The following is a full transcript from the Hispanic PR Blog Marketing Webinar, “Interview with MEL Founder and COO Carla Santiago,” available here.
BILL: Welcome to the fourth Noticias Newswire and Hispanic PR Blog marketing webinar. I’m Bill Gato. I’m the CEO of Noticias Newswire, and the co-publisher of the Hispanic PR Blog. Noticias Newswire is the only Latino-owned and operated press release distribution service targeting the U.S. Hispanic and Puerto Rico markets. The Hispanic PR Blog is a trade journal, platform, and resource for Hispanic and multicultural communications professionals. Today I have the pleasure of interviewing Carla Santiago, Founder, and COO of MEL. MEL is a brand new minority-owned and Hispanic-led full-service communications agency. The name MEL is an acronym based on the last names of three of the founders, Luis Miguel Messianu, Richard Edelman, and Pedro Lerma. All four founders are pioneers in the Hispanic marketing and PR spaces. And up until the launch of MEL, Carla was the General Manager of Edelman PR’s Miami office. So, Carla, welcome and I appreciate your time today.
CARLA: Thank you so much, Bill. So happy to be here.
BILL: Carla, to use a 70s and 80s musical analogy, there’s a supergroup aspect to MEL because all four of you were already rock stars in the PR and marketing spaces before launching MEL, right? So, coming out of the gate, there’s a built-in trust, infrastructure, and branding already. That’s priceless. I wanted to get your perspective. I’d love to interview all four of you separately or as a group. But I wanted to start with you because of the four of you, you’re Latina and a PR pro. The one – of the four of you – that I felt was most relevant for now for the Hispanic PR Blog. Can you tell us the story of MEL’s creation, and how you got involved in the launch of this new agency?
CARLA: Of course, of course. And thank you so much for this time, Bill. And yes, all of our founders would be absolutely delighted to speak to you in the future. As you mentioned, I am a longtime name in the Hispanic PR world, and I’ve had an incredible trajectory that I’m just extremely proud of and blessed with all the opportunities. MEL started truly as a dream. I’ve been part of Edelman for many, many years. I was first at Edelman’s New York office, always working on U.S. multicultural campaigns and U.S. multicultural brands. And then I rejoined Edelman here in Miami to lead the office and had the pleasure of truly growing the Hispanic business.
BILL: That was in 2020, right?
CARLA: Right, yes. Well, I rejoined Edelman in 2018, in the Miami office, and then I became the General Manager in 2020, which of course was quite an interesting journey because I was a newly appointed GM and I had to take this office through the whole pandemic which we successfully did. It is one of the reasons that I’m here and that Richard has bestowed me with this opportunity as founder and COO of MEL. But Richard has always had a vision for diversity, equity, and inclusion. And he understands — he truly, truly understands — the power of the Hispanic market. He knows the data really well. He understands the growth that is going to come explosively out of this market in the next few years. And it started, I like to call it, as a dream. It started as a smart business, of course, and proper conversations and putting data-backed presentations together about why we needed to truly form something that was much more dedicated and in-depth that we could truly go to clients and be like, ‘If you need Hispanic expertise, we’ve got it in depth, 100 percent focused, 100 percent dedicated.” And conversations started initially with Pedro Lerma, who of course is the founder and CEO of the Lerma Agency in Dallas. The conversation started in New York, and I got brought into the project in January of this year, I was asked if I wanted to do this, and I of course said yes. And along the rest of the year, we’ve been just building the blocks of putting together a brand new agency. Luis Miguel Messianu was the most incredible addition to the team and really what catapulted MEL to become what it is today. Luis Miguel, Richard, and Pedro met in Cannes in June. And it was such an organic birth of this trifecta. It is truly a perfect trifecta. After that, Luis Miguel was on board, and I hope that you get to speak with Luis Miguel in the future so that you get his side of this story. And I’ve been just joining the three of them on this journey.
BILL: I got to chat with him for about five minutes at the [HPRA] Bravo Awards in Chicago last month. And I said, “Luis Miguel, I want to interview you.” So that’s in the works. Thank you, Carla. So, that’s interesting that as far back as January, Pedro, Richard, and you were planning this already. What was the missing ingredient that Luis Miguel brought that just made it complete?
CARLA: Yeah, of course, you know, Edelman is Edelman. We are the world’s largest independent communications advisory firm, and we specialize in trust. So we bring that. Lerma has been having an incredible trajectory, and they are truly a fully independent advertising agency rooted in multicultural and digital expertise. So such an innovative forward-thinking team at Lerma, and then Luis Miguel comes in. If you are in Hispanic marketing, it is impossible that you have not heard of Luis Miguel Messianu, of course. He founded one of the most awarded agencies in our market. He’s a creative and visionary leader, and he has truly dedicated his career to advancing Hispanic-led creativity and elevating the importance of multicultural marketing around the world. So I think we all bring our unique strengths, which is why we are so proud of what MEL is becoming, I feel we can truly say we are a full-service integrated communications agency. We can do earned, we can do media, we can do creative, we can do digital, we can offer clients a one-stop shop and everything tailored through our Latino lens. And we’re very proud of that, of the combined strength of the three of us.
BILL: Okay. Thank you Carla. And I wanted to ask you about that. In the press releases that you were sending out initially about the launch, and also on your website, there’s a lot of mention of “earned-centric media,” the “earned centric approach,” and “earned-centric.” Tell me more about that in terms of the overall vision of the agency.
CARLA: Yes. Earned-centric is a very important part of MEL’s DNA because truly the worlds of advertising and earned as separate are blending in together, probably because of the power of social media, and everybody is truly now an influence in a brand’s capacity to connect with consumers. So even if you’re doing something that before, would be so separate as paid advertising campaigns, 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 is going to earn attention and is going to earn people’s trust, and is going to earn an action of people. 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. And that is why saying earned-centric, even if we are going to do paid advertising, is now the MEL DNA.
BILL: Okay. Carla, let me ask you more about that. So would you say that what’s happening overall is that in order to serve the brands as best as possible, the social media platforms have evolved and the users have evolved to the point where it’s not enough just to post a self-made video, like the standards are getting more sophisticated. So, people like Luis Miguel and Pedro, bring this whole wealth of high-level production aspects for video, for platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. Is that what’s happening? So the PR side is looking at the advertising side, like, “Hey, we need some of your DNA.” And the advertising side is looking at PR and saying, “You guys were spearheading social, but we need some of what you’ve got.” Tell me more about that marriage and how it’s coming together, not just with MEL, it’s probably overall.
CARLA: Overall, overall, that is exactly the convergence that is happening. And the convergence is not happening because we are driving it. The convergence is happening because consumers are expecting this from brands and consumers are expecting this from the work that we do as creatives. So the convergence is here, and we have to understand that the ecosystem is now completely changed and the ecosystem has changed in the consumers that we’re serving. And that new Latino experience is no longer the Latino experience where the majority of us were immigrants from X, Y, and Z. The new Latino experience is you are truly whatever you are slash American and you are truly living the 200% life. And that is an important part of the convergence because they are expecting more even from production, and they are expecting more ideas and they are expecting more of brands and that’s why the convergence is happening.
BILL: Would you say, Carla, that any strictly PR firm or traditional PR firm that doesn’t make moves like the way you guys are doing and any ad agency that doesn’t make moves the way you guys are doing are in trouble moving forward? Or is there still room for the traditional approach that doesn’t pivot?
CARLA: There is room for everybody. I like to say there is room for everybody. We are such a force that the pie is big. There’s so much work out there to be done, and brands are all on a different journey. Part of what is going to drive agencies into the convergence is also what type of brands are their clients because clients are on different paths of the journey when it comes to multicultural marketing. You have obviously the best-in-class brands – I don’t want to get into mentioning brands here – but you have those that are the known best-in-class driving the market when it comes to multicultural marketing and Hispanic marketing. And you’re still going to have, for at least the next 10 years, those brands that are taking it a little bit slower. And that is fine too. We can’t all just be moving at the same pace. At MEL, we are proudly saying and staking the ground, saying, “We are the intersection of Earned and Advertising,” and we are going to move forward with that thinking, of making sure, making whatever we do, through whatever channel of communication that campaign or message is going to be delivered, is going to have in its DNA high creative, high earned and high purpose. So that is what we’re saying. I’m not going to comment on whether people stay behind or not, or whatever. There is room for everybody. There’s enough for everybody.
BILL: Okay. I have so many questions that I’m going to try to keep it short, but I was reading about Lerma today. At the Super Bowl this year, his agency had three ads in the Super Bowl. You were transforming the Miami office to focus on U.S. Hispanic away from Latin America. I wanted to ask you about that. It’s like, all of you are at the top of your games, arguably. This was like the news of the year, the launch of this agency. So it’s really exciting. Are you feeling the pressure of that? Like you’ve got to go out there now and make it happen fast. Are you feeling that kind of pressure as a PR professional?
CARLA: I mean, it is excitement. When you work in the agency life for 20 years as I have, the word pressure is just synonymous with my everyday life. And I actually did lead the Miami office for Edelman to move out of the Latin American region into the U.S. and that in itself was a whole adventure. So we’re always under pressure. We’re a for-profit company, so we have to get it right. But the good thing is that right now it is all excitement. What we feel is excitement. Okay, we launched MEL on September 20th, so what are we in? We’re probably six, seven weeks in. And the amount of response that we’ve received in six weeks of operation is so exciting that we know we are on the right path. We know people want to know what we do and what we can do because we’ve been getting calls left and right. We’ve already responded to some incredible RFPs in this short amount of time. So the word is excitement. It’s a big endeavor. We are an agency that just came into the market, but backed by three superpowers and excitement is what I can say.
BILL: Or four. Carla, I want to shift to your journey, your career a little bit more. About a year ago you started transforming the Miami office of Edelman PR. Apparently, it had a focus more on Latin America, and then you were the one leading it toward U.S. Hispanic. Tell me about that shift, that pivot.
CARLA: Yes, sure. The Edelman Miami office was founded about 25 years ago, and it was founded as an office in Miami to service all the companies that had headquartered their Latin American operations in Miami. There were quite a few about 20 years ago in here. Many have moved back down to Mexico, Brazil, Panama et cetera. But that was the initial mission, the initial objective of opening Edelman Miami. So we joined the Latin American network for Edelman, which has offices in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and Argentina. What started happening was that I came in here as a GM and my expertise is in the U.S. Hispanic market. And I came into an office of a highly productive and highly efficient team. And truly we are U.S. Hispanics and we are a talent that can be utilized both in Latin America, and we can also be utilized for general market work in the United States. If you are bilingual, you are bilingual. So I started making my rounds and started building my relationships inside the Edelman U.S. Network, because, of course, I live in Miami, Florida, United States of America. And we started seeing the opportunity on the U.S. side of Edelman for our kind of talent. And we also started seeing increased interest from U.S. clients in U.S. Hispanic services. So that started slowly with us being able to get staffed on general market work and for us to do our thing. It just really started as a deployment of Hispanic talent into the Edelman U.S. network. And that led to a flip of our client portfolio. When I first showed up, the client portfolio was probably 60 percent Latam, and 40 percent Hispanic/Global/General Market. We started deploying ourselves into the network because budgets — and we all know this — budgets still continue to be larger in the U.S. than in Latin America. It has gotten better in Latin America. I will say that. It has gotten better. But budgets were larger in the United States and we ended up transforming over the years. It took about a three-year transformation and after we looked at our portfolio three years later, we had perfectly quadrangled. And going from a 60 percent Latam portfolio and 40 percent other, we became 25 percent Latam, 25 percent General Market, 25 percent Hispanic, and 25 percent Global. And in that mix of portfolio, we had been able to double the size of the office in revenue and headcount, all of this through the pandemic.
BILL: Is MEL going to mainly work out of the Miami office or Dallas, New York, and Miami?
CARLA: The three. We have an incredible team that we’re partnering with at Lerma for some of these initial RFPs. They are based in Dallas. Luis Miguel and I are here in Miami. And then some of our colleagues that are at Edelman and possibly transferring over to MEL are in New York and in other parts of the United States. But the main hubs will be Dallas, New York, and Miami, and that’s because of the presence of Edelman and the presence of Lerma.
BILL: Okay. Carla, a couple of questions about your background. What inspired you to pursue a career in public relations and marketing? I know you’re Puerto Rican.
CARLA: Oh, I love that. Yes, I was going to mention that. I was so excited when you said that you also service your content to Puerto Rico. So, “Hola a todos mis amigos puertorriquenos.” I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. My parents always knew I was going to work in media. I think I’ve always been very communicative, personable, and gregarious, so they thought I was going to be a journalist. That was not the path that I took. I went to school and studied marketing, studied economics, and then I met people who did this work. I truly did not know what public relations was in school.
BILL: Before you got your Master’s at NYU, you worked for a while in PR?
CARLA: Correct. Actually, I did my undergrad at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. And when I graduated, I went to work at Procter and Gamble. So I spent two years at P&G. I worked in customer business development. And while doing that work, I was spending a little bit of time in Puerto Rico with the P&G team in Puerto Rico. And Graciela Eleta is one of my mentors. And then after P&G, I decided that doing customer business development was not where my passion was. So I actually left P&G and that’s when I moved to New York and I went to NYU and I pursued my Master’s in Corporate Communications and Public Relations. What led to that is that I had a brief sort of part-time job at a real estate company in Puerto Rico where I met a public relations executive who was helping this real estate company. And once I met her, her name is Frances Rios, I met her and I was like, this is what I want to do. And that’s how I decided to pursue PR. Then from there, I moved to New York, did my internships, and had several internships. I interned at Univision. I interned at a public affairs boutique agency. And then I ended up interning at Edelman. And that’s where I met the incredible Audrey Ponzio, whom you know very well. Audrey is now in Austin and launched her own agency, APC Collective. So hi to Audrey. And Audrey is the one that recruited me into Edelman New York for the first time. So the rest is history.
BILL: Did you work with [Hispanic PR Blog Co-Founder] Angela Sustaita-Ruiz at Edelman New York?
CARLA: We totally crossed paths just by a few months, but I love Angela. Super dear friend. And of course, we’re both down here in Miami and we get to see each other all the time.
BILL: Carla, let me shift back for a second. When you were talking about transforming the ratios at Edelman Miami to 25 percent, et cetera, et cetera, certain segments, right? Any strategies that you can share with other, PR business owners or leaders who are undergoing the stress of shifting, and pivoting? Any suggestions? Any strategies that you can share on that to better prepare for the future?
CARLA: The strategy was: We have limited resources. We cannot do it all. We cannot be it for everyone. 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. 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. So we were lucky because – and sometimes I don’t like to use the word luck for business and being successful, of course, luck is one thing, and running a profitable business and running an incredible, highly productive team is a whole other thing – but when I showed up here, I realized we have an incredible depth of expertise in health. And when I say health, we got lucky because when COVID came, health companies were at their peak trying to figure out how to talk to their internal stakeholders, external stakeholders. So we were able to become really, really necessary to people at a time of need. And then we had an expertise in food and beverage, also. another category that grew tremendously during the past few years. We had an expertise in entertainment, another category that grew tremendously during the past few years. And then we have an expertise in travel, and we’re back. But obviously, we were able to rely on the other sectors where I would say, “What are the things that my team can do with their eyes closed?” And that’s what we did. It was not really any deep science. It was just really saying “survival mode.” And it worked for us. It really did.
BILL: And now the paradigm shifted again because of MEL, right? Because now you’ve got access to all kinds of skill sets and talent because of the other agencies. I imagine you’re not saying “no” too often.
CARLA: Of course. Now, this is why, when you talk about how much pressure I feel, I mean, I feel pressure all the time. I’m just so excited because the possibilities are now incredible for us and my team because we now can service, automotive services, financial services, service alcohol and spirits services, and QSR services. What Luis Miguel and Lerma bring and the team that we’re building, because there are already a few other hires in the works. We cannot announce them yet. So hold on for that, Bill. But we’re truly building the dream team and the expertise is across every category that you can imagine.
BILL: Okay. Carla, maybe two more questions if you have some additional time. I was reading one of your professors from NYU, Tim McMahon. He wrote on LinkedIn that you were a great student there. And then he mentioned that you recently spoke to some of the students at, I guess, where he’s at now, Creighton University. The students later commented that you were inspirational, powerful, and extraordinary. Can you share a little bit about that? What did you tell these students that inspired them so much?
CARLA: Thank you. Hi, Tim! You know what? Everywhere I go, I have always been able to be myself and build incredible relationships with my colleagues, my peers, my professors, et cetera. So I’ve been speaking at several class groups for different professors, both from NYU and from UMass Amherst that we’ve stayed in touch with. And here in Miami, I’ve also been speaking at the School of Communications for the [University of Miami]. And I’ve been a guest speaker of theirs every semester for the past three years. So I love speaking to students. Do you know why? I am a bilingual Latina from San Juan, Puerto Rico, from a middle-class normal family, a mother who worked for the government, and a dad who worked in corporate America but worked every day so hard. And 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. 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. And so, yes, I thank all the professors who have invited me to speak at their schools, and I will continue to give my time back in that way as much as I can.
BILL: Thank you, Carla. Any other trends that you’re seeing in the Hispanic growth, the market, or any other strategies that you want to talk about that, that maybe I didn’t ask about? Any suggestions for other PR professionals who look up to you, and want to be like you?
CARLA: The trend that I’m seeing right now, which I’m so thankful to see, is the trend of everything we want to do – and that clients asked us to do – is to do work that has meaning and that has a purpose. So I think 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. And positivity can be defined in so many ways. And it is okay if positivity is putting a smile on a face or if positivity is larger than that. And positivity is about changing policies and making the world more fair and more equitable. Whatever it is, 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.
BILL: Okay. I almost forgot one last question. The Total Market strategy, that was a big deal, a big issue 20 years ago, 15 years ago. Do you see a reverse Total Market strategy happening here where the Hispanic agencies are saying “The budgets are over there, we can actually service mainstream?” Like it’s happening in reverse? Is that a trend that you’re seeing today?
CARLA: I’m so glad we are in 2023 and we can all now stand together and be able to agree that Total Market does not work and Total Market does not deliver. I am so glad that we survived that phase of multicultural marketing. I don’t like calling it a reverse trend because I don’t like the word reverse. I don’t like to move backward. I don’t think about moving backward. It is the progressive trend of finally mainstream marketers realizing that the growth, the survival of their companies are with the Hispanic market. So we are saying that Hispanics are pop culture, Hispanics are trendsetters, Hispanics are setting the agenda of culture in this country. 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 mainstream, because we are the agenda setters. Let’s not call it Total Market ever again. It is just saying if we’re not going to be able to segment our marketing strategies into every single diverse community that deserves a nuanced and dedicated approach, we understand we have to be efficient with our marketing budgets. We understand that we’re not going to be able to build campaigns for every single multicultural community. Those companies that can do it, Bravo to them. But if not, and if you have to bet on something, bet on the growth, bet on the power of the now and the future. So that is what I think in relation to this reverse Total Market.
BILL: Carla, thank you for your time. How can brands or clients that want to work with you or with MEL reach you? What’s the best way to reach you?
CARLA: Thank you. You can visit our website, www.SomosMEL.com and then you can email me directly, CSantiago@somosmel.com. And you can also find me on LinkedIn, Carla Michelle Santiago. And I hope to hear from you all very soon.