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Getting to Know: Alexandra von Plato, chief creative officer at Digitas Health

Alexandra von Plato, EVP and chief creative officer at Digitas Health, discusses her career path and the day-to-day intricacies of her job

What was your career path – how did you end up in your current position from first job until now?

I had a non-traditional ascent into creative directing. I started out in television and film production as a production assistant and rose to become an executive producer at a nationally represented production company. What I learned was how to orchestrate lots of talent and different skill sets and mix those skill sets into a project. I got a phone call from David Kramer, who I had worked with in the production business but had since moved on to start an agency called Medical Broadcasting Co., and he called me as a director-producer and asked if I could and help them develop some proprietary content. At the time MBC was producing primarily videos for the pharmaceutical industry and it occurred to David, who was CEO of the business and is now CEO of Digitas Health, that there was an opportunity to actually publish original content for distribution. We developed a relationship with Rodale and Prevention magazine and we did a season for a nationally syndicated show called Body Sense, featuring Mike Rowe, who is now on Dirty Jobs. The lead sponsor was Johnson & Johnson. Then the Internet happened and our ability to develop and distribute long-form healthcare content online percolated. I really just followed the migration of the channels from television to video and dvd to online. What it came down to was being able to produce content and being able to use different artistic capabilities in the creation of that content.

Can you just run down your average day?

I manage my calendar every day to try to prioritize what I’m going to spend time on. My day starts at 7:30 when my assistant calls me and we talk while I get my kids ready for school. My typical day has everything from somebody launching a Web site who wants to talk about opportunities for sponsorship, to going to a client and talking about ways they’re going to use the digital media or create an integrated campaign using both traditional and digital media, to looking at work with creative directors here. At least once a day I’m reviewing some aspect of the work here. On an average day I have at least one major client conversation. Last but not least are all of the personnel and staffing issues that go with a business that’s growing so radically: dealing with people who need help, interviewing candidates, doing my own recruiting, and talking to our recruiters.

What part of your job do you love the most?

I love being surprised – when somebody comes in with an idea and just blows me away. Not only is it exciting but it’s also a feeling of relief, because my job now is orchestrating the ability for other people to shine and to give them the opportunities to flex their muscles. I get excited when people are coming up with ideas and approaches that make me say “I wish I would have thought of that.” I love that sense of surprise and delight, and I’m lucky enough that it happens quite frequently. 

What is the toughest part about your job?

We’re part of a larger network now, and we came out of a very entrepreneurial environment where the only people we had to blame were ourselves, and that can be quite a burden because there were arguments, but we always knew where the buck stops. The hardest part of my job is the adjustment to being part of a much larger organization and wanting to strike the balance of getting the benefits of that without giving up the entrepreneurial spirit and the accountability and responsibility. When you become part of a larger organization, that entrepreneurial habit and understanding of where decisions are going to get made, that ground shifts a bit.

What advice would you give someone just trying to get into the ad agency or healthcare world?

I think you really have to understand digital media, and you don’t have to be a technology expert, but you do have to be a consumer behavior expert and you have to get a sense of how people make decisions and form opinions, and what social networks are doing to change people’s interface with their life on every level. There are very few industries untouched by the way consumers have changed with the way television, internet and mobile media have reconfigured not just the way advertisers go to market but also consumers’ behavior in the marketplace. If I was coming out of school I would want to understand media behavior because the new creativity is media creativity – how to bring different channels to bear and how to get each of those channels to do something specific and relevant to that channel. We’re an on-demand environment now – you can TiVo anything and skip what you want and not consume advertising if you don’t want to, so the advertising has to be compelling and engaging and insight-driven, and there has to be a value to it.

Does someone stick out in your mind as being a mentor or role model figure as you made your way through the industry?

A man named Bill Nielson, who was head of communications for Johnson & Johnson, who was a client of mine early on. It had nothing to do with digital and nothing to do with technology or new media, but he instilled in me the idea that you can use communications and marketing communications to meaningfully help people and deliver value. He was the person who represented most to me that we have to do something worthwhile for our audience – not just entertain them or delight them, but something meaningful and worthwhile that delivers value. I was lucky enough to do a large assignment with him early on and it stayed with me all these years.

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