to-face meetings. We all know they’ll be coming back. Even now, I’ve had several meetings outside at large picnic tables at a park or a restaurant with folks. That’s really how you get to connect with people you’re working with, especially on these types of relationships where it’s really important that everyone understands what the objectives are together.
I’m just a believer in face-to-face when it comes to things like that. I know certainly working remote right now has worked for many people, and even if agencies are local, they may have folks on your account that are in other cities. We worked with a company and that was the case; someone happened to be very talented on the digital team that worked out of South Carolina. And that worked out fine as well, but it was still nice to be able to have some reviews together in person. Again, I’m such a believer in Atlanta being this epicenter of culture and talent and tech, and that’s who I want to work with.
ROB: That’s something for us all to think about as we start to emerge. Steve, you had some thoughts on some key lessons you’ve learned along your journey as a leader, as a marketer, as an executive. What would you reflect on if you could talk to your younger self about what to think about as you develop?
STEVE: [laughs] I don’t know where I’d start. That’s funny. I think looking back, Rob – and it’s such a great thing to do every once in a while, even if you’re not talking about it to other people, but just to reflect on things you’ve learned. I can think of several in particular, and a lot of them are coming out of the Beach.com experience I had, but I think some of these apply throughout my career.
Certainly engaging with customers to understand what it is they want, how they want to receive your information, when they want to receive it – you remember the beginning of that whole integrated marketing push? That’s what people said integrated was. I think there’s a through-line to everything we do now. There are so many different ways to receive information, so many platforms. But at the end of the day, if you don’t understand what your customer wants and how they’re going to react to what you’re sharing with them, what that call to action is, then I think there’s always going to be a miss. That’s something I’ve learned that I took with me from those days on throughout the consulting and throughout my time understanding our audience at Turner Classic Movies and HBO Max.
Next, I would say having someone that has either domain or IP expertise on your team or advising your team is so critical because again, that’s the type of experience – when I was at Beach, we really would’ve benefited from having someone in the travel and hospitality business being a close advisor to us.
I think we all thought because we were customers, we knew what other customers wanted, but we weren’t seeing the big picture. I was just seeing it at the time for myself, married and two young kids, “This is how I vacation so everyone probably vacations like this. This is how we plan,” not knowing that that’s a very small segment of how it’s done. So I think having that advisor or having someone baked into the company that really understands – that domain expertise is critical.
I would say probably the most important thing I’ve learned over time is just having a laser focus on what it is you’re working on and really understanding both the functional and the emotional priorities of the business. And that focus isn’t just for entrepreneurs; I think it’s just as important in mid-size and large multinational companies. It’s a challenge when you manage high-achieving and creative people. They always want to bring new ideas and new innovations to the table, and that’s a great thing. That’s what you look for as a leader.
But I can’t tell you how many times I said to my manager at Turner, “Look, this is only going to take 5 minutes” when nothing takes 5 minutes. What a lot of people don’t realize, and it took a while for me to learn, is that it doesn’t just take time away from what you’re currently working on; there’s an opportunity cost as well when you try to veer off the course – even to do something that wasn’t necessarily in your plans, but eleventh hour, something popped up and you thought to yourself, “We should add this in.”
Sometimes you need to make concessions and figure out a way to make it work, but I would say most of the time, all it’s going to do is create a distraction. It’s easy for that to happen. You could have marketing plans and then something like Clubhouse pops up and you’re like, “We need to be on Clubhouse. We should create a room and get some experts to join us and talk about our product or service.” That might be a great part of the strategy, but if that’s not what you were initially planning to do, then 9 times out of 10, it’s better to continue to focus on what it is you were doing and then work that in as your next objective.
I think that focus – I had on a whiteboard in my office at Turner the word “focus” for all 4 years before we got shut down and everyone worked from home. The word “focus” was in my office, and I saw that word every single day. Of everything that was written and erased and written and erased on the whiteboard, that was the one consistent thing. Never erased it. That was my constant reminder that nothing takes 5 minutes and that you’ve got to really keep driving those clear objectives and deliverables and not create unnecessary distractions.
ROB: Right. It’s such a good practice to, number one, not do something that’s going to blow up in your face, and number two, not discard the thing you’ve already been very intentional about putting together.
Steve, we normally wrap these conversations with a couple of different questions. I think they tie together for you. Number one is typically “Where should people connect with you?”; number two is “What are you excited about that’s coming up marketing-wise?” I think you have those things linked together where we can get a much bigger dive into your mind and connect with you as well.
STEVE: Sure. Again, this has been such a fun conversation. I would say in terms of the future and what I see, I don’t think marketers should be thinking about things ever going back to normal. I think how we play and consume media, entertainment, food, healthcare, all of this, this whole sense of community is being redefined in front of our eyes.
It’s a generational opportunity that’s going to impact customer behaviors from now on. It’s not a trend; it’s really a seismic shift that’s going to resonate across the culture and economy and all of our personal and professional relationships. It opens up an opportunity to be more creative and more innovative than ever before, and I think there’s going to be some things we’ve done in the past that we’re going to have to decide to let go. Other things we’re going to hold on to.
Those are some of the things that excite me right now. I do think as a society, we need to get a little bit higher up right now. I think we need to work on making people feel less isolated and part of a community. I don’t think that’s going to go away when people can start gathering in small groups. The pandemic has exposed a real ripple in people feeling alone, and that’s something that I think marketing can play a big role in: really helping people find their community or communities.
Personally, I’ve had a lot of meaningful conversations since I left TCM and Warner Media, exploring high growth in entrepreneurial opportunities, looking to where I can create long-term value at scale and really do good. So that’s what’s on the horizon for me in terms of what I’m looking for.
And then on the side, I started something really fun with my wife and some good friends of ours. We started an e-zine called The Fast Times. We always talk about how Generation X, which I’m a part of, sometimes gets the short end of the stick. We weren’t born with a cellphone in our hands, and we certainly didn’t save the world like the Greatest Generation. We just listened to really cool music and watched really fun movies and were latchkeys and came home to an empty house and made the microwave dinners and so forth.
So we thought, what could we do to really have some fun with Gen X and the fringe on each side of younger Boomers or older Millennials? So we created this e-zine. We’re sending it out once a week, and then a special edition on Mondays. It’s taking a look at culture and how it intersects with both nostalgia from the ’80s and early ’90s and having this modern lens on things that are happening today. It’s kind of with this smart snark, I would call it. It’s the fun voice of the ’80s, voice of that Gen X. Lots of sections in it like “We Got the Beat” and “Channel Z” and “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” all very brand-driven throughout it.
Ultimately, this may be a vehicle for sponsors and advertisers as our subscription base grows. But right now, we’re doing it – I love reading. I read probably at least an hour a day and love writing, and it’s a fun way to stay sharp and create something. Again, we’ll see where it goes.
ROB: Congratulations on that launch. Where do we go to find that?
STEVE: You can sign up for that at thefasttimes.net. Even the address is nostalgic, the .net. Go ahead and sign up and give it a shot. We also are having a little bit of fun on social platforms, on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter. We hope you like it.
ROB: That’s excellent. Steve, thank you for coming on the podcast. Thank you for sharing. I certainly look forward to connecting back in person. I look forward to seeing what else you take on next. It seems like it’ll be a natural continuation of a really good story, so thank you for sharing with us.
STEVE: Thanks again, Rob, for having me. As I said, I really believe you’re the epitome of this. Everything that people are reading about in terms of the surge in Atlanta, in the tech space, in the companies interested in coming to Atlanta, you’re the epitome of this. You started Converge bringing in outside investment and then growing it here in Atlanta and being part of the innovative labs and teams here. This is exactly what it’s all about and what everyone is hoping this unwritten story of Atlanta is, and you are a very early author of it. Thanks for having me.
ROB: I appreciate that. You’re very kind. There is a lot of good stuff going on here in Atlanta, and we’ll keep on sharing it. Thanks so much for coming on, Steve.
STEVE: Thank you.
ROB: Take care. Bye.
ROB: Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.