When he’s not dreaming up new ideas with his clients, Fred Bendaña can often be found serving on the advisory committee of St. Louis’ acclaimed children’s museum, The Magic House. Much like the children who gallivant through the house’s playgrounds, the man understands the value of an exciting, engaging experience.
At Creative Producers Group, a nationally recognized engagement and event management agency, Bendaña is tasked with creating such experiences across retail, hospitality, franchising, consumer products, and other people-intensive verticals. His 15+ years in the industry have shaped a marketer who values the human element that drives these engagements, especially within large businesses themselves.
To learn more about Bendaña’s approach and where he sees the industry progressing, we sat down with him and asked him a few questions.
To listen to the audio recording of our interview with Fred, click below:
I’ve always considered myself an entrepreneur. I started at a large corporation, Solutia/Monsanto, and was working in the marketing field there. After about seven years, I transitioned to Maritz, which is a large sales and marketing services company here in St. Louis. I worked in these large corporations and constantly pushing for more and to go faster. Two years ago, this leadership opportunity at CPG came up, and I was eager to take a step out of my comfort zone and work at a much smaller agency — albeit one that was approaching marketing in a different way.
One of the things that really intrigued me about Creative Producers Group is that we are creating live, branded experiences. When you immerse yourself, are very interactive, and can, in some cases, literally walk through experiences, you remember those things so much more. And I was like, “Wow, this could be very, very cool.”
"I was eager to take a step out of my comfort zone and work at a much smaller agency — albeit one that was approaching marketing in a different way."
The business I was a part of at Maritz focuses on employee motivation and incentive programs. Employee engagement has always been such a passion of mine.
I’ve often asked, “What if we developed employee programs utilizing the strategies that we deploy for consumers?” So I thought, “If our clients invest all this time and money on consumer marketing campaigns, I bet we could apply those marketing best practices to the development of meaningful employee engagement strategies.”
You’re right; we’ve been very blessed to work with a number of the top brands in the world. Reflecting on that question, one specific example that we’re very proud of is our work on behalf of a large financial services client that engaged us right after the financial recession. If you think about the state of event management during that time frame, you really wouldn’t think a bank would hire you to help them. In this case, we were brought in to support some of their struggling customers.
"You really wouldn’t think a bank would hire you to help them. In this case, we were brought in to support some of their struggling customers."
On our side, one of the things that was very cool was that we had a large financial institution call us and say: “Hey, it’s clear that many of our customers are defaulting on their loans. One of the things we want to do is develop an experience where, in a non-threatening way, we connect with them before that happens. We educate them, we train them, and we truly help them. By proactively engaging and working through options together, the experience thus serves as a preventive measure before those loans become faulty.”
That was back in 2009 and this will be our sixth year leading the “Road to Recovery” tour.
We feel our work is not only about good business, but also about improving lives. And we were really able to do that in this example and we’re still excited about it to this day. And the amount of return we’ve seen for this bank and for their customers has been amazing.
"We feel our work is not only about good business, but also about improving lives."
Our mantra is driving “Belief through Experience.”
Belief is such a powerful word. Think about it… “What do you believe in?” For our clients, we strive to drive believe in a certain message, a set of values, a mission statement, a business strategy, or even employees themselves. A lot of times, unpacking what that word “belief” means takes a lot of time. But if you really do it well, it can be very profound and impactful. In the earlier banking example, we drove belief for those people so they could keep their homes and keep their families intact.
"A lot of times, unpacking what that word 'belief' means takes a lot of time. But if you really do it well, it can be very profound and impactful."
One of the things that really sticks out to me is the desire and ability to access information and people unlike ever before. In the past, whether it was a brand, a thought leader, or certain experts it was a challenge to truly connect. Now, you can do so very quickly.
For instance, when Serena Williams loses at the US Open, you can literally tweet her and say, “Serena, I am so sorry you just lost.” And if she’s up for it, she may say, “Thank you for your feelings.” That’s crazy!
"In the past, whether it was a brand, a thought leader, or certain experts it was a challenge to truly connect. Now, you can do so very quickly."
Or if you’re a consumer and want to connect with one of the top executives at IKEA and say, “Wow, I’m so excited for your new store to open,” in the past, it was, “Gosh, how do I connect with them?” Now, we have all these tools and platforms that are there to provide not only access to people, but also access to invaluable information.
Now, because of everything that we have at our fingertips, the next phase is really “How do I sort through all that information?”
Our work focused primarily on internal stakeholders. Those internal stakeholders include employees, dealers, and franchisees.
It’s a slightly different focus when you’re communicating with people who are not necessarily your end-to-end consumer, but the person who may be impacting that end customer. To that end, when it comes to struggling to cut through that clutter, a lot of times, the initial challenge is that brands don’t truly know who they need to communicate with. And if they do know who they are, they don’t know what motivates them. Once you tackle those issues, you can now relevantly focus on the communication itself and begin the task of making your complex subject more easily digestible.
CPG implements its innovation solutions like Idea Kitchen and Leaders Lab to meaningfully engage internal stakeholders.
A lot of folks don’t know how to tell their story in a relatable way. When you condense a story that’s really complex and break it down into something simple and beautiful, it’s really powerful.
I think that’s how a lot of folks struggle to get through that noise. Thinking, “Maybe if I shout louder,” but that just creates more noise. “Maybe if I put more out there” — no, that’s even more noise! It’s really about peeling it all back and making your message as simple as possible. That’s where we do our magic.
It’s amazing to see the transformation and utilization of video. Video has always been a key medium for us. We’ve had clients recently come to us and say, “Can we build a 45-minute video?” Long-form video for us, now, is three to five minutes tops. And with Vine coming in to play, you can actually deliver an impactful story in seconds.
So, many times, our job is to take that complex, 45-minute story and condense it to a more snackable 30 – 60 seconds. Where is this going to go? Video will become our primary communication method. Look at what Google and Twitter are doing by shifting their algorithms to elevate messages with video. There’s already clearly a preference and a priority.
The thing that we’re also going to see is less highly produced video. You’re going to see more user-generated content. For example, Apple just released its new iPhone, which has a 12-megapixel camera. At the end of the day, we are all now professional photographers. You no longer need an entire video crew. What you do need are folks who can take that content and compile it in a meaningful way to tell that story with impact. Our team members can be teams of six but tell stories like we’re teams of 6,000.
Furthermore, it’s amazing to see the talent that’s on YouTube. Literally, there are 16-year-olds who have a powerful story to share that’s compelling, and overnight, they’ll have millions of followers. Those are the folks people want to hear from, as opposed to the traditional hiring of a celebrity or expert. Our B.S. meter is at highest-of-high levels. Because of that, very quickly, we say, “Yeah, I believe in that person. She’s like me. She’s been in my situation.”
I really wouldn’t position thought leadership as a service. It’s more of an approach and point of view.
It’s less of the “what” than the “why.” When we focus on that “why,” we’re incorporating thought leadership, best practices, and higher-level thinking into whatever solution we’re creating.
As an example, we often say it’s not about the chair in front of you; it’s the fit that the chair provides. This is a bit of a reframing exercise. And by reframing and bringing in different perspectives you gain insights and invaluable insights from all different angles.
That’s what our thought leadership approach is. We elevate the message, find a compelling way to do it, find different folks who you never would’ve expected to help, and share their story in a whole new way.
You’re absolutely right. I would challenge anybody who says you’re only a thought leader if you have a Ph.D. A lot of folks would say, “I’ve experienced something and I have a voice. I would love to have an opportunity to share my perspective.” For us, what we do is give folks different platforms and new vehicles to share that perspective.
One of our new relationships that we’re really proud of is Southwest Airlines.
As part of our approach with Southwest Airlines, we’re helping them take a step back and share their story across all of their employees, stations, and teams.
So one of the things we’re doing is asking, “What’s the journey that those employees are on?” and exploring the — again, going back to consumer marketing best practices — different touchpoints along those journeys.
Southwest Airlines CEO, Gary Kelly and other Southwest employees on stage a recent employee event.
Just like a consumer marketing campaign, we’re exploring “What are all the ways that we touch and interact with these employees? Let’s make sure it’s consistent. Let’s make sure it’s meaningful. Let’s make sure they have a voice. Let’s make sure they’re being heard.”
In the past, we may have said, “Let’s just execute events along that journey.” We’re now curating along the entire journey, making sure all the integration points are consistent, and utilizing digital tools to bring that story and that journey to life in a really powerful way.
"In the past, we may have said, 'Let’s just execute events along that journey.' We’re now curating along the entire journey."
How cool is that? They’re giving folks ownership. They’re giving them a voice and they’re hearing them. One of the things we advocate is that it’s not only about these specific moments of impact. For us, it’s about driving the ongoing movement.
And if we can sustain and drive that movement, the relationship that we form with our people is dramatically different.
"One of the things we advocate is that it’s not only about these specific moments of impact. For us, it’s about driving the ongoing movement."
We feel really privileged to be partners with incredible brands like Southwest. One of the things we look for, and immediately connect with, are brands that are showing up in a very genuine, human way. We want to connect with them. So across our portfolio of clients, that includes brands like Southwest, but also Panera and Virgin.
That’s one of the things we look for — those brands that are pushing the envelope but are also really looking to build meaningful connections with their people.
There’s so much out there. Literally, one of my favorite things to do is to cuddle up — and this is going to sound very nerdy — with my Fast Company magazine and read it from cover to cover. I seldom get the time to really just reflect on these stories.
I also make time to sink my teeth into a good book. A book that I recently read that I just loved was a really quick read that I’ll recommend to you guys: Matthew Kelly’s “The Dream Manager.” It’s all about asking the question that you very rarely ask your folks: “What’s your dream?” It sounds somewhat cheesy, but it’s just a great parable about asking that question and then saying, “Not only am I going to ask you, but then I’m also going to help you bring your dream to life.”
"It’s all about asking the question that you very rarely ask your folks: 'What’s your dream?' It sounds somewhat cheesy, but it’s just a great parable about asking that question."
For me, that’s the kind of stuff that attracts me — how to be a better leader, a better person.
You know what? You guys probably give John the same trouble that my team gives me. “Just relax,” they all say. And I reply with, “No, I really want to know what drives you”.
Here’s to John. John, we love you.
Make sure that shows up.