Natalie Bokenham describes herself as a machine-gun thinker, talker and romper stomper. But that only scratches the surface.
Bokenham is a seasoned marketer, "excited to be in this industry at this transformative time." For the past year, she's been senior vice president and managing partner for digital at UM Worldwide, a global media agency. Before that, she was director of strategy at IPG Media Lab, a company that markets itself as a combination "think tank, real world proving ground and change enabler."
In her current role, Bokenham is responsible for digital expertise and innovation across agency disciplines, including data for insight and measurement, interactive storytelling and optimal digital integration across the media plan.
Her objective is to build strategic relationships with media partners to drive long-term growth for UM clients. In fact, she was instrumental in cementing UM’s partnership with Facebook, which offers advantages such as exclusive access to new products and data integration for UM clients.
Think, Create, Innovate
Just this year, Bokenham was one of 30 people worldwide recognized as Innovators by The Internationalist, a global publication focused on advertising, marketing and media. Bokenham was honored for her “rare ability to rethink current notions of brand building, manage risk while working in the midst of fast change, while always keeping sight of the big idea.”
We were curious about her big ideas, and sat down with her recently to discuss them.
Sobel: You're British, grew up in Singapore and went to college at Oxford, where you said you learned critical thinking. Can you tell us about your early years and your journey from a modern language and lit major to advertising?
Bokenham: Living in lots of places has taught me to treat life like an adventure. When you’re on an adventure, your default mindset is to say yes. There is no set plan. You are led by your curiosity and the desire to explore.
Through analyzing literature and translating texts I learned how to extract and articulate meaning from the seemingly obscure. It’s taught me to have a questioning mind and to unearth the bigger issue. I apply this at work today: in the complex world of ad tech, what actually matters? What is it about social media specifically that makes it important to marketers?
Sobel: You've spent time at both UM (Universal McCann) and IPG (Interpublic Media Group, parent company of UM) in its media lab. Now you're focused on strategic thought leadership at UM. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Bokenham: At the media lab I was focused on the intersection of media and technology and what this meant for brands. I also helped media owners build new ad products that offered a valuable consumer experience and that brands would want to buy.
Now, as the UM digital lead, my mission is to identify big bets — the industry trends we believe will endure and lead to long-lasting value — and to organize around them. Aligning around big bets affects everything: who we choose to work with, how we structure ourselves internally, the tools we build, and how we speak to prospective partners. It’s a useful filter to help us stay focused on what matters in a space that is getting more and more cluttered by the minute.
Sobel: You once said, "As marketers, we have to find unique ways to get consumers to think in a certain way while at the same time be respectful and reasonable in the dialogue." Can you explain what you meant?
Bokenham: I meant that it is futile to hope to change how people behave. There is a lot of theory about the need to change habit. At the lab I saw hundreds of companies come and go and in the process developed a healthy cynicism for what works. I’m a keen believer that success lies in products and services that slot into the stream of people's lives — not distract from it.
Sobel: At UM your job is to look at different ways digital is being infused into everyday life including new tool sets, using data differently and coming up with new creative ideas. One of your initiatives is something in-house you call the "socially curious program." What is that?
Bokenham: The Socially Curious initiative started when one of my tasks was to increase our social IQ at UM and help build out our paid social practice. I realized that for all noise about social, I couldn’t find a satisfactory answer on the value of social media for brands. So we recruited our most curious minds from different disciplines in offices around the country. They paired up and spent months immersing themselves behind the walls of social media companies. The findings were enlightening and really helped us craft our vision around social. We are now acting out our vision through first-to-market tests, such as with the new Atlas ad server, which allows you to target Facebook users wherever they are on the web. This is game-changing stuff.
Sobel: You also write extensively about Facebook and you said you find it fascinating. Why are you so fascinated despite what has been said that it is an "aging population?" Isn't it important to also look at "the kids" (millennials) and where they are going with it?
Bokenham: I’ve been especially fascinated by what Facebook is up to since joining UM and helping to craft the UM/Facebook partnership. Facebook has been building up an empire of distinct mobile platforms each appealing to distinct user behaviors. I think we’ll see an identity-based ecosystem in the background that connects people across Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp and so on. This is huge. Being able to link user identity and control the flow of messaging across platforms is marketing nirvana.
Sobel: Finally, your blog natlikethat.com, your various writings and presentations are awesome, such as the panel you were on entitled “Brave New Brand Stories: Technology & Branded Content Living Happily Ever After” at the New York Festivals Advertising Conference earlier this year. Can you share with our readers this whole notion of marrying technology and branded content to help deliver the message?
Bokenham: We are at an exciting time when we can leverage data to give us behavior-based insight into what kind of content will make an impact. UM Studios is our branded content division, and their tagline is “Stories that Spark.” Thanks to data from the digital distribution of content, we are getting really smart about what type of content will truly catch fire. We are going deep into development of data-driven content in our second year of partnership with BuzzFeed. Watch this space!