A video compilation of television ads that big brands have created in response to the novel coronavirus is appropriately titled “Every COVID-19 commercial is exactly the same.” Most are peppered with clichés: “We’re in this together,” “we’re here for you,” “we’re living in unprecedented times.”

The fact that they all also refer to the “safety of our homes” is not lost on Denise Karkos, chief marketing officer (CMO) at SiriusXM, the largest subscription-based broadcasting service in the U.S. Boosted by its acquisition of Pandora last year, the largest ad-supported audio entertainment streaming service in the U.S. now reaches more than 100 million people with its audio products.

“Before COVID-19, our two brands were distinctly different,” Karkos says, explaining that SiriusXM originally was meant to be heard in the car as people spent their time driving around, busy with daily activities during the week. West Coast-based Pandora offers listeners a more laid-back experience across a variety of devices throughout the workday grind and into the fun of the weekend.

“People are home all the time now, they’re not driving around,” says Karkos. “Social distancing and home offices have blurred the lines between our weekday and weekend lives. We need to rethink what these new listening experiences mean for our brands.”

Reality Check

Karkos had been in her role for only six months when the crisis struck. For her, that COVID-19 commercial compilation hits the nail on the head. Coming on board to lead two diverse, geographically dispersed teams requires strong leadership in the best of times, but the challenge now is to find totally fresh ways of doing things in order to eliminate platitudes and maintain brand relevance.

“We decided we need to stay true to our purpose,” she explains. “Our job is not to protect people; we’re an entertainment company.”

That’s not to say that there is no great purpose in entertainment. Especially in difficult times, people need music, sports, and distractions as much as they need news, information, and access to the opinions of leaders and experts.

For Karkos and her team, the question is how to balance these needs, how to “own the home” in this new stay-safe scenario. Among the questions they are asking themselves: What is the role of home entertainment? What do people want to listen to? Do they want to lean in and listen, or lean out to escape? And of course, will people keep paying for long-term subscriptions?

Interpreting the Facts

The answers to these questions are found in the data.

As one of the largest music streaming businesses in the U.S., Pandora has a massive pool of listening data. Individual music tastes vary immensely. The richness of data at its disposal enables the company to optimize and curate the listening experience.

“We use analytics to understand the trends,” explains Karkos, who believes her mission is to help drive business growth. “It’s not up to the brand to tell people what to listen to; we listen to what they’re telling us through their preferences.”

As SiriusXM CMO, Karkos is keenly aware that the brand is also the mirror of the company culture. The purpose of the business stems from the needs of the people they serve. She believes that today, marketers are also technologists and they need to understand both human resources and IT if they are to really understand the culture behind the brand.

Leading Through Engagement at SiriusXM

Employee engagement begins with understanding the emotional responses of people who are there to achieve the company’s objectives. Karkos realized early on that people were anxious about the acquisition and how the two very diverse brands would be affected.

“We’re still in the early days of bringing the cultures together,” she shares. “That’s an important consideration as you evaluate bringing the brands themselves together.”

During her 27-year career, coaching, mentoring and meeting people face to face to build relationship trust were key elements of her leadership style. COVID-19 has changed all that.

“I try to be very mindful of how different employees are dealing with the virtual environment,” she says. “I don’t have children of my own, for example, but I certainly can empathize with someone who is juggling work and home schooling.”

But there is more to it than that. After weeks of giving colleagues a glimpse into their private worlds, people are weary of screens.

“We have to balance our humanity and business,” says the executive, who has tried a variety of ways to counter the stress of virtual work. “We have video-free days, and I’ve suggested make-up free days — but people didn’t seem to go for that one!”

In any case, leading a team of 200 during the coronavirus crisis requires plenty of creativity, empathy, and people skills.

Words of Advice

Karkos did not reach her position in life and at SiriusXM without learning some lessons, which she is happy to share. The most important one is not to get in the way of your own success. Starting out at a small agency in Maine, she recalls a day when she had to give a presentation to the company president. When she finished, he just nodded and said okay; he did not say “well done” or “good job.”

“It was a bit of a slap in the face to realize that what meant so much to me was just another meeting for him,” Karkos says. “After some reflection, I realized that you never know the context the other person is coming from. I had no idea what was going on in his world, I was so wrapped up in my own.”

Her advice is to define your own expectations up front: Do you need a quick win, a fast in and out, recognition, or a strategic decision? Then get over yourself and get the job done!

The Path Forward is a series featuring trailblazing women in leadership and their inspiring insights and experiences.

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