Net // Working: Eva Appelbaum

by Jessica Ramesh

Eva Appelbaum, a Digital Director at the BBC, talks to Figaro Digital about her career so far, the changing face of marketing and why it’s the place where art and science meet

What does your role at the BBC involve and what are your objectives there?

I am currently working with BBC Television and a large part of my role is to drive ‘digital transformation’. We are looking at how BBC television can innovate in digital and how best to take our content to audiences online. We’re also exploring how to transform production so we’re able to produce content for any media seamlessly, so we meet new audience expectations and behaviours.

Another big part of my role is working on a new global brand for natural history, together with BBC Worldwide. This genre is universally loved – accessible to audiences of all ages, backgrounds or nationalities – with enviable reach and awareness figures around the world. We’re building a new brand globally to reflect the BBC’s leading position in this category. In the UK, this means a lot more emphasis on our digital brand and experience. Outside the UK this includes new television channels in some markets, as well as innovative projects such as Orbi, a high-tech natural history attraction in Japan.

What qualities – personal, technical and creative – does a role like yours require?

You have to be able to think on your feet and be adaptable. Working in digital, things change very quickly and you have to be able to change with it. 

But I think we are often distracted by the tech or digital channels. I believe that digital transformation is really about working with people within the culture of an organisation to make things change. You need the ability to win confidence and trust. It’s about building relationships and getting people to want to work with you in order to change the way things happen. 

To achieve that there are a few qualities which are underrated but essential. One of them is to be empathetic. People can be brilliant experts in their fields yet feel somehow incompetent because they don’t have digital expertise. Empathising with that and being able to show consideration for another person’s expertise is important. I try not to come in as someone who is ‘digital’ and sweep everything else away. It’s better to work with people and make them feel confident about their skills and then bring them to a place where they feel more confident with digital. 

You also need to be able to keep your ego in check. If you’re trying to help an organisation get better at digital, it sometimes happens that when they achieve that, you’re no longer the person getting the credit. Being someone who always wants to get credit for everything makes it very difficult to do the job. 

What do you think will be the most significant challenge facing marketers in your sector over the next year?

The pace of change is overwhelming and no one has a blueprint. Everyone is venturing out into the unknown. There’s a fear of not reacting quickly enough: people fear that if they don’t react they risk becoming obsolete, but they aren’t always clear on what they actually need to do. That might sound like a slightly high-level answer, but it’ll be a big challenge for many years to come. Even ‘digital marketing experts’ are learning as we go along. It’s only when certain behaviours, tools and channels have been around for a while that we start to have real clarity about what a sound strategy involves. In the meantime, I think many of us are forced to follow our best instinct. 

Where do you go to for information on what’s happening in the digital industry?

I network a lot. I attend a lot of events. I read a lot. Right now I’m interested in people who are challenging conventional views about digital media. Not necessarily because I agree 100 per cent with what they say, but because it’s good to have a bit of polemic or informed critique. This may sound slightly leftfield, but I find writer, computer scientist and composer Jaron Lanier very interesting. He’s not writing about marketing, but he is offering a philosophical critique of where social media can take humanity. 

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt from your time in marketing so far?

It’s about appreciating the tension between the art and the science of marketing – the role that both those approaches have. On the art side, there’s something magical about brilliant, creative content that no algorithm can replicate. On the other hand, particularly in digital, you understand how important it is to test and measure things and look at the evidence in order to make decisions. Marketing is the place where those two approaches meet. 

What do you think is the most overused buzzword in marketing right now? 

I often feel like the one who’s missed the memo telling us what the new buzzword is. I’m the one with the phone out, Googling under the table. As I say, the pace of change and the proliferation of new technology can be challenging. If something is slightly peripheral to what you do but you’re still interested in it, it’s hard to keep up. I was somewhere the other day and people were talking about ‘RTB’ and I was thinking ‘I have no idea what this is.’ So I was looking up real-time bidding. Then I was looking up ‘programmatic.’ You could spend ages doing this. Twenty years ago buzzwords would enter the industry much more slowly. Now you’ve just figured out what one means and the next one comes along. It’s probably worth us all admitting that we can’t keep up. Where I fall foul is that I use a lot of management speak. I watched the BBC mockumentary W1A earlier this year, which features a lot of BBC people talking exclusively in management speak. I recognised those meetings. And I’m definitely guilty of saying ‘fit for purpose’ or ‘alignment’. I annoy even myself!

Which other brands’ marketing strategies do you admire and why?

John Lewis. They’ve tried to create a business where what happens online and in the real-world is as seamless as possible. They have strong values at the core of their business and you feel that permeates everything. The values and the brand are intrinsically linked. For such an old and established business, they’ve done a really good job moving into digital in a way that plays to the strengths they’ve always had. Of course, businesses like Google or Apple, which were born into digital are always going to be better at some things, but I find it very interesting to see how those older businesses adapt. I’m also a sucker for a good charity campaign – I love the innovation I’m seeing in that area with #nomakeupselfie or #icebucketchallenge. Brilliant!

Career ladder

• Worked in Amsterdam during the first dotcom boom researching media trends during the early days of web and broadband. Shared an office with the nascent IAB Europe.

• Established digital marketing and ecommerce globally at the international consultancy Mercer.

• First Digital Communications Director at Amnesty International.

• Worked on a VOD start-up founded by Livia and Colin Firth.

• Helped set up the social media agency offering at Group M (WPP) in Singapore.

• Head of Digital Marketing Transformation at the BBC. Launched the Digital Marketing Lab and worked on improving the BBC’s social media marketing capabilities.

• Moved into BBC Television, working in the factual (natural history) genre, launching a new brand, digital product and integrating digital marketing with production.

Interview by Eilidh Wagstaff