Krystel Baeza, BHP 2007, is a Strategy Director for Wunderman based in London. Wunderman is a leading digital agency with 175 offices in 60 countries. Prior to her time at Wunderman, she completed a three-year rotational fellowship with WPP, the world’s largest marketing services company, where she worked with numerous brands including Volkswagen, Hasbro, Nestle, Cannon and Heineken. Krystel is also involved in the Texas Exes UK Chapter, helping to bring Longhorns living in London together.
The WPP MBA Fellowship allowed you to explore various roles and work with different clients. Tell me about that program and about what you learned from it.
There are two WPP programs, the MBA Fellowship and the Graduate Fellowship, which is for people who are fresh out of college or have other master’s degrees, but not an MBA like mine. I went to Carnegie Mellon to get an MBA to help me transition from agency-side to client-side, but I ended up realizing I still preferred agency work. When I returned to school after an internship, I talked to my advisor about my career options, and she told me about the WPP MBA Fellowship.
The MBA fellowship is very competitive. Hundreds apply each year, but only 5 people from all over the world are selected. The program is three years long with three one-year rotations within the different companies WPP owns worldwide. It is a very large company, so I had the opportunity to find the path that was right for me. I found that the consumer was my passion, so I felt a career in strategy was the best fit. The first year, you get a spreadsheet with all the roles they have worldwide. You are able to pick the roles which interest you, and interview directly with the CEOs, or other leaders of those companies.
The first year, I chose a year at Grey New York, working in strategy for the Hasbro account. I then moved to London to do a media and consumer insights rotation at Mediacom with the Volkswagen account. The last year I did digital strategy at POSSIBLE London for a luxury chocolate company owned by Nestle, called Cailler. At the end of the program, I knew I wanted to stay in London and work in digital strategy so I ended up working at Wunderman UK for a software client, Dassault Systemes.
The years I spent in the fellowship helped me figure out my true passion, which was consumer insights. The program also helped me learn to adapt to different cultures. You go in at a pretty senior level for each rotation, so you learn very quickly because you have a whole team relying on you. As soon as you learn to do one role, it is time to interview again and switch gears. It makes you realize that you can do anything, you just have to have a team willing to let you learn, try and fail.
What made you stand out among all the hundreds of applicants vying for a spot in the fellowship?
I had to write seven to eight essays for the application, some of which were personal, so I was able to tell my story. I made it to the interview round, where you interview with multiple CEOs. One CEO focused entirely on one of my essays about an obstacle I had faced. In that essay, I had written about how I came to the U.S. from Venezuela at 13, not knowing any English. As an immigrant family trying to build a new life in America, we didn’t have the money for me to go to college, but my mom made it clear that I needed to go, so I had to figure out a way to pay for it on my own. I worked hard to become the valedictorian of my high school so I could get a full scholarship for school. I ended up getting a full scholarship to UT. It was a huge accomplishment for me, and the CEO recognized that I had been able to achieve that, and was very impressed by it.
You have worked with numerous brands in different capacities throughout your career, but the common theme seems to be brand strategy and customer insight. How do you successfully use customer insight to drive brand strategy?
For me, the key thing about being a strategist is that in a room filled with creatives, project managers, producers and account services, you are the true voice of the consumer. Everything I do is rooted in the consumer insights. You have to be able to discover the undeniable human truth and lead with that. I ask questions like, how are they consuming content, what are they reading, how can I convert someone past just awareness. I have to make sure that every meeting I go to, despite all other objectives, if my feedback isn’t rooted in consumer insights and my gut feel, we can’t move forward. For Wunderman, it begins with strategy and ends with strategy. Consumer insights isn’t an afterthought, which I appreciate. Our motto after all is “creatively driven, data inspired”.
Was there a campaign you worked on which you think did this really well?
Last year I worked on Cailler, which is a mainstream brand in Switzerland similar to Hershey’s in America. The company wanted to turn it into a luxury brand, like Godiva outside of the U.S. They decided to change the packaging and launch it on Amazon, which is pretty much the worst place to launch a chocolate. Chocolate is very tactile, and when you’re charging $35 per box, it is difficult to sell online. Cailler was pretty successful in Switzerland, but no one had heard of it in the U.S. They had issues with delivery not going well, including the chocolate melting during the shipping. We knew they needed a do-over. I used secondary research to determine who was their target audience, then asked if we could do a primary research study to validate the audience and get further insights. I partnered with a research agency, and did focus groups in Austin, New York and the West Coast. I validated insights and found new ones which drove the strategy and were the base of all of our creative work.
What do you think has changed in brand strategy since you started and where do you see this work headed with the proliferation of platforms competing for attention in the digital age?
There are a lot of new formats. In one day you might be competing in one format and the next, that format is obsolete. The rise of Snapchat is an example of that. Tons of brand jumped at the opportunity of using Snapchat as part of their marketing mix and quickly realized that it didn’t fit in with their consumer strategy. Marketers have to learn all these different platforms very quickly. You’re always finding yourself reading tech trends to see what the new social app of the moment is. It’s no secret that digital is going to pave the road for the future. There is a move towards content. Brands are starting to behave more and more like a publisher, and moving from doing ads to doing more thought leadership pieces which are more valuable for consumers, especially in the B2B market. That is where I see it moving. Being a thought leader really increases brand image. Think EY – it’s no longer a financial services company, it’s a financial thought leader helping people ask better questions for a better working world. I am seeing a trend of ad agencies looking more like consulting companies, offering digital transformation consulting services, and hiring management consultants to lead such projects. This means that as we move forward, we not only have to worry about other ad agencies taking our clients but we also have to worry about companies like PWC and Deloitte wanting a piece of the pie.
You have been working in London for three years now. What do you enjoy most about working abroad?
I love that I am able to leave work at 5:30. When I worked in New York, I was working until 10 pm most days and 2 am some days. I couldn’t make plans with friends or family. In London the mentality is different. If I wanted to take a vacation when I was in the U.S., I had to ask permission from at least five people for it to be approved. In London, when I want to take vacation, I don’t need to ask for permission, I just inform my team I’ll be out and they’ll figure it out. People respect your family time there much more than here. There isn’t a feeling like you can’t leave work whenever you want. As long as you get your work done, you can leave. We also get a lot more vacation days there – 27! You can have a much better work/life balance. I see my family more now living abroad than I did when I was living in New York!
For students studying abroad or hoping to work abroad after graduation, what would you tell them?
In general, be resilient. It is possible to have an internship abroad and work abroad. People love Americans, and love the education system here. Coming from BHP, you will have opportunities. Also, things change. You might have a plan, but life hits you. It is okay to do something different than your peers. I was the only one in my class to pursue advertising and I always felt different, like the odd sheep, but it’s super important to not compare yourself to your peers. You are your own person, you’re following different dreams. It is okay to be the odd person out and follow what you really want. Just keep at it and you will get there.