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Stefan Harvalias of Plenty of Fish: “The pandemic has made many people re-evaluate what’s most important in life — and that includes dating”

The pandemic has made many people re-evaluate what’s most important in life — and that includes dating. Many everyday behaviors have been completely transformed, and as a dating app, we’ve seen that trickle down to our member engagement. Dating can be tricky, and people don’t want to be pandered to by brands. Singles have been […]

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The pandemic has made many people re-evaluate what’s most important in life — and that includes dating. Many everyday behaviors have been completely transformed, and as a dating app, we’ve seen that trickle down to our member engagement. Dating can be tricky, and people don’t want to be pandered to by brands. Singles have been through a lot this last year, and they want experiences that are a bit more grounded. A welcome shift that I think is here to stay and will go a long way in helping singles embrace their individual qualities more.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Stefan Harvalias.

As strategic as he is creative, Global Head of Marketing for Plenty of Fish, Stefan Harvalias has worked for some of the world’s leading brands, developing impactful programs and campaigns that deliver outstanding ROI. Since joining Plenty of Fish in 2019, Stefan has contributed to the brand’s accelerated growth and innovation in the highly competitive dating app space. During his tenure, Stefan has overseen the company’s first major rebrand, brought awareness to multiple, ambitious product initiatives, and rapidly expanded the marketing team to steer Plenty of Fish into a new era.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Stefan! Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thanks for inviting me!

Firstly, I’ve always found the word ‘path’ to be an interesting one when combined with ‘career’ because ‘path’ implies a singular way of heading towards a destination that’s already been traversed by others. This ‘path’ may have been more relevant years ago when people were expected to “climb the corporate ladder”, but it isn’t necessarily a reality for most people today — it can be more complicated. I’ve always approached my career by defining my ultimate end goals, refining and adjusting over time, and evaluating the experiences that I need to be the most uniquely qualified person to get there — even if it’s not linear. That’s been my path. As a result, I’ve worked across multiple industries, peripheral functions, and almost every functional role from a marketing perspective.

As it pertains to marketing specifically, that was serendipity. Like most people, I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, even when I applied to colleges. I knew I was left and right-brained and wanted to find something that allowed me to exercise both sides, and business school presented the most options to explore that. I took some marketing courses and, as they say, the rest is history.

Ok thank you for that. Can you tell us why you think your “No One Has Their Sh*T Together” ad campaign resonated so strongly for singles looking to online dating during a pandemic?

“No One Has Their Sh*T Together” is all about embracing your authentic self. We want Plenty of Fish members to approach dating with a sense of humor, especially during these unprecedented times, and to set aside the notion that we live in a perfect and predictable world.

Based on the universal truth that outside of a curated Instagram feed, no one is perfect. This campaign is part of the brand narrative in that we’re a place for the real you, not the curated you. In a world filled with fairytale romance expectations, the campaign approaches dating from a realistic and relatable POV — we’re all doing the best we can. It’s okay to struggle, and we need to laugh more at the ridiculousness of life — especially during the pandemic.

How has online dating changed during the pandemic? What are other ways members have chosen to pursue relationships?

For starters, dating isn’t on hold, if anything, it’s taken on a new life since the pandemic. We’ve seen that our singles are more eager than ever to embrace dating from a distance and use the latest technology to do so. Though dating apps have been popular for years, the pandemic has created new ways to connect, bridge solitude and meet other singles. Our data shows that singles have remained optimistic about meeting someone throughout the pandemic: more than half say COVID-19 has inspired them to take dating more seriously.

We’re even seeing greater depths of engagement, which signals a return to getting to know someone beyond just their profile picture — a welcome change that Plenty of Fish has always championed with our members.

That’s why within weeks of worldwide stay-at-home orders, we launched our livestreaming product, Live! to encourage singles to date from a distance. It’s clear that video dating is being embraced by singles: 75% report they are more comfortable video chatting now, then before the pandemic.

Do you think there’s a new model for marketing during a pandemic to singles? How do you think that’ll change moving forward?

The pandemic has made many people re-evaluate what’s most important in life — and that includes dating. Many everyday behaviors have been completely transformed, and as a dating app, we’ve seen that trickle down to our member engagement. Dating can be tricky, and people don’t want to be pandered to by brands. Singles have been through a lot this last year, and they want experiences that are a bit more grounded. A welcome shift that I think is here to stay and will go a long way in helping singles embrace their individual qualities more.

Humor and a light-heartedness will continue to be a part of our brand. Since 2018, we’ve been polling our members to understand the dating trends for the year ahead, coming up with fun and timely definitions based on pop culture, current events, and social media*. One of our 2021 trends, “Fauci-ing” (declining to date someone because you don’t feel like they are taking COVID-19 seriously enough) was actually just introduced to the trend’s namesake — Dr. Fauci himself — when he was asked about it in a recent interview, laughing at the chance to be “Fauci-d.”

What exciting new projects are you working on?

As our members continue to navigate dating during COVID-19, we’re committed to finding new and innovative ways for them to connect — and we believe video will be a big part of this. We’re continuing to invest in and explore more innovations within our livestreaming platform.

Beyond that, a focus on new technologies to make virtual connection even more seamless, is paramount. On the tech side, singles want a user-friendly platform with features that make connections easy and allow for activities beyond shuffling through pictures and chat. It’s this bridging of virtual and real life that we’re focused on building for our members, allowing them to get to know someone enough that a first date can be just that, and not the anxiety-inducing interview situations they’ve evolved into over the years.

What have your surveys found are most important to singles in 2021?

Communicating with our member base is an integral part of our brand and how we’ve continued to grow and evolve. Last year, we created an industry-first member advisory council, “The Member Pod,” to give our product and development teams the opportunity to connect with members directly and hear their feedback.

In addition to working with our Member Pod, we frequently survey our members. By staying in touch with them, we can glean unique insights that help us better understand what they are looking for in a match. For instance, 57% say that the pandemic has led them to expand their dating pool. Singles are also hopeful that some of the more frustrating dating trends will end, with 39% believing people will be less likely to ghost potential partners after the pandemic.

Overall, singles are feeling excited about dating and relationships in 2021. Whether they continue to use video to connect or start to engage in more “traditional” dating activities (once it’s safe to do so) — our data shows that 2021 will be a big year for courtship.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Let me start by saying that this is coming from someone who has experienced burnout first-hand, culminating from overextending myself both professionally and personally, depriving myself of sleep and personal time, and being unwilling to admit to myself or anyone else that I didn’t have it all together all the time.

Multiple studies have shown that marketing and communications professionals in particular fare the worst when it comes to burnout, and I can’t say that I’m all that surprised. We’re one of the most “always-on” functions of an organization, working to balance performance and brand in a regularly disrupted space. We tend to over-index on emotional intelligence and empathy. We can spend a lot of our days analyzing everything and everyone but ourselves — while simultaneously being one of the most scrutinized and celebrated functions in an organization.

Marketing is a high-stress, high-stakes industry and can be a lot to balance! So my biggest tip would be to remember to leverage what we do best — communicate and listen:

  1. Create a space where burnout, and personal well-being in general, are real and normal to discuss. I’ve worked hard to foster open and collaborative environments with my teams both internally and externally, including personal well-being topics, and I’ve seen that payout dividends in performance and engagement.
  2. Build a support system for yourself or even the space within your teams to have open dialogue on where you’re falling short — and be open to receiving the feedback. It’s one thing to talk about it, but if you aren’t actually allowing space for it then it can’t exist.

Even with all of the research saying otherwise and what I’ve seen born out with my teams, taking time for yourself still runs counter to what’s been culturally celebrated and ingrained in us as “killing it.” So if you’re in a leadership position, you can create the space to start the change top-down, by listening to your teams to uncover trends and insights to build strategies that foster communication and meaningful change.

At Plenty of Fish that has been fostered at the executive table by building KPIs and goals into our quarterly plans and having every team member in the company try a new physical or mental activity each month.

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?

A few key people have shaped my career in various integral ways over the years, chief among them my wife who has been an incredible support and my forever champion. We aligned very early in our relationship on what was important to us and how we were going to achieve it, and every step of the way we’ve supported each other and approached everything as a team. The success of your career and your personal life are not mutually exclusive; the earlier you realize that and begin communicating and regularly aligning with your partner on roles and plans, the more successful you’ll be. I know without a doubt that I wouldn’t be where I am today without her.

I also want to take a moment to mention it because I feel it’s important and not often discussed; Like many of you, I crossed paths with examples of what I didn’t want to model myself after, which provided some of my most significant learnings. I always took a minute to step back and note certain behaviors that negatively impacted me and situations I witnessed or that others confided in me, and adjusted my behavior accordingly vs. getting caught up in the cycle of complaints. In some ways, I’m more grateful for those experiences than the more traditionally positive ones because they’ve informed how I lead, which has played an enormous role in my success.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’ve been lucky enough to find myself working for a company whose efforts result in tangible human impact in the world — and that is something I have been consistently cognizant of, but particularly so given the widespread challenges of the past year.

2020 was a challenging year for most, but the reality is that the need for love and human connection is enduring, even in the strangest of times. Being in a position to help make it easier for people to bridge a divide, make connections, and fall in love is a privilege I don’t take for granted.

What are three things you wish someone told me before you became Global Head of Marketing and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Stop speaking marketing. The concept of marketing and its value is ever-evolving and can vary from one organization to the next. It is also one of the only functions in the organization that can be open to subjective interpretation. Speaking in functional buzz terms that others don’t understand does a disservice to the marketing function and the work you do. Marketers are relentlessly focused on delivering growth across multiple fronts. Lead by communicating the growth outcomes of marketing and measurability vs concepts alone. Additionally, honing the ability to code-switch between those different languages depending on audience and context is incredibly important. At the same time you need to provide the substance to earn a seat at the table; your company still wants a marketer.
  2. Embrace being the empath at the executive table. The marketing executive is often the unique one at that table — with higher emotional intelligence (EI). This is often an undervalued set of skills that are particularly important to senior leadership (and has sometimes led to bouts of imposter syndrome on my end!). Still, in business, I find it to be a superpower. Those with higher emotional intelligence tend to be more balanced, mixing our counterparts’ direct, realistic and analytical leanings with additional creativity, extroversion, empathy and adaptability. So instead of “dialing-down” these qualities, I encourage you to fine-tune their development and apply them in your role to drive meaningful change not only in your corporate culture but also to shift the role marketing can play in your organization.
  3. Empower your teams. We aim to foster an environment of ownership across the board, and with that comes frequent exposure to new challenges, freedom to fail, and wins that feel extra sweet. This approach comes straight from the top, and when I joined it was honestly a little new to me, both based on my previous experiences as well as shifting from being a leader within a function to being the functional lead — but the rewards have been tremendous. It takes a conscious effort and pushing yourself to be comfortable moving from the ‘doer’ to the ‘champion.’ Still, when you trust your direct reports and your teams to “own their sh*t”, it results in highly loyal, motivated employees who rise to embrace responsibility and are adaptable to change.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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 want to briefly go back to the subject of burnout, because even though its realities are starting to be addressed in corporate culture more widely, there is still tremendous work to be done. From childhood, we are made to believe that there are milestones and boxes on a checklist that we should “tick off” to achieve personal and professional success — and this causes tremendous pressure and feelings of failure when we fear we aren’t living up to these expectations.

This fear of failure is where the pressure cooker results in burnout and other well-being issues. It’s also why I relate so profoundly to the Plenty of Fish brand ethos around reducing unnecessary pressures in our lives and instead embracing who we are — unique individuals on our own path that don’t always have to have everything together.

It’s one thing to acknowledge burnout on an organizational level, which is valuable, but the impact of having and normalizing honest conversations at work and in our personal lives about these pressures is where the magic and real change can happen.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow me on LinkedIn or get in touch by following Plenty of Fish on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and check out our blog The Latest Catch for a ton of great dating insights and advice.

*Data collected throughout 2020 and 2021, in surveys of 2,000 U.S. based Plenty of Fish members

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