Apr 21, 2020

Mike Benson reveals how his team is navigating a new normal for the marketing industry.

With social distancing guidelines keeping people at home nationwide, the glitzy red carpet premieres, large-scale events, and out-of-home (or OOH) ads that marketers typically use to promote TV shows and movies have evaporated.

“So much has been thrown out of the window in the past month,” says Mike Benson, president and chief marketing officer of CBS. “Our focus now is trying to figure out how to adapt to this new normal and find creative ways to solve problems we haven’t had to deal with before.”

It’s a major disruption for an industry that relies on physical displays and experiences to drum up awareness. For example, for the premiere of Star Trek: Picard, CBS All Access handed out branded MetroCards in New York City and rebranded Picadilly Circus to PICARDilly Circus in London. With such options no longer feasible, marketing teams must pivot to reach housebound viewers.

This is not as easy as it sounds. While TV viewership is way up, there are also more content choices than ever before, compounding the challenge of reaching viewers.

"Our focus now is trying to figure out how to adapt to this new normal and find creative ways to solve problems we haven’t had to deal with before."

Mike Benson

President and Chief Marketing Officer at CBS

This is a new puzzle, even for a seasoned marketer like Benson. Before joining ViacomCBS in September 2019, he served as head of marketing at Amazon Studios and Prime Video. During his time there, he led marketing efforts for original programming and oversaw the creation of several buzzed-about experiential marketing stunts that included: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel “Maisel Day” activation, where the studio partnered with local businesses in Los Angeles to offer 1959 prices from $40 hotel rooms to gas for 30¢ a gallon, and a Jack Ryan-themed live-action thrill ride for San Diego Comic-Con, where participants used VR backpacks and Oculus headsets to navigate through intense physical challenges while strapped into a harness.

We spoke to Benson to learn how he and his team develop and deliver full-fledged marketing campaigns from their homes, tap network talent to engage with fans, and find time to disconnect from work.


How has the CBS marketing strategy shifted since the coronavirus outbreak?

MB: All of our physical activations have gone away. Everything's been canceled or postponed indefinitely, because you obviously can't do a physical activation when large numbers of people can’t get together. But, a lot of the cool, buzzy, fun programs that we might have done out in the physical world around a show, we're now trying to do virtually. We’ve set up social media-driven watch parties around ACM Presents: Our Country and the special Prince tribute concert, Let's Go Crazy: The GRAMMY Salute To Prince that will air on Tuesday, April 21. They really make the programs feel like it's a bigger community event, and not simply another television special.

Our ratings are up on our linear network, but so is viewing across OTT platforms, so we're also looking across our entire slate and leaning into programming that has a deeper product offering online. For example, we’re developing a strategy to drive binge-watching for shows like Survivor and NCIS. So, if someone's watching Survivor on CBS, we’ll remind them that they can binge-watch all 40 seasons on CBS All Access. Additionally, we’ll help audiences escape through a host of classic Paramount movies on Sunday nights in May.


Understanding how our audience is feeling and behaving during this “stay-at-home” period is critical to generating additional interest in our program offerings across CBS. We’re continually looking for new ideas to engage our audiences, build our brand as a unifier, and adapt our marketing efforts to this new way of life.


Have you changed the way you work with talent?

MB: Our talent, in many ways, has become critical in reaching and engaging our fans. In PSA spots for #InThisTogether, through PR efforts, and of course, across social media, they’re saying to their fans: “Hey...You're stuck at home, so maybe enjoy a new episode of The Neighborhood with us.” In some instances, we will get a cast together on a Zoom call, and we record them talking about what they’ve been up to while in quarantine, then remind the viewers  that there’s a new episode premiering on Wednesday.  

We want people watching CBS to feel like they’re part of one big community that is alive and vibrant. Recently, Liz Hendrickson, an actress on Young & the Restless had a baby, so we had many of her castmates congratulate her through on-air promotion and social media channels. You might not have seen something like that from CBS, especially on-air, pre-COVID-19, but bringing our audiences closer to our talent is an important aspect of the community we are creating.

It’s been great to bring the talent into our marketing efforts and a majority have also all been involved in encouraging social distancing among our viewers, especially through the #InThisTogether and #AloneTogether PSA campaigns. We've had great responses both from the talent and from the audience members who've seen it. Some of our advertisers are joining in as well. And, we're doing it across entertainment, news, sports, and CBS All Access, so we feel like we're one family, one brand, rather than multiple, separate voices. It's almost been as much of a public service campaign as it is a brand campaign for CBS, because from a brand perspective, we have the ability to unify millions and millions of people around individual shows and CBS as a brand.



What’s been the biggest challenge with creating and launching marketing campaigns from home?

MB: There seems to be a lot more meetings. Face-to-face meetings are such an important part of what we do, so it’s a difficult adjustment even with platforms like Zoom. Plus, when we had to leave our technical facilities and get everyone working remotely, it physically slowed down our ability to produce and distribute assets. News was especially hard-hit when we had to shut down the CBS Broadcast Center. Most of our operational and technical systems are up and running at our facilities in NY and LA, so video editing, audio sweetening, color correcting—all of our operations had to be reconfigured so we could work remotely and still deliver a high-quality product. But, I have to say, we’re getting used to it and finding ways to streamline some of our workflows. 

"It’s extremely important that we keep our team members engaged, but also help them maintain a healthy work-life balance during this very stressful time."

Also, because everyone's working from home, there's been little-to-no downtime. Work and family are blending together for many of our team members, and I've been hearing stories about people working till 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. nearly every day. We’re finding ways to fix that.  Part of what we just did was give people the ability to disconnect by giving them permission to walk away from their email inbox or a meeting. People need to take care of themselves and disconnect from time to time. It’s extremely important that we keep our team members engaged, but also help them maintain a healthy work-life balance during this very stressful time.


How will the tactics you employ now affect your strategy in the future?

MB: We actually did a team survey a couple weeks ago, because we wanted to better understand how people are feeling about working from home and coping with this new normal. A lot of things came to light about what was actually working and what was not. We realized there may be too many meetings, too many people in meetings, or that we need completely different workflow processes that are more efficient. People were stressed and not getting much time for themselves.  Slack has become an important tool for us. We’ve set up a regular yoga class a couple times a week, just for our marketing team members and reminded them about some of the great programs ViacomCBS already has set up to improve their health and wellness. We're finding new ways to streamline communication and workflow, as we continue to “optimize the machine” for maximum creativity, efficiency, and far better communication.

Much of what is happening is a true forcing function to find new ways of working and engaging audiences in new and innovative ways. We’re also learning a lot about the way we work together as a team and how we can be better, together. While we’re all feeling challenged right now, the pandemic has forced us to think differently about and the way we operate and work together as a team. I think that’s a positive in a situation that's otherwise very difficult.  


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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