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Core Exchange: The Value of Provider-Side Experience

Listen to the journey of a fellow healthcare marketing pro who now works at an agency to serve her former industry

Angi Krueger and Ward Alles, Core Creative, discuss with fellow employee, Stephanie Burton, her journey from working AT a local healthcare provider to working FOR national healthcare clients.

You can listen to the episode using the player embedded above, or you can read a full transcript below. Be sure to subscribe to Core Exchange on iTunes.

  • Core Exchange | Healthcare System Culture

Links mentioned in podcast:

If your healthcare system can claim this position, you will win

Episode Transcript:

Angi: Welcome to the Core Exchange, a healthcare marketing podcast. I'm Angi Krieger, Vice President of Marketing from Core Creative.

Ward: I'm Ward Alles, President of Core.

Angi: The past few episodes we've been interviewing experts from outside our walls at Core in the healthcare marketing space but this time we wanted to change things up a little bit and introduce you to some key individuals at Core who regularly work with our healthcare clients for you to get to know them and learn from their experiences. This week we welcome our Director of Healthcare Marketing, Stephanie Burton and she will discuss her role and the value of having provider side experience. Welcome Stephanie.

Stephanie: Thank you, it's good to be here.

Angi: Yes. On the other side of the desk this time.

Stephanie: On the other side.

Angi: Stephanie has done a few of our podcasts as well. Stephanie, tell us or the audience a little bit about yourself and your background and your current role here at Core.

Stephanie: Sure, someone just asked me recently, "How did you get into healthcare marketing?" I responded with, "Well I was really unhappy in a previous job and I responded to an ad." It all starts with responding to an ad. I think you, Angi, said you responded to a newspaper ad 20 years ago for the position you have today.

Angi: I did.

Stephanie: It was an opportunity that I saw. It was with a great organization, an organization that had a really great, well-established brand in our market, Children's Hospital of Wisconsin and I said, "What the heck? I'll give it a shot. Let's see what sticks. "Fortunately I went through the interview process and that really set my career in motion. My career path started to be defined there. I love healthcare marketing primarily because there are so many things to learn and healthcare makes up 20% of our gross domestic product. I say there's something for everyone in healthcare whether you're a doctor or a nurse, you're a marketer. You're behind the scenes, you work in policy or government. It's been a good path for me. My role at Children's, I worked as a senior public relations and marketing specialist. We worked a lot like an in house ad agency, very similar structure to many health systems out there. We each had our own clients within the health system and I had the privilege of serving a number of those clients. I also responded to media calls, handled crisis communications with everything including water main breaks and at one point even had to handle an Amber Alert. It really stretched the gamut and was a lot of fun and continues to be today.

Ward: That experience that you've had in the past, it relates well to what our listeners’ lives are like every day. How does that impact how well you do your job? Can you empathize a bit?

Stephanie: You can absolutely empathize. It's everything from the alphabet soup that is marketing and understanding one acronym to another. To also just understanding the reality of what it's like in a health system. There are immediate requests that come up, there are things that fall outside of a strategic plan and you need to continue to accommodate those. There's ideal state and then there's reality state. Being able to adapt to that reality and understand the pressures that our clients are up against every day really is something that I think we have to offer.

Ward: You've got the healthcare provider side experience and now you've had the agency side experience for quite a while.

Stephanie: Yes.

Ward: What's your favorite and why? You knew I was going to ask that.

Stephanie: Of course I knew you were going to ask that. You know, it's hard to select a favorite. There are days when I say I miss the provider side and you can't argue with it. I can look both of you in the eyes and say, "You know the one thing I don't get here at Core Creative every day is that opportunity to walk the halls and see people whose lives are being directly impacted by the care we're giving every day." At the same time, I know that in a health system setting, I don't always get the opportunity to be innovative, forward thinking, working with just awesome minds, well there are awesomely creative minds in any health system. Rolling up our sleeves and thinking through a campaign, writing scripts, doing stuff with my peeps that really makes things fun. On the flip side, I will say there are, in any health system there's a fair share of politics that you have to navigate and in this role, in my role now, I most often don't have to navigate those politics. Unfortunately it's often the job of the clients we work with to navigate. We can advise and we're there but because we are a third party, that's not something we have to do on a regular basis and my feelings aren't hurt by that.

Angi: Thinking back now, this has been seven, eight years since-

Stephanie: Eight years in May.

Angi: Oh my gosh, time flies. Putting yourself back in that position then, I know so much is changing in healthcare daily, we all know that but what were some of the biggest challenges you were facing in your role and how did you overcome them when they were there?

Stephanie: I think it was always prioritizing. How do you prioritize, how do you prevent yourself from chasing the big red dog. It's always prioritizing. You have limited resources, you have limited money. That, I would say, was the biggest challenge.

Angi: Can you think back from that time of what your greatest career highlight from there would have been and what made it great and what impact it had on the organization at the time?

Stephanie: Sure. There were so many. First of all I want to say that the team, I had the privilege of working with at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, was the best. There was something about the chemistry on that team, that was incredible selflessness, incredible camaraderie. Most of us continue to meet at least once a year, more frequently than that. The team, first and foremost really set the tone there. As far as particular accomplishments, it was really when the team got together and rallied. They say in crisis communications, crises are always going to happen Friday afternoon at 4:30. I remember that was the exact scenario when there was a school bus accident. I happened to be on call and I remember it was our receptionist who just stayed there, she's still there today. I'll have to give a shout out to Patty, hey Patty. Patty Cooler at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin but she stayed there while I was answering media calls and she was bringing me grapes to eat because I didn't have anything to eat. I didn't complain about that, but we took care of each other. When there were opportunities for the team to collaborate, that was fantastic.

Certainly we had a $160 million plus expansion that I, again, was privileged to work on from a communications lead standpoint. What I had the opportunity to learn there, I was exposed to everyone from our construction contractor to people in our facilities department and again, it was another type of team that came together to really for the good of the kids in the area. Lots of stuff. I could go on and on and on.

Angi: I'm sure you could. It's just interesting, I think so many people in those positions just love comparing notes and comparing stories of other experiences of people in similar roles. We'll go into more of those I'm sure over the next interview or two.

Stephanie: Good.

Angi: When you were in your role there, how often did you work with outside partners like agencies?

Stephanie: Frequently. Very frequently. Any in-house department can't do everything so you need to bring in specialists to help supplement those areas where you may not have the expertise. We certainly, I am pleased to say that I was on the team that hired Core Creative to work with us. That's how I was first introduced to this agency and Core Creative wasn't the only agency we worked with. We worked with other agencies both in the area and out based on needs or relationships with specific departments. We had a national funder who had an agency that they required us to work with. That, juggling agencies and other vendors, we don't like to call ourselves a vendor, we're a partner. Everyone. Not a vendor. But juggling agencies and other vendors is really a big role and then maintaining your brand through that as well. You've got to maintain a strong brand presence and make sure that you're paying homage to the integrity of your brand.

Ward: You worked with a lot of different agencies but what was your perception of that agencies?

Stephanie: I love that question. I know you ask that question because we've talked about this a lot. I hated ad agencies. In fact, when we were looking to hire an agency and we ended up hiring Core, I remember going into that process thinking, "Oh I don't want to do this." My perception, the reason I hated, in quotes, ad agencies, was because of the egos that came to the table, the almost dismissiveness that you received when you tried to explain your situation, really at the end of the day you want someone who will listen to you, empathize with where you're at and then help you find a solution. An agency, by the way, is not a solution. They're a partner to help you find a solution.

Angi: That's great because you kind of answered my next question I was thinking of what kinds of qualities you were looking for in a partner. You kind of described some of that with the particular project you were working on at the time with the hospital expansion, what do you think was the differentiator, the biggest quality that you really wanted to make sure your agency partner had?

Stephanie: You know, I will say in that selection process, Core stood out far and above the other competition. I think what we saw was creativity. You would give an additional thought, you were invested, you were hungry. You wanted to work with Children's Hospital of Wisconsin. On the client side, you want to know that someone wants to work with you, that this isn't just another thing that we have to do when the work comes in. You want to see the passion there and we saw that. We saw that from people who came to us, who had used Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, understood the mission, the vision of the organization and really wanted to help us further that. The other thing that I will say that we saw with Core was a desire to understand that Children's Hospital of Wisconsin was more than a hospital that cared for sick kids. It was an incredibly complicated organization and almost instantaneously you understood that with us not having to take a lot of time to continually say, "No that one thing that ... et cetera, et cetera." We didn't have to go there. You just invested the time to understand.

Angi: At that point, I mean I know it's a different perspective now because obviously you're on our team and on our side of the desk but how important was it for us to have, or any agency that you talked to at the time, healthcare marketing experience?

Stephanie: I will say very honestly it wasn't important. I think of how I would answer that question if I were in the position today. I don't know. I don't know how I would answer that question. At the time, though, it wasn't important. In fact, I valued agencies who were able to diversify their thinking, who might be able to take something from another industry and say, "You know this worked over here, what do you think about applying it here." Now at the same time, the project that we were working on together was very consumer focused. I always say, "There's no such thing as a general public" but this was a quote unquote general public message that I think didn't require a lot of healthcare expertise to tackle. I think some of the things we tackle at Core Creative require a lot more healthcare expertise to understand the patient journey, the patient needs, referral patterns, et cetera.

Angi: Yeah, that makes sense. What were you most surprised about? Not necessarily about working with Core specifically in this case but any other agency partners or any partners you had in the business. What were you surprised about in any of those relationships or something that you weren't expecting I guess from any of those working relationships you had from other agencies or from whomever. I'm just trying to get to what you may not have known that they would have provided you.

Stephanie: Sure. The thing that surprised me most was the turnover time in agencies. There was one agency we worked with and I believe I went through three account executives in nine months. That kind of sets the tone. That sets the tone, you don't feel as valued as an agency and it's something we look at really closely at Core Creative. We were in a relationship business and I can't ever imagine doing that to one of our clients no matter how big or how small. Maintaining those relationships is really key, critical.

Angi: Let's get to the big question of how you decided to come to Core and what drew you to take this opportunity here on this side of the desk.

Stephanie: I can give you my life story and things that were happening in my personal life at that time but I'll pass over all of that stuff. It does play in. I was actually looking to maybe change things up a bit. I think in terms of where I live, my family is on the West Coast and thought, "Maybe I'd look for an opportunity over there." I do strongly believe everything happens for a reason. That's my personal belief. Right at about that time I received a Facebook message, it was through Facebook of all things from the contact here, Beth Crivello-Wagner that I worked with when I was at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin and she said, "Would you ever consider leaving Children's?" My immediate thought was, sure. But there's no way I'm ever going to an agency again. I'd worked in an agency before and it just didn't work, I know about that revolving door and how cutthroat it can be. I thought, "There's no way." In the same vein I thought, "Well, I guess it won't hurt to have a conversation. I don't have to marry these people." I decided to have a conversation. The more we chatted, the more intriguing the role became to me.

There were some really key indicators that this could work. One was, I knew the folks here. I knew the type of culture that Core had worked to build and that was way back, I think I was the 17th employee at that time. We're now up over 60. I knew the folks here, I knew the type of culture that we had and there was longevity. People have worked, I'm looking at you Angi, you've been here for 20 years now, which is just unheard of.

Angi: I was at five years when I started.

Stephanie: It's just unheard of in this industry. It just doesn't happen. You kind of look at cues like that and you say, "Okay there's something right happening at this organization if people are willing to stay there, particularly when job markets are good and you have other options and you can go somewhere else." The other thing, I tease Ward about this but it really was an indicator for me, we talk about these big agency Presidents who like to drive around in their Mercedes.

Ward: Oh yeah that's me.

Stephanie: Yeah, that's you. That wasn't Ward. We met for donuts and coffee. I remember when Ward pulled up, he pulled up in a Toyota Prius.

Ward: The Prius is silent under 10 miles an hour.

Stephanie: That was actually showed to me, he had a level of humility. I don't know that you're a big car guy anyway, but-

Ward: No I was trying to save money, it was good on gas mileage. But I'm glad that influenced you.

Stephanie: It did.

Ward: Maybe I should have ridden up in a bicycle or something like that. That would have been really cool.

Stephanie: That would have been a little scary.

Angi: He doesn't know how to ride a bike, actually. That's why it's scary.

Stephanie: There were those cues that I looked at, that really helped inform me about the culture. They're true. We are not in this business to get rich. We are in this business, certainly we want to maintain a lifestyle for ourselves and our families but we're in this business because it's a passion and it fuels our desire to help people lead healthy and more purposeful lives. That's exciting.

Angi: That is exciting.

Ward: We've been doing this now for 25 years and we've always worked with healthcare clients but we've always valued having a Director of Healthcare Marketing come from the provider side of the desk. Your predecessors always came from that provider side and worked for us, each of them worked for about five years for us. Then you came on board, you've been with us seven or eight years, is that it?

Stephanie: Eight years in May.

Ward: Isn't that something. Thank you for your service. What's changed in those eight years? Have you just seen an enormous amount of C-change in the healthcare marketer's world?

Stephanie: No, nothing.

Angi: Nothing at all.

Stephanie: A lot has changed. I'm happy to say, when I was attending the SHSMD’s of the world in the 2009, 10, 11, 12, I was surprised that we were still having conversations about the value of things like social media and your health system needs to have a Facebook page. Those conversations continued for a long time. I feel like we're past that hump, that hurdle and we're starting to challenge ourselves to look at things that are much more strategic and can influence our marketing in that way. I will say, as much as things change things stay the same as well. Things are more political than ever in health systems. There continues to be, I think, a healthy tension between some of the providers and marketing and HR but those tensions are what really, ultimately lead to innovation as well. We've got to continue to challenge each other.

Angi: Thinking about some of the clients we've worked with and over those past eight years, almost eight years, what are some of the biggest marketing challenge you've helped our clients overcome? If you want to just think about two or three of your favorites or whatever comes to mind. I know they share a lot of stories in those past eight years but if you can think of one or two.

Stephanie: Sure. I think that in my role now, what makes me happy certainly is working with our team to help guide really good and strategic strategy creative but I like the opportunities that I have with our clients just to talk and consult. Sometimes those conversations, even though we aren't solving the world's problems or creating a fresh, new campaign that's going to drive orthopedic volume, what we're doing is I can be that shoulder to lean on for someone who needs it and may not have that pure support within the organization but could also provide some sound advice for here's how we can help you dig yourself out of this hole that you're in right now. While that doesn't directly answer your question about the big campaign or the big thing that we've done, I think that's some of the value that I can and our team can add to our clients.

We have had some, oftentimes the work that I'm proudest of is the work that doesn't get seen. It's the thing that might not be sold but where we know that we've pushed the creative just a little bit further to say to our clients, "Here's another way of thinking about things and this is why you should consider it." While that may not be considered at that moment we see over time if you continue to push, you eventually chip away at this desire for, "Yeah you know what, you're right. We should take a fresh look at how we're doing that." More specific examples, a health system in Michigan, what an incredible client relationship we had there with Tom Combs and the leadership team pulling together an entire say it, live it brand experience for their entire organization. The thing that made that work wasn't Core Creative. We just provided them with the tools to help execute on it. It was really at the very top the investment at the top and I'm not talking about financial investment but the investment and the importance of brand at the very top all the way down to the front line employees. When you have those two elements, a really stellar creative agency and I really think that we are and a leadership team and a client who understand that they have to be part of the equation too, oh my goodness, you've got it. That is the holy grail.

Angi: That's great to hear. That was an amazing experience back with that health system. For all you listeners, what I'll do too is in the summary at the top of this page on our actual website I'll put a link to a case study video that is referring to what Stephanie is talking about. In addition, I'm going to ask you, you've been writing a lot of content for us over the last seven or eight years. If you can think of something that you would find the listeners getting a lot of value out of or one of your favorites, just let me know what that is because I'll add that to the top of the list of one of Stephanie's favorites as well.

Stephanie: Sure, I think it was about positioning. I believe the title was, "If your health system can claim this position you will win." I will give away the punchline.

Angi: Give away-

Stephanie: The position is convenience and talking about the role of convenience with health systems today. It's interesting, several years ago, I don't know five years ago, we were talking about wellness. Convenience has kind of emerged as the new, if you can claim this position you will win. Interestingly enough, wellness is starting to make it's way back into consumers’ minds. We're seeing that here locally with Aurora and Advocate who are claiming very strongly that wellness position in market. It will be interesting to watch that play out.

Angi: You know, just kind of going along that topic a little bit more, what other common themes are you observing from our current clients that agencies can help them with or just even need to strategize internally?

Stephanie: Recruitment is the big word right now. The unemployment rate is at an all-time low and we have so much competition for physicians and for nurses, particularly in areas that may not be so desirable to live in. Not everything is going to be Miami Beach. How do we make our organization attractive enough to recruit in the best and brightest talent? The hint, in my opinion is not these signing bonuses that we're seeing. Could that help? Absolutely. What we're looking for are people who can really embody those brand values. I don't know that brand values always have a dollar amount attached to them. That can bring people in the door but we want to make sure that we're bringing in the right people to provide the kind of care that we tell our consumers we're going to provide. Recruitment is the big one.

That's what we're seeing everywhere. I think the other thing we're seeing is marketing, in recent years, really always but I think in more recent years has come under fire. It's been scrutinized a little bit more as overheard. Proving our value, making sure we have a seat at the senior leadership table, those are important aspects of our work. We start to see things, measurement tools, CRM tools come into play. We see ourselves counting things more. The big caution that I have, though, it's that Albert Einstein quote, "Just because something can be counted doesn't mean it counts and not everything that counts can be counted." We try to balance that as well.

Angi: One other thing I wanted to talk about with you because you have that experience on the provider side but it's, we know, being on this side that marketing matters and that marketing is a key or should be a key business objective for an organization to help with a lot of different types of business strategies overall but tell us about the respect or lack thereof that marketing gets within healthcare organizations, both from your experience on the provider side and what you're observing with healthcare clients?

Stephanie: It's a really interesting topic, that respect. I'll summarize it this way, I went to a conference and I sat next to a gentleman and he had only been working in healthcare marketing for about three months. He came from another industry, certainly had a long career before that time. What I'm saying is he wasn't 20. He was a little bit older than that. He said to me, "You know a key theme at this conference has been the lack of respect that healthcare marketers feel that they get from the rest of the organization. I thought that was just at my organization and it's not something I've experienced in any other industry that I've worked in." I think there are a few factors that play there, healthcare marketing wasn't traditionally healthcare marketing, it was communications and came up through that PR channel. Still a critical component by the way for any health system, good strong communication, reputation management, public relations, all of that continues to be something that we need to nurture but one of the things we were doing is we were trying to turn traditional communicators into marketers. In some cases, those are two entirely different disciplines. We didn't always do it well. I think as a result we created our own PR problem for ourselves.

You've got that factor at play. I think the other factor at play and this is true no matter what industry you come from, people always think they can do it better. They've always got an idea, they have a tactic they'll come up with and now you need to plan around it. Certainly the reality is we deal with some incredibly smart medical professionals who have hugely robust educations and as a result, sometimes you think that you know what should be done in another discipline. That's the reality. It's balancing that, it's working to educate and prove our value to everyone in our organization. There are ways you can do that and I can get into that now or in a future podcast.

Angi: That sounds like a great topic for a future podcast.

Ward: Let's wrap this one up with this final question. We've talked a lot about provider side and agency side. You've been on both sides but you know that we don't like to talk about sides at Core. We talk about a different word, which is we. Can you describe what we means to you and what it should mean hopefully with our clients?

Stephanie: I think very simply stated, we're in this together. It is not you did this or you didn't do this, it's really holding each other up, supporting each other. It's having fun. It's the, I had a client that I work with, I shouldn't say a client, she's more of a friend but I remember we bonded over our shared love of okra.

Angi: Who would have known, okra.

Stephanie: She found some dehydrated okra and took a picture of it and texted it to me. It's just little things like that to where when you can start to blur the lines and have a little bit of fun over something like okra, work becomes more fun too. That's what I will say. We is about okra.

Angi: That's a new definition for it.

Ward: Sounds good, I'll make sure I tell everybody else that too.

Angi: Thanks, Stephanie, for your time and as we mentioned, we will be talking with you again. We will also be interviewing some other employees here at Core to introduce our audience to them as well and the value they bring to our clients every day. We'll also be having some more outside partners and friends of Core that will be interviewing in the future as well. Thanks again and talk to you next time.

Ward: Thanks Stephanie.

Stephanie: Thank you.


Angi Krueger is the Vice President of Marketing at Core Health, Core Creative’s specialized healthcare marketing practice.


Ward Alles is the President and Brand Consultant at Core Health.


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