Shari Cohen is the executive director of media investments at Group M, the world’s largest media group and home to agencies such as Mindshare and Essence. As a senior leader, she is responsible for investing clients’ ad spends across video formats: traditional TV, digital and cinema. She’s been at Group M since 2001; before that, Cohen worked in sales and planning roles for both networks and brands. She recently spoke to SheReports about media planning in an era when everything seems to be political and social media firestorms can break out at any moment.

What you do every day is put big brands in front of mass audiences.

Yes. But it’s not about negotiating the best price. As the landscape has changed and things have become more complicated, it’s really about coming up with ideas that are strategically aligned with the brand and developing a deeper engaGEM®ent with the content.

And as the country has become so politically polarized, has that changed what you do?

At Mindshare, we have a focus on being very agile, which is a point of differentiation in an environment where things can change in a heartbeat because of the social scrutiny of everything that we do. Every client and every brand has its own DNA — how they want to react, do they want to play it safe, do they want to resonate with millennials, who appreciate brands that are transparent and honest and march to their own beat — so there’s no one hard and fast rule.

Woman and man working together at a table

It used to be that you could do much more in a vacuum. Now you can’t be anonymous. No one can be thinking about you at 9:00 a.m., and by 9:10 a.m., the entire world can be focused on you. The decisions that are made now, because of the environment, the media landscape and the instant nature of the internet, you need additional thought as to what could you could trigger. It’s a challenge for everybody.

Look at what Nike just did with the Colin Kaepernick ad. To me, it’s synonymous with their brand, with courage. I think when they put it out there, they knew that not everybody was going to think it was right, but they thought it was right. There are always varying degrees of risk-taking or putting yourself out there.

These days, do you have to take a position on one side or the other the way Nike did? Or is it still possible to speak to everybody together?

Ideally, you try to not alienate anybody. But because we’re under this social microscope, you just have to be more thoughtful about what you’re doing. Ultimately, you’re not going to be able to please everybody. It’s very challenging. It’s not as easy or clear-cut to make a decision as it once was.

Now you can’t be anonymous. No one can be thinking about you at 9:00 a.m., and by 9:10 a.m., the entire world can be focused on you.

So how do you advise clients? Does it all come down to the brand’s DNA?

It does. I think my job is to be an advisor and give the best advice possible. In the end, it’s the client’s money, and it’s the client’s decision.

As an example, American Express is one of our clients. They’re a financial institution, they’re an iconic brand, so they think and act in a certain way. I work on Unilever, which has the brand Dove, and Dove has always put itself out there as dedicated to authenticity. It’s the same thing with Axe. Those brands know what they stand for, and they want to be true to it. Particularly with millennials, a brand is tested every day, and they have to prove that they are authentic and that they’re not going to succumb to pressures.

Group of African-American women

Really, what you’re saying is it’s all about authenticity. To Nike, authenticity is Kaepernick. To Dove, it’s body diversity. To a financial institution, for example, authenticity might be to not have a viewpoint on these things

Right. The big thing is it’s not one size fits all anymore. Least common denominator, least objectionable doesn’t work. You have to take a stand, but you have to be true to who you are, what you’ve represented, and you need to evolve. You can’t stand still. If you stand still, you’re going to lose.

Look at what Nike just did with the Colin Kaepernick ad. To me, it’s synonymous with their brand, with courage.

The #SeeHer initiative is about changing depictions of women in advertising. Are you seeing an evolution towards stronger depictions of women?

I’ve been involved from the beginning. Again, it depends on the DNA of the clients. There are the innovators, there are the fast followers and then there are the laggards. Have we made strides? Yes. Is it an evolving process? Yes. And I think a lot of it is still driven by economics and not necessarily by what’s right. I think that there’s still work to be done.

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