Alion’s marketing and communications lead Peter Jacobs spoke with ExecutiveBiz about his firm, his role and the emerging trends in the field.
ExecutiveBiz: Could you tell us a little about your background?
Peter Jacobs: I started in radio as an announcer and commercial producer and then went freelance as a copywriter and doing voiceovers. Eventually I ended up at a marketing firm as Copy Director, then I moved to the corporate side as the first director of marketing at a small integrator. We grew that from about $9 million in revenue to about $25 million in less than three years.
The company was sold and I went to head up marketing at an internet security software company, NetGuard, which we took from a run rate of zero in the US to over $9 million in less than a year. A lot of that, I believe, was due to our marketing approach. The focus was always on ‘Here’s how it’s going to help you,’ instead of, ‘Here’s a bunch of facts about the products.’ I then moved on to other software and services companies in the D.C. area, both established and VC-funded firms. I joined Alion in 2003, just a few months after it became an ESOP company. We’ve gone from about $200 million in revenue to more than $800 million. As we’ve grown, I’ve tried to evolve my department’s role and our marketing strategy.
ExecutiveBiz: What are some important skills required to work in communications and marketing?
Peter Jacobs: It’s really the things that make you successful in any line of work. The most important thing is curiosity; the desire to learn new things can keep your mind nimble. We do some amazing engineering and technical work here at Alion, so as marketers we need to understand both what it does and why it’s useful.
Empathy is important; you need to be able to put yourself in the other person’s place. You can give someone facts and figures all day long, but it’s the emotional connection that gets them to care about what you are saying. That means you always need to answer the question, “Why?” In a press release, we won’t just say who awarded us a contract and for how much, we’ll explain the customer’s current situation and what they want to achieve. This makes it easier for other people to relate to the story.
It’s also important to challenge your own assumptions. You always want to see if there is a better way to do things.
ExecutiveBiz: What are some challenges you face in your role?
Peter Jacobs: The biggest challenge is time. Not just for me, but for the people I want to reach. They’re bombarded by messages and often they’ll put up shields. We all do that sometimes— stand over the recycling bin with the mail or delete the dozens of emails that look like spam.
In our market, which is very much government oriented, there are a lot of security constraints, and external email, social media and online sources may be restricted. This limits the channels of communications, but it simply means our communications have to be really compelling.
We need to show that we can solve pressing problems because we have these smart, inventive, experienced people – making that case is the only way we can break through the clutter.
ExecutiveBiz: Are there any emerging trends in the field of marketing and communications that you are particularly excited about?
Peter Jacobs: I’m going to be the contrarian here, because I’m less excited about social media than some of my colleagues in B2B or B2C companies. A lot of our potential customers aren’t going to read a blog or follow us on Twitter, but I do think there is a lot of credibility to be gained by participating in online forums where experts can share knowledge. This requires a corporate policy and culture and I’m all for that.
We do intend to make use of web video because you can tell a great story that way. Some of the technologies we’ve developed are so cool and visually interesting that they’ll really pop off the screen. We’ve got one video like that now on You Tube and more in the works.
My main emphasis at Alion is on media relations, because it’s an effective way to tell our story. But the best marketing assets I have at Alion are our people. They’re face-to-face with customers and partners, representing the brand. Helping them do that well is a big part of my department’s job.
ExecutiveBiz: Do you have any hobbies you enjoy in your spare time?
Peter Jacobs: I love to read. Science fiction and biographies of the founders of the US are my favorites, but I love a good mystery, too. Also, I play music — banjo and lap steel guitar.
ExecutiveBiz: What was the last book you read?
Peter Jacobs: Recently, I read Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard, which came out a few years ago. It’s about a grown-up Tiny Tim from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol solving a murder in 19th century London. I also read the biography of Andrew Jackson, American Lion, not long ago. The parallels to today’s politics are incredible.
ExecutiveBiz: Was there anything else you wanted to talk about today?
Peter Jacobs: Like every other discipline, marketing and the ways we communicate are evolving, but the fundamentals stay the same. It’s all about what motivates people to respond to a message and react positively to what you have to say.
ExecutiveBiz: I saw the spread you did on Alion Cares and was very impressed.
Peter Jacobs: We started Alion Cares a little more than three years ago. This year, we embraced this charity, Our Military Kids, which helps the children of deployed Guard and Reservists as well as wounded warriors. They give small grants to pay for extra-curricular programs, like sports teams, tutoring, and arts classes. It was amazing – even in this economy, people across Alion asked, “What can I do to help?” As you saw, we almost doubled our goal. It was great to be a part of, and we’re going to try and out-do ourselves next year.