“Many Roads Lead to Rome” – An Interview with Bill Novelli

by Gael O’Sullivan

Many of us know the name Bill Novelli; he is a long-time thought leader in the social marketing field. But did you know that Bill began his illustrious career as a brand manager for Lever Brothers (now Unilever) during the Mad Men era in 1960’s New York City? While at Lever Brothers, Bill honed his marketing skills selling consumer products like soap and toothpaste. Even though this work paid the bills, Bill was seeking something more.  So he decided to ‘work both sides of the street’, and left Lever Brothers for a job with an ad agency.  Wells, Rich & Greene was a hot agency at the time, and while there Bill had the opportunity to manage the public television account.  His first step was to attend a press conference with Joan Ganz Cooney. Bill was struck by Joan’s ability to ‘sell’ education through a new program called Sesame Street.  The idea that marketing could be applied to work that makes the world a better place provided Bill with the spark he had been seeking, and he soon moved to Washington DC to help promote the Peace Corps.  

While at Peace Corps, Bill met Jack Porter, who had also attended the University of Pennsylvania and had previous advertising experience at Ogilvy and Mather.  Soon the two like-minded colleagues identified a gap in the marketplace – no one in Washington was offering marketing services beyond traditional advertising and public relations. Porter Novelli was established in 1972 during the Nixon administration, offering ‘marketing communication’ services for health and social issues to public and private sector clients.  Bill and Jack tapped academics like Phil Kotler, Alan Andreasen and Paul Bloom to broaden their knowledge and expertise.  The academics were calling the type of work Porter Novelli did ‘social marketing’, and thus a new niche market was born. 

Since their financial resources were limited, Bill and Jack sold Porter Novelli to Needham, Harper and Steers.  This created financial stability for the staff and organization, and allowed Porter Novelli to keep their brand name and pursue the kind of work that mattered to them.  In the early days major clients included the National Cancer Institute and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.   They also worked beyond public health with organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency.  Bill had an interest in international issues, and soon teamed up with Bill Smith at the Academy for Educational Development to conduct a review of the US Agency for International Development’s (USAID) contract with an advertising agency.  This led to Porter Novelli joining the Futures Group and other partners on a USAID-funded global social marketing project called SOMARC (Social Marketing for Change), which partnered with pharmaceutical companies to promote contraceptive use in developing countries.

As Needham merged into Omnicom, the huge new parent was heavily focused on commercial clients, and Bill decided in 1990 to join CARE as its first Chief Operating Officer, having previously served as a CARE board member.  Five years later Bill founded the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, once again channeling his marketing prowess into an organization that combats the tobacco industry’s marketing tactics and strengthens tobacco policies and media advocacy.  Having learned how to ‘block and tackle’ at Lever and the agency world, Bill learned to pivot and apply marketing to social change initiatives.  “In my mind, marketing was not robust enough.  It’s about individual behavior change, but you also need to change the environment, using policy, media, technology and advocacy,” he said. 

Bill’s next challenge surfaced in 2001 when he took the helm as the Chief Executive Officer at AARP, a membership organization of some 40 million people aged 50 and older.  At the time, AARP was benefitting from a surge in new membership thanks to the baby boomer generation, and Bill saw the logic in using his marketing expertise to attract and retain new members.  AARP had been a Porter Novelli client previously, and Bill had always admired their mission and their work.  AARP is a social impact organization working on issues such as financial security, healthcare and independent living for older persons, and they use policy advocacy to achieve their goals.  One of AARP’s biggest accomplishments under Bill’s leadership was helping to get prescription drug coverage included in Medicare.  They were also successful in opposing President Bush’s attempts to privatize Social Security.  

In 2009, Bill reinvented himself yet again by joining Georgetown University and establishing the Global Social Enterprise Initiative (GSEI).  He has built a strong team of colleagues who receive funding from a variety of private sector entities such as the Bank of America Foundation, VF Corporation, Nestle, and the AB InBev Foundation to implement projects that address social, health and economic development needs.  GSEI is action-oriented, according to Bill, and goes beyond academics to apply social marketing principles to real-world problems.   In addition to leading GSEI, Bill still teaches courses such as Corporate Social Responsibility, Nonprofit Management, and Principled Leadership for Business and Society to MBA students.

Speaking of leadership, when asked about his reputation as a thought leader, Bill noted that you don’t have to be a CEO to be a leader.  In reflecting on his own career, how the social marketing field has evolved, and advice he would give to new social marketers just starting out, Bill shared the following insights:

  • Work for someone you respect and can learn from.  Don’t waste your time with people who will not teach you.  You should interview them.
  • Don’t be afraid to take risks.
  • Be technically sound.
  • It helps to have a partner by your side to support you (in this case, Bill’s wife Fran).
  • You might want to start in the private sector.  There is a lot to learn about shared value, corporate social responsibility and other private sector tools that can drive social good.
  • As our field has evolved, we’ve gotten smarter and better, but the problems have gotten more difficult. Everything now is fragmented and virtual, and it’s hard to build a cohesive team in the ‘gig economy’.  
  • New technology tools work for you and against you.  We all have too much information, and the irony is that people are actually now less informed and susceptible to fake news.
  • Many roads lead to Rome – there is not one path to reach your goals.  

While at AARP, Bill wrote two books, 50+ Give Meaning and Purpose to the Best Time of Your Life, and Managing the Older Worker.  He is toying with the idea of writing a new book titled Confessions of a Social Marketer, which is a play on the title of advertising legend David Ogilvy’s book, Confessions of an Advertising Man.  Let’s hope he writes this book soon so that we can all continue to learn from one of the most talented and respected social marketers in the world.