Zontee Hou: Time for Marketing to Get Real
April 13, 2021
If you’re in marketing, Zontee Hou has a perspective worth listening to.
She is a longtime digital marketing veteran who has been running her own agency, Media Volery, for almost seven years. She also works with a wide range of brands as Convince & Convert’s Head of Strategy. Zontee has many thoughts on the current state and future of marketing in the scope of its broader evolution.
As a woman of color leading an all-female staff (currently), she is living out the mantra of diversity, equity and inclusion, and has specific ideas on how more businesses can turn their DE&I aspirations into reality.
She has a passion for supporting and mentoring young creative talent, and is invested in helping develop the next generation of marketers.
For all these reasons and more, we recently listed Zontee as a marketer you need to be following. We also wanted to bring you her views on some of these vital matters directly, so we interviewed Zontee and she was beyond generous with her insights.
Here’s what she has to say about how marketing can become more valuable, more diverse, and — above all — more real.
LinkedIn: You’ve said you built your company Media Volery to be the kind of agency you'd want to work for. I'm curious to know what that means in the current business environment. What is the kind of agency that you want to work for right now? What do you want to see departments and agencies doing more of?
Zontee Hou: When I say that I started Media Volery as the kind of agency I would want to work for, I meant an agency with strong work-life balance and with a real commitment to developing our employees, providing the kinds of benefits that I believe professional marketers deserve. And also an organization that really values academic rigor, in addition to marketing experience. Those are all things that we've implemented from an organizational perspective.
They’re things that I still believe are really important in today's business environment. If you look at what we've seen from this last year, people constantly talk about how we now have all this time back because of the lack of commute. You know, there are certain things that we've learned from a team perspective, in terms of how we can work remotely and how we can be more effective from just a collaboration point of view — those are things we obviously all want to hold on to moving forward. But they're also reflective of the fact that most of us have worked for agencies at some point in our career, where you find yourself working extremely long hours, you find yourself working a lot on weekends, you find yourself constantly checking emails, because there's this expectation from the higher-ups that everybody's always on.
Some of those things have gotten better in the last year. But some of them have actually gotten worse, because we are, in fact, always on. The home is our office. And so that makes it difficult for us to turn off, right? So moving forward, I'm hoping that people will recognize that one of the benefits of being able to work from home is, again, more flexibility. But it also means that we actually have to work harder to create an environment in which our teams are respected.
LI: You have a unique view of the content marketing world. As Head of Strategy at Convince & Convert, you have the opportunity to work with a variety of big brands and help them shape their strategies. What trends are you noticing in terms of where companies are focusing
Zontee: At Convince & Convert, we work with major brands in both B2C and B2B fields, as well as some major NGOs and organizations around the world. In doing so, we’ve seen that in the last couple of years, the content marketing landscape has really matured. In general, people understand the value of content marketing and they have a discipline for content marketing. What we're seeing more focus on now is, ‘How do we optimize, scale, and use our data better within the content marketing space? And how do we reach our audiences in a more personal way?’
So the two major trends I see across different industries are, first, a real investment in the analytics and analysis side of content marketing. People are trying to build a stronger discipline within their content marketing teams to understand what is working and what is actually demonstrating a real return on investment. And then the other is on the storytelling side of being really relevant.
That means better utilizing influencers and influential voices within the community, especially on the B2B side, because when you're speaking to people who are buying something that's usually a large investment, long lead cycle, etc., you really need them to trust that they're making the right choice. What better way to do that than to demonstrate you have the trust of other people who they view as trustworthy, credible sources of truth within their industry?
LI: It’s been a year. As you reflect on the past 12 months, and specifically the impacts of the pandemic and civil unrest stemming from George Floyd’s killing, which changes, challenges, and lessons stand out to you most from a content marketing standpoint?
Zontee: It’s really fascinating to me that in the last year, I've had so many conversations with clients, both small and medium businesses as well as large brands, that truly want to speak about their values. I think values used to be a more niche play within a lot of industries — certain brands within a particular vertical might say, ‘We're the value brand that focuses on what we care about, we should speak about like a Patagonia or other brands where you really know that's part of their story.’ But now, every brand has to take a public stance about social justice issues they care about.
In the last couple of weeks, you've seen many brands post about AAPI violence and the #StopAsianHate hashtag. And I think that what you're seeing is that because we have so many choices and there is so much transparency about what brands do and care about because of the internet, consumers are more highly aware of how brands reflect them. They actually know their dollars have power in influencing who has a strong voice out in the world, and therefore they're more invested in caring about what their brands’ values are.
So I think that that's something we're seeing really bubble up strongly. And I do think that it takes a real investment, especially from a content marketing team perspective, of time and energy and consideration to tell better stories when it comes to your values. Because you have to have a real crystallized image of not only what it is that you stand for, but how that translates to your audience. Just because you care about it does not necessarily mean that your audience is going to care about it.
How do you tell your story in a way that is relevant to the audience, making them feel like these are people who believe in the things that I believe in and therefore they're going to care about me the way they care about these issues?
LI: We are seeing a lot more marketing and business leaders start to make diversity and inclusion more of an outright priority. For companies that really do want to make some progress and move these initiatives forward, what would be your advice in terms of making it a reality in 2021 and beyond?
Zontee: This is an interesting conversation to have. It's one that honestly we have in my household quite a lot. Because I own a small agency and we are majority-minority. We are currently 100% women, although that has not historically been true. And my husband works at a large multinational bank, where within his department in their last review, 15 of 18 of their senior managers were white males. So we talk a lot about, how can you actually bring diversity to reality and not just speak beautiful words about it?
I think there's a couple of things. One thing we do within my team is purposefully go out to universities that are great pipelines for diverse candidates within the field of marketing and communications. We have several relationships because I have been a graduate lecturer at the City College of New York and a faculty lecturer at Columbia University, both of which have very diverse, strong programs within communications. And I also mentor students within the undergraduate program at the City College of New York. I'm working with students all the time who come from diverse backgrounds, and are not just racially diverse, but socio-economically diverse, internationally diverse. And so you're getting a lot of different points of view. We actually draw from these various programs into our internship programs to cultivate young people who can be that next line of hires, and so we're specifically nurturing them.
We're also actively forming relationships with people out in the industry who are unique voices. I think it's really important to recognize that not everybody's going to have the same exact path to a particular role. But what you're looking for, especially in the marketing space, and particularly in content marketing, is people who are really strong creative storytellers. If you're not identifying the candidates, cultivating their skills, and then developing them out through other careers, then you're not doing their job as a more senior marketer to build that next level of talent. So I think those are all really important aspects.
The other thing is, I think that when people say, “Oh, we're colorblind,’ or you know, ‘We're equal opportunity.’ That's not as proactive as saying that ‘We're color sensitive, and we're consistently looking to at least build relationships with people who are strong candidates from diverse backgrounds.’ If you're proactively looking for those things, then I think that you are going to find people like that. The other piece of it to me is, of course, as a woman of color, I think I am more sensitive to looking for people who may have similarities to myself, and therefore I'm going to develop more women, more people of color, etc. You have to look to put more people within senior positions who are going to have that mentality.
LI: As someone who is an influential voice in the marketing space and seen as a thought leader, how do you use LinkedIn to connect with your audience? What would you recommend emphasizing for others who are interested in developing their own personal brand in that way?
Zontee: LinkedIn is such a vital channel to be following, and discovering news and resources within our industry. But it's also a place to have strong conversations. I think that oftentimes, when people are thinking about developing their own social media presence, they really focus on the broadcast piece: What do I publish so that people see that I have good ideas? And what I would encourage you to do is take a step back and say, ‘How do I participate in conversations that spark interest, not only in what I have to say, but in the issues that I'm passionate about and that I'm knowledgeable about, so that other people recognize me as part of the dialogue?’
Not only am I publishing content that I think would be valuable to my community, but I'm also looking to share resources that help develop students. I'm often sharing job listings, for instance, within the digital marketing space, because I think it's important for me to be providing those resources to other people who are up-and-coming. But also I'm reading the content from my fellow digital marketers, content marketers, etc. and commenting back asking questions and trying to participate in those dialogues, and honestly looking for opportunities to to have those dialogues in public. I'm speaking more and more to colleagues and friends of mine who are speakers, writers, etc. And we're doing more LinkedIn Lives and podcasts and Clubhouse chats. Because what we've realized is that people want to be able to participate in that conversation. They don't just want it broadcast at them. They want to be able to truly contribute to the ideas that are being shared.
LI: As you look ahead to the near future of digital marketing, whether it's the rest of 2021 or beyond, what are the things that make you most excited and invigorated about the direction of the discipline?
Zontee: In the last year, we've seen that people have had to really lean into authenticity, right? Again, we are all working in our home offices; you are currently four feet away from my den, where everything is messy, and it's our TV room. And you know, like, this is my real life, right?
One of the things I've been excited about is that it's actually forced people to strip down the veneer and focus on the functionality, not the form. Ultimately, the best content marketing, the best digital marketing is providing a ton of value to your audience. And most of the time, because we live in this really fast-production world, where again, every one of us is used to our friends, posting an Instagram story or TikTok, or whatever... production is becoming less important than message and value.
And, quite frankly, just brevity is becoming a key factor of success in the development of content. That's something that we're seeing speed up in this last year, because we're in this chrysalis where we really have to just, you know, move quickly in order to get things done. But I think that's something that is exciting, because it means that B2B brands have to learn from B2C brands — they have to be more creative; they have to be faster; they have to be more valuable. And you're seeing that more B2C brands are allowing their customers to take more control of the messaging, and tell more powerful stories. So in both cases, I think that's really invigorating, because it means it's a lot more fun. And honestly, most of the time it’s just straight-up more useful.
LI: What content is giving you life today? Is there a book, TV show, or magazine article that is speaking to you right now?
Zontee: I will give you two book recommendations. One is just behind me over here. It's The Hollywood Approach, which is by Kristina Paider, who is a friend of mine, and it's all about how you can take the principles of writing a really fantastic Hollywood script and apply it to your life to really move yourself forward. I think that all of us may have gotten into a little bit of a funk in the last year. And so to be reinvigorated in that sense, I think, is really fantastic.
The other is Cumulative Advantage by my friend Mark Schaefer, who has taken this last year to really take all the lessons he's seen from that brand storytelling perspective, and put them into a new fresh take on marketing messaging.
I think both of them really push the envelope. We as marketers can get into our own rut when it comes to how we tell our stories. So having people look to the outside for inspiration and then help us to refocus how we're approaching our storytelling, I think is really, really valuable during this time.
LI: Any final words?
Zontee: I always feel like the final words question is challenging because I have so many thoughts about so many things. I would encourage every marketer to really look at how they can go back to the fundamentals when it comes to your brand's values and storytelling and say, ‘How can I make this as relevant to my audience as possible right now, and relevant specifically to their needs and challenges?’
Our job as marketing storytellers has to be about bridging that gap between what matters to the brand and what matters to the customer. And it's that gap, that tension in between. That is the place where we can create the best content.
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