‘I need to be able to be held accountable’: Paul Wille of Swift on the role of the chief performance officer
Can a title be a defining moment for someone? Surely some have considerable weight, but what about job titles in the agency world? So often we hear titles that don’t really address the tasks involved — or they end up being “cute’ monikers that provide no real clarity about a role or job. But is there a middle ground? A way to have a unique title that is both descriptive and provocative?
Paul Wille’s title at Portland, Oregon’s Swift, a Possible agency, part of WPP, may strike that balance: chief performance officer (CPO).
“That was actually carefully chosen. The reason why we chose that, as opposed to anything around just data or just measurement or anything analytics, is that we are articulating what we want to achieve for our clients,” said Wille. “If I look across the agency landscapes of small, medium, large agencies the role of a chief performance officer you don't typically see, but we're okay with that. We've seen everything from EVP of marketing sciences or senior vice president of data science or whatever the case may be, but those I feel are tactics. That's not what we want to focus on.”
What Swift and their CPO want to focus on is their philosophy and Wille’s role around data and insight-driven decisions across the agency, across their clients, to continue to push for culture of creative that drives results.
“I think it would be a huge disservice if I didn't get up in front of the agency on a regular basis and share how our work is performing and to do that in a manner that's non-threatening. Ultimately it comes down to the success stories that we can look at and say this did something meaningful and it's the whole team that played a part in that. The creative got their insights from the planning team. The planning team and the creative sciences folks ultimately rallied together to make this happen, but also it was the producers and the account team that helped sell it in and make this happen. There's so many pieces to that success, it has to be collectively owned,” Wille stated.
Wille started his career at the cusp of the true “digital” age after graduating from Oregon State University. Back then, few people knew how to monetize what was online, and true digital analytics were still years away. With a computer science degree in hand, he worked at a start-up agency as a developer in the digital advertising space. During those formative years at that and one other agency, he saw that he eventually wanted to run his own business. Wille left and went out on his own in 2007, right before the economy dropped out. Luckily, he had the drive and the skill to be useful and found a niche.
“It was just not a good time to do that, but what was really interesting is that I left with no clients and the economy went into free fall. All those clients that I worked with at the agency said, ‘Listen, we're going to continue our creative services with them, but we want you to help ultimately drive strategy, so in essence hire you to drive strategy for our brand and then help manage the agency you used to work for.’ That's when I called the agency owners. I said, ‘Listen, here's what's happening. I want to make sure you guys are cool with this.’ They responded, ‘It's totally fine. It protects our work. That's fine. You can have your piece of the pie there.’"
Wille cited that as a great moment because it’s when his entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. It forced him to take a business mindset, which led him to success with several clients.
“I took on some new clients around the travel, tourism and hospitality sector, so I had been working with companies like Embassy Suites and Travel Oregon; the Oregon tourism board. I took on Hawaiian Airlines and here's little me, just only me, sitting in my house consulting a company that transacts a billion dollars a year just trying to get our arms around what's working and what's not working as they're spending outrageous amounts of money to drive traffic to the site,” noted Wille.
Wille noted that the airline industry is odd because the margins are razor-thin and when fuel prices rise, the data scientists have to figure out how to keep the lights on and the planes in the air. In fact, Hawaiian Airlines paired with him to figure out the digital component of that.
“They needed someone from the outside that could help make sense of a world that they just really didn't understand. I was able to work with and consult them on putting together, ultimately, a series of recommendations and optimizations to improve the digital experience for everybody,” Wille stated.
Around that time, he met Swift co-founders Liz Valentine and Alicia McVey.
“Liz is great on the strategy and the production side of things and Alicia is an amazing creative — and they wanted to pitch to some big brands as an agency at the time. We thought, ‘Let's just go pitch some work together,’ so we pitched Black Diamond Equipment. It was us versus twenty other agencies that had legitimate staffs, offices and whatnot, and a couple months later, Liz called me up and said, ‘Hey. We got it.’ We started doing that work together,” he said.
From there, Wille joined forces and became part of the Swift crew, working with brands as diverse as Starbucks, Nike and HTC.
“What's critical to understand is that a brand's presence online is not just about transaction. It's about relationship building. It's about brand affinity. Brand trust. It's not even about a sales funnel anymore. There's this concept of omni-channel marketing and that we need to be understanding, that brand building doesn't mean we always link to the website from social media. What we found is that clients like Nike came to us because they trusted us early on with some of our web work and other strategic work that we did for them and they said, ‘Okay, Swift. Here's this world of social. Help us make sense of it,’” said Wille. That resulted in the first-ever social strategy for the Beaverton, Oregon-based global brand.
Another great opportunity for the Swift team presented itself in the form of Starbucks.
“When a brand wants to engage with consumers at a brand level and social, but they also control the point of purchase, then you can build some really interesting correlations and result stories. When they brought us in for a summer campaign for Frappuccino, our entire work was done around social content, a microsite experience, but all of the transactions were going to happen in a physical store. We mapped out our content calendar and the messages we were putting in the marketplace. We mapped those out and then would layer in the sales data behind to understand what content drove the specific action.
“With 18,000 stores, Starbucks has an amazing ability to drive rabid fans into stores at a scale like you wouldn't believe. One of the things that we found was we took this secret menu item called the Cotton Candy Frappuccino. Bright pink. What we did is took a social asset that we created, which was basically just holding up this drink and the text had something to do with secret menu item. It wasn't even a call to action to go into the store. It was just saying, ‘Secret menu item. Cotton Candy Frappuccino.’”
The result of the seemingly simple execution was profound — stores ran out of the ingredients for the item.
“Starbucks is very deliberate about saying, ‘Don't put gratuitous calls to action in content across social.’ What we found was by doing that one [social execution], the operations team came back and said, "Don't talk about Cotton Candy Frappuccino anymore. We are out of the ingredients worldwide, especially in Singapore and some of these other different markets.’ The only thing that advertised that was the social content. That blew us away by not putting gratuitous calls of action, but just being deliberate about what we're wanting to show and celebrate or engage people with drove action in the real world. That was a really unique finding.”
Swift stays relevant and successful because they know the balance between creative and data — specifically, what the role of data plays in the creative process, an ongoing debate between data and creative people in the industry.
“I would say it took us a little while to really strike that balance correctly. We don't want to hire creatives who focus on their craft only because that tends to be creative for the sake of being creative. We want people who are entrepreneurial to sit on our creative team — people who think about solving real-world problems with creative. What we find is that if we can recruit creatives with that kind of mentality, they're much more open to data-driven insights.
“The other part, and I would say this is almost more important, is that the way in which data and insights ultimately inform creative has to be done in a way where it's creative thought-starters — not such tight guardrails that you've stifled the ability of the creative process. What we've done over time is take what used to be just strict performance reports and insights off of that and instead we've taken more qualitative research around the consumer and built, frankly, a creative brief that's driven off of qualitative and quantitative data. Rather than just giving a report saying, ‘The data says you shouldn't do that’, what we do is say, 'Okay, well let's brief the creative team the way creative teams need to be briefed and let's layer in the insights that are going to help them think and get their minds around who the person is and what we're trying to get them to do'.”
Performance, from the metrics and data side of the equation, is obviously critical but what it ultimately comes down to, in Wille’s opinion, is the team, and the chief performance officer is a huge part of making and keeping it strong.
“The best thing that I can do is bring great talent in and align them with great brands and great mentors in the agency and establish clear expectations of every team. If I can help empower that, if I can help in their professional development, fantastic,” Wille said.
Ultimately, Wille and the Swift team are still a work in progress, but one where success is always the goal.
“Yes, we changed titles. We changed methods, processes, tools, output, and we're still going through that transformation right now, but it's been a very good one. The creative sciences team has actually grown almost 300% since last summer when we re-branded, but there's still work to be done. We still need to be doing better. I feel like my role here is such that if I'm under-performing, we are very likely marginalizing the health of the agency. That's a scary proposition, so I need to be able to be held accountable to the rest of my partners; to the rest of the agency and when things aren't working, I better get after that and make sure that we're staying that strategic thought leader with our clients.”