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How Innovative, Out-Of-The-Box Marketing Efforts Landed Northwell Health's Marketing Exec on Ad Council's BOD

Analysis  |  By Melanie Blackman  
   June 12, 2023

Ramon Soto was among 19 new members that recently joined the Ad Council's board of directors.

Editor’s note: This article appears in the July-September 2023 edition of HealthLeaders magazine.

Northwell Health's SVP and chief marketing and communications officer was recently named to the Ad Council's board of directors, an accomplishment that he is shocked and delighted by.

Ramon Soto, who has led Northwell Health's marketing and communications since 2015, was among 19 new members added to help guide and support the Ad Council, a nonprofit media company that uses marketing to bring awareness to and solve social issues.

"Our Board is instrumental in empowering the Ad Council to drive measurable impact on our country's most pressing issues," Lisa Sherman, president and CEO of the Ad Council," said in a statement. "Whether they are lending their individual expertise, providing the unparalleled support of their organizations or motivating the communications industry at large to create meaningful purpose-driven work, I am ecstatic to welcome these incredible leaders and collaborate with them to create lasting positive change."

Soto, recently sat down with HealthLeaders to talk about his new board of director's seat and Northwell's ongoing success in tackling public health issues through their innovative marketing strategies.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

HealthLeaders: What was your initial reaction to being named to the Ad Council's board of directors (BOD)?

Ramon Soto: I am a combination of shocked and delighted. If you think about the Ad Council, it's such a storied organization. Born in World War II to help the US government raise funds, specifically bonds to fund the war, for its roots and patriotism, trying to drive important change in society that benefits society.

These are the people who created the iconic Smokey the Bear content. These are the people who help bend the curve on automobile accidents and deaths, who've gone headlong into tackling social issues, drug issues, creating a more equal society. They do absolutely amazing work.

They became aware of some of our efforts with gun violence and we invited them to one of our thought leadership summits on the topic where we showcased some of our campaign work. They were super interested and realized that healthcare had an opportunity to contribute more to what they were doing, and it was a lane that was untapped for them.

I'm looking forward to helping them think through this particular channel, and then contributing in the smallest of ways to this bigger chapter: How do we leverage an impartial voice to get America to a better place? And I mean that in its broadest sense. We seem to be drifting towards this place of intolerance. All these issues popping up; these knock on effects of COVID, these unintended consequences. There's just so much to do, and it's one of the things that attracted me to healthcare: a purpose driven approach to how we go to market and how we get everybody to experience better health.

Related: Northwell Marketing Campaign Wants to Normalize The Conversation Around Gun Safety

HL: According to the press release, the BOD will work with the Ad Council's leadership to "spearhead the communications industry's efforts to address gun violence, mental health, the drug overdose epidemic, and racial justice." How do you currently address these issues through Northwell's marketing efforts?

Soto: An interesting thing happened in 2019 and it wasn't the pandemic. It was that guns became the leading cause of death for children in the United States.

With Northwell leadership, and specifically Michael Dowling, our CEO, [we] decided to do an enterprise brand level campaign at very high media weights in the New York market to alert parents that there's this new thing lurking that they have to protect their kids [from]. I shared that with colleagues and other health systems across the US and they were all very interested in participating in the campaign. So, we created a national effort with 157 health systems to leverage the creative work that Northwell had developed, so that they [could] use in their markets [and] their brands, and we made it available gratis.

Through that effort, we built up a huge repository of research. We have a lot of market validation on our approach. We were able to bend the curve, at least getting parents aware that guns are now the leading cause of death for kids, and to take action.

That will be extended to another campaign, and we're talking with the council about how we complement all that work with a national effort that would be driven through their organization. We're very early stages of the council and how we execute that, but it's certainly collaborative in nature. I think they appreciate the work that we've done and the body of knowledge that we can use to advance their own efforts.

Regarding behavioral health … you have the intersection with behavioral health and gun violence. And you see it almost every day, unfortunately. We have to get that to a different place. Our marketing effort is a bit more nascent there, but we're taking a slightly different approach. We've partnered with a major film distributor and created a documentary that will be launched later this year. It highlights one of our mental health programs that we have for college students. Specifically, we plan to [have a] filming crew observe one of our programs in action and individuals coming in at their most vulnerable. This intake of somebody who's not in the right frame of mind and a follow through a deep intervention, and it showcases how through the appropriate clinical engagement, we can do better for society. We can get these people better. We're exploring potentially with a national campaign on early identification of behavioral or mental health issues, because all the data suggests that the earlier we identify this individual, the better the outcome, [and] the better that that individual will get.

HL: You've led innovative, out-of-the-box marketing and communication efforts for Northwell since 2015. What are some of your favorite campaigns you've helped lead?

Soto: The gun violence work, specifically, because of its impacts. Before we launched that campaign, only about 14% of people knew that there was this hidden danger and that they had to ask the question, 'is there an unlocked gun in the house?' when they were visiting another household. After we launched that campaign, parents in particular, skyrocketed to 70% [saying] they were prepared to ask that question. What was particularly rewarding about it was we saw the move on the data side.

I honestly think for these big societal issues, it's not one big or small act that's going to bend the curve; it's hundreds of big and small acts. And this is just one of the stepping stones in getting society to the right place.

The second project was our most recent Netflix documentary [series]. It's called Emergency NYC. I just got the Nielsen data: it is the fifth most popular streaming show of all streaming platforms in the country. It's got millions and millions of minutes viewed of the content. Particularly with Netflix, it's a platform where you can invite people in to see what happens behind the glass in this really intimate way. It's great content, but you can take the journey with them. And it allows you to engage with consumers in a very different fashion.

We'll be doing more of these things. This is what actually led to the behavioral health documentary. We have another project in the pipeline. But it's a different way of marketing. And we're finding its creating really interesting dividends helping us create not just a national brand, but an international brand.

That's kind of our secret sauce. So much of healthcare targets consumers and speaks about the transaction. The social side of health becomes this really interesting territory that we're choosing to look at and build brand association, and we're finding it's creating brand value and the engagement part of it, like interacting with individuals well before the health event, so that they're predisposed to use their service that is fundamental to how we go to market. All the brand data suggests that we created a juggernaut in our marketplace.

Related: Northwell Health CEO Addresses Gun Violence Prevention

“We seem to be drifting towards this place of intolerance. All these issues popping up; these knock on effects of COVID, these unintended consequences. There's just so much to do, and it's one of the things that attracted me to healthcare: a purpose driven approach to how we go to market and how we get everybody to experience better health.”

Melanie Blackman is a contributing editor for strategy, marketing, and human resources at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.

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