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A conversation with Jonathon Narvey, CEO of Mind Meld PR Inc.

As a part of our series about “Marketing Strategies From The Top” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jonathon Narvey. Mind Meld PR Inc. CEO Jonathon Narvey has worked both sides of the media- PR divide. He learned the tools of the storytelling trade as a journalist and columnist for such tech, politics and culture-focused […]

As a part of our series about “Marketing Strategies From The Top” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jonathon Narvey.

Mind Meld PR Inc. CEO Jonathon Narvey has worked both sides of the media- PR divide. He learned the tools of the storytelling trade as a journalist and columnist for such tech, politics and culture-focused publications as BetaKit, the National Post, BC Living and assorted newspapers and magazines. Today, he runs a PR agency in Vancouver, BC (AKA Silicon Valley North) that gets media coverage for tech companies.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, or readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

The short version: I’m a failed journalist. Or at least, I was never in the top 1 percent of journalists that get book deals and thus can make a go of it, financially. So I sought other means to make a buck. I have a talent for interviewing people, asking interesting questions, pushing back on jargon and buzzwords and drawing out the kind of edgy, original thinking that draws attention. This comes in handy for public relations

Some background: I came of age when newsrooms were already shrinking down to a 3-staff model: one person doing the actual reporting and two selling ads. And this was prior to the wholesale evisceration of journalism by alternative news sources on the Internet.

After maybe a dozen years of working in newsrooms and freelancing for various outlets, I still got a thrill from seeing my byline in magazines. But my credit card was maxed out in inverse proportion to my bank account.

Somewhat randomly, I’d made friends with a VP of Marketing at a big software company. “Hey, I’m looking for a new agency to write press releases for us, because our New York agency is not really working out for us,” he told me. “You’re a writer. Know anyone who does PR?”

It turned out the agency was charging his company something like $1,000 just to write a press release.

“I can beat that price,” I told him. And so I did. And the work grew from there.

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Managing creative marketing people can be hard. I reasoned I needed to keep them on a tight leash. So, I signed up for some time tracking software so I could correlate effort to results.

That was a mistake. Team members wound up tracking tasks in such minute detail that they spent at least an hour of their time… tracking their time! It was funny, but the joke was on me.

I got rid of the software. Instead, at the end of the day, we simply throw our media wins into a Slack channel to track results — and as for inputs, I get a short-simple bullet list of what each team member is working on.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

I was very fortunate many years ago to encounter a mentor — I didn’t think of him that way, but that is in fact what he has been to me over the years. He’s a serial entrepreneur who is sort of a Renaissance Man of technology. He gave me my first full-time job in marketing and years later, he was my first client for my PR agency — which focuses on getting media coverage for tech companies.

This client doesn’t just understand leading-edge technologies. He has the patience to explain how they work in a way that a non-technical guy like me can understand how they work, why they matter and where innovation is headed at a strategic level.

Thanks to him, I’ve learned how to describe concepts around AI, big data, machine learning, smart cities, etc. in a way that nerds will find accurate but reporters will also find interesting.

As a marketing and PR professional, you can always do your own research to get up to speed on how to talk about the product you’re trying to get out there. But nothing beats having a subject matter expert close at hand who will tell you when you’re onto something — or if you need to pivot.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

When I’m hiring PR people who are going to spend most of their time pitching news reporters, I look for professionals who have worked in newsrooms.

I actually tend to avoid hiring people who come primarily from a marketing background (Marketing folks often seem to take a perverse pleasure in inventing jargon and buzzwords that actually don’t help you land opportunities).

This approach gives us the brainpower we need to rapidly brainstorm and tailor a wide range of story pitches building off a central theme.

We got hired a few months back to help with a product launch for an AI-powered marketing tool. Now, AI is a pretty sexy word — so we figured a head-on push for that theme would get us some wins in technology magazines. But we also constructed pitches for marketing experts writing or podcasting for general business publications. And doing a bit more research on the team that built the technology, seeing a roughly 50–50 split in gender, we realized there was another angle we could hit: diversity and inclusion in the tech sector.

After segmenting our media lists and creating about a dozen variations of micro-targeted media pitches, we landed about a dozen earned media placements, including four in national outlets.

To reach all those reporters, it helped to know what they were looking for — and to tailor these stories accordingly. In PR, you’ve just got to have a nose for news.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

All of the PR and marketing we do is focused around innovation. One of our clients is a major EdTech provider that runs tech camps across the USA. Digital Media Academy is giving away 1,000 scholarships for these camps, hosted by places like Stanford. The future of work is pretty much all about STEMjobs — so any buzz we can get that will help parents and teachers understand the opportunities available

What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?

Marketers — and in particular, PR specialists, are always dealing with “What-have-you-done-for-me-lately” syndrome. I once got about 20 pieces of high-profile coverage for a client in a single month — but next month, I’m back to zero. Even with no firm quota system in place, you’re often working against an average, or peak of what you’ve been able to achieve in the past.

The solution? Manage expectations. Explain how your process works — and at strategic times, explain it again. Talk about the results you’ve gotten, provide granular reports — but emphasize that this is a creative process. Marketing and sales have much in common. They’re both very process-driven, but you’re not going to get a win every time you pitch. So long as your boss or client takes a long view and generally understands there are a lot of moving parts, they will appreciate the wins that you get — and you’ll feel more confident as you go from strength to strength.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My VP of Marketing in my last job before I went out on my own to create my agency. Our approaches were very different and we butted heads a lot at first.

I’m creative, leaning towards artsy. She was all about processes, tracking data in spreadsheets, KPIs… and we just got excited about different things.

Looking back, I’m embarrassed to say I was dismissive of her approach — including in meetings where I tried to steal the show by impressing all with my creative talents. I do have a way with words.

A few months into this, I realized I was just stressing out her, the team and myself. I had a bad attitude. It occurred to me that I didn’t appreciate what she offered because I didn’t know enough about it. I needed to learn the less sexy but eminently practical ways of guiding a marketing project from idea through execution.

I listened more. I tried to add to what she was doing, not act as a roadblock. If I had a disagreement with her about strategy or tactics, I would take great care to make sure I really knew where she was coming from — and if she made a decision, at that point, it was my job to help her to execute her vision.

Within days, there was a rapid turnaround. We worked better together. She trusted me more — and we had more fruitful conversations that helped steer work to a better place, faster. The skills I picked up from her in terms of managing projects and people have helped immensely when it came to running an agency.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. There are hundreds of memorable marketing campaigns that have become part of the lexicon of our culture. What is your favorite marketing or branding campaign from history? Can you explain why you like that so much?

That’s easy — “We try harder.” It’s the Avis campaign from decades ago. They were the second-biggest car rental company around. They flipped a negative to a positive, simply by using the facts and then making a big play, using human nature. That line went into all of their marketing messaging — changing them from a possibly pathetic, big corporate almost-ran, into a plucky underdog.

And aside from the type of people who don’t rent cars, but have full-time drivers assigned to drive them around in limousines — who doesn’t see themselves as an underdog? The customer could fully identify with

It was absolutely brilliant — and that’s why they stuck with it for so many years.

In fact, if you compare it with the campaign that replaced it, 50 years later, “It’s Your Space” — well, I don’t think I have to tell you how the new, abstract and basically meaningless campaign falls flat. They should have stuck with the classic.

If you could break down a very successful campaign into a “blueprint”, what would that blueprint look like? Please share some stories or examples of your ideas.

That’s tricky. This brings me back to what I was saying earlier about the creative side of marketing and the brass-tacks managerial side. It’s an art and a science — but I get what you mean, so let’s do this. Let’s go through a successful campaign I worked on for a fintech company.

My role was more around messaging and strategy, but there were plenty of pieces to this — I was working with my VP of Marketing, two designers, a social media maven and a digital advertising consultant. I’m not saying you always need that mix to run a successful campaign, but it does help to have boots on the ground.

We started with setting goals. What did we want to achieve? Several million dollars worth of new assets under management (The exact figure escapes me — but there was one).

A goal without a deadline is just a dream — so naturally, my extremely organized VP had several deadlines in mind for different stages of the campaign.

The rough plan to get these assets was to encourage new users to sign up and invest — and also encourage current users to invest more.

We developed sketches of customer personas to figure out the attributes of the people we wanted to target. For example, we called one of our target personas “Retirement Ron” — a mid-fifties professional with significant assets, who had been through a few economic downturns. He still wanted his investments to grow — but above all wanted to make sure his investments didn’t fizzle right before he stopped working.

We build a landing page with particular messaging that appealed to that persona. In as few words as possible, we outlined the pain point, our solution and referenced our credibility — and made darn sure there was a clear call to action. We threw a ton of digital ads at our target audiences, plus some subway station ads, YouTube ads and even a TV spot that showed up in Toronto’s version of Times Square.

The tracking we set up allowed us to alter messaging and chop out the ads that weren’t working, focusing attention on the ones that had traction (It’s always interesting to see which ones are the winners — often, not the ones you suspected).

Not only did we meet our targets — we blew past them — which undoubtedly made it tougher the next year to manage expectations. Nice problem to have, though.

Companies like Google and Facebook have totally disrupted how companies market over the past 15 years. At the same time, consumers have become more jaded and resistant to anything “salesy”. In your industry, where do you see the future of marketing going?

It’s not that you can never be sales-y. But you have to pick your moments.

When you create a marketing and sales funnel, you kick off with broad brand awareness, where the objective is more about educating your audience. It’s about being helpful, even towards people who may not be buying from you. But when you implement tracking, with a multi-stage funnel, by the time they get to your landing page, after six or seven points of contact, your audience is ready to accept a pitch.

In public relations, it’s a bit different — reporters are basically expecting you to give them your “sales pitch” for your client’s news. Again you want to come off as helpful and give them exactly what they are looking for. Your product is information — and if you do your targeting right, you’ll find success.

Can you please tell us the 5 things you wish someone told you before you started? Can you please share a story or example for each.

Since I sort of fell into marketing rather than setting out to work in this space from the start, there’s a lot of ground to cover.

  1. You have to work closely with the sales team. This is actually something I assumed early on, but in my first marketing role, sales and marketing were in strictly enforced silos. It was bizarre. I worked on web copy and social media — sales people were on the phone all the time. We rarely talked. Our messaging never lined up. It was a mess. In all other companies I worked with, either in-house or as a contractor, I made sure marketing and sales were communicating from the start.
  2. Tie your marketing tactics to business objectives. Early on, I just wanted “buzz” for my company. And in fairness, that’s what a lot of companies are asking for — until they see how their marketing spend has gone up, without an increase in revenue.
  3. Being boring is risky. When I first got into marketing, I didn’t fight back against senior voices in the company that wanted our press releases written in a “corporate” (ie. boring, long and redundant) style. When our first few efforts failed and in some desperation, we got to try out a more creative approach, we finally got picked up.
  4. Your real target audience is the founders of your own company. Without their buy-in, your new marketing messaging or web copy will never see the light of day.
  5. The ultimate metric of business success isn’t signups. It’s repeat business. All the signups in the world won’t help you if you’ve got a poor user experience and people never come back.

Can you share a few examples of marketing tools or marketing technology that you think can dramatically empower small business owners to become more effective marketers?

There’s a million of ’em. We pretty much run on Google Suite. We use Slack to communicate with our team and clients. Google Hangouts for video conferencing. Hubspot is decent CRM — but failing that, you can use spreadsheets. Asana to manage your team. Audacity for recording podcasts. WordPress or Wix for building websites.

For public relations, we use Meltwater to track reporters, blast emails out and monitor results — though there are at least 3 or 4 comparable services to that.

Without all of these apps, we would need a much bigger team just to manage our own business, much less work with clients..

What books, podcasts, documentaries or other resources do you use to sharpen your marketing skills?

It may sound a bit funny, but I don’t read business books. A lot of the time, I’ll read novels, or books on history or politics — but because you can often pick out commonalities across all strands of human activity, I learn lessons from these that I can apply in my business.

For certain digital marketing practices like email marketing automation, I’ve just watched a bunch of YouTube videos. There’s usually someone that will offer you a step-by-step introduction, or even advanced lessons, for free.

But the one resource I’ve found most helpful for marketing? I don’t know if this is a cliche already, but the TV show, Mad Men, taught me (or reinforced) much of what I know about marketing. There are timeless lessons in there. Don Draper is my spirit animal.

Who is your hero? Can you explain or share a story about why that person resonates with you?

This is not going to go down well for about half of your readers — and I should note here that I have many heroes, because you need many different kinds of examples for different aspects of life.

Okay, here goes. Donald Trump.

Yes, I know how this sounds. Let me explain. I’m not saying everything that The Donald says or does is heroic. That’s not what a hero is.

George Washington was a hero… who had slaves. H.P. Lovecraft wrote incredible science fiction that is pretty much the foundation of every awesome video game or movie with aliens you’ve ever seen… and he was a creepy racist.

A hero is someone who does something extraordinary — despite their flaws.

Again, we’re talking about marketing in this interview. So, from the perspective of a guy who is in business and loves marketing and public relations… well, how can you do better than this guy?

Donald Trump knows how to get attention. He is a master of persuasion, who will repeat the same message over and over (at least until he does a 180 — and repeats the new line).

And as a negotiator, he has an excellent student of human psychology — going for the (obnoxious) maximalist position at the start — looking for where he can compromise to make deals (eg. the new North American free trade agreement) and walking away when he doesn’t get what he wants (eg. North Korea, Iran).

Agree or disagree with his politics — he’s got extraordinary skills that are useful in marketing and business, generally.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would like more people to see capitalism, the free market and business as a positive thing. Not just for the entrepreneurs who start companies, or investors who hopefully earn something for their willingness to assume risk. Pretty much everyone works for a company, at some level. It’s a good system.

There’s been a trend of late to talk up the importance of “impact businesses” — companies that are built with a social purpose in mind. But I think this is based off of a fundamental misunderstanding.

Profit-motivated companies and commerce in general is a good thing that creates positive impacts — whatever (or even despite) the intentions of their owners. Adam Smith wrote about this — the “invisible hand.”

Think about Microsoft, or Google. These companies have given millions of people the tools to follow their dreams and build their own companies — without needing a ton of capital to start up. A word processer, spreadsheet and email are pretty much all you need to build all kinds of businesses. Even before Bill Gates ever gave a dime to charity, his creations were helping people to create prosperity.

But even more fundamentally, commerce enables countless win-win transactions, where people get the things they want, at the price they are willing to pay it.

Think about all of the criticism of billionaires in US politics. Why is being a billionaire a bad thing? Wouldn’t you want to be a billionaire? Assuming you didn’t steal it, but made your income from selling stuff people wanted to buy — what’s wrong with that?

This negative view is so prevalent in the USA that a socialist is seriously being considered as the number-one contender in the next Presidential race. Sad to say, but in my home country of Canada

There’s nothing wrong with impact businesses — except that it kind misleads people into thinking ordinary companies don’t contribute social goods. They absolutely do.

How can our readers follow you online?

So many ways! I often provide insights into public relations and marketing on my blog at Mind Meld PR.

The Mind Meld Twitter account — updated by myself and a walking, talking trouble magnet named Lyle Neff, is at https://twitter.com/mindmeldpr

I offer observations about the tech industry and marketing on LinkedIn. My profile is at https://www.linkedin.com/in/jonathonnarvey/

And occasionally, you’ll find me on Google News. Most recently, a reporter was kind enough to include me in this list of the top 30 tech leaders in Vancouver that you want to follow. Apparently, I say interesting things. Well, I’ll let you be the judge.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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