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Q&A With Northwell's New Deputy Chief Marketing Officer

Analysis  |  By Melanie Blackman  
   September 12, 2022

Joseph Leston details what he is focused on in his new role and talks about the system's unique internal agency.

Joseph Leston joined Northwell Health, a nonprofit health system serving New York's metro area through 21 hospitals, in 2016. Since then, he has served as assistant vice president of marketing and customer communications for CareConnect Insurance Co., a commercial health plan owned by Northwell. Most recently he served as vice president of marketing services for the health system.

Due to a recent appointment, Leston now serves as Northwell's deputy chief marketing officer, where he will work under Ramon Soto, senior vice president and chief marketing and communications officer.

In his new role, he will continue to lead the health system's internal marketing communications agency, which operates as the marketing service arm of the $14 billion health system and produces about 95% of the system's advertising. He will also lead content and creative, customer insights and analytics, marketing operations, multimedia, and digital channel strategy.

In a recent interview with HealthLeaders, Leston details what he is focused on in his new role and talks about the system's unique internal agency.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

HealthLeaders: When was the internal agency established and what is the role that the agency plays for the entire health system?

Leston: When I joined Northwell the agency was born shortly afterward. One of the things that my boss, Ramon Soto, the chief marketing officer, and I spoke about when we were figuring out what the best role within Northwell for me would be, was this consolidation of services. Prior to that, each one of those functions reported up to Ramon and they were doing extraordinary work; they were just more siloed than we would all like, with their own disparate sets of goals. Putting them underneath one person allowed us to synchronize goals across all functions and start breaking down processes so that there was one intake system for the whole department. That intake system is fully integrated with all the work that we do, and we can truly operate as efficiently as we need to, because there's a crusher of work that only gets larger every year, which is good.

Prior to the agency's formation, all advertising was pushed out through agency work, not all through our agency of record (AOR) at the time, but smaller agencies with whom we partnered, and the work was very hit or miss. When you're working with five, six, or seven agencies, you get five, six, or seven agencies' interpretation of your brand guidelines. Everyone's pushing for something new and different for the sake of new and different because that's what agencies are in the business of delivering, and you could see it in the market. You could see that outside of the big brand work that was formally coming out of the shop, all of the tactical and more consumer-driven, service-line-supporting work felt like it was a little helter-skelter.

One of the major tasks of the agency and its formation was to bring all of that advertising work for the clinical marketing sides and the regional marketing sides of the house inside, so that we were a bit closer to the business. We could push out work much more cheaply, much faster, and better because we just knew the business better than any external agency could.

HL: How will you continue to collaborate with Ramon Soto?

Leston: Very closely; he's my boss and my mentor. He is extraordinarily talented and I have a lot to learn from him still. He manages a very large shop and part of my new responsibilities is the brand work that formerly sat  outside of my purview will now be coming in. Now we'll also be uniting the internal work that the agency had been creating formerly with the big brand work that our AOR had been creating under the auspices of a different leader. Now this will give us the opportunity to unite those two sides of the house so that the creative is all working in concert together, and it will also allow us to figure out what the next chapter of the Northwell brand is. And that's really the biggest thing on my plate over the next few months to try to work through, develop, and establish, and also to push out.

The brand is in an extraordinary place, especially considering where it was before Ramon got here. It has reached new heights in awareness and consideration and continues to do so every single year. The landscape is changing. Competition is getting more fierce, consumers have higher expectations. Everybody is saying the same thing in our space. Our challenge is going to be how to differentiate in this industry and do so in a way that's impactful to consumers, that's a promise that we can keep, and that's a promise that consumers want to hear.

HL: What top-of-mind pain points are you addressing through your marketing efforts?

Leston: Part of the challenge of our next chapter is how to beat back the competition and how to make sure that we're front and center in consumers' minds when they're thinking about healthcare in New York.

One of the bigger pain points is not just unique to healthcare marketing, it's across the board. Every marketer is talking about how to really A) define the value of the brand that you've created; what is the tangible value of it so that you know how much to continue investing in it and how much value it is bringing to the organization, and then B) what is the value of your more tactical marketing efforts from an ROI perspective, so that we make sure that we're getting $2 out of every $1 that we're putting into the market.

Northwell is a huge organization. It takes a lot to move the needle for us, so the expectations are high, as they should be. I'm thinking about how to make sure that we're being good financial stewards of the dollars entrusted to us and that we're delivering and adding value to this exceptional clinical organization that Northwell is, so that we can do more and be more in the future.

HL: What is one piece of advice that you can share for other marketers in the healthcare sector?

Leston: I would say that healthcare is a little behind the times—I don't think it would be controversial for me to say that. Consumerism is hitting us hard. Consumers have high expectations that are being set by other industries. Healthcare marketing, for a long time, has been able to skirt by without having to really innovate and I think that those times are changing.

My advice to both young healthcare marketers coming up now and healthcare executives is that the time to think differently has already come. They'd be very well served to try to break out of this healthcare box that we all live in and start thinking about things from the perspective of the consumer. We need to be able to get closer to the people that we serve.

HL: Is there anything else that you'd like to add about your new role?

Leston: I'm flattered at the trust that Ramon has put in me to take this No. 2 position with him and try to take this brand to the next level. I think we're going to do amazing things. Northwell as an organization is uniquely positioned to further its greatness in this market and I think our marketing communication shop is also uniquely positioned.

We have extraordinarily talented people in the shop. I have been fortunate since the day that I stepped foot here to be able to work with truly some of the best in this industry and outside of it. It's a joy to come to work every day and get to work with them.

I could not do it alone; I could not do it without Ramon, and I could not do it without my team. My team is the reason why it's so exciting to come to work every day. I have a lot of very smart people backing me up and they're extraordinarily motivated, talented, and pushing this business forward.

“Our challenge is going to be how to differentiate in this industry and do so in a way that's impactful to consumers, that's a promise that we can keep, and that's a promise that consumers want to hear.”

Melanie Blackman is the strategy editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.


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