An Interview with Roberto Ramos of the vox collective [EXCLUSIVE Q&A]

HPRB: What was your childhood ambition?
Roberto: My childhood ambition continues to be the same one as an adult, and that is to travel the world and get to know different people and cultures. A lot of what we do in communications is seeking that point of connection with others through storytelling. Moving outside of your comfort by going to different places is very invigorating, and provides plenty of fodder for storytelling.

HPRB: Tell us about three people you admire and why?
Roberto: I’m inspired by innovative thinkers and creators who challenge existing notions to come up with transformative change. These individuals usually share a singularity of vision, perseverance against all odds, and a borderline unrealistic sense of what is feasible. At the core there is a boldness of purpose that I admire.

Steve Jobs’s recent passing sheds special light on the power of business visionaries to change how we live our lives. I also admire the soft power of leaders like Gandhi and Mandela who, through perseverance and humility, were able to bring down until then powerful regimes.

I’m also inspired by creators in our communications industry. People like David Ogilvy and Lee Clow who have artfully balanced the worlds of art and commerce in the creation of business art through advertising and marketing.

HPRB: What is your favorite life or business quote?
Roberto: As an entrepreneur, I am very attracted to the clear and urgent ethos of Nike’s “Just Do It.” A great example of a how a brand can stand for so much.

HPRB: Besides your firm, what are you really passionate about outside of work?
Roberto: Companies like mine are in the business of identifying the next big thing and connecting those shifts in societal preferences with our clients’ business needs. It’s about being connected to what is happening.

This is a happy coincidence as I terribly enjoy people watching and trend spotting. A lover of cities, I like walking around and seeing how people interact, etc. I also love staying connected with that is happening in the worlds of the arts, etc.

Galleries, museums and concert halls provide much needed creative stimulation to make sure we’re coming up with textured and differentiated ideas and campaigns for our clients. Plenty to learn from creative outliers.

And during any extra time I muster, I try to tackle my growing in-box in my Kindle and I-Pad.

HPRB: Tell us about your educational background…
Roberto: I studied government and literature at Cornell University in Ithaca, in upstate New York. Ithaca’s infamous winters were the perfect backdrop for long hours at the library and for long conversations about everything, from literature to how we could change the world.

People always ask me what major they would recommend to get into advertising and PR. And while there are some specialized programs, my advice would always be, to focus on the humanities as much as possible. A well-rounded education with a strong focus on writing already provides the candidate with a powerful foundation. The ability to think critically and make strong arguments in persuasive spoken and written form sits at the core of what we do daily, engage clients and customers through our stories.

HPRB: What is one of the best lessons your parents taught you about life?
Roberto: Simply put, the importance of working hard and being ready for opportunities.

HPRB: What is the most important business habit you have?
Roberto: Being in the services industry, it would be going the extra mile for our clients. I also fret about learning as much as possible about our clients’ industries through research. This latter element requires reading as much as possible to stay on top of trends. Reading is how I begin my mornings and end my nights.

HPRB: What is the best book you’ve recently read and why?
Roberto: My log of books is a bit over the place. I enjoy fiction, but also biographies and non-fiction with a focus on creativity and innovation. I just finished rocker poet Patti Smith’s “Just Kids,” about her relationship with photographer artist Robert Mapplethorpe. It’s an endearing story of two friends amidst the backdrop of artistic New York City. I’ve also just finished NYT columnist David Brook’s “The Social Animal,” about the human mind and the purported causes for success and failure in life.

On the innovation side of things, I really enjoyed David Pink’s “A Whole New Mind,” and the focus on resetting how we think to be more competitive in today’s creative economy.

HPRB: How did you start your career in PR and where has that taken you?
Roberto: My first job in public relations was working for Burson-Marsteller in their Latin American practice out of their New York headquarters. This first job taught me many lessons about the services industry, starting with the importance of understanding those things keeping your client up at night.

The regional and cultural focus on Latin America also taught me about the professional advantage of specialization, including the ability to speak more than one language. Perhaps most importantly, this position taught me about the importance of establishing great working collaborations through good communication. Mastering collaboration is critical to professional development.

HPRB: What advice would you have for young people exploring Hispanic or multicultural PR careers?
Roberto: My first piece of advice would be to be fearless in terms of asking questions. This begins during that seminal juncture of choosing a profession. Try to line up as many informational interviews as possible to learn about those industries. It’s both a good way of walking into work settings and feeling the vibe, as well as a more authentic and relaxed way of building a network that can lead to a job.

The other piece of advice is to be as prepared as possible. It’s a very competitive job market, as we all know. Focus on staying on top of trends, read as much as possible, and start cultivating your own brand. The latter can be done by taking advantage of social media technologies to practice the art of articulating your ponderings on the market and our industry. Be confident in your unique youthful perspective and how coveted it is.

HPRB: Tell us something about you that would surprise even many of your closest friends:
Roberto: I don’t think much would surprise my closest friends. Many of them are curious as to what I really do, so perhaps a week at the office would give them a true sense of what working in a PR/Ad agency is all about.

HPRB: What do you believe differentiates your agency and how big is your Hispanic-focused PR team?
Roberto: One of the elements that sets us apart is that the vox collective is a full service agency. We’re also nimble enough where wee can ensure that all teams work together in the pursuit of the big idea. Having an in-house creative team adds a level of dynamism to our PR brainstorming, strategizing, and execution.

Something that has set us apart from the very beginning has been our focus on culture over language, allowing us to be front-runners in developing bilingual campaigns to reach Hispanics as well as a mainstream market interested in Latino culture.

HPRB: Describe the most effective Hispanic marketing campaign you’ve worked on and what made it special?
Roberto: We just finished the first year of an exciting corporate leadership campaign with PepsiCo. The program, entitled “La Promesa de PepsiCo” focuses on expanding PepsiCo’s leadership position in the Hispanic community through programs that give back and engage our community’s key influencers.

A big area of focus has been strategic corporate giving to leading Hispanic organizations in the creation of joint programs in key areas such as education and wellness. We’ve also focused on forging relationships and a dialogue with community leaders, many of them young Latino social entrepreneurs, to inform the strategy. It’s about building a true relationship with the community.

I’m also proud of our work for Sanofi-Pasteur (through Cooney Waters) where we developed a regional community grassroots campaign called “Vacune a sus Hijos Adolescentes”. A key component involved engaging non-profit organizations, including “Promotoras”, in East Los Angeles. The focus was on generating awareness about Meningitis and Whooping Cough, while informing Hispanics about a free vaccination program offered by the government to low-income families. The campaign was recognized by the Public Relations Society of America by being nominated for a 2011 Big Apple Award.

HPRB: What are some of your agency’s top Hispanic/multicultural PR clients and what is the most exciting campaign your team is presently working on?
Roberto: We work with industry leaders across industries. That is one of the benefits of the agency world, being able to take on different industries. Our clients include Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, PepsiCo, Vonage, and Sanofi-Pasteur among others.

We’re currently working in multiple campaigns. One of the areas we are most excited about is the growing area of corporate social responsibility. Today’s consumers, especially the informed millenials, are very demanding on how companies conduct themselves. This is very critical in the Hispanic community, where customers are more likely to support brands that are giving back. I feel this presents marketers with a strong opportunity to build authentic programs around shared values of progress.

HPRB: What adjustments has your agency made to overcome some of the challenges of the current prolonged recession?
Roberto: We’ve benefited from being an entrepreneurial agency of medium size. This has allowed us to be cost-competitive for clients while maintaining a core focus on top-notch service. In terms of adjustments, we’ve learned to become more efficient. We’ve also, during the height of the recession, pulled together as a team to make sure we kept key talent. As a result, we were ahead of the pack in instituting key initiatives such as four-day weeks as a means of bringing down costs while retaining all key staff.

HPRB: What’s in the works at your agency for continued growth and expansion?
Roberto: Our focus is on building a communications consultancy focused on the power of Latin culture. Our vision, and I believe it’s the direction where agencies should go, is to go into areas such as branded content, and the co-creation of products with client partners. In essence, it’s moving beyond the traditional marketing services to make sure we’re also coming up with assets that go beyond campaigns.

HPRB: What’s in the works at your agency for continued growth and expansion?
Roberto: Our focus is on building a communications consultancy focused on the power of Latin culture. Our vision, and I believe it’s the direction where agencies should go, is to go into areas such as branded content, and the co-creation of products with client partners. In essence, it’s moving beyond the traditional marketing services to make sure we’re also coming up with assets that go beyond campaigns.

HPRB: What is the biggest Hispanic marketing cliché that you would love to see go away?
Roberto: That Hispanics are brand loyal. While there’s some truth to this, I think it presents an image of the Hispanic consumer as not informed and less likely to consider multiple brands. The reality is that the Hispanic consumer is increasingly courted by multiple brands in any one industry, and will make the brands work hard for their preference and loyalty.

HPRB: What are the top dos and don’ts about marketing through Hispanic social media?
Roberto: Social media doesn’t reinvent the wheel in human interactions. It’s just a different form of interacting Based on this, some of the rules include being a relevant part of the conversation, listening, providing content and benefits of value to the consumer and community.

At the core, a successful campaign is one based on authenticity and value to the consumer and community. The main don’t would be forcing a conversation and being too obvious about selling the brand. You don’t want to be that annoying car salesman.

HPRB: What are your three favorite sources to find out what is going on in the US Hispanic world and what do you look for in these resources?
Roberto: This was the year of the Census, so the government’s website is a great tool. There I look for the power of numbers to tell the story of the opportunity to reach Hispanics. I also look for the story of the changing demographics. The Pew Hispanic Center also has extensive and rich studies on the Hispanic experience in this country.

It’s also important to keep our finger on the pulse in terms of what is happening in popular culture. For this I check out what is on Spanish language and bilingual television such as Univision, Telemundo and Mun2. A must watch for me is Jorge Ramos’s “Al Punto,” for a roundup of Latino issues. Other tools include Billboard’s top Latin songs and albums charts to learn about upcoming acts. My younger colleagues are also a great reference point for what’s hot as well as upcoming blogs.

But at the end, the best way of staying connected is by being out in the market. I take advantage of all my travels to go out there and see what is new. We’re in the business of speaking to consumers, so we must not forget to do precisely that.