How this Spin Master executive embraces a digital-first marketing strategy.
Laura Henderson on her career journey, prioritizing her audience, and compassionate leadership.
When Laura Henderson was a kid, she had big expectations about what she wanted to do with her life. “I was the ultimate performer,” she says. “I was going to be a pop star.” Though she didn’t make it to centre stage, she did end up in a fairly incredible role — one her three-year-old self would no doubt be proud of.
“I joke that I’m about to be the coolest person in my kid’s world,” Laura says of her position as EVP, Marketing at Spin Master. If you’re not familiar with the company, you may recognize the many brands it owns and represents: Paw Patrol, Hatchimals, Kinetic Sand, Gund, and many others. Since its inception in 1994, the award-winning Canadian company has come to dominate the world of children’s entertainment.
Today, it’s Laura’s job to keep Spin Master’s brands top-of-mind with pint-sized and parental consumers, something that’s been a new challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID came at a time when the marketing world was going through a digital transformation,” she says, noting kids were already starting to spend more time on screens instead of in toy aisles. “It means we’ve had to pivot and get more creative about where and when we show up.” As opposed to creating one ad that would air on live TV, for example, she says marketing has become about combining the message and medium in creative new ways, delivering hundreds of contextually-relevant ads across many new screens: tablets, smartphones, and streaming services. “You can deliver experiences that are more relevant. Digital is real-time, it’s global, personalized, responsive, and it has a lower cost of delivery, so you can test and learn faster.”
“My job as a marketer at its core hasn’t changed, but the need to be strategic is greater than ever.”
Digital-first may be a unique way to approach marketing, especially for those at larger organizations that still prioritize traditional campaigns, but it’s one Laura came to passionately embrace in her previous roles at Mondelēz and BuzzFeed. At the former, she helped transform the way the candy and consumer packaged goods company created content and promoted their products through platforms like Facebook and Google. At the latter, she helped popularize brands like Tasty and Worth It.
“This role is really a combination of my past two lives,” she says. “Spin Master has the creativity and entrepreneurship of a BuzzFeed, but the scale of a Mondelēz. We have the heart of a startup, and the brain of a big company. My job as a marketer at its core hasn’t changed, but the need to be strategic is greater than ever.”
Her advice to marketers who are looking to cut through the clutter and tap into their digital audiences is to first define how marketing is tied to their business. “Is it share, sales, growth? What’s your metric for success?” From there, figure out who your core consumer is and meet them where they are. You can then align your goals to overcome challenges as they come up, much like Spin Master has done during COVID.
Laura also says it’s important for leaders to be empathetic to their teams’ needs and to realize pivoting to new approaches and tactics may not be as straightforward for some employees as others –– especially given the new challenges we all face while working from home.
“I think it’s important as a leader to be vulnerable. I have a two-year-old at home, and I make a real effort to share that experience and to speak honestly about the challenges I face both with members of my team and senior executives. It’s important for me to set a tone that no one is going to be perfectly OK all of the time; and that’s not just for the people who have kids. Everyone is dealing with the impacts of COVID in different ways depending on their circumstances. We’re focused on getting through this together by supporting one another.”
“I realized what might feel like a detour on the career path to some may actually be something to open my mind. Having a healthy sense of openness and curiosity can propel you further.”
It’s also key for leaders to emphasize their own learning no matter how senior they get, and to be honest about what they don’t know. There is value in learning with your team.
“Early in my career, I always wanted to present the perfect buttoned-up picture. Midway through, I realized that instead of pretending I had all of the answers, it was more productive to ask the right questions and come from a place of curiosity to help solve the problem. Today, I set up a team by saying, ‘you are the experts, and I am here to learn from you and make you as successful as possible.’ Throughout my career, even as I took lateral roles or positions in new industries where I had little knowledge, I realized what might feel like a detour on the career path to some may actually be something to open my mind. Having a healthy sense of openness and curiosity can propel you further.”
Lastly, like your favourite PAW Patrol characters Chase or Skye, figure out what your strengths are and lean into them. “Focus less on those things you need to improve upon and more on finding opportunities to apply what you’re good at. This will help you multiply your impact, and more fluidly move into unexpected roles versus following a rigid career path. It’s great for you and great for your company.”