Oral Histories

Alan Marks

Interview Segments on Topic: Marketing/Advertising/Branding

Alan Marks Biography

Alan Marks is senior vice president of corporate communications for eBay Inc., and is responsible for leading communications strategy for all areas of the company, which includes business and consumer media relations, employee communications, executive positioning and issues and reputation management. Prior to joining eBay, Marks was at Nike Inc., Gap, Inc., and Avon Products. He began his career as a journalist.


INTERVIEWER: What would you say the status of chief corporate communications persons is in this environment today? Is it growing in importance? Is it diminishing?

MARKS: I think if you stop to think about companies you admire. Companies you respect, companies that you see doing innovative things, I think more often than not you would see the chief communications officer role increasing in strategic importance in those companies. Our profession is rapidly changing and rapidly evolving. So every company is structured a little differently and modeled a little differently. When I look across industries and across our competitive set and across the global business environment, companies that I see innovating and really driving effective change—both with their employees and with their broader group of stakeholders—typically in those companies, a chief communications officer role is increasing in strategic importance, not diminishing.

INTERVIEWER: What do you feel are the keys to building trust and credibility within an organization?

MARKS: Authenticity. And it’s something that the Arthur Page Society has been advocating. I think that’s essential; authenticity, transparency, what we talked about earlier with social media. Everybody’s got a communications platform today; I think there are no barriers anymore. There’s no internal-external. There are communication that crosses easily throughout a company and across borders and across geographies, across audiences. And so you’ve got to be authentic. You’ve got to come across as transparent and real and honest. Otherwise, somebody’s going to call you out on it. Somebody’s going to refute what you’re saying or disagree with what you’re saying, and today they’ve got a platform to do that and give themselves a voice to do that. So that authenticity piece is important, and for a lot of companies, that’s a significant change where the business environment has grown up, where it’s more of, “We control the message. We manage the message. We push out messages.” It’s a very different environment to say, “I’m participating in the conversation now about my business and I understand that many, many stakeholders now who are connected to my organization and my enterprise have the power to have a voice and build an audience around my business and what I care about. And so it’s a different dynamic to sit back and say, well how do I participate in that and listen to that and understand that versus; how do I manage a message and how do I push out a message to audiences?

INTERVIEWER: What are the most important issues, the enduring truths that you’ve learned in your career?

MARKS: You have to keep it real. Again, back to authenticity, what are we really trying to solve, and are we simplifying it? Are we telling an authentic story in a transparent way? Are we delivering our messages? Are we really engaging with people? I think those are the universal truths, because when you don’t do that, people get that – people understand that, and it undermines credibility, it undermines everything that good brands and great companies stand for. Great companies are typical values driven companies. They have a strong set of principles. They have a strong set of values that they live by. Business cycles come and go. Companies have good times and companies have bad times. Great companies come through the bad times even stronger because they’re grounded in a clear set of values and what they believe in. They’re grounded in a clear set of ethics and operating principles. That helps them whether the inevitable downturns in a business cycle – they come out stronger. And I think, you know in the communications profession, always digging down to; what are we really trying to solve for? What’s the real business issue here? What are we really trying to communicate? Who are we really trying to engage? Do we really understand who our intended audience is?   What action do we want them to take after they’ve heard our message and engaged with us? Those are critically important things to always keep in mind. You typically derail when you lose sight of those things.

INTERVIEWER: What are the changes you’ve observed in the practice of public relations during your career – you might have eluded to some of this actually when you were talking about your career trajectory – but, what are those significant changes that you’ve seen?

MARKS: I think the most significant change I see is that in leading companies; communications is becoming a core business strategy. Executives at these types of companies, operating management of these types of companies, see communications as a strategic operating tool and something that’s essential to the business. I think that’s very different from when communications was seen as an afterthought, or communication was seen as more of a support function or a service function versus a strategic function in the organization. And so that change is very exciting. I am more excited—and I’ve been in this for 20-25 years now, 25 years now—there’s more opportunity and more innovation happening in our profession and in the communications world than I’ve ever seen. And that’s incredibly exciting. I was having a conversation a few weeks ago with a friend, and I was trying to imagine what it would be like to be in a journalism school today or in a communications program today and I think it would be an extraordinary thing, because the opportunities you have as someone just starting out in your career, are exponentially greater than when I was going through school. When I was going through school, you either picked the editorial track or the advertising track. And if you’re on the editorial track, are you going into newspapers or are you going into broadcast? And now it’s like well, how do I want to communicate? Do I want to be my own media outlet? I’ll create my own blog and I’ll be my own publisher and I’ll create my own audience. Or, how do I gauge…how do I help shape new media? It’s an incredibly exciting time. And I would encourage people just starting out in their career to embrace that. And one thing that I see now being this far into my career—you never stop learning right? And there are a lot of external factors forcing you to reevaluate and rethink the way you do things but I guess another universal truth is, you’ve always got to fight for complacency and inertia right? Push yourself to innovate because that’s what’ll help you grow and develop and it’ll make you a better communicator and it’ll make the organization you’re working for a better organization. Always figure out where the next innovation is coming from and drive for that.

2nd INTERVIEWER: So, in the 25 years that you’ve experienced the industry, what was your greatest challenge? Can you tell us an example of a personal experience that you’ve had—maybe there was an ethical dilemma…what was a personal challenge that you had to deal with in these past 25 years.

MARKS: I think the greatest challenge I ever experienced, which you see happening in some other companies today is, I was working for Gap when globalization first started to really occur and stakeholder attention was brought to supply chains. For Gap and the apparel industry, it was about the issue of sweatshop labor in apparel factories. (W)ith Gap and Nike, I spent almost a decade working for those two companies, and in the 1990s and into the first decade of this century, Gap and Nike were poster children, so to speak, of those issues in the apparel and footwear industries. Initially, that was an enormous communications challenge, because globalization was really just starting to be understood, and some stakeholders early on were very savvy about focusing on brands to draw attention to the issue. And how you respond to that, how you understand what’s the reality on the ground…when the business model…and you see this today…the business model was third party manufacturers. If you go back 20 years, the business mindset was, those are third party vendor relationships, those are not my employees or my factories. So how do I deal with this?   So it was a big learning curve, as a communications professional, well, how do I understand what the real issues are? How do I understand what’s really going on in these factories? How do I engage these stakeholders?   How do we start driving longer-term solutions that are really going to solve a very complex issue? And so there was both…it was the first moment in my career where a typical communications tool kit was insufficient to address the issue. You had to dig deeper. You really had to start getting into fundamental business issues, and supply chain issues, and it was creating a new model of stakeholder engagement.   It was one of the first examples of seeing outsiders suddenly having the power to dramatically influence your brand reputation and brand perception. So that was a great learning experience for me, and I’m very proud to have worked for two companies that became leaders in how these issues were being dealt with on a global basis. And then you see these issues still with us today, and emerging in other industries as we move forward.   So that was my first experience where there was a disruptive force happening in a business and happening in the outside world that was effecting—having brand and reputational impacts above and beyond the normal business environment--that forced me and the people around me to rethink the way we approach a problem. And to adopt a longer-term view about how these issues are solved and again, how you create new models of stakeholder engagement. The exciting thing about the work at Arthur Page Society today is Arthur Page is trying to further the thinking and discussion around that, around what are new models of engagement and how should corporations think about their stakeholder community. How do you drive engagement that results in advocacy. And for me that’s exciting, because I feel like my learning in that started 20 years ago when these issues first started to surface.

INTERVIEWER: Alan Marks, thank you.

MARKS: Thank you.