In Conversation with Travis Freeman at Uber

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MediaCom Global CEO, Nick Lawson, speaks to Travis Freeman, Uber’s Global Head of Media & Social, about the company’s pivot to brand building and his vision for agency partnerships.

Nick Lawson: Thanks for taking the time to speak to us, Travis. In 2020 we saw Uber taking a stance on societal topics in a big way with the “Move What Matters” and “Delete Uber” campaigns. These were fantastic and important pieces of work, and I was wondering if you could tell us whether there is a roadmap or plan for how these societal impact type campaigns may roll out globally?

Travis Freeman: That's the stuff I'm most proud of from last year and what we’re looking to do this year. I think if Uber does one thing well, it’s that we react well in crisis and quickly pivot. We’ve been talking about: what is our master brand? What does it look like for us to start to build out long-term ROI, long-term equity, and saliency beyond the last seven-day conversion metrics that we've been looking at for so long?

These campaigns gave us this runway because people weren't using our mobility product, but instead came to our culture and talked about things that were authentically attached to us. I think that's what worked so well. When we first came out and said: “Thank you for not riding. Thank you for allowing frontline healthcare workers the ability to get to the hospital to treat people” and during the civil unrest during the summer, when we came out and said: “If you tolerate racism, delete Uber. Black people have the right to move without fear,” all of these messages are attached to culture and to what's going on, which have a very specific point. It also has a lot to do with us acknowledging our past. We are not perfect.

Nick Lawson: It was a definitely a bold and transformative move that has put purpose-driven, quantum marketing at the heart of what you're doing. Has it made a big difference to your brand? Because everyone has a view on Uber…

Travis Freeman: I think that what we've found is there's an appreciation for our stance. When I was coming onboard at Uber, I took a step back and I was like: ‘Oh, I don't know, is this the brand for me?’ I had a very specific perception of what Uber was. If you go back to my Twitter timeline in 2017, you would see a lot about Uber, but what I found during the interview was that we do so much good, yet we're really bad at talking about it.

We're really bad at telling people about it because we try to communicate way too many things. What's been good about this is the focus on our messaging and how we're trying to create good. What's been refreshing is the focus on being more purpose-led and we're seeing the numbers reflect it.

Nick Lawson: Looking ahead and at the kind of relationship you have with MediaCom, the agency of tomorrow looks different to the agency of the past. In-housing plays a big part and you are already doing a lot of that. So, I’m interested to know what you consider to be the positives and negatives of in-housing?

Travis Freeman: I think it is truly about pivoting from transactions and agency-client relationships to partnerships. That's why we purposely give all your teams Uber email addresses, they have access to all of our first-party data. We want your teams to be pushing us, more than any of our internal teams. We can hire anyone to answer a brief and get media into market, but we want your teams to be the true extension of us. We even give you access to our calendars. We want you to see what we're doing every single day, so that you can be a part of our culture.

Nick Lawson: I think that is one of the most outstanding things about Uber, the fact that you really partner with us in such a progressive manner and that our teams really feel positive. I know all across the world that's really resonated with us. I always say that I think you can have the best strategy in the world, but without the right culture, you don't really get anywhere.

Travis Freeman: It makes it more fun on our side, right? The last thing that we want to be doing is to be paper pushers. I think that also it is just as important that we have empathy, and vice versa.

That dual lens of empathy is so important and it's something I use when hiring, as well as training, it isn't like a client-agency relationship. This is your team right there. They're going to tell you when you're right. They're going to tell you when you're wrong, they're going to yell at you. They're going to get frustrated and hang up on you on Zoom. And that's fine because we all do that together.

I think that we as an industry have gone too aggressive on the in-housing side. The way that we set up our in-housing versus other brands, all performance was done internally, regardless of channel, while all mid and upper-funnel was done externally, regardless of channel. We took a step back to see what is happening and we're still trying to fix it.

So, I think there are benefits for in-housing on a performance level. It doesn't always have to be perfect and there are certain things that we need to be able to get into market that don't need to go through the normal process. We've done ourselves a disservice by going so aggressive with in-housing that we're not allowing for full funnel communication and planning through a better and more strategic approach.

Nick Lawson: Travis, thank you for spending time with us. We really appreciate it. It’s been brilliant talking to you.

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