Heidi Singleton is Chief Creative Officer of New Honor Society, a St.Louis-based advertising agency that is helping brands change the world. She’s worked at the agency together with partner and President Holly Aguirre for 17 years (collectively the pair are called “HiHo”). New Honor Society lives and breathes their ‘Less sell, more soul’ philosophy every day through their creative work for clients.
Here Heidi explains how a human-centric approach to advertising delivers messaging that is meaningful, inspiring, and ultimately makes brands better people overall.
Q> How did you two meet? How did you strike a balance together running the agency? After so many years of working together, do you have any advice to offer other future business owners?
HS> Holly and I have worked together for over 18 years. ‘Growing up’ within the same culture and agency family instilled us with a common set of values that saw us through the many changes and evolutions that the agency took over time. So when we assumed responsibility for the agency in 2013, we didn’t just know how to work well together, we had a shared vision for its purpose and potential, and reinvented the brand to serve that larger purpose.
But it isn’t just what we have in common that makes our partnership work. It’s a mutual respect for each other’s differences and unique strengths. We don’t always agree, but we are able to respectfully disagree and objectively solve problems. ‘Don’t be a shit’ is one of our four core principles. It’s easily understood by all from day one.
As far as advice: It’s important that business owners agree on a clear vision and intention for their company and measure themselves and each other on the ability to work toward that vision. If one or both partners are more concerned with his/her own career and achievement, the business can suffer as a result.
Q> What was the inspiration behind the 'Less sell, more soul' philosophy? And what does that mean for marketers and brands?
HS> ‘Less sell, more soul’ was initially inspired by the realization, born from studying shifting consumer attitudes and behavior, that people expect brands to be more human. At the time we were excellent in sales promotion, but we began to tire of salesy speak and dangling carrots to change behavior. Just the same as the general population.
A great example of our work during this transition was working on a baby gas product. The ask was to 1. Let parents know how painful baby gas is and that their baby’s cries could be from that pain. Show a baby in pain. 2. Deliver this message in digital banners. Compelling and selling, right? Problem, solution. How could a mom or dad not buy this product? But it felt like we would be exploiting a parent’s love and getting them to purchase out of guilt or fear.
Considering that many new parents can’t fathom what their baby is experiencing, including pain from gas, this was an area where our client could legitimately add value and be a solution at the same time. Help new parents understand what their baby is experiencing. Empower them with knowledge vs. instilling them with guilt or fear.
We facilitated a partnership between the brand and a known author on why babies cry and created an interactive digital platform that not only helped parents understand the different reasons babies cry and possible solutions, one of them being baby gas drops, but also what babies see and hear based on their age. This approach offered lasting engagement, information and comfort to parents as they tried to better understand their baby. This was the start of thinking with ‘Less sell, more soul’ and many years ago.
This could mean many different things for marketers and brands. However, we’ve learned that infusing soul into brand behavior will result in the longevity of marketing investment. Asking yourself, continually throughout the process, does what we’re working on ACTUALLY provide value for people? Our thesis is that marketers who focus on the long-term value of being more human will win.
Q> What is it like being an agency based in St. Louis that works with brands on a global scale?
HS> We love it! We are unassuming, but the savvy clients that know creativity is not relegated to certain cities have figured out they can get world-class work and a lot of other benefits from going against the grain. Oh, and our central time zone has proven to be more convenient than the coasts for our global clients.
Q> You promote branding as a corporate necessity for businesses, and the importance of implementing cultures and policies that align with products and services that brands sell. Why is this important today? Are there any brands that come to mind as forerunners in this area?
HS> It just doesn’t make sense to invest in hollow messaging. You’ll see, probably too often, brands that spend an incredible amount of money on creative strategy, content, and media without first understanding whether it truly reflects who they are. When there’s a disconnect between identity and messaging, marketing efforts tend to fall flat. Even if there’s short-term success, once a campaign concludes there’s usually no long-term value that results from the investment without identity-messaging alignment.
Connecting culture, operations, products and services with marketing is important, now more than ever, because it helps increase the longevity of marketing investment in an attention economy ruled by fleeting relevancy. Unilever, Zappos, REI and Southwest Airlines are all come to mind in this area.
Q> What tips would you give to marketers to create campaigns that truly humanize their brand?
HS> If a brand wants to be more human, it has to start before campaign ideation.
A. Be honest about who you are: Define what your organization stands for and how that brings value beyond a transactional context:
Less “we’re the best/cheapest product in our category” or “we provide the best service in our category,”
“we help solve problems for people by tangibly facilitating a benefit that exists beyond their transaction with us.”
B. Prove it: Actually reflect what you stand for with behavior vs. just creating messaging that talks about it.
C. Don’t inconvenience people: Connect with your audience when they actually want to, in ways that will enrich their lives. Part of creating a campaign that humanizes your brand is steering away from interruption and towards enhancement. Create content that adds to the context of where your audience is giving their attention, rather than something that dilutes their experience.
D. Lead the way: Don’t over-index on what you *think* your audience wants based on their digital behavior. Reacting to engagement data is crucial, but if you let that shift your identity and dictate strategy 100%, you’ll end up without any clear differentiation from competitors.
Q> In what ways does New Honor Society differ from traditional advertising agencies and how has this shaped your office culture and way of thinking?
HS> ‘Less sell, more soul’ is more than our approach to client marketing challenges, it’s our internal yardstick too. It informs how we show up and how we behave, individually and collectively. New hires often reference it as the reason they were attracted to New Honor Society.
We are still very focused on client business success and our agency success, but we’ve proven that there is a way to get there that we can all feel good about.
Q> What are some of the most interesting campaigns you’ve had the opportunity to work on?
HS> We’ll go with one of the most memorable and successful. It was for the FC2 Female Condom. We pursued all of the leadership in Veru Healthcare to get into the RFP. A female condom has so many marketing challenges! When the consumer’s first response to seeing it is a “gasp” you know it will be one of the toughest assignments you’ll ever have. We tackled all of the consumer objections, questions and curiosities head on with candid humor. As we created the content, we laughed until tears ran down our faces. It was one of the few times the clients wanted exactly what we created for the pitch. Even the pitch talent, our copywriter on the script, Amanda, who got down to her knickers for the part.
Q> Your mission as an agency is to elevate brands and help them stand for something. What does New Honor Society stand for?
HS> When you consider that the marketing industry exists to motivate people to make certain choices, think about how different the world might be if marketing wasn’t just leveraged to make a sale but to add value to people’s lives. Our point of view is that marketing can add value, that brands can and will change the world for the better and they will be even more successful for doing so.
Q> Where do you see New Honor Society in five years?
HS> Even more of what we’re doing today… That is helping brands be successful while they influence and change the world for the better.