In this episode, we speak to William Agush, the founder and CEO of Adsonica, a software company that helps marketers add interactivity to standard ads with streaming audio. William is also a deep expert in branding, messaging, and positioning.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with William on several branding and messaging projects throughout the years, from simple campaign-level messaging all the way to renaming a public company (and the related messaging work). We discuss the different types of branding projects, along with some of William’s keys to success.
Learn more about William Agush
Learn more about Adsonica
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Learn more about Plannuh
Recommend a guest for The Next CMO podcast
Produced by PodForte
Kelsey: [00:00:00] Well, thank you so much for joining the next team podcast. Well, we're super excited to have you on the show would love to learn a little bit more about you and what you do at ads.
William: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me to this. So ad Sonica is the first display advertising platform that enables you to embed audio inside of traditional display advertising and shoot it out across the universe of discipline. In the past, you would have had to use something like Spotify or Pandora, one of the streaming platforms, but now you can put sound any place you can put advertise.
Peter: Well, w William and I have to use my full disclosure notice here that one William and I have known each other for, oh my God. Since the 1990s, probably early to mid 1990s. And in to, I serve as an advisor to ed Sonica. So I know how awesome it is, and it's a really cool [00:01:00] idea. And the reason I got engaged with what William was doing, he's, he's underselling sort of the concept here.
You tell the story about the picture of Zach and sort of what motivated at Sonica. I love the origin story for the company.
William: Yeah, well sometime back about 10 years I had finished up again. In a software company working for as I put it one psychotic CEO, too many, you know, I decided that I, I needed to do something different. And so I was cleaning out my office at home, trying to kind of get rid of some junk that I had and the very bottom of one of the boxes.
It was a little tiny black picture frame and it opened up and it was a picture of my son's. And, you know, at that time he was, you know, like three years old, right. And it was a little button mark play and I pushed the button and unbelievably this little tiny voice said, I love you, daddy. [00:02:00] And I immediately said, there's a product here.
What can I do with it? And so the idea behind that Sonica was actually born out of the, the ability to combine images and all that. Into a single file and transport it and should play it wherever we wanted to. And that actually formed the basis of a social network that we launched in 2012, 2013. But you know, the great advertising technology has kind of a humble, personal.
Peter: Well, it's it's, it's great. And amazingly, so you, back in the day, I I'm telling your backstory by the way. So don't, don't mind me. It was it was back at Polaroid, right? Where, where you worked and you were involved, I think, in the JPEG standard. And the reality is JPEG for those nerds, like me out there. may not understand that when it was defined, it actually can store multiple kinds of media, including audio and video. So you actually use a fully standard JPEG [00:03:00] format for storing the audio and in a patented way. And that's the way that Sonica works. Is that right?
William: Yup. Yup, absolutely. You know, and, and it even goes back further than that is I, when I was at Rochester Institute of technology getting a degree in photographic engineering, my, my specialty. Or my interest was in photo intelligence and the ability to embed at the time images into images, which is a little harder to do when you're talking about chemistry and silver than it is pixels.
And, and the like, so, you know, I've been, I've been around embedding images, you know back into, you know, the seventies.
Peter: Well, and believe it or not, we're actually going to talk about branding too, because the, the other funny parallel that that William and I have in, in our past is we've worked collaboratively on a bunch of different brands. Projects. And so now I, I worked with William at a company called PictureTel in the 1990s that spun off [00:04:00] poly-com and then poly-com ended up buying PictureTel and then Polycomm became poly.
And then Polly was acquired by HP. I think if I got that all right. And so a complicated set of things, but we worked together back way back then. And, and I brought William in because. Viewed him as one of the smartest messaging and branding people that I worked with and I was dealing with a particularly gnarly problem in the problem was I was working for this company called scan. and scan soft was the company that ultimately became nuance where I worked and was the CMO for many years. But it was a spinoff of Xerox and it had a terrible name for, for a company. And the, the message of the company. Was really focused on sort of its legacy. In fact, I remember, do you remember what the, what the tagline was?
William? It was productivity without boundaries and,
William: a memorable.
Peter: I was a member one [00:05:00] and we had acquired a bunch of companies. We had a very engaged kind of executive team and William came in to help me herd all those cats and get alignment behind a message which ultimately became. The experience speaks for itself which was really about the kind of customer experiences that you could deliver with speech, which I thought it was a really clever solution, but the best part about it was the fact that he took a bunch of.
Bickering executives who couldn't agree on anything. And we worked through this process and got really amazing alignment and we ended up rolling this out as we renamed the company back in, I think, 2006 at the time we renamed it nuance. So all that backstory and we worked on other projects since then.
I, I wanted to chat a little bit with you, William, about. Cause one of the most popular topics on our, the next email community is an example is about branding. How do you do a rebrand? What is a rebrand, et cetera. [00:06:00] So maybe to start, why don't you set the table in and talk about the different kinds of branding projects that exist in the world so that we're talking about the same kind of.
William: Right, right. Well, there are, I mean, there really are a couple of different ways that people think about branding. I mean, first and foremost, you know, branding is position. And, you know, Al Reese is one of the pioneers in positioning said to me, back in the, in the eighties, you can't brand, but you can't position.
And so more often than not most branding projects, so really positioning projects. And, you know, the branding part of it is the expression of positioning in a, in a way that entices customers potentially to come and buy it. So, you know, I would say that probably 70% of the projects that I've ever worked on that are quote branding projects [00:07:00] are really positioning projects.
And then of the ones that aren't positioning projects, half of them are really visual branding exercises. And the last little bit are really about defining, you know, company personality and personas and all that. So. You know, you really kind of have to get what your terminology is from the get-go. I mean, if you tell somebody I'm doing a branding project, you know, what you really have to tell them is, you know, are you focused on getting a number one, getting messaging that get your messaging house in order?
Are you trying to get your visual branding in order? Are you trying to, you know, take a whole bunch of disparate company elements, maybe acquisitions, et cetera, and try and bring them into some of. Brand framework. And those really are the three that, that I see most of the time, you know, but going back to what you said a minute ago, Peter, is that, you know, why branding projects either [00:08:00] succeed or fail are almost always about the people that you have to get on board.
And, and I probably spend 50 to 60% of my initial time in. Just trying to figure out who the allies are, who are the problem who are going to be the problems, you know, what's somebody's agenda and try and figure a strategy for how I make everyone in the room. Think that they were the genius behind the solution. You know, I would actually like people to forget that I worked on the project and have them all kind of come together. And that's really in, that's really the sort of common success factor in things that worked on. the, and the other thing is you got to get right up front commitment from the CEO and commitment for the money that it's going to cost.
Peter: So it's interesting William, because I look at the projects that you and I worked together on, and you did have this amazing way [00:09:00] of helping all of the protagonists. Have the ability to see their fingerprints in the project. And I think that's incredibly important and not just of course, for the, the ego work that you have to do to manage their, their own issues. But more than that, that they, they typically are in the room because they have a point of view that is important to be represented. And, and I can think back to some of the projects that we had and it was really important to make sure that that all of the constituents, whether it's a a division.
Leader, whether it's a sales leader, a marketing leader, a CEO, the CFO, everyone really has to buy in and understand and feel like they were heard in the process because they do have an important voice. And they're an important element of how you express that. Brand message in that positioning going further.
So what, one question, because [00:10:00] that wasn't a question, it was a speech. So one, one question I'll ask you William, to help people understand is help us understand the difference between branding and naming.
William: Okay, well, in a branding exercise, you're taking all the existing elements that accum that the company has its name, its subsidiary nomenclature, et cetera, leaving that in place and making those, those naming elements. In an existing framework, whereas a classic naming project you're really basically say, we're already, we're already moving beyond the name that we have.
It's not, it doesn't really tell the story of who we are. It doesn't explain our category leadership in a way that we want. And so from the get-go, you're going to, you're basically going to wipe out the, the way the company is talked about in the message and name that you're using. And I have to say. That can be an incredibly emotional experience for a lot of people in the room, because you know, there are [00:11:00] founders, there are, you know, there are long-term employees or people that, you know, really come to love the name that the company has.
And so again, you're always faced in the beginning with how do you, how do you see everybody's grief in the knee, in a naming project?
Kelsey: so William, I have a question on the timing. When do you think that a brand should look at rebranding? I've heard the timeline of, you know, 18 months, 24 months. Is there that specific marketing plan timeline you should follow or. Is it a trend that you start to see to try and get ahead of it?
William: well, you know, I think that you start to see clues. From people like the sales team where people like the product management team that are telling, you know, feeding back, you know, people just aren't getting our story or people, you know, people are don't see us as being a, a leader anymore. That's just like the distant early warning that you got to do something.
But in [00:12:00] general, you know, having been around long enough, I've actually seen companies go through three branding cycles in my lifetime. About every decade is really what I've seen. And, and if you haven't done a branding exercise in inside of 10 years, it it's worth doing it just simply from a sort of proactive, prescriptive stance.
Peter: Yeah. really in my mind, there are a couple of things that are. Significantly determinant in the decision here. One is the pace of change. And in two is if there's some kind of strategic change and in some cases you've just grown really fast and changing in general, but you often get to this point where there there's a strategic change.
Theoretically over a long period of time, as you get to be a more meaningful company, those changes start to stretch out over a period of time. And, and a decade for a big company is probably the right pace to do something significant because [00:13:00] for a big company that the cost is quite significant to, to roll out even relatively modest changes in, in positioning.
I know in the times that we work together, William, I actually applauded. At one point and it was every four years, we did a major repositioning of the company. And we did that because it, the company where we work together most recently at nuance, the company was highly acquisitive. We did over a hundred acquisitions during the 13 years I was there and we did. Rebranding exercises over those that 13 year, your period in some of that is because the strategy completely evolved to the point where it, the messaging doesn't wasn't Right. So let me give you a really concrete example. So as I mentioned before, The company had originally spun out of Xerox. It was a scanning and OCR company, and that's why it was focused on sort of productivity tools.
So [00:14:00] productivity without boundaries was probably a good message for the company. When it, when it was a Xerox element, then they started creating, really investing in speech systems for customer. Oriented applications. And when that became a meaningful part of the company, all of a sudden the productivity message didn't work, it was really about the experience speaks for itself.
And then a few years later, the company evolved beyond just customer service. And it was really about what we thought of as intelligence systems in the idea of creating voice assistance and sort of interactive intelligence and in, in that message evolve to this third era, which was Re-inventing the relationship between people and technology.
And, and that was about sort of talking about how technology could be inclusive in, in in empowering and, and helpful and sort of this idea of an ambient intelligence. So there were three major strategy [00:15:00] changes that went on in the organization. So now go ahead. I'm sorry.
William: Yeah. And, and you're absolutely right. I mean, I would, if I look back over the last couple of years, I'd say they're probably a third of the projects that are worked on are a consequence of roll-ups or other forms of M and a activity. Very often bringing together, you know, two or three or four small companies to roll up into something more meaningful.
And those become even more challenging because then often they're all have founder's attached. And, and in the process of negotiating the merger, the CEO always says, don't worry. You can keep your brand. You can, you know, you can still, you can still operate with your logo, you know, the dinosaur logo or whatever you have.
And, you know, you instantaneously wind up with conflict and, and just getting, getting everybody to the table and getting those, those brands rationalizes, you know the holy grail.
Peter: Yeah, we've seen that movie before. Haven't we? William?[00:16:00] I feel like were you talking specifically about me or have you seen this more than just in my interactions with you, William?
William: I, I, I see it, lots of places. I mean, you know and, and most, I mean, just example just recently, I had to come somehow get a company involved in surveillance, surveilling employees. And some form of customer service around that surveillance into one company. And, you know, first you have to get by the fact that you thought that the surveillance thing was kind of weird, but, you know, so yeah, it it's, it it's.
Peter: So talk to us a little bit about about we, we know there's been a strategic change or time has gone by, and it's time to consider a project. Talk a little bit about. Flesh out what, what a project would feel like to a marketing leader. And let's just [00:17:00] assume it's kind of just to make it easier.
We're talking about maybe a mid-sized company, maybe a couple of hundred million dollars in revenue. And you've, you've gone through some strategic change and it's time to start. So who's involved. Inside the company. Do I go get a big branding agency? Do I work with a consultant? So help us walk through what that project feels like in a general timeline.
William: Yeah, absolutely. So, I mean, look, let's say for the sake of argument, you've already, you've already made the decision that branding is something that is strategically crucial to the success of the company over the next period of time. And that you have now been given the, given the honors of going forth and trying to meet.
Brand real. So the first thing that you know, you have to do, and this is before you hire a consultant, before you hire an agency, you should need to inventory the extent of what it is that you want to do. [00:18:00] I mean, is it involved, renaming? Is it a visual identity, you know are there particular units that need to be elevated in the.
And in the sort of portfolio of companies. And the fact is you have to be in a position to write an RFP. Even if that RFP is, is you're going to execute against it yourself, you need a structure in which to do this. And really, you know, a branding project has, you know, four or five steps. And the first step is what I just talked about, you know, figuring out what you need to do second, finding your allies and finding your detractors.
Do that before you, you know, you get an, anybody, an expert on board, cause you're going to want to be able to tell them, you know, what the story is. Then you need to make a decision. Is do you know who you want to be your trusted advisor on this? And you can either do it with an independent consultant know or you can do with the branding agency.
But remember at the end of the day, do you want somebody who's [00:19:00] just going to carry the ball for you? Or do you want somebody that's got. Do everything for you and you are going to be kind of off to the side because it just, isn't a big branding agency on the planet. That's going to allow you to be sort of run the project inside of their organization.
Cause that's just not how agencies work. So once you make the decision, you know that I'm ready to go and, and talk to an agency or talk to an independent consultant, make sure you have all your stuff in order. And then. Just remember something that I tell clients is you're only as good as your last branding project.
So when somebody comes in and shows, you know, 25 years of, of, you know, name, brand work, it's that doesn't matter. It's like, what did they do last month? You know, because that's a much better picture in time as to what they're doing. So, you know, I'm telling people about what I did, you know, a month. You know, even though I can, you know, I could talk about Peter and our [00:20:00] relationship all afternoon and impress people with the fact that I, you know, had a ten-year client and nuance, but that's like, that's like old history already.
New history is, you know, working for a company that's involved in some, maybe some technology that's important in the current marketplace. So, you know, again, You know, look, look at, look at somebody who's doing work in an area that you are particularly interested in. Then, you know, then once you get them on board, I find that there are just basically four steps to the process.
Step one. And, and this is the, this is the one where I, you know, nobody ever told me to do this, but I done it a hundred percent of the time is I use this product called the acre brand personality scale. And the acre brand personality scales is 52 words that can describe every brand on the planet. And I administered the scale to everybody in the company.
And the reason I do that is [00:21:00] not because it provides necessarily any brilliant insight into branding, but it gives everybody an opportunity to be part of it. And everyone will always remember. That they were involved in this kind of crazy little exercise at the beginning. And sometimes they can see themselves in the, in the solution.
So that lightens, that sort of lightens up the company, but what's going on because you know what, the worst thing you can do is not tell the rest of the company what you're doing, because if they, if they only see it at the end, that's a guaranteed recipe for some kind of problem. And you know, then from there.
What you need to do is you need to do a deep dive into what everybody who's important in the company is thinking, and that might be PR you know, product managers. It might be the COO. It might be the CEO. It might be the head of international marketing, whatever, whatever 10, 20, 30 people really are, the kind of movers and shakers in your organization.
Those people become the [00:22:00] key input into the process of rebranding a branding. And that's the thing that I, I enjoy personally the most, because out of that often comes, you know, some really clear direction, which in day to day kind of interactions never get surfaced because people are like, you know what, there are other things going on here.
It's done confidentially. I don't ever disclose who it is that I heard something from, but it really helps set the platform for where branding can go from there, you know? And then. I go away if it's me or an agency would go away. And for probably a couple of weeks does nothing, but just sort of look at the information and say, what do we see here?
What's the opportunity, you know, what's the thing they haven't even thought of. And then I come back to the company and over a two to three hour period, walk them through the complete sort of mirror of who they are, what they are, what their [00:23:00] personality is. A straw man positioning. And, you know, that's usually the most interesting two hours of a project. And from there either get the green light to move forward, or the CEO gets up and walks out of the room and you know, that your time in that company is over. But but that, you know, then, then it becomes an implementation challenge and this is where most CMOs. plan for is once you have a positioning and a messaging, you've got to introduce it.
And you got to introduce it to the company before you introduce it to the press. And more often than not, you know, by the time you get to that point, people haven't really put any energy into it. So they're like, oh, do we give people t-shirts do we give people bugs? Do we, you know, do we, do we have a big lunch party?
And. Know, I often say the most important part of a [00:24:00] branding project is how you introduce it. Not necessarily how you get to the solution. And if you follow those steps and the agency follows him, you know, you should be, you should wind up with a great result.
Peter: So William talk about the role of an external. Data in and feedback into the process, whether it's customers, partners et cetera, because we talked a little bit about the instrument, internal constituents. How do you, how do you think about the external world?
William: Yeah. I mean, it's, it's, you know, again, it depends on the organization depends on the product, but every, every, you know, 25 people you talk to on the inside, you got to talk to 25 people on the outside because the one thing the outside gives you that the inside doesn't is when you talk to people on the outside, you talk, you can often talk to people who didn't buy you. Or who didn't like the service or has some issue with the company and that those rejectors become a really critical part of understanding what, what the limits of positioning opportunity is [00:25:00] there and what, what the boundaries of the brand. So when I, when I talk about that sort of deep dive, I mean, it could be composed of insight outside.
It can very often. I try and talk to, you know, an analyst, if there's an analyst that was willing to give, you know, 15 or 20 minutes to a conversation about, about the company. Absolutely. I've talked to, I've talked to investors. No, talk to customers. I mean, it's interesting in this project I was doing in LA.
I was talking to parents about, you know, about putting their kids in a car and driving them with somebody else, driving them to school and what, you know, what anxiety provoked provoking that way.
Peter: Yeah. It's, it's amazing what you can get from casting a broad net. Of course, it can be a little bit, a little bit difficult. So how, how do you then parse that feedback and say that, you know, internally you have a. Maybe a more coherent view into your strategy and [00:26:00] where you're headed and what you want to be externally.
They may have a more sort of a more raw, honest view of how they've experienced the company. So how, how do you factor those in to the solution?
William: It's a little bit of magic, I guess. But you know, the one thing that customers and people on the outside give you is they, they give you what the result of your efforts are. And if you, you know, companies often think they're doing really well in some areas, They've discovered that that isn't the case when they hit, when we get external feedback, but you know, it, it really just becomes what becomes a matter of like stitching the story together, you know, you know, what are all the story elements that you hear from all these different people?
And if, and if it's work, if it's worked out right, you should have one kind of useful piece of information from every single person that you interview. And then I go and I put them all on the wall [00:27:00] and I start to try. Matt mix and match things and try and get them together. And eventually like a story emerges.
You know, when you talked about the meaningful interaction between people and their technology, I mean, that was just, it just sort of came out of the way people were talking about it. They just weren't using those terms.
Peter: Yeah, So give us some, some scale for for the kind of projects that that people think about. How long does this take? How long should you budget? How much money should you budget for a project? That's probably a super difficult answer. But I, you know, I'd like to give you the challenging thing. So.
Peter: way to think about a time in money for, for projects like this and how you might frame.
William: If it's a, if what we're talking about is a startup that has a, you know, already has a product they're ready to go to the market. You know, a branding exercise is a two or three week project in a company of [00:28:00] that size. Cause you, you probably have everybody in the room and you can go and spend, you know, days at a time there, you know, and, and that's, that's sort of the kind of startup thing you get into the sort of middle-sized company.
That have both us and European operations. And you want to include that that's, that's closer to four to five months. And then when you get to the really large organizations that, you know, you have just the interviews alone or a two month project, you know, that's when he's looking at a, you know, six, nine months to a year, but the typical company should be able to get through a branding exercise every, you know, in, you know, no more than two and two and a half. Now money, of course is like, you know, the impossible question, you know, people ask me, so what does it cost? And I say, well, it kind of is what you want to spend and, you know, and what the potential assistant is willing to take from you, you know, because at the end of the day, it's just time, [00:29:00] you know, it's time and people.
And so, you know, if you have, you know, one person working for three months, that's. It's 50, $60,000. If you have 10 people working for six months, it's $600,000. So it really just depends on the, on the site, but having, you know, all joking aside, you have to know what you're prepared to spend in the beginning, because if you can't cook, you can't usually go back for more.
So if you know, if you, if you, if you've budgeted $50,000, then tell your, tell your. Tell you a potential partner. That's what I've got. And they will just he'll design a project with picture that,
Kelsey: William, what, what can you do to limit the amount of resistance that you get with some sort of branding project or rebrand? I know a lot of, you know, in a corporation there's people that are resistant to change. So how can you overcome.
William: Usually it's just spindles a fair bit of time [00:30:00] with them to try to try and, you know, try and understand where their resistance is coming from. I mean, you know, I often say that part of my job as, you know, amateur psychologists. You know, you know, trying to get people like, you know, what's really bothering them and it turns out maybe it was a project that they didn't get funded, that they were really counting on.
Or maybe, you know, maybe somebody give a got promoted that they didn't think should. It's always something like that. You know, it's, you know, that guy, Peter he's always hogging the spotlight, you know? And I go, it's just the way he is, you know, and, and, you know,
Kelsey: the podcast.
William: And, you know, the thing is you do have to spend a fair bit of time kind of empathizing with people.
I mean, and that's why, as I said, is you psychiatry part of this whole project.
Peter: Yeah. there it is therapy, I think at some level. And in, you certainly need that in coaching. I think that one of the things I, I know you always brought to the table, [00:31:00] William was coaching me through the process and you, you had this unique. Way, I assume you still have. But had, when I worked with the last on a project of understanding the perspectives of all the constituents bringing it to me as the person who was ultimately on the hook to deliver the right solution in a way that was.
Non-threatening to the people who provided the feedback, sometimes confidential, where the feedback came from as an example, but really help navigate that, that process because sometimes people are a little afraid to say what they really think to someone internally. Especially if it's someone who maybe a click or two down in the organization of.
I'm saying something to an executive and sometimes that feedback's incredibly important and it gets you a better solution. So that, that makes a lot of sense. And I can attest to the fact that the you know, from a size perspective, so I've, I've done New in rebrand projects at every one of those points on [00:32:00] the scale from early startups for, you know, tens of thousands of dollars to mid-size projects for hundreds of thousands of dollars to, I did one big one that was well into the seven figures at, at a big company with a lot of people involved.
And and that didn't even include the, the actual implemented. Side of the project that was really just getting to the answer. The reality is when you're in a multi-billion dollar company, it may cost many millions, if not tens of millions to, to implement all those changes across your marketing physical and digital places.
And we had offices and things like that to get to. So it can be a big, a big thing. Well, but believe it or not, William, we're having. Closing in on the end of our time. And before Kelsey gets to her last question I just wanted to make sure I, I gave a shout out to you. I always, if people are considering a branding project definitely give William a call.
We'll make sure we link to his background. [00:33:00] I, I O is. Try to tap into his Sage advice whenever I'm approaching a project like this really have any scales. So I can't speak highly enough of my interactions with William over the last several decades that we work together. And with that, I'll hand it over to Kelsey to ask our last question.
Kelsey: yes. William, what advice would you give to those that are CMOs or aspiring to be one
William: On anything. Well, you know, having, having been one, you know, for half of my career, you know, CMO has a real great opportunity to be in the middle of every piece of important action in a company. And you should make yourself, you should insert yourself in every meeting, every conversation, every. Customer visit that you possibly can because there's really no other person in the company other than the CEO, at least in my view, that should, that has as broad as strategic [00:34:00] view and ability to influence the company's direction that a C. Thank you so much.
Kelsey: Well, great advice. Will, thank you so much for your time today, William, make sure to follow the next Simo and plan out on Twitter and LinkedIn. And if you have any ideas for topics or guests, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a great day, everyone. Thank you.