Disruption is never easy but it’s impossible to avoid right now. During the Promax Virtual Experience, Barrie Gruner, vice president, originals marketing and publicity at Hulu; Puja Vohra, executive vice president of marketing and strategy at Showtime Media Networks; and Jenny Wall, chief marketing officer at Nickelodeon, discussed how they are approaching disruption with as much grace and humility as they can muster.
While disruption is stressful for everyone, it’s also an opportunity to create necessary organizational change, they said.
“It’s easier to disrupt right now because everybody is talking about it and expecting it,” said Gruner. “I’ve worked at many companies where disruption was not okay. Hulu, which is set up in part to disrupt, is different. Being okay to fail is really a part of the culture and the leadership. You need leadership that is not only comfortable with risk but celebrates it.”
“From a disruption perspective, it’s become easier,” said Wall. “There is such uncertainty and we know that we need to change. For those of us lucky enough to be in these positions, we’ve had to fail and learn, fail and learn, take negative and positive feedback and learn quickly. You have to open yourself up to fail.”
“There’s definitely more permission to fail right now. There’s more permission for companies that weren’t disrupting to try to disrupt,” added Vohra, who only joined Showtime a week before the pandemic forced everyone to work at home, resulting Vohra having to get to know her team through Zoom video calls.
One caveat, Vohra said, is that disruption is challenging during the best of times, and these are not the best of times.
“There’s a little bit of analysis paralysis because of the uncertainty. And I think there is a personal and emotional side of what so many people are going through,” she said. “It’s a wild roller coaster ride and no two days feel like you can really plan for things because things change all the time.”
Both Nickelodeon and Showtime have taken big swings and made big pivots during this time.
Nickelodeon joined ViacomCBS’ overall campaign to show its support for the Black Lives Matter movement by airing an 8:46 roadblock that was only a black screen with white letters across it, accompanied by the sound of breathing. The roadblock ran across ViacomCBS’ youth and entertainment networks (MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, Paramount Network, BET, Pop TV, CMT, VH1, Logo and Smithsonian) on Monday, June 1 at 5 p.m. ET/PT, one week after the death of George Floyd at the hands of former Minneapolis police officers.
“Some kids live in fear every day, but we have found we can talk to kids in a more mature voice,” said Wall. “We need to have real conversations with them. Things like this are embedded in children’s minds between the ages of 2 and 4.”
Along those lines, Nickelodeon also has launched several initiatives. On Monday, June 29, it aired a Nick News special on kids, race and unity hosted by Alicia Keys.
“This is not a campaign for us,” said Wall. “This is more of a sustained effort. It’s been wonderful to see the impact we’ve been able to have.”
Showtime found itself in the position of having to pivot quickly when it had to change its plans to host a big concert called The Chi House Party in support of its show The Chi, which is executive produced by Lena Waithe and Common, both of whom are from Chicago.
“When the George Floyd incident happened, overnight we knew we couldn’t have the Chi House Party. In three days, we pivoted and made the platform The Chi with Love, which donated to the Equal Justice Initiative,” said Vohra.
The new show aired on YouTube and featured appearances by Waithe and Common as well as Chi stars and favorite Chicago performances such as Twista, Ravyn Lenae, Jamila Woods, BJ The Chicago Kid, and MFnMelo. Showtime and ViacomCBS also made a $500,000 donation to EJI on behalf of the series.
Making such big moves requires teams to all take ownership in the brands for which they work, Vohra said.
“I talk and think a lot about being owners and not renters,” she said. “I tell my team, ‘if you see something, saying something. We are all owners in this brand. This is your brand, this is your life, make it count for something. If you see something that’s broken, say something, fix it. Make your time here count.’”
For Wall, the way that’s accomplished is by creating a less hierarchical system within the organization in which people feel safe being honest with their leadership.
“You need to break some of these habits where people are afraid to talk,” Wall said. “It’s pretty incredible the things that people bring to me. I’m so proud of them for calling me out. I’m finding that people are more honest with me over Zoom than over a conference table.”
“It’s about being vulnerable ourselves, especially if something hasn’t worked or if we’ve made a mistake,” said Gruner.
Still, all three admitted that disruption is not easy and something is lost in translation during endless Zoom meetings.
Said Wall: “What you’ve lost is the pleasantries, the chit-chat. That’s the thing I miss the most.”