Wendi Leggitt (B.A. Advertising, ’07) is the director of DKC Connect, the digital division of DKC, one of the nation’s top 10 independent public relations firms with seven offices coast to coast. Leggitt leads the digital practice, overseeing the development of online strategies and social media campaigns for some of the nation’s most recognizable brands including New Balance, Bazooka Candy Brands, and Paradisus Resorts, a subsidiary of Meliá Hotels International. Under her leadership, digital revenue increased by over 128 percent and the division’s client roster has grown to include work with brands such as QVC, Match.com, The Plaza Hotel and filmmaker Ken Burns. DKC’s digital campaigns have been featured in prominent media outlets and trade publications such as Fast Company, PR News, The Holmes Report, ABC News, USA Today and The New York Times.
Leggitt recently took time out of her busy schedule to talk to us about her career and the impact of her SMU education.
What made you decide to major in advertising?
Growing up, I loved art and everything related to it – creating it, observing it, discovering it – and I pursued painting and other artistic hobbies inside and outside of the classroom. Prior to college, I became more interested in advertising as a visual medium, and as I saw it, advertising was art. The idea of bridging the visual aspects of advertising with creative storytelling through copy, humor, and nuances really appealed to me, so in my search for colleges I paid particular attention to those with attractive advertising programs. That brought me to SMU and Temerlin Advertising Institute – one of the most respected and innovative institutional advertising programs across the country. I remember in one of my first advertising classes, taught by former Professor Bill Ford, we analyzed award-winning television commercials from around the world, and I was entranced. I knew I was in the right place.
Tell us about your career path after graduation.
After graduation I decided to pursue a career in public relations. While I hadn’t forgotten about my love of advertising, I was just as curious about the PR industry. Over the course of my studies in advertising and copywriting I discovered a great interest in writing, research and communications, and as a result I decided to give PR a shot. I hadn’t received much exposure to PR before graduation, but I knew there was cross-over between the two sectors. I also knew I wanted to go to New York City at some point, and as the universe would have it, that’s where I landed my first job.
In New York I began working at a public affairs agency, first assisting with research and the polling arm of the business, and then transitioning to media relations. I had a blast, and led the media relations efforts for a number of public affairs campaigns in New York City and New York State at an early point in my career. Many of the campaigns were centered on high-level issues such as state budget cuts or crises that needed fast-action communications support. There was a lot of responsibility to get up to speed quickly on a number of topics and legislative issues and communicate clients’ messages compellingly to some of the top media outlets in the word.
It was tough, but it taught me a lot very quickly, and I had fun doing it. In tandem with my growing experiences in media, social media began to increasingly gain the attention of businesses, brands, organizations and political groups. First, everyone was talking about Facebook, and then Twitter made its debut into what was dubbed “new media.” Brands were only beginning to understand the opportunities presented by these platforms.
As one of the younger employees in my office, co-workers and clients with decades more experience were coming to me first with their questions about social media. I recognized that I was becoming the resident “expert” and saw this as an opportunity to add a new dimension to my career. I attended all of the relevant workshops and seminars I could find to figure out how to leverage social media for the business landscape. As I was becoming “self-taught,” I informed the partners of the agency about the steps I was taking to pursue this new area of expertise – one that could benefit clients and the business at-large – and I was soon asked by one of the agency’s founders to build a digital practice out of the firm’s Washington, D.C. office. It was a great experience and I immersed myself in digital strategy, tactics and tools with a focus on the issue advocacy and political sectors. After I spent some time in D.C. launching and heading up the agency’s social media practice, New York began tugging at my heartstrings (as New York often does to City expats) and I knew I had to go back. I was offered an opportunity to join the digital division of DKC, headquartered in New York, and within a few months I was promoted to run the division.
At DKC I have had the most incredible learning experience working predominantly in the consumer brand sector. A benefit to working with brands in a more traditional public relations setting is not only the access to some of the most innovative thinkers in business, but the opportunity to drive creative strategies that go back to the roots of what I loved most about advertising – bridge-building with visual content and storytelling to communicate messages and facilitate actions by target audiences. In addition to that, I have been fortunate to work with forward-thinking, supportive colleagues who are truly the best in the business. Not only does DKC boast some of the most talented, hardest working PR professionals in the industry, but at the crux of the agency are great people who not only care about clients and their business objectives, but have a deep interest in doing good for other people. That is a rare quality and it is the ethos of DKC.
DKC Connect manages the social media presences of brands with a wide range of audiences (e.g., Bazooka Candy Brands, The Plaza Hotel). In order to reach these different audiences, how do you learn about them? What methods do you use to find out what they are thinking?
The client is a great starting point. As the brand expert, the client has the best foundational knowledge of the product and the consumer. From there, it’s important to go to the online platforms where the consumer community resides to listen to what they are saying and absorb the nuances that may help refine or improve brand messages and awareness. Often there are unexpected opportunities that come to the surface, like influencers on Twitter who are sharing positive content and messages about a brand with their followers and in turn have become organic social media ambassadors. Online listening tools and social media analytics are also key to assessing what consumers are saying and developing a deeper understanding of their thought process, interests, online interactions and other important factors such as demographics. Social media is a very data-driven medium, and a scientific approach through the use of data, combined with compelling creative to communicate messages, is what translates to success.
How do you gauge whether your messages are getting the intended results?
One of the great benefits of social media is transparency. Due to the visible and real-time effectiveness of communications through social media platforms, marketers can quickly assess whether the intended audiences are receptive to their efforts through an assessment of engagement with those messages. For example, if your goal is to target influencers on Twitter with a particular brand message, and those influencers begin retweeting your brand’s content or mentioning the brand in their content, you are heading in the right direction, and hopefully as a result, the brand is receiving more awareness, interaction or sales.
Regarding marketing message “vehicles” (print, TV, social media, live events, etc.), how important is social media? How big is the social media piece of pie in the marketing mix?
Social media is a very important part of the marketing mix, particularly now that it has become much more integrated with other marketing vehicles such as TV, live events and print advertising, making it all the more impactful in brand communications. The ability to engage directly with a target audience is very powerful, and through social media you are empowering target audiences to be the message vehicles themselves. When you give consumers the “keys,” you are naturally carving out a bigger piece of the marketing plan for social media as a by-product of their engagement. This engagement may vary from brand to brand, but social media is unique in that it can be a stand-alone vehicle, or support other aspects of a marketing plan, making it very important to the bigger picture.
What advice can you offer current students about using social media to further campaigns, causes or corporate messages?
Social media is a powerful force in communications that offers an opportunity to deliver a message with more impact. In describing the relevance of social media to traditional media, a Facebook post, tweet or Instagram picture can now bear the same weight of a press release. However, in distributing messages through social media, millions of people can be reached and driven to action instantaneously with one compelling photo, video or short piece of text. For students thinking about a career in digital communications or social media, it’s important to have a thorough understanding of the online platforms, but it’s also important to have a well-rounded approach. This includes knowing the business of your client, your agency, PR, advertising, media, branding, etc. You’ll need to understand what makes people tick online and offline, how to craft an effective message, and how to optimize a strategy. A broader skill set and know-how will help develop and inform a specialization in one area or another, especially in the realm of digital media.
What were the most important skills you learned at Temerlin that have helped you in your career?
Temerlin helped me develop the ability to think strategically, which shapes approaches to business endeavors and even situations outside of my work-life. The creative thinking exercises practiced in advertising classes provided valuable skills that altered my thought process, allowing me to tap into new ideas and explore the possibilities of paths less traveled for clients. For example, the word association exercises and use of images that represent a target audience or company to define messaging and branding are tools that have been beneficial as part of the creative thinking process. The symbolism in the endless possibilities behind creative thinking is very compelling.
Tenacity was another skill I acquired as a Temerlin student. When you work in a creative field, there are many possibilities for an outcome and you often have less real estate to communicate a message (i.e. a tagline, tweet, online ad, or 30-second video), so it can be challenging coming up with the right approach that sticks. This means you have to try and try again. It also has helped with going out and grabbing opportunities proactively. As a wise fortune cookie once told me, “Great minds must be ready not only to take opportunities, but to make them.”
What top three pieces of advice would you give to current students about preparing for a career in communications, marketing, advertising or public relations?
Be open-minded, be prepared to work (and work hard), and listen to what’s going on around you – at work, in the media, online – because a lot of creative ideas come from observation, and the best creative ideas are those that capture the essence of an intersection of things, which requires thought, patience and persistence.
What are some of the campaigns you’ve worked on that you are most proud of, and why?
Some of the best campaign moments have centered on revealing a message, insight or experience behind a brand that may have otherwise been lost or forgotten. It can be difficult to change a perception of a brand in the minds of consumers who have already established a relationship with and opinion of a product or company. For example, we have worked with historical properties that were looking for a “refresh” of their perception to re-energize their identity and attract new audiences, while maintaining the historical roots and authenticity that make them unique. Changing perceptions requires a lot of thought, planning and navigating the existing brand landscape to see what opportunities exist that haven’t yet been explored. It also requires developing a deep understanding of consumers as well as their mindset to figure out what most interests them. The prep work that goes into this research, analysis and conceptualization can be tedious and time-consuming and is often unseen by the client, but when the prep leads to a campaign that transforms a brand perception and promotes new ideas that stick, that is a proud moment.
Are there any particular memories that you recall during your days as an SMU student that helped shape you and your career?
Absolutely. A defining moment from my time at SMU was creating taglines for one of my advertising classes. I was approaching a project deadline and felt that I didn’t have the idea that was my “light bulb moment,” so I spent all night writing tags, searching for words on thesaurus.com (which I still find helpful for inspiration), and staring at my computer screen. As an ad student I spent many all-nighters trying to come up with ideas, copy and clever advertising executions, and wouldn’t stop until I felt I had done my best. Although it was grueling, I think it established a good benchmark for my work and the time investment I was willing to make to do my best. Entering the workforce in New York following graduation required a lot of grit, so the “real world” late nights at the office didn’t seem as bad as they may have otherwise. Granted I didn’t have Pluckers wings or Jack in the Box burgers to keep me going, but I did have access to great bagels at any time of day, and some really good Belgian fries.
Were there any professors who made a lasting impact on you? If so, can you describe that for us?
Professors Bill Ford and Bill Galyean had a tremendous impact on me while I was studying at Temerlin. First and foremost, they were encouraging and supportive, and they invested a great deal of time and care into each of their students. I remember feeling special and empowered while taking their classes, but looking back I’m sure most students felt that way. They also loved the field of advertising, and that came through in their classes and teachings, which was inspiring to young dreamers like me. Their wisdom and support extended well beyond class, however, and I think it was through them that I recognized creativity doesn’t have to be limited to one career path or one area of work, but rather it’s the magic and energy behind the creative thinking process where one finds fulfillment, which can apply to anything in life.
What is your favorite part of the day, and why?
Definitely the morning. I enjoy time in the morning to think, get organized and set the tone of my day. This can be hard to accomplish, especially in a city that is non-stop like New York, but it does make an impact and I’ve found it provides more perspective in assessing what you need to do for a job well done.