Ask Karen Spiegel to define a brand — and she'll tell you that it's only as good as its reputation and the people who work there.

Spiegel knows a lot about brands. She's been working in advertising, marketing and digital agencies for nearly two decades, in roles as diverse as creating public relations strategies for client engagements and large corporate events to overseeing social media, thought leadership and internal communications initiatives.

She said her experience has imbued her with a strong understanding of the role technology and digital media play, along with a global perspective. "Personally," she said, "I am passionate about the intersection of how design helps simplify complexity and technology magically expands what is possible."

Fascinating Times

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Until last June, Spiegel ran global communications for FCB (Foote, Cone & Belding) Global in New York City, one of the world's largest advertising agency networks.

Before that, she was SVP, Managing Director of Corporate Communications for R/GA in New York City. From 2001 to 2013, she oversaw the agency’s global communication strategy, breaking new ground by repositioning R/GA from a production house to a highly regarded full-service agency.

She said her career has spanned some of the industry's most fascinating times — and she sat down with CMSWire to talk about them.

Sobel: How did you end up as head of communications for one of the largest ad networks in the world?

Spiegel: In college I worked at one of the most innovative television stations in the country.

In the newsroom, there was an AP wire and each day I observed which stories the editorial staff chose to air.

As a practice, I would write a story for each one that appeared on the feed, hoping that one would see the light of day. I learned that the process and subsequent choices were part subjective and part based on what was entertaining and exciting.

Being in Philadelphia, the fourth largest market in the country, millions of people were being influenced by these decisions. The experience provided valuable insight into the process of gathering news and realizing that many interesting stories were untold. I still wonder about the choices made, although today there are many more media outlets.

Communication involves critical thinking and that was one skill that was enhanced during my legal training. I’m sure it is integral in many other fields, especially the sciences. I learned how to look at problems from many different angles and observe new situations with fresh eyes. It seems like second nature to me now, but having worked with others, I realize that this skill is not easily learned.

The one quality others value most about me is my innate curiosity. During law school I worked at NASA (Moffett Field in California) focusing on space law and intellectual property around changing technology.

The task was to figure out how code, essentially made up of “1’s” and “0’s” could be differentiated and positioned. Later I was part of the team that launched Murdoch magazine’s first electronic publishing product in the travel industry, basically a precursor to sites like Travelocity. We were inventing new ways to advertise using content and images.

All these experiences, working in TV, law and digital publishing, coalesced over the ensuing years. Advertising was a natural extension of communications. I stumbled upon digital marketing and advertising, serendipitously in the late '90s in New York.

Sobel: What made R/GA such a special place to work?

Spiegel: We created great work because the people were smart, independent thinkers, skilled at their craft and were given the freedom to experiment. When you gather a group of like-minded people together from disparate fields, including creatives, engineers, account executives, media, etc. marvelous things emerge.

Additionally many people stayed at R/GA because they had the chance to build something unique and special. It is unusual to have an organization that can make and initiate significant change. Despite your job title, or level, people had the chance to make a difference, if they took the initiative.

Sobel: How did you evolve the agency's use of social media?

Spiegel: No one spends time interacting with any form of media that doesn’t provide value. You have to find a way to provide value for people in advertising who are inundated with clever copy lines and beautiful images every day.

Most agencies were using their own social channels to post headlines from press releases and links to articles about the agency. But that just didn’t seem very interesting, especially when you could find that information elsewhere. One thing that resonates online is humor. So the person we selected to head our Twitter account was, and is, very witty.

Selecting him turned out to be a terrific vehicle for the agency and allowed us to amplify our presence. He rarely touted our own accomplishments, but rather provided engaging, unique material.

Learning Opportunities

We all learned a lot in the process — about coming up with a voice, interacting with followers.

Sobel: You gave a presentation in 2009 entitled “How to Position Corporate Communications as Indispensable During Economically Challenging Times.” How are things now, six years later?

Spiegel: In many ways, corporate communications are even more indispensable. Today, with the economic rebound and the expansion of social platforms, there are more opportunities for communications professionals to branch out and gather additional expertise in related areas, whether at an agency or on the brand side. It also means that brands have the ability to create relevant content for their customers, expanding their brand presence socially, participating in online events and creating interesting partnerships with other companies that have aligned values.

Recently, there has been momentum and increased attention on the importance of internal communications and using employees as advocates. People who love where they work are great promoters of the brand and there are situations where they can be incorporated into the communications fabric of the company.

Technology firms have been doing this for at least a decade, since they realized early on that employees are more socially engaged online than ever before and many are influencers in their own right. Dan Roth from LinkedIn wrote a compelling piece on this recently.

An employee may be the next influencer, given the opportunity. That doesn’t mean there aren’t risks. That's why it's important to have multiple voices.

Not only will this mitigate issues if a person leaves the company, but assuming the selection process to appoint employee advocates is done thoughtfully, there should be a diverse group of people from different divisions with varied expertise championing the company.

Sobel: You've said that brand innovation is all about reinvention: what you keep, what you discard and what you define as your underlying values. Can you elaborate?

Spiegel: The best analogy I can provide is decluttering, specifically cleaning out closets.

There are items you just don’t want to part with either for sentimental reasons or entrenched beliefs. The more difficult challenge is deciding what to discard. In terms of a brand, is something dated because it is just too safe or have technological changes made it obsolete?

It is sometimes hard to see what is relevant and creates value. In the end, the best place to start is to create a set of benchmarks and evaluate everything against it.

If it's brand positioning, what's the brand’s purpose? What's the unique selling proposition? What are the brand values to keep and what new ones should be brought into the fold?

Gather the company leaders together and create a set of new criteria to be used for the brand going forward.

Having an outside moderator is important, since people are very passionate about their beliefs. Anything that doesn’t map to the established core values should be discarded. Just as evaluating clothes in a closet, one should be ruthless and it is really hard.

But there is so much more clarity once the clutter is gone and an ability to build something fresh on a strong foundation.