September 16, 2021 by Kristina Monllos
Despite hopes for a return to normal, it looks like flexibility will continue to be key for marketers this fall. At least — that’s the case for diner chain Denny’s, according to chief brand officer and executive vp John Dillon.
Digiday caught up with Dillon to understand how he’s thinking about marketing now, what changes stay past COVID-19 and how the brand is thinking about working with college athletes.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Earlier this year, there was a sense that business would go back to “normal.” With the delta variant, that hasn’t been the case. How are you thinking about marketing now?
“Flexibility” is definitely still a keyword in our plans. Because of the dynamic nature of marketing today, the ability and necessity to really turn on a dime sometimes [means you need that flexibility]. Right? We’re watching at all times for what’s happening with the COVID-19 and the variants and how guests are feeling in a restaurant. We really have been focused on consumer needs of value, comfort, convenience and reassurance.
What do you mean by “reassurance”?
Reassurance really emerged from the pandemic. What we mean by that is making sure that guests know that it’s safe to eat at Denny’s, all [the] cleanliness matters that we’re going through. And that was never part of our team’s plans before, but it has definitely been part of our marketing plan over the last 18 months. That’s one example. Another is value. Value’s not as important to today’s guest as it has been, but that will continue to ebb and flow over time. Really it is about flexibility. It’s keeping your head on [a] swivel and making sure you stay in tune to what your guests need and, in our case, what our franchisees need to run their business and run it well. I think that [need for] flexibility will continue outside of the pandemic.
Building in flexibility into deals and having back-up plans does seem like something that sticks long after the pandemic.
That’s one of the most exciting things about being in marketing right now — we have plans and we have backup plans. We have backup to backup plans based on what’s happening in the marketplace, what’s happening to the guests and the mindset of the guests and where the virus is at. It’s challenging, but also very exciting for marketers to really capitalize on the tools at their disposal today.
How do you balance meeting consumers where they’re at — i.e. “reassurance” messaging — with brand needs?
No matter what brand you are, people need to know that you understand their safety is a top priority. So many brands are spending time on that in various ways through the pandemic. My philosophy is this is not going to go away once we’re out of COVID. I think consumer behavior and expectations have changed. They’re always going to want to know that safety and sanitation procedures are being taken. This is something brands will have to work in their toolkit, so to speak, with messaging and push and pull depending on consumer dynamics at the time. So it just adds another element.
Earlier this summer, the name, image and likeness ruling by the NCAA allowed brands to start to work with college athletes. Tell us how you’re thinking about that shift.
When it first was announced, I think all brands, and I would say all colleges, all players, were trying to figure out what that means and what is the best way to enact the ability to use a name, image, likeness with brands. What we wanted to do is make sure if we did it, we did it in a genuine way with something that made sense for our brand and also made sense for the players that we work with. So it’s not as simple as just paying a player money but more of, can you do something that works for your brand and works for that particular individual and make it a win-win situation? And that’s why, and, and like I said before, how do we do it in a way that is a little bit different than what you see from others by creating this team [of athletes for Denny’s] and bringing people together, which is part of our branding.
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Confessions of an in-house creative strategist on feeling unfulfilled, difficulty in returning to agencies as the ‘pay is less’
The war for talent between agencies and brands’ in-house agencies has cooled. Even so, for adland talent who’ve made the move in-house, some say they are looking to go back to agencies after feeling creatively stifled. It’s not the easiest strategy to execute.
In the latest edition of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor, we hear from an in-house creative strategist about their experience, why they want to go agency-side now and how pay is keeping them from doing so.
This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What’s the in-house experience like?
I’ve been in-house for about a year. It’s very one-sided. The difference between agency and in-house is that with agencies, there [are] a lot of opinions and ideas [outside of the brand message] that go into creative. With in-house, you have the brand’s message and all creative is reflective of the brand’s message. With in-house, regardless of trends in the market, it’s a lot of ‘we’re going to stick to this one way of doing things’ mentality. It’s a lot of opinions about what the creative should be based on what it has been before. It makes it hard to introduce something fresh. It makes it hard to hire or be a new hire. If you’re not actually going to adhere to advice from new hires, what’s the point in getting new people? Are you just bringing people on board for a second opinion? That’s what it feels like.
Sounds like you don’t have the creative control you desire.
It feels like more of a second opinion role than to get something to manage or control. [Where I am now] it feels like we’re leaning more into what [our strategy] used to be than thinking about what we could be. That’s a big issue with in-house. With agencies, like I said, there’s a lot more trial and error. With in-house, a lot more of this is what we’re doing, these are the funds we have and this is what has worked in the past. In reality, a lot of what worked in the past, when you put it back into the market, it’s not going to work anymore.
Why do you think it’s more challenging to get to a new creative strategy in-house?
With agencies, you have multiple perspectives. You’re working on multiple brands. You can see something working for another brand and talk to your client about it. You can pivot. You have the background and perspective to [pitch that pivot]. When you’re in-house, you only have the knowledge of your brand and what’s working for you.
Are you looking to go back to agencies?
Personally, I am looking to go from in-house to agency but I get paid a lot more being in-house than what I’ve been offered at agencies. I’ve been in interviews with agencies where they’re telling me that I’ll be learning [programs I already know how to use] so that’s why the pay is less than what it should be. There are agencies I’ve interviewed with who ask me to move to New York for less than what I make now and make that work. [With inflation,] there’s no reason why salaries aren’t also increasing.
So you’d like to make the jump creatively but it’s hard when the compensation isn’t up to what in-house offers?
It’s hard. I’ve been lowballed, too. They’ll post a salary for a position, go through the interviews and then offer less than what’s listed on the salary description. What was the point of putting the salary range there? I feel like people are putting salary ranges on job descriptions just to attract people with the experience that they are looking for but by the time they make the offer, it’s not what they said it would be. It’s offensive.
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