By Kola Ogunshote
As the President of Walker Sands Communications, a fast growing B2B public relations and digital marketing firm, Mike Santoro stays in tune with the latest trends in marketing, communication and technology. In this interview, he talks about his career path, agency management, his charitable foundation and the potential impact of virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial intelligence on the rapidly evolving communication industry.
Q. Tell me a little about your career?
A. I started out in college as an engineering student at the University of Illinois. In my second year, I transferred to the English department because I realized I had more passion for writing. After graduation, I took an internship writing web copy for a company called Technology Advisors. In 2006, I moved to Walker Sands because I wanted to break into the agency world. About two years later, Brian Dema, the man who recruited me, decided to go for his MBA and I was asked to take over as President. It was then that we evolved to focus on B2B technology. So we became a B2B public relations and digital marketing firm for B2B technology companies. We built new capabilities in paid media, video marketing and email marketing. Today, we have grown to 80 employees and we have offices in Chicago and San Francisco.
Q. How do you keep your clients and ensure the agency is growing?
A. In our industry, it’s a big challenge to keep clients because a lot of them are fast growing technology companies. So we lose clients probably more than most PR firms because our clients could be acquired, go public or miss a round of funding so they have to cut staff. But for those who are on a strong growth curve, we meet and exceed their expectations. We bring in new ideas, creativity and new strategies. PR is much of a business of “What have you done for me lately?” So we use research to bring up new ideas, services and innovations for our clients.
Q. As a former Google Glass explorer, what are your views about emerging technologies like virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence (AI)?
A. I think new technologies will continue to have a huge impact on communications. When I got Google Glass, I was excited. But ultimately it was a failed experiment. When I wore them I could see where augmented reality or virtual reality could potentially go as a storytelling mechanism. So imagine the emotions you can evoke with the written word now transferred into an immersive experience like being in the middle of a marketplace bombing in Syria. That is powerful. I think VR is a powerful storytelling device that PR pros could get better at using.
Q. How do you apply that to the business world?
A. As a B2B technology PR company, we deal a lot with software, things you couldn’t touch and feel, and VR is better for those type of things. VR is an excellent storytelling option. We have a client shipping for e-commerce companies and being able to experience their warehouse through VR is more impressive than saying their warehouse is as big as 30 football fields. I think any forward looking PR agency is investing in virtual reality storytelling right now.
Q. What about artificial intelligence? Is it a threat or an opportunity?
A. I keep seeing reports saying we should not worry about artificial intelligence. If you eliminate drivers and retail workers, the two biggest jobs in this country; through driverless cars and self-service kiosks, that is certainly a concern. But other reports say we are going to evolve and that artificial intelligence works best when it is paired with human intelligence. A computer human-combination is certainly better and smarter. For instance, IBM’s Watson is not going to replace doctors. Doctors pair with Watson to learn and get better treatment results. So we need to look at how we can leverage AI in our own industry and be constantly aware of its capabilities.
Q. Which technology will be most disruptive to the communications industry – VR, AR or AI?
A. There are a lot of possibilities in AR due to Pokemon Go. But I think VR will have an impact for now due to its storytelling capabilities. Certainly, there is a potential to these technologies that we don’t even know. If we go back 20 years, could we have predicted the sea change that the internet and social media and all the new technology have brought? So we have to stay up to date with the latest channels and technologies. I do not know how people will consume their news differently in 5 to 10 years, so we need to be sensitive to the different ways people learn. It’s a big question and I do not have the complete answer.
Q. Tell me more about the nonprofit you co-founded with your wife – The Little Giraffe Foundation.
Q. We started the Foundation in 2011 to turn the tragic loss of our premature twin daughter, Cheyenne, into something positive. Initially it was to help us with the grieving process. But today we fund about $50,000 in medical research and NICU support grants. Because we received some meaningful gifts when our twins were born, we also decided to bring gifts into hospitals. My wife just dropped off Halloween gifts to 14 different Chicagoland hospitals. We have raised almost $70,000 this year. The foundation has seen good, solid growth through the years.
Q. What is your favorite word or quote?
A. I’m a positive person. I usually say, “That’s awesome!” One of my favorite quotes is from Daniel Burnham, “Make no little plans …” It inspires me because when he set out to design this great city we call Chicago; it was with a mind of inspiring people. So what is the next great project we can do for our clients? I try to think big and push the envelope. I do not go with the simple answer.
Kola Ogunshote, a public relations professional from Nigeria, is pursuing his graduate degree in public relations and advertising at DePaul University. This is part of a series of interviews that Agency Management students conducted with agency heads.