One On One

Rachel Gross: Building An Event-Marketing Company From Scratch

Univision, the U.S.-based Spanish-language broadcast company, is a rising star in the media world. Meet the planner who has been building its event-marketing division from scratch.

When Rachel Gross took the job as senior vice president for event marketing at Univision in 2012, she had already held some big corporate-planning jobs in Manhattan. For nearly nine years, Gross worked as vice president of corporate events and community relations for AOL, and before that was a senior manager for corporate events at L’Oreal. But at Univision, where she’s charged with developing the 51-year-old Spanish-language media company’s first events marketing division, Gross found “the perfect crossroads of opportunity and an amazing company,” she said during a recent interview. “When I had this chance, I jumped at it.”

Although Gross’ corner office in Univision’s high-rise headquarters in midtown Manhattan carries all the classic trappings of power — alot of space and killer views — what’s most striking about Gross is her warmth. She has been in New York City for almost two decades, but her voice retains the honeyed tones of her native Alabama, and her office is filled with color and personal touches, including framed photographs of friends and family on display.

During our interview, Gross’ manner was as effervescent as a flute of champagne, which is a good match for the current mood at Univision. The company serves one of the fastest-growing demographics in the United States — the Hispanic population. Its 24-hour sports channel, Univision Deportes Network (UDN), launched in 2012, was the fastest-growing cable network in 2013. Univision has broadcast rights to the 2014 FIFA World Cup, to be held this summer in Brazil; the network’s broadcast last December of the final draw, which determined how teams will be grouped in the tournament, drew more viewers than any other network — in any language. “When you talk about the ABCs, NBCs, CBSs, and Foxes…, we are the big player,” Gross said. “We are just as important as our English-language counterparts.” Univision’s rise has been accompanied by a growing organizational awareness of the value of event marketing. “People were starting to understand that the way people touch, feel, and interact with your brand is just as important as the advertising on a bus route, the advertising you see on TV, and the interviews you do,” Gross said. “It’s just as important — that moment to interact with people in an event setting.”

Her job is “exciting, it’s thrilling, and every adjective you can imagine,” Gross said. “And it’s exciting to see where this industry has gone just in my career and see how critical events teams are to the strategy of the company.”

What were some of the things you wanted to do first, in building an event-marketing department from scratch?

First of all, it is a dream opportunity. After 19 years in this field in New York City, I think that I finally have the wisdom and, not only the skill set, but the ability to understand that it’s not just about the planning skill. It’s also about your ability to influence and to work internally and to see the bigger mission for the company.

I was lucky enough to bring some of my colleagues that I had worked with when I led the events department at AOL. And one of the first things that I started doing was learning about the business. Univision is a complex, fascinating, dynamic company, and I knew that for me to be successful here I needed to get in under the roots and really understand the business.

My first goal is to come in and say, “Let’s understand what the priorities are, and how we can be helpful and supportive.” My goal is to grow this brand. Our CEO, Randy Falco — who’s fabulous — knew events could be a secret weapon for our company, and that’s what we’re doing. We want to deliver on that and really build upon the success of this brand and make it great.

You cannot do good events if you don’t have access. And you have to have access to your management team. They have to have skin in the game with you, and I’ve been really fortunate here that I work for someone who thinks that way. And I’ve been able to really leverage that. I could not do this job without really having those relationships with our stakeholders and having the entire executive team behind this. They really said, “We’re ready.”

What advice do you have for planners about getting a seat at the table?

How do you get a seat at the table? You ask. Things are not given to us, and when you’re hired and you’re given the responsibility to create something, to lead something, you have to manage that. You have to be accountable. You have to own that — you have to take that initiative. So getting the seat at the table is about showing up, being accountable, delivering, saying you’re going to do something, and actually doing it.

And with that accountability and as trust develops, you can have a seat at the table. But you have to ask for it. People don’t knock on the door here at 605 Third Avenue and say, “We want to give you all this opportunity.” Everything is a process, and I think asking for it and realizing your value and sharing that and showing your value will help pull that chair closer to the table and [get you] included in key discussions.

What qualities and characteristics do you look at as you build a team?

When we hired an event manager, [Jeysa Plana,] we posted a job listing on LinkedIn and had 250 resumes. We went through every single resume, because this is really important —just as someone’s looking for a new opportunity, I’m looking for that next great person. And I invest a lot of time in it personally.

We have a recruiting team here that is supportive, but I get my hands in it, because I’m picking a player for this team. I’m putting together a puzzle, and I need that perfect corner or that perfect middle piece. After [evaluating] the 250 resumes, which were prescreened by recruiters, I then have met with probably 35 people, because we really want to find the right personality.

For me, the price of admission is being great at your skills. You have to be so good and confident and aware of how to do this job, the ins and outs of it, the A to Z — but that is a baseline. That just gets you in the door. Then the things that are what I would call the special sauce on top are your ability to communicate and to think strategically. You have to be a great communicator — you have to be articulate, you have to have that confidence behind you.

I think planners typically like to hold things close to their chests and really show that they’ve got the details down, but it’s about being collaborative and listening to your customer. It’s about changing and evolving and customizing things based on what the needs of the customer and the business are.

They also have to understand what it means to be a good teammate — it mean being very strong on your own, but then also nimble and agile and able to jump into a team situation and be supportive.

Anything else?

I would say one other thing that is hard to interview for — but after going through these 35 interviews, I’m getting better at — is identifying if someone has instinct. Can they provide a solution that represents the values and the culture of this company? And are they a problem-solver?

The word “instinct” to me is really important, and we use that a lot as a team. We will say in a situation, “What does your instinct say to you would be the right way to solve this?” And this is what makes this career so magical, is that you’re finding these people that are part psychologist, part meeting planner, and part detective — all of these amazing skills. Everybody on this team has something unique about them.

How have you made a decision about which direction to take in your own career, when you’ve come to a crossroads?

I feel like I have had so many crossroads. Along the way, I have had experiences that have absolutely just been… I pinch myself sometimes, thinking I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been. And that’s not to say everything has been perfect.

I took a job where I knew in the first month that it was the wrong fit — and it scared the hell out of me. That was a crossroads. In my last position [at AOL], I was at a crossroads where I was making that professional leap from being a doer to being a leader. And I had with me an executive who encouraged me to take that step and to take that brave move.

When I made the decision to leave a nine-year career [at AOL], where everything was humming and I knew how to do that job, to create something from scratch — that was a crossroads for me. And without taking those [risks], I don’t think I would be able to say that I’ve had a lucky career or I’ve had a fruitful career. I had to take the risks. And I’m better for it.

This summer, there’s this little thing called the World Cup…

I’ve learned so much about soccer, which has been really fun. We’ll have 125 people with us. And then we have about 140 engineers and staff running the 24/7 coverage of World Cup. So for the company, it’s really special and momentous.

Our events are going to be centered around our most important sponsors and advertisers, and they’ll be coming to Brazil with us. We’ll be there for a seven-night program, and our clients will have the opportunity to experience soccer firsthand. What we really want to do is bring to life for our sponsors and advertisers what’s happening on our networks — we want to give them such access to the World Cup that they’ll never forget it.

We’ll have about 15 event staff with us. And, as a way to leverage our team on site, we’ll be working with a local university and using event students to help support us on site. It’s a model that I know other companies have used, but it’s the first time for me to do this. It allows us to take our core events team and then partner with hospitality students at the local university and give them a chance to have access to some of these special things that we’re planning. I think from a career perspective they’re going to love it.

[Students] will be staffing activities, and there’ll be a consistent group that our customers will recognize — they’ll be branded with us. They all speak Portuguese, which is another way to leverage [our team]. Sometimes when you have a hole in your own skill set, how do you fill it? And we’re thrilled about this. So they’ll be bilingual and able to speak English and Portuguese.

We’re going to be doing a lot of immersion. People will be able to go to a samba school and see how the samba dancers prepare for Carnival. They will be able to go to a Brazilian bakery and they’re going to make bread and interact with local chefs. We want people to walk away being smarter about Brazil. We have a full schedule of different activities and things that I think will really make people fall in love with Brazil like we have. We’re thrilled to be there, and we’re going to be giving back also to the community while we’re there.

I want to give this team something memorable for themselves, so we’re going to be doing a community service project on the days before our customers arrive. Jenny Stahl, CMP, who is the lead on the project with me — we’re doing this as an investment in our team.

I think when you’re in the events industry and you’re in the service industry, we have to feed our soul a little bit, too. We’ve been working in this country now for — it will be 18 months by the time the program operates — and we’re in love with Brazil. We love the people, and we want to make this special.

Successfully creating a new event-marketing division at a more-than-50-year-old company has meant taking time to understand legacy behavior, according to Rachel Gross. But it’s also meant looking with fresh eyes at how things are usually done.

“As planners, we have to be willing to look at things differently,” Gross said. “And just because we’ve done something the same way — and kind of have been successful – that doesn’t mean it’s not okay to take a beat and evaluate: Is there a better way to do this?”

Case in point: Traditionally, Univision has had a standard footprint at The Cable Show, which is the cable industry’s largest annual event. Gross worked with company executives to ask whether their investment was yielding the kinds of interactions they were aiming for. “You have to have the courage to ask, are we leveraging this partnership to the fullest potential?” Gross said.

Gross suggested that Univision plan an exclusive dinner with President Bill Clinton during last year’s Cable Show. Almost all of the invited guests accepted. It was so successful that a similar dinner will take place at the 2014 Cable Show, around the theme of people who are changing the world.

“Having Univision lead that discussion is so exciting,” Gross said. “It really changes the model of people coming to a trade show, to now coming and having a thoughtful discussion with us. Having Univision be seen as the leader in that space is exciting.”

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.