An Interview with Interbrand: CEO Josh Feldmeth on Good Marketing, Good Advice, and Great Jobs

April 25, 2014

Josh Feldmeth is “fundamentally in love” with the work that he does. He remembers the moment that it clicked, sitting in a dark room as a management consultant and taking part, for one hour, on a teleconference with an outside branding advisor. “I thought, ‘This is the richest conversation I’ve had all year.’ I was instantly dissatisfied with my job and I knew that I needed to change.”

He joined Interbrand in 2002 as part of the retail strategy team in Dayton, Ohio, and by late 2010 he was selected to be the CEO of Interbrand New York, San Francisco, and Toronto.

Josh has extensive multi-national experience building rigorous, analytics- informed strategies for brands including BMW, Walgreens, Credit Suisse, Barclays, P&G, ING, Philips, and Heineken. He visited the Yale School of Management on April 8th to discuss the transformation of brand management over the last half century. Far from its roots as a simple business identity, the brands of tomorrow will co-create economic and social value for both companies and consumers. After his presentation, Josh sat for a few questions with YCCI.

The transcript below has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Interbrand has worked with a number of clients, like AT&T, for some time. What is it that accounts for the durability of these relationships?

There are a few things. The most important is attitudinal. We have a fondness for saying that we’d rather be useful than famous. In the marketing world of today—the 3.0 world that’s connected not only to customer experience, but also across agency-consultant interactions—the effectiveness of an organization requires that people get along. It requires that they integrate thinking and integrate processes, and that they do collective work. If you’re pushing really hard to establish your own position, to guard information and argue for, “that was my idea. I did that,” then you won’t get very far in the search for what clients actually want. For Interbrand, the most important thing is the fact that we have this attitude of providing service that’s well in front of an attitude of getting famous.

Secondly, over time, we’ve developed very deep business knowledge and intimacy about what our clients are trying to do. The deeper we get, the more we know and the more we can be helpful.

And lastly, if you take AT&T, we try to grow as they grow. We started in a more limited capacity with them, focused mostly on questions of design. But we’ve expanded what we do with them as they’ve expanded their own internal technologies and capacities. We’ve been sure not to sit still as they’ve grown.

The history you described in your presentation was fascinating, the jump in branding from 1.0, to 2.0, and then to 3.0. I was wondering what campaigns you’ve seen recently that strike you as great representations of 3.0.

I think the word “campaign” actually serves as an indicator of what generation we’re talking about. So, campaigns were really the tool of 1.0. Companies thought of it as, “I have manufacturing, I have built up an inventory, I need to push that inventory through the system, and so I need advertising to help me sell it.” In 2.0, we started talking more about integrated “through-the-line” campaigns, which went from the TV spot all the way down to the beginnings of experiential marketing.

Today, there are still a lot of advertising campaigns being done, but I think the most successful campaigns are pushing beyond this mentality to think about the experience. The most exciting things that we see are companies that bring an integrated and seamless experience to consumers. One great example would be the Nike+ Fuelband. You go to the page and realize your ability to participate in and even make the thing that you want to buy. That’s a totally integrated and seamless experience. It creates value. That’s what campaigns are evolving to.

What defines a more or less successful branding experience?

Most successful experiences allow for social connectivity—they are something that I don’t have to keep to myself. Successful experiences also reduce the complexity of an interaction. They’re about simplicity.

I think that experiences that allow me, the consumer, to customize and personalize, to dictate the terms of what I’m getting, are also much more successful. So, think about a static retail webpage with shoes on it versus what it is that Nike does now: you can design the shoes and then instantly share the designs with others. These are hallmarks of a successful experience.

And then a few broader question. Given we’re the Center for Customer Insights, how you think about, or define, an insight?

I’d say it’s a fact that you can do something with.

What’s the greatest advice you’ve ever received?

Well, it was not a piece of advice as much as a moment that someone put me through. Early on in my consulting career, four or five of us were holed up in a room at a retailer. I was pretty junior on the team and the guy who was running the project was writing the name of each team member and writing next to the name what his or her job was going to be. He saw something in me, so he wrote my name, Josh, and next to it just one word: Quality.

That was such a big, inspiring idea for me—that I was going to be the guy who makes sure everything is quality. It was like wearing size eight shoes and getting a size thirteen. You try to fill them up.

That wasn’t so much direct advice as it was a transformative moment of coaching and mentorship. It helped me move very far in my career.

That describes a nice management moment in play. Related, given the way that industry has changed over the past decade, what are you looking for now in your new hires?

We’re definitely looking for new things. We’ve talked a lot about skills and competencies, but what we’re all trying to figure out at the root of it is: what’s the process for identifying the best fit? Bringing someone into the building to go through a gauntlet of 30-minute interviews—something just doesn’t seem optimized about that. If, in the rest of the world people are experiencing products before they’re buying them, if people are getting much deeper opportunities to evaluate, then are we really hiring and recruiting in the right way? I would think that there is still a lot to learn in how we asses cultural fits and long-term success.

This isn’t just related to hiring. We see it everywhere: in higher education, the SATs are a poor predictor of academic performance, for example. I would guess that a lot of people working on predictors of job success, and I know that we have a lot to learn about this. I’m openly curious and openly dissatisfied with the full day of interviews being the best, or the only way to understand whether someone’s going to be successful.

Finally, you’re clearly passionate about this work. What’s so exciting and inspiring—not necessarily specific to Interbrand?

I’ll tell you the story of how I got into this. I was working in management consulting at PwC and I was on a long-term assignment in this retailer that’s no longer solvent. We were in there trying to help them toward the end of their career. It was a tough job. I was up on Monday morning, back home on Thursday night, sitting in dark war rooms with no windows.

During that, the company [PwC] briefly rebranded to “Monday.” They hired a brand agency that came up with this name; and, in the process of rebranding, we were given an opportunity to have an hour-long conference call with the branding agency that helped them arrive at the name. On this call, the woman on the other end just walked through what it took to get to the name, Monday. There’s been a lot of discussion on whether that was a good name or a bad name, but, at the time, the conversation she was having was about business things. It was also about learning, about ideas, about culture, about color and form, about semiotics. Sitting there listening I thought, “This is the richest conversation I’ve had all year.”

I was instantly dissatisfied with my job. I knew I needed to change. Within a month or so, I was working with Interbrand. Something was unlocked for me in that discussion, and that’s why I’m so passionate about all of this.

I fundamentally love this work. It sits at the intersection between business school, left-brain stuff—data, numbers, hard decision-making—and creativity. In my personal life I also pursue artistic things, and, in my professional life, I’m privileged that my world is full of ideas. Even making the presentation for today was creative. It was a little bit of art history. That’s absolutely wonderful.

If you’re a balanced person, somewhat left-brain, somewhat right-brain, then you cannot not be fed by this work.