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Lead Balloon Ep. 9 - The Ritz-Carlton Hail Mary, with Trusted Media Brands CCO Beth Tomkiw

With a flagship custom publishing account on the line, former Playboy editor Beth Tomkiw goes for broke.

The Hail Mary: a last-chance, desperation plan with a high risk of failure, turned to as a last resort when all other options have failed.

It's not just a football play; it's a mindset that professional communicators must adopt from time-to-time.


Beth Tomkiw is the Chief Content Officer at Trusted Media Brands, the publisher of Taste of Home, Reader's Digest and many other recognizable publications. Previously an editor at Playboy, she also worked in custom publishing and content marketing for more than a decade.


In this episode, Beth Tomkiw tells the tale of the Hail Mary play she drew up as a content strategist at McMurry to save the agency's contract with the Ritz-Carlton brand.


(Original photo by WiNG, CC BY-SA 3.0)


Transcript


Dusty Weis:

The Hail Mary... With success or failure on the line, a last chance desperation plan with high risk and high reward. Named for the holiest of Catholic rites and arguably the most exciting spectacle in sports, the concept has been around for ages. Although the term didn't come into popular use until 1975, when the Dallas Cowboys, Roger Staubach, heaved an ugly 50 yard pass down the sideline to beat the Minnesota Vikings in the waning seconds of a playoff game.


Football Announcer:

He got it, touchdown!


Dusty Weis:

After the game, Staubach said...


Roger Staubach:

Well, I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.


Dusty Weis:

And while he may have popularized the term, the Hail Mary as an art form, has no doubt been perfected in the modern era by none other than the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers.


Football Announcer:

Rodgers in trouble. It's going to get there. He turned 32 yesterday, does he have a vintage moment in him? In the end zone, it is caught, for the win!


Dusty Weis:

Now, I'm well aware that I'm far from the first person to apply a sports analogy to the world of business. But let's be honest, who among us, faced with our own Hail Mary situation in marketing or PR, hasn't closed our eyes and seen that big clock ticking away on the scoreboard and mentally trotted out onto the field or the court or the diamond for one last desperate attempt to win the big game?


Football Announcer:

One of the all time game enders...


Beth Tomkiw:

When you're faced with losing something, like why not just go completely all out and put your most crazy best ideas on the table. I think from that, I became fearless.


Dusty Weis:

Another Wisconsin Hail Mary artist is Beth Tomkiw, the chief content officer behind brands including Taste of Home, Reader's Digest and many other publications. And as a content marketer in a past role, she stared down the potential loss of a flagship client and with the game on the line and time running out, drew up a play in the dirt that was just crazy enough to work.


Dusty Weis:

I'm Dusty Weis from Podcamp Media, this is Lead Balloon, a podcast about PR, marketing and branding nightmares and the well-meaning communications professionals who lived them.


Dusty Weis:

I know that I rant and I rave about overused cliches in the world of PR and marketing, but I miss sports and I can't have them right now. And since I'm already going with Hail Mary for the theme of the episode, well, I'm just going to steer into the skid, go for broke and see how many sports cliches I can stack in the box here. So if you want to turn this into a drinking game or something well, be warned, I'm swinging for the fences here. My goal as always for Lead Balloon is to collect the harrowing tales of PR and marketing heroes, facing long odds and winning the day.


Dusty Weis:

And if that kind of Monday morning quarterbacking is in your wheelhouse, smash that subscribe button, and we'll take it one game at a time together. And for overtime action follow Podcamp Media on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn for videos, pictures, blog posts, and so much more.


Dusty Weis:

My guest this week is Beth Tomkiw, the chief content officer at Trusted Media Brands and Trusted Media Brand somewhat ironically is maybe not a brand name that many people recognize offhand, but it is the publishing company behind such brands as Taste of Home, Reader's Digest, Family Handyman and on and on and on. You also worked 12 years as an editor at Playboy and this was in the era when Playboy was doing some incredible journalism and some incredible magazine writing.


Dusty Weis:

And then you transitioned into content marketing in the early 2000s, working with clients that included Dell, Land, O'Lakes, CBS, UPS, Web MD, Johns Hopkins. It's a very impressive resume and so I'm just frankly grateful that you would make the time to even chat with me just a little bit here. But like a lot of my favorite PR and marketing professionals, you have your roots in the very intense deadline driven world of hard journalism. How did that shape you as a communicator in the later stages of your career?


Beth Tomkiw:

Well, I think I had the amazing privilege of being mentored by some great people at Playboy who really taught me what good writing was, but also the importance of communicating a position behind your story. And so I think I just, I feel like I learned from the best. I edited, people like Roger Ebert and Carl Hiaasen, and these are good writers to begin with, but to have had the ability to touch their words and work with them, I feel like was a privilege that helped me grow personally.


Dusty Weis:

I can only begin to fathom what it's like to tell Roger Ebert, how his words should be positioned and rearranged and the amount of a will that just has to take. But when you transitioned then to the content marketing world, was there a learning curve when you went primarily from managing writers and journalists and sources to managing clients and expectations and teams of marketers?


Beth Tomkiw:

I think when I made the move, it was something that I was really excited about because quite frankly, I didn't know there was such a thing as custom publishing or content marketing, but I've always had a really keen desire to learn more about how a business runs. So I do this, like I have this left brain, right brain thing working. And so while I was at a magazine editor, it was pure creative and it was all about our audience and making sure that we were delivering what our audience wanted.


Beth Tomkiw:

When I moved over to content marketing and working with clients, I got to combine that aspect of what is this business, what are they trying to accomplish? And then how can I figure out how to attract their customers with storytelling? And being able to bring those two things together is actually I think my favorite part about what I do now, because now that I've risen up the corporate ladder, it all boils down to business anyway. When I was 25 years old and I thought about the customer, it was really not thinking about the impact of the sale of a magazine on the revenue of the company.


Beth Tomkiw:

When I moved over into content marketing, it was all about driving revenue through storytelling. And I think in my current job, which is back in traditional media, having that side for 14 years has really helped me in the current role, particularly in media, that can be really challenging right now.


Dusty Weis:

When you transitioned to the content marketing realm, this is a thing that I know from experience as a former journalist, who then got into that field, that there's no equivalent in publishing to losing a client as a marketer at an agency. And so for me at least it came as a little bit of a shock to the system the first time that it happened. And it's especially hard to accept that sometimes it's just a situation over which you really have no control. So how did you go through working through that the first time that it happened to you?


Beth Tomkiw:

Gosh, the first time that it happened. So I think the first time that I lost a client, it's definitely a rough experience. I think every time you fail and it sounds a little cliche because everyone says this, but every failure is an opportunity to learn something. I think in that case, maybe the first time I lost a client, it feels like it was forever ago. I had to look back at what I might've done or what my team might have done to contribute to that. And usually it's really hard in client service to find that balance of being a true journalist and a storyteller and being able to appease them in selling whatever it is they're trying to sell. Some clients tend to want to go too far down the selling path and you have to constantly coach them that their customers are going to respond better when you make it about them, what they need.


Beth Tomkiw:

I think losing clients tends to be tied to either budget or they're not willing to really listen to this idea that you have to think about their customers first. I mean, it's heartbreaking to lose a client, but you learn from it and every time that happens, you take something into your next relationship. And I will say that I developed very strong interpersonal communications skills. The ability to try to sell a client on an idea is what becomes very important when you're on the agency side, you have to have strong opinion about what it is you're doing so that you can actually persuade them to go down a path that they may ultimately not want to go down. They might not understand it.


Dusty Weis:

I like your thoughts on the notion of trying to help the clients see that sometimes what seems like the most obvious course of action for them is not actually the best way to go. And I think I faced similar challenges when I was first getting into the content marketing realm of saying, okay, now our first goal here has to be to tell a good story. And they said, what do you mean our first goal is to tell a story? Our first goal is to sell memberships to which I responded, yes, but that is a goal that is served by maintaining our focus on telling a good story here. And the analogy that I always brought it back to was okay, you've got your cheese and your mouse trap and your mousetrap is what gets you sale. But your cheese is what brings the mice into the trap, sort of a gristly analogy. Now that I think about it.


Beth Tomkiw:

That's true.


Dusty Weis:

But you've got to have good cheese, otherwise that trap is just going to sit there and nobody's going to go near it.


Beth Tomkiw:

It is, it's actually a perfect analogy. We would always use the what's in it for me? And we would bring that up into every presentation that we would have with a client. And the me being your customer, like what's in it for me? Why do I want to spend time with this? Why do I want to read this? Why do I want to watch this video? Why do I want to listen to this podcast? Because it's going to do something for me. And by doing something for me, hopefully it will connect to your business, your brand, whatever it is you want to sell, it's not an immediate sale, but it's hopefully a long-term relationship that you're building so that the customer always thinks of you in the time when they're ready to buy.


Dusty Weis:

Talking to Beth Tomkiw, it's apparent right out the gate, that she's a consummate veteran in this field. And that brand of cool in the clutch professionalism can only be forged in the fires of adversity, which she faced as a content marketer in the early 2000s.


Beth Tomkiw:

The company that I worked for, McMurry, had produced the in room magazine for the Ritz Carlton. We had done it for about five years and our contract was coming up for renewal and the client had changed over. And so there's always a few key triggers that often cause a client loss. One of them is when you have a new client that you have to resell on the relationship. This particular client was wonderful, but she also wanted to work with a New York agency. We were this little firm in Phoenix and so she was very keen on opening up to RFP in order to bring the business ultimately to American Express. She set her sights on that because she wanted to work with the then editor of Travel and Leisure. She had a very good relationship with that person. So the account was brought to RFP. That's always very difficult for the incumbent and particularly difficult when you're a tiny little agency in Phoenix.


Beth Tomkiw:

That isn't well... you're well known in the circles of content marketing, but not in a high profile way that Ritz Carlton was looking for. So my CEO at the time was like, "Hey, if you have the opportunity to dream up any sort of way to handle this magazine and this business, like just come up with what you think we should be doing. And we are going to present like the biggest idea to them so that it will be impossible for this client to want to move the business."


Beth Tomkiw:

And so when given this opportunity to develop a strategy that has no boundaries, that's the most exciting thing you can do as a creative person. And so we pulled our team together. And the first thing we want to realize is our hurdle was that we weren't high profile. And so potentially one way that we might be able to impress a client like this was to identify an editorial director consultant. That was like an iconic editor and me having grown up in media at the time when Conde Nast was known for nurturing and developing these very high profile, almost celebrity editors, I put together a wishlist of people that I would have dreamed to work with.


Dusty Weis:

So with nothing left to lose, no holds barred, Beth Tomkiw knew she had to leave it all out on the field. She had blanket permission from her CEO to assemble her dream team. That is what she proceeded to do.


Beth Tomkiw:

James Truman...


James Truman:

Design is not morally right or wrong.


Beth Tomkiw:

The editorial director at Conde Nast.


Dusty Weis:

The enigma calculating ambitious upstart with charm to spare, who oversaw publishing giants like Vogue, GQ and Bon Appetit.


Beth Tomkiw:

When I was at Playboy and he was elevated to that position at 35 years old and I just thought it was the coolest thing in the world.


James Truman:

I think one of the things that Face did was it understood that the street was glamorous. Street wasn't just angry and dirty and punk.


Beth Tomkiw:

Tina Brown.


Tina Brown:

Gossip can be powerful.


Beth Tomkiw:

She was editor of Vanity Fair. She's then became editor of the New Yorker.


Dusty Weis:

Well-connected social light and globe-trotter. The more prominent half of a Manhattan publishing power couple that reined over the city for decades.


Tina Brown:

Many of the friends that I've made at Tatler who were in the upper classes, the Lord's Ladies when I went to London would tell me things were not going well.


Beth Tomkiw:

I loved House and Garden Magazine and Dominique Browning had written books.


Dominique Browning:

Everyday life has everything from cooking to vacuum cleaning.


Beth Tomkiw:

Made a name for herself in that sort of lifestyle, travel and gardening space.


Dusty Weis:

Publishing maven and idealist known for advocacy that burns with a righteous white hot flame.


Dominique Browning:

In general, we're branding the name Conde Nast so that readers know to look for the Conde Nast publication. It stands out in terms of quality and says which house and garden magazine we are.


Dusty Weis:

Beth Tomkiw launched herself into marshaling these literary virtuosos like Danny Ocean rounding up Ocean's Eleven.


Beth Tomkiw:

I had a couple of other people that were just individuals that I personally was so intrigued by. And quite frankly, that I figured if I was in this process, I would want to meet. If at the very least, meet and talk to.


Dusty Weis:

Maybe you don't get the client, but at least you get to make some really cool connections and have some great conversations.


Beth Tomkiw:

Exactly, exactly and it was a pike profile brand so I knew that there would be a likelihood that some of these people might want to be associated with it. And so I tracked... James Truman had gone off the grid because he had, I think when he left Conde Nast it was such a stressful situation. And so I hunted him down through the internet. I looked for articles that he'd been quoted in.


Beth Tomkiw:

And I finally found him through a PR person who was working with him on this special project. And he reached back out to me and we had long conversations. He wanted to be the only person that we put forth in this RFP, whereas my CEO wanted me to put five or six people forth. And so I told my CEO like this guy is amazing. He is perfect for the Ritz Carlton. He has the background, he understands luxury. I would say let's go all out and only put him forward. But my CEO was like, "No, what if the client doesn't like him and wants to talk to some of the others?" So I got overruled. And James initially in our RFP backed out. Tina Brown was in the process of launching the Daily Beast so she couldn't do it, but I got through her and I was super excited about that.


Beth Tomkiw:

I ended up having five really strong editors, Dominique Browning was among them. I had this woman, [inaudible 00:15:17], who had launched Instyle Magazine. I had a really stellar lineup. We also put a whole digital strategy together because the Ritz Carlton was only a magazine. So we showed them how we could take content and help them build a hub on ritzcarlton.com that would start tracking their customers through online digital content. So it was a little, you could tell it was a little bit earlier in this scheme of what's going on right now.


Beth Tomkiw:

I would say it was probably, that was probably about 10 years ago that this was happening. So we showed them both a digital and a print strategy, redesigned the magazine and bring on these iconic editors to help grow the program, both in print and online. We ended up winning the RFP because I know that our client really wanted to meet with these editors. And so we set up... They said, "You know what? We had five different competitors, the ideas that you guys brought to the table were so unexpected and so exciting. And we love the editors that you've put forth. So we're going to continue. We're going to stick with you. We signed a 10 year contract."


Beth Tomkiw:

So that was also outstanding. And I set up individual interviews with all of these editors. We interviewed them at the Ritz Carlton at Central Park. Our client got to be a part of that, so she met them all. She went through our first list of five and she and I had built a really strong relationship. I mean, honestly, she had wanted me to go over to the American Express if the account moved because we had gotten that solid. But she was like, "Beth, I know that you probably talked to some other people." And I'm like, yeah, I was super excited.


Beth Tomkiw:

I talked to James Truman, I talked to Tina Brown and she's like, "Oh, I would really like to talk to them too, because I mean, while I liked these editors, I would really like to talk to them." And so I reached back out to James and I'm like, "Hey James, I know that you didn't want to be a part of our sales pitch, but would you still be willing to talk to the client?" And he's like, "Sure, but I want to meet you first." So I got to meet him. We met at a restaurant, it was super fun. And then Tina Brown, I got back in touch with her and she had gotten the Daily Beast to this point where it was launched.


Beth Tomkiw:

And now she was doing these little salon events and she thought the Ritz Carlton hotels might be a great place for those meetings. So I, again, I met with her in person and set her up to meet with Julia for lunch.


Dusty Weis:

Beth Tomkiw had scored a big win for her agency, but remember it's a long season and you've got to take it one game at a time. So coming up after the break...


Beth Tomkiw:

If I'm sitting here at a table with this little girl, grew up in the Midwest, worked for a small agency and so I began having conversations with Tina Brown and James Truman, like there's really nothing that should get in your way.


Dusty Weis:

Beth takes a look at the coaches film to parse the lessons that have shaped her career since then. And which one of her dream team of iconic editors got the start when it was all said and done? That's all coming up in a minute on Lead Ballon.


Dusty Weis:

This is Lead Ballon and I'm Dusty Weis. As a content marketer at McMurry, Beth Tomkiw's CEO handed her the ball and asked her to throw a Hail Mary. Staring failure in the face, she reared back, put everything she had into it and crushed it. Now the chief content officer at Trusted Media Brands, overseeing publications, like Taste of Home and Reader's Digest, she says it's an experience that prepared her for the stark realities that the publishing industry faces in 2020.


Beth Tomkiw:

It's like this sort of dramatic story in a way, because like how many times would you be able to do something like that for a client? But I think it really proves that when you're faced with losing something, like why not just go completely all out and put your most crazy best ideas on the table, what's in it for you? what's in it for them? Because I learned so much from the experience. And I think from that, I became fearless. Like if I'm sitting here at a table with this little girl, grew up in the Midwest, worked for a small agency in Phoenix and began having conversations with Tina Brown and James Truman. Like there's really nothing that should get in your way as an individual or for your business to think outside the box. And truly we went on to have a long, wonderful relationship with them and ended up doing some fantastic work.


Dusty Weis:

Here's what I really like about it is when your boss first came to you and said, "Hey, it looks like we're in the process of losing this client. And I need you to just throw a Hail Mary and put something together that's going to be so irresistible that they abandoned this RFP and just stick with us." The word that came out of your mouth wasn't problem, it wasn't scary situation. You referred to it as you were talking to me just now as an opportunity. And you looked at this potential disaster and saw opportunity in it. How much does just having that attitude about every potential crisis in the field really change the outcomes, do you think?


Beth Tomkiw:

Well, I mean, it is important to have support them in this case, from our CEO that no idea was going to be too outlandish. And so when we put our first list of ideas together, hire an iconic editor, create a digital strategy and show them how to use ideas online, the other thing we did was we showed them how we could create an international network of writers so that we could provide more local coverage around where their hotels were positioned and actually identified some prestigious writers who were working remotely in those areas. It's important to have somebody who supports the notion and doesn't like, no, the ideas when they come up and doesn't says, no, that's not going to work, no, we can't do that. Really creating sort of that permission to come up with these crazy ideas. And that taught me a lot because I was, well, I was a lead creative at the agency at the time.


Beth Tomkiw:

I wasn't in the kind of position that I am right now. Where now when people come to me with ideas, I've learned not to know them right from the start, like keep open the possibilities because you never know if you can't do all of them, there could be at least one that you can take and run with. And that's sort of key. And I think probably going to be even more key now, as we all have to be super inventive about how to keep our businesses moving in directions with a lot of uncertainty that's kind of in the world and in the marketplace right now. So I think that is one thing is having that upper level support and then just having that same support from my team that everybody, it's a little cliched to say there are no bad ideas because there are bad ideas, but in situations like that, dreaming big causes people to get outside of their comfort zones. And that's something that we should always be encouraging as managers.


Dusty Weis:

Yeah, certainly. Well, and it sounds like it's had an effect on your managerial style now that you are the person who is at the top calling the shots and potentially tasking people who work below you to, okay, throw a Hail Mary, come up with something completely different. Have you been in a situation since then in your current role where you've been able to sort of bestow somebody with that same level of trust as you were shown once?


Beth Tomkiw:

Oh yes. It comes up all the time and I actually love it because I work with a team of people who, I mean, we've pretty much transformed how we operate over the last three years. So one example is when I joined Trusted Media Brands and was tasked with rebranding and transforming Taste of Home, particularly for a more robust digital presence. The team that I work with in our Milwaukee office, a test kitchen and studio, were used to producing everything for prints. And then what was produced for print would be repackaged for digital. And we transformed into more of a digital first operation, including introducing new roles that they never would have even thought of before. So we have a role in our test kitchen called a culinary producer where it's a culinary trained professional who can test recipes, style recipes, and shoot recipes fast.


Beth Tomkiw:

And a typical recipe would involve at least 15 people touching it and day long effort. This individual can shoot up to 10 recipes in a day because of this new process that we've put into place. And it took a lot of resistance and you have to encourage people who see this way as potentially being threatening to the old way of doing things. You have to show them why, what the benefits of change are, what is this going to mean for us and how are we going to be better set up for the future by making some of these changes?


Beth Tomkiw:

I think that's what all ideas have to prove that is that there's something in this for you to make this change. And I think that's how this, the team that I work with has been completely excited and energized. And now come to the table with ideas for change, which is remarkable I think, when it doesn't have to come from you, the leader, when it starts coming from the team members who see the benefits of changes that have been made over the past several years.


Dusty Weis:

Like all great leaders, Beth Tomkiw credits her team first for the creativity that's driving the Trusted Media Brands turn around. These days, it's her job to create a safe space in which they can try their own crazy long shots. And as in the past, she doesn't see disruption as a problem to be feared, but an opportunity to cease.


Beth Tomkiw:

But one thing we have now too, that I think clients and teens respond to is that we see the results of our thinking and our strategy in the performance of our concept in the digital space. So this new form of recipe photography that I mentioned, we call it our fast track. We just had our first full year of producing digital first fast track content. And I had our analytics team pull the data around how those recipes have performed because they're specifically being creative for search.


Beth Tomkiw:

And you see what they're driving to our website, you see there's revenue attached to that traffic. And then you prove to the team like, look, you put energy creativity and fresh thinking into this, and this is how it helped our business, this is what you did. And they see that and they're like, wow, what else can I do? And I love that.


Dusty Weis:

That's really cool to hear and super heartening for the team as well. Beth Tomkiw, the chief content officer at Trusted Media Brands. I did note that there was one blank that we didn't fill in as we were talking about your Ritz Carlton story and that's who did ultimately get the editor job at the Ritz Carlton in room magazine?


Beth Tomkiw:

Yep, that was James Truman, who I knew right from the beginning would because of the conversations with him. I knew the client very well and I knew what motivated her and what she was interested in. And so when I talked with James, interviewed him, we shared a lot of our feelings about like editorial and content. And I knew that she was going to love him and it turns out she did and she chose him. And I'm going to tell you one fun anecdote out of that story. When I started talking to James, he's a tried and true New Yorker and he knew that I was based in Phoenix, Arizona at the time. And he was like, "Well, if I do this, do I have to come to Phoenix?" And I was like, "No, no, you don't have to come to Phoenix, the client's in DC. We can meet in New York."


Beth Tomkiw:

Three years into the relationship working together and there was a lot of conversations going on about the death of print. And we were very much heavily involved in creating custom magazines. I had asked James who we had built kind of a fun relationship working together. And I was like, "James, I know you didn't want to come to Phoenix, but can I bring you to Phoenix so that you could talk to my team about print magazines and where you see them going and how you see print still being a part of the world that we live in."


Beth Tomkiw:

And he was like, "Sure, I'll come to Phoenix." So not only did I feel like we won the Ritz Carlton over, I felt like we won James over and we even got him to come to Phoenix, Arizona to speak to the staff. And that was like a very prideful moment for all of our managers who had worked really hard to cultivate a relationship with him, but he would get on a plane and come visit us in Phoenix.


Dusty Weis:

Getting Manhattanites to leave Manhattan is a chore in and of itself.


Beth Tomkiw:

Totally true.


Dusty Weis:

So a hat tip there, that's possibly the most impressive thing that you've told me here. Beth it has been an absolute pleasure hearing this story. And I appreciate your taking the time to share it because I think there's some good lessons in there for anybody that's in the content creation world. So thanks for joining me here on Lead Balloon.


Beth Tomkiw:

And thanks for having me, it was really fun.


Dusty Weis:

Thanks for joining us for another episode of Lead Balloon, which is produced by Podcamp Media, where we provide branded podcast production solutions for businesses. Check out our website podcampmedia.com, we're on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn for the extra stuff. We bring you new tales from the world of PR and marketing disasters each month here on Lead Balloon. So please subscribe to the show. If you want to accuse me of being a biased Green Bay Packers fan, I'd welcome you to do it in the comments section or shoot me an email at dusty@podcampmedia.com. Until the next time folks, thanks for listening, I'm Dusty Weis.

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