In an exclusive video interview, the spotlight-shunning PR leader delves into MEL’s groundbreaking launch, her recent milestones, and her strategic pivots

For Hispanic PR powerhouse Carla Santiago, the last four years have tested her leadership prowess. Among her challenges:

With MEL’s launch being arguably the biggest news of the year in Hispanic marketing, you would think Santiago is fazed by the pressure.

The Puerto Rican native takes that pressure in stride.

“When you work in the agency life for 20 years as I have, the word pressure is just synonymous with my everyday life,” Santiago says. “We’re always under pressure. We’re a for-profit company, so we have to get it right.”

Pedro Lerma (l), Luis Miguel Messianu (c), Richard Edelman (r), and Carla Santiago (f), the collaborative force behind MEL.

We caught up with Santiago this month to get her insights on MEL’s launch, its innovative marketing strategies, her career highlights, and the lessons she can share from her exciting journey. Here are five lessons we gleaned from our exclusive video interview:

1. MEL’s “earned-centric” strategy goes beyond “earned media.”

In an era of maturing social media platforms where brands are storytelling through short-form videos, podcasts, mixed reality, and influencers, Santiago emphasizes that the convergence of earned and paid media isn’t a result of marketing efforts but is driven by consumer expectations. To meet those expectations, MEL’s strategy is to combine its advertising and public relations superpowers. MEL’s press materials and website describe it as an “earned-centric” approach. Santiago clarifies that “earned-centric” goes beyond simply acquiring media attention.

“Truly for a campaign to take flight and for a campaign to reach its full potential of success, that campaign needs to have an element that it is going to earn attention and it is going to earn people’s trust, and it is going to earn an action from people,” Santiago said. “So when we say earned-centric, we’re not talking about earned media. We’re talking about truly putting our creativity and our creative ideas to not be about selling, but to be about solving and about earning a place in people’s hearts and minds.”

2. If you get your marketing strategy right with Hispanics, you’ll get it right with the mainstream.

Santiago identifies a progressive trend where mainstream marketers are recognizing the importance of the Hispanic market to the survival of their brands and agencies. She asserts that Hispanics are not just a demographic; they are trendsetters and influencers shaping the cultural agenda. Therefore, success with the Hispanic market often translates to success with the mainstream market.

“Hispanics are pop culture, Hispanics are trendsetters, Hispanics are setting the agenda of culture in this country,” Santiago said. “So what’s happening is, once you get it right with the Hispanic and the multicultural community, then most likely you will get it right with the mainstream because we are the agenda setters.”

3. Purposeful Hispanic campaigns are a rising – and welcome – trend.

Another prevailing Hispanic marketing trend Santiago pointed out was a movement toward purposeful campaigns. She welcomes this trend and encourages the industry to create work that leaves a positive impact, defining positivity broadly, from bringing smiles to faces to instigating meaningful societal change. The focus is on inspiring a better future for all Hispanics in the United States.

“The latest trend in Hispanic work is to do purposeful work and do purposeful creative, purposeful ideas, purposeful activations, and make sure that the work is leaving positivity behind in whatever it is,” Santiago said. “The work that we should be doing moving forward, all of us as a collective, is work that is inspiring a better future for all Hispanics in the United States.”

4. To grow, focus on your team’s superpowers.

When asked about how she transformed the Edelman Miami office during the pandemic, Santiago outlines a strategic approach to growth centered around recognizing and leveraging the existing capabilities of her team. She highlights the importance of focusing on what the team excels at in the present moment rather than attempting to be everything for everyone. The strategy involves saying no to areas where expertise is lacking and concentrating on what the team already knows how to do.

“The strategy was: What is that [area] that we are going to be the best at? What are the capabilities that we have here right now? Not future thinking. Who is in the room in this office right now, and what do they know how to do? And that is going to be what we offer the market,” she said. “And we are going to have to say no, because if it’s something we do not know how to do, then we can’t do it, because we cannot, as we’re trying to grow this office and survive COVID, we cannot start teaching people how to do something they’ve never done.”

5. People-centric leadership pays dividends

Paradoxically, while the ultimate spotlight is on Santiago and her MEL co-founders at the moment, she doesn’t seek the spotlight. Santiago’s leadership philosophy is to focus on people rather than personal recognition. She prefers to work diligently every day, prioritizing her team’s well-being. Santiago describes her leadership style as people-centric, with a commitment to empowering others through her journey. She often shares her journey and her leadership principles with university students.

“I went to school a lot and I have a lot of degrees, but mostly I’ve just worked and I’ve worked. And I don’t work for glory and I don’t work for attention and I don’t work for the spotlight,” Santiago said. “I work with my head down and I do the best that I can do every day, and I take care of my people. If anybody has ever worked with me or for me knows, I am one of the most people-centric leaders there will ever be. And I am honored every time that students feel that my story empowers them. I want people to feel that they can relate to me and relate to the truth of my journey.”

To view the interview, click here. To read the full transcript, click here.

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