Award-winning creative strategist Alex Santiago discusses his experiences with the 4A’s Multicultural Advertising Internship Program, becoming a creative director at Publix Supermarkets, and establishing his own agency. Alex’s approach to strategy focuses on human connections, captured in his book, “Stop Asking For Logos,” which offers insights for entrepreneurs and creative professionals seeking to navigate the complexities of integrated marketing with empathy and clarity.
Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS:
Alex Santiago: I was a translator everywhere that I’ve been because I was a marketing-educated person who shifted to mass comm, portfolio school, copywriting, creative direction. So, the book being now welcomed by designers has been a happy notion that I’m embracing. I’ll be happy to be a translator, right?
Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on marketing and advertising produced weekly by Bigeye, a strategy-led full-service creative agency growing brands for clients globally. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer. Thank you for joining us. How do you define creative strategy? Maybe your answer would reflect one of these quotes from ad industry luminaries. “Creative without strategy is called art. Creative with strategy is called advertising.” That nugget is attributed to Jeff Richards. Well, how about this variation on the theme from Jeroen Madse? “Strategy without creativity is called planning. Creativity without strategy is called art. But advertising that combines both is called magic.” But for me, this feels a bit more practical: “Strategy is the art of asking the right questions and moving culture in your favor, paired with the science of testing your ideas and refining them over time.” These thoughts on strategy were written by our guest today, Alex Santiago, an award-winning creative strategist, director, coach, copywriter, and public speaker focused on branding and integrated marketing. He’s worked as part of well-known consumer brands’ in-house creative teams, as well as for some of the best-known and respected advertising agencies in the Southeast. As you’ll hear today, Alex is also an entrepreneur, having established his own businesses, including the responsive branding boutique and consultancy Social Mosaic Communications. Today, Alex is channeling his creative and business acumen as well as his passion for education as head of membership for the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College. Alex is also the author of the book, “Stop Asking for Logos,“ published earlier this year, which aims to help small business ideas become big global brands. To discuss his almost two decades of advertising and marketing experience, which he describes as “working with global giants, up-and-comers, and everyone else in between,” Alex is joining us today from Lakeland, Florida. Alex, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS.
Alex Santiago: Thank you so much for having me.
Adrian Tennant: Well, Alex, you were born and raised in Puerto Rico. What age were you when you moved to the US?
Alex Santiago: I was 14 years old when I moved to the US, actually.
Adrian Tennant: And what was the adjustment to life in the US like for you?
Alex Santiago: It was not easy, to be honest with you. I understood English, but I didn’t speak the language. So, I was in ESL classes, and it was definitely a rough transition for me.
Adrian Tennant: When did you first have the idea that a creative career might be in your future?
Alex Santiago: A career probably wasn’t the vision necessarily. That happened much later in my journey. I just loved entertainment, and I really wanted to pursue a music career originally. That was my original creative, I guess; making a living makes more sense than a career. But, I would say high school is when I started really understanding that marketing was an option for making a living,
Adrian Tennant: Tell me a little bit more about your music experiences at school.
Alex Santiago: I was very musical since I was a kid; I was a dancer since I was 11 years old. By the time I moved to Central Florida, I was in 11th grade. I discovered a rich community of musicians, and I was, and still consider myself, a percussionist, first and foremost. But I just was always singing. I was always singing in the hallways, I was always singing in my classrooms, and I went to Kathleen High School here in Lakeland, Florida, and the number of musicians was just unbelievable. So I found myself writing a lot of poetry, singing a whole bunch, kind of defaulted to that singer-songwriter kind of space with these folks, and it was incredible. And I found a music scene here of artists who were actually touring and playing out in all different venues. And that’s where the DIY-ness of my whole life kind of started because it’s kind of interesting; in the music scene here, we are known for throwing these crazy parking lot shows at our local Pep Boys parking lot. And that’s kind of like what we are known for. So, long story short: no one shows up to local shows, right? You’re 16, 17 years old, you’re doing your own music in a time when the internet was very young and going to a show was going to Tampa, going to Orlando, right? Going to a local music show wasn’t necessarily an option, So I realized, I’m like, “Well, if I can promote, if I can, I need to promote this thing.” And I started taking marketing classes in high school. And this is a testament to representation. So, my high school happened to have a Puerto Rican marketing teacher. She kind of encouraged me to come in and take the class. And that’s where my world just kind of collided because then being in the class understanding, the basics of what marketing is, I kind of took that on, you know, I took the ownership of “If I need people to come out to see us, I’m going to have to be the promoter.” And at the time, the only thing that was free was the internet, right? So, very much whatever was accessible to us at the time, you know, things like LiveJournal, a lot of community-centric things were being born. So that’s really what started that. So, by the time that college came around, I was aware of marketing as a job opportunity, not a career, as a job opportunity. And then growing up with MTV, growing up hearing about labels and hearing about A& R and things like that very much piqued my intrigue at a young age.
Adrian Tennant: Alex, in what kinds of ways has your interest in music influenced your approach to creative strategy do you think?
Alex Santiago: It has the most direct through line, actually. One of the concepts that I’ve wanted to work on is the notion of a portfolio looking at your greatest hits. I remember my portfolio professor, Kobe, talking about your portfolio being a smile, right? Where it was, you have strong opener, and then you kind of like bury your weaker work, and then you close with a strong one. And that, to me, what it actually reminded me of was an album. Albums are very much the same thing, right? It’s this story that you tell, and what kind of journey do you take the listener? So for me, it’s both conceptual as well as in practice, because in the early 2000s, we talked about MySpace timelines, just so I can talk about community-centric, conversation-centric, Kind of the shift of advertising, you know, US bands and musicians were using it very much as it was the only thing that was free to us, But we had direct access to, to kids, Like I used to say that my job at the time was earning people’s trust with a keyboard. And sure enough, I ended up as a copywriter; my whole job was to make sure that when I spoke with people, if it was a random message, if it was a comment, people understood that I was a real person. So very much this world of making sure that people on the other side knew I was a human being, understanding that I found things that were alike and connection points, I understood very early on that that was going to be the future of communications. So that had a direct impact on how I would think about building campaigns. I would think about what we now call personalization and also what branded communities essentially became. So, when I speak about audiences versus customers, for example, which is a very hard transition, I notice, especially because at the same time as I was, you know, taking marketing classes, I was working for Publix already, as a teenager in the stores, and then ended up as a 19-year-old in corporate, so I used to have a lot of great conversations with our VP about the future of marketing and advertising that I remember fondly. And at the time, I remember when I think Pepsi was the first brand on Twitter to hit a million followers. and then Whole Foods had a hundred thousand, and there were brands early on who understood that this was an extension of their store experiences. So for me, it was all about, “Okay, you have an audience that you’re earning an audience,” right? Like that’s really like, as an artist, you have an opportunity on stage that you busted your behind for, for a long time to get on that stage, or you had to produce the show yourself. You’re lucky if the people got there after you talk to them. And after you tell them you were coming. You have two songs, right, to get them to stick around, and then you have a 20-minute set to get them to care. So when I tell you it was a direct line, everything that I’ve done has a direct connection to what I was doing. And what I discovered later on was my superpower, which was really deconstructing what successful people were doing. Successful meaning the nationals, right? There were a lot of bands from Central Florida that became very, very popular nationwide at the time. I was just like, “What are they doing?” So I was just very much writing down mental notes, real notes, deconstructing what they were up to, how they were using these platforms, how they were connecting with people. Because I’m a fan, too, right? So primary research was very much how was I feeling? How were they making me feel? And then, how many people around me were feeling the same way?
Adrian Tennant: Well, you gave us a little preview there of your work with Publix, which we’ll get onto in a moment, but you studied at the University of South Florida, graduating from the Zimmerman School of Advertising in Mass Communications. Now, during your time at USF in 2010, you were selected for the multicultural advertising intern program or MAIP, for short. The program was created by the American Association of Advertising Agencies over 40 years ago with the aim of enhancing workforce diversity in the industry. Now, we’ve had Reema Elghossain, former VP of Talent, Equity, and Inclusion at the 4A’s Foundation, as a guest on this podcast in the past. So, Alex, what was your MAIP experience like?
Alex Santiago: So I will say MAIP absolutely changed my life. And it was an incredible, incredible experience. My experience with MAIP, getting into MAIP was very, very dramatic just because I found out five days before the deadline. And I went through the process, and the next thing I knew, “You’re a finalist!” And what was incredible at the time was that I already had found the MAIP community through social media. So we were kind of like, that 2010 class was one of the earlier, not the earliest, but one of the earlier classes that were very much kind of social media first if you will. So, we were tracking the MAIP hashtag – #MAIP 2010, the MAIP 2010 hashtag was developed. All of us have found each other before we were even accepted. So we had this beautiful connection the whole time. And it was the first time that I really had this, like, diverse community. People who looked like me, right? Like, that was something that didn’t exist prior to that. So, it was absolutely incredible.
Adrian Tennant: Now, Alex, in what ways did MAIP influence the course of your career?
Alex Santiago: Oh man, you know, twofold. Yes, I ended up head-first in the ad industry. And McCann Eriksson, at the time, was going through a huge shift because I got to see the peaks and the valleys of the ad industry on my first day. Because as soon as we walked through the office, they had just recently lost Microsoft as a client. So, on our first day, we’re like, way overdressed, wearing our oversized suits and, and everyone, you know, all of us were not in the same… There were definitely people who were like, this is their second internship. This was the first time that I was in this context. And we’re seeing people walking out with boxes. So I got to experience what a layoff essentially looks like. So that was a very interesting backdrop, right? Like getting started in that context, you know, our biggest client just left. I got to experience a global pitch, so now you have an intern you know, seeing a global ECD bringing together McCann Mexico, McCann Hong Kong, McCann New York. I remember, like, sitting in this war room, just looking at decks all over the walls; it was unbelievable.
Adrian Tennant: Well, I know you’re too modest to mention it, but in 2022, you were named the 4A’s MAIP Coach of the Year. So Alex, did it feel like coming full circle in some way?
Alex Santiago: Oh man, that was, what a moment. That was happening 12 years after I was in MAIP and a decade after I have been coaching this whole time. That’s the way that I was able to give back. So when I got back to Florida, I had a very rude awakening, right? Because now I’m going from the high of like, San Francisco. I just pitched HP Computers with all these award-winning creatives. I’m in New York City, meeting all these people. And then I’m back in Tampa Bay, and like, no one cares! So I think like that giving back was the only thing that I could control. So how I got started helping give back was by doing talks for the following year. So I became a bit of a campus spokesperson, and I also joined my AAF Adfed ad club. So it was very eye-opening. And I became the event and diversity chair, and as a diversity chair of my ad club, then I created a couple of events to speak about these programs and literally give back to communities, people who look like me, which obviously very, very few people, but I was able to bring MAIP, and I brought up MAIP speakers – so we got to Zoom in, some folks and also the Marcus Graham project. So we did two events, and I was able to do that at the time. And because of that, I stayed connected with the folks up there, right, in communications. And we were connected on LinkedIn. So there was already a community, digital communities already existed, obviously. So I stayed plugged in, and then the mentorship program, was part of MAIP. You always get a mentor in the agency or the city that you’re in. And my mentor was very important to me in San Francisco. And I was like, “I can be that person, you know, can I do it from here?” So I had been doing it for Central Florida for almost a decade long. And then that helped, that directly shaped how I saw generations change, generations coming up, and then I saw the evolution from MAIP going from having mentors into coaching. So any and all opportunities that I would have to go back to New York and do a conference to continue coaching, I took it. So I’m just kind of like the guy who never left, you know,
Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message.
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Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Alex Santiago, an award-winning creative strategist, director, coach, copywriter, and the author of the book, “Stop Asking for Logos.” I remember that when you and I first met, you were a creative director at Publix Supermarkets, working in-house at the corporate office in Lakeland. Now, for any listeners unfamiliar with Publix, it was founded back in 1930 by George W. Jenkins in Winter Haven, Florida. It’s the largest employee-owned company in the United States with over 250,000 staff and more than 1,300 stores located primarily across the southeast. So, Alex, what are some of the most valuable lessons you learned about the role of branding and consumer marketing from your experiences with Publix?
Alex Santiago: So, something that will add context to this is that I started at Publix as a 14-year-old in the front end, so I actually had a longer journey before I got to creative director. I got to corporate at 19, and that first journey, I really, – my true degree, I would say – my true four years of college was those four years at corporate. My job there as a creative director came after in 2015, I joined as a senior copywriter and helped the creative group build a digital team, which then transformed into an omnichannel team. I was in charge of the e-commerce, as well as content creation, social engagement. And then the big, big five years of my life was Club Publix, which is their loyalty and personalization program. What I learned on the creative direction path was really more about leadership and managing up, meaning how to help leadership make better decisions, which has a direct line to helping entrepreneurs find their way. You know, it’s really hard. Publix is 90 years old. So, my experiences as a very young man inside of those halls was very, very different. You know, a creative director for a company that big at 30 years old, I know it’s not normal. But, some folks took a big chance on me, and I was able to bring change in positive ways, but change is really hard. And I think that’s something that I had to learn the hard way. But, I would say that, that time as a creative director, it helped me more as a person, and the person that I wanted to be. So this was the first time that at scale, right? Like, I don’t think people realize how massive Publix actually is.
Adrian Tennant: Well, Alex, I mentioned in the introduction that you’re also the author of the book, “Stop Asking for Logos,” which you published earlier this year. First of all, what prompted you to write the book?
Alex Santiago: The first reason was because I heard people tell me for so many years that I should write a book and that I should teach. You hear something so much that you kind of start believing it. So that’s like my honest, honest answer. So that was the real reason. The business reason was that my original intention was to help entrepreneurs, help small and medium-sized businesses, build brands, And we couldn’t communicate, right? You had this, like, insanely passionate person in me, driven by business but speaking all creative things. And I kept losing people, right? Like, they had no idea what I was talking about, But at the same time, being that I was running my own business, I had this empathy of, this person is trying to keep the lights on, right? Like, this is life or death for them; they don’t necessarily think about the importance of having conversations about what a brand means. So, I thought, “Well, if I can help business minds understand this space, it might be a little bit easier for me to have these conversations because they’re speaking my language.” I already spoke theirs, but they just couldn’t comprehend mine. So, the original point of the book was to introduce this concept of brand filters and how it was going to be the future of communications. But in the process of writing the book, the sassy name kind of came out because I wrote it for entrepreneurs. I was like, “Okay, what is the thing that we hear every single time that somebody comes to us like, “Hey, do you make logos?” And then you have to go back and that’s what creates friction because then you have to be like, “We do, but that’s not what branding is.” So then that turns people off right away because then you’re like, “Oh, here comes a lecture that I don’t want to hear because I’m a business person and I’m successful, and I don’t need this,” right? So, the “Stop Asking For Logos” was born out of an Instagram story. It was just a day that I was just super angry, and I literally said, “Stop asking for logos!” But I’m like, I have my own personal filters into like what goes into my platforms. Which is what content strategy essentially is. And I’m like, “If I’m gonna say something that bold, you better be useful.” So then I said, “Stop asking for logos. Here’s what you should do instead.” And then I just did like a gut feeling just like, here are five things you should do before you talk to me. You know? So instead of coming out angry, it just came back very much like that educator hand-holding kind of thing. And it just blew up in my social platforms, so many people were like, “Oh my God, thank you so much.” “Oh my God, this is so useful.” And I realized I was like, “Oh, I think I found the in. I think I found my way into the book. So that shifted the whole book around. And then now you see as it exists now and you have your copy, thank you so much for picking it up, so the shape in which it looks today is because of that social media experiments in empathy.
Adrian Tennant: Excellent. Well, you make a big, bold statement in the book, quote, “I believe filters are the future of brand communications,” end quote. So Alex, can you unpack this for us?
Alex Santiago: Yes. So, I know that is a bold statement. There are two premises The first premise is humanizing brands. So we have been hearing in culture. Humanize your brand for so many years. Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why.” Everybody was talking about “Start with Why,” but nobody was asking the why of the Why! Like what has happened in culture? So, everyone wanted to humanize their brand. Then everybody wanted to have a purpose statement. But nobody was living it. So, what I realized was that these customs words were just too heady, So, when somebody says like, “Oh I want to humanize my brand,” they actually don’t understand how to go from that, the words, that notion, into actual practice, into tactics, Like it doesn’t magically happen like that, that chunk of humanize your brand to like, how does that look like on the other side? So I thought that there was something missing in the translation of how do you humanize a brand? So that’s the first premise. The second premise is communications versus conversations. The most successful brands are the brands that have understood since the early 2000s how to have conversations. Like we hear about ambassadors and we hear about all of these wonderful marketing words, but what it really means is empowering people to have conversations. So I saw kind of like what can happen when you give too much chaos kind of happens, right? So I realized that if you could have a filter between the brand and folks, you would have a better product on the other side for the masses: conversations versus communications on the other. Filters were kind of like, my solution.
Adrian Tennant: “Stop Asking for Logos” also has an accompanying workbook for which your wife Charity is credited as co-author. Alex, what was Charity’s role?
Alex Santiago: So my wife has a Master’s in instructional design and technology, and she has been part of all of my projects. So, she is my silent partner in the business, in Social Mosaic Communications, meaning that she’s always involved. I didn’t realize that instructional design was so, so close to marketing and advertising until she was going through her Master’s and she started showing up talking about audiences and writing scripts. Long story short, I believe that advertising’s role nowadays is to hold hands, right? It’s to guide people, not just the traditional, get your attention and try something. So my wife has been incredibly important because a lot of my campaigns because they’re built differently and because they are designed to be multi-steps. So when I finally put the book together, you know, I always had this vision of, I want this business owner to actually sit down with a pen. And that’s why it’s so short. And that’s why it’s so compact. Because I just wanted to give them this opportunity to just pull their thoughts down. And then, she took every single section that I had developed. And then reimagined it as proper training so that it was even more digestible. So she was an incredibly huge part of making sure that this experience is completely foolproof.
Adrian Tennant: “Stop Asking for Logos” and the accompanying workbook have been out for a few months now. Alex, what kind of reactions have you had from readers, and has anything surprised you?
Alex Santiago: Yes, actually. The most surprising thing has been who’s levitated towards it. Because they were not in my target audience, but obviously, it makes sense why it’s connecting with them. And it has been designers. So I wanted business people to be able to speak creative essentially. What I didn’t think about was that traditionally speaking, most designers aren’t trained in business. So what has ended up happening is that this is now, it’s a translator. So it’s been really interesting how many designers are like, “Oh my God, thank you so much!” because they’re going through the same pain points. But they may not have that business education that I have or the business experience that I have. My thing is that I was a translator in every way that I’ve been because I was a marketing-educated person who shifted to mass comm portfolio school, copywriting, creative direction. So the book being now welcomed by designers has been a happy notion that I’m embracing. I’ll be happy to be a translator, right?
Adrian Tennant: Well, as your coaching and volunteering work demonstrates, you have a passion for education and providing opportunities for diverse populations. Alex, how are you applying creative strategy in your role as Head of Membership for the Polk Museum of Art?
Alex Santiago: I wanted to leverage my journey. I love giving back, and that museum, the Polk Museum here in town, is a place that is very important for our family, especially the last three years when I was on my own. And I thought that it was a great way to both give back with my expertise and then be part of the community in a more direct way. It’s very exciting. And I’m sure that, at some point, I’ll be sharing some big new happenings going over there.
Adrian Tennant: Alex, if IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners are interested in learning more about you and your work, what’s the best way to get in touch with you?
Alex Santiago: So the best way it’s always going to be online, it’s going to be social media. I’m @Sosaic on all platforms, S-O-S-A-I-C. That’s always going to be the easiest way. I’m also at Alex@socialmosaic.us. You’ll see the red glasses over there. So yeah, online is usually going to be the easiest thing. AlexSantiago.me is my personal website. I have a contact sheet there. So, if that’s easier for you, you can definitely check that out.
Adrian Tennant: Marvellous. And we’ll include a link to the “Stop Asking for Logos” webpage in the description and transcript for this episode.
Alex Santiago: Thank you so much.
Adrian Tennant: Alex, thank you very much for being our guest on IN CLEAR FOCUS.
Alex Santiago: Thank you so much for having me.
Adrian Tennant: Thanks again to my guest this week, Alex Santiago, award-winning creative strategist and author of “Stop Asking for Logos.” As always, you’ll find a full transcript of our conversation, along with links to the resources we discussed, on the Bigeye website at bigeyeagency.com. Just select ‘Podcast’ from the menu. Thanks for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye