The Talent Business is the world leader in executive search for businesses fuelled by innovation and creativity. Its experience of partnering CMOs around the world on their transformation agendas during this period of unprecedented challenges inspired this new series of interviews. Titled ‘Crucible Moments’, we explore times within marketing leaders' careers when they were tested in ways that dramatically exceeded the scope of any prior situation.
Nick Tran, head of global marketing at TikTok, has responded to unprecedented challenges in the US and globally since joining the social network platform almost a year ago by delivering innovative tools and marketing that have got billions of views and fuelled TikTok’s growth and success.
“I always jokingly say that - as long as it’s not a real fire - if there is a fire at a company, I’m more likely to run toward it than run away from it,” chuckles Nick Tran. “From a marketing perspective it’s challenging. You get to learn more than you ever through you would and the speed at which you’re able to learn is heightened. And, ultimately, the impact that you’ve had during that time is the most significant because if everything were going perfectly well, then why would anyone want to change it?”
Nick is the global head of marketing at TikTok. When he joined in April 2020, he found himself facing an unexpected challenge – a global pandemic that was accelerating the platform’s already impressive growth. That meant flying fast (as fast as the speed of culture, Nick likes to say) to understand not just the rapidly growing platform but its fizzing, dynamic and unpredictable community, and wrangling a global marketing plan while stuck at home. As crucible moments go, this is up there. But Nick, you see, loves crucible moments.
Calm, optimistic Nick was more than ready for TikTok. His whole career has been a series of crucible moments building up to this. On the day he started work at Taco Bell, the brand was hit with a lawsuit and Nick’s team had to launch a whole rebranding exercise to combat negative perception. At a clothing start-up whose three biggest clients went bankrupt, Nick was involved in a pioneering pivot to a direct-to-consumer ecommerce model. The month he joined Samsung was the launch of infamously combustible Galaxy Note 7, so Nick got a crash course in crisis management.
“I think those are all lessons that I learned along the way so that when I was able to step into the role at TikTok there was not issue or challenge that made me hesitate,” he says. “It was very clear that what I learned in the past helped me prepare for this moment. And looking forward, trying to bring more clarity and focus on what I needed to do as opposed to dwelling on the issues that were at hand.”
By comparison, TikTok has been a giddy whirl of positivity and growth but the responsibility of overseeing the hottest social media platform on the planet and doing the creative community of over one billion people credit is no small task. Not to mention leading the brand’s first ever global ATL campaign, which launched in August.
“Knowing that there was a big opportunity to make an impact and help drive the marketing vision forward into an era where not only are we growing but becoming ingrained in culture at large – it was a dream come true,” says Nick.
The first thing that Nick had to get his head around was that the normal rules did not apply to marketing TikTok.
“A year ago, I would have told you that I have the definitive playbook on how to do marketing, and how to bring brands into the forefront of culture. I would have given you examples across numerous industries and said, ‘here is the playbook that most marketers can take and run with’… I walked into TikTok somewhat confident with the approach and within the first week, I realised that everything that I thought I knew about marketing and culture, I had to put it to the side and start from scratch. And it’s not because of the pandemic – it was actually because Tik Tok is just a completely different platform.
“It made me take the playbook that I had and then flip it upside down and start from the back of it and work to the front.”
With TikTok’s community catalysing cultural trend after cultural trend, meme after meme, dance craze after dance craze, to say that the platform is shaping culture is no exaggeration. Niche interest groups with deep-running passions coalesce to make magic together – which frequently bubbles up to the mainstream. Who could have predicted, reflects Nick, that the first couple of months of 2021 would have been dominated by the humble sea shanty?
But then predicting TikTok trends is a fool’s errand – as is a stop-start reactive approach. Instead, says Nick, the global marketing team works in a way that is constantly in tune with the community, ready to harness the next moment or movement.
“It’s a challenge if you’re trying to react to them. What we’ve tried to do, and what I’ve hopefully instilled in the team, is to embrace those moments,” says Nick. “What we wanted to build was the infrastructure to be able to amplify those in near real-time. I think that’s the key, so we don’t see those as distractions that are disruptive to our traditional campaign approach.”
In order to work this way, empowering the vast TikTok community of communities, you need to empower the marketing team too. They need to be able to make decisions fast and innovate. Nick is full of praise for his team.
“I’m so grateful that we have the team that we have. I have heads of marketing in different regions and they’re best in class marketers. Individually they could be heads of marketing for a lot of other brands and that really helps fuel the growth and innovation that we see,” says Nick. “I learned pretty quickly that we need to take the more traditional approach to marketing and flip it upside down and think about it differently. They all embrace that challenge, and they dove in head-first to try to understand how that works.”
As a creative person, driven by curiosity, the role holds a lot of personal satisfaction for Nick. Learning about the nuances and intricacies of each market and TikTok’s local communities has been particularly fascinating, not to mention navigating the vast galaxies of unexpected fandoms and interest groups that find each other on the app.
“It’s been fascinating because TikTok dives deep into people’s worlds,” says Nick, still in awe ten months after starting the role. “There are so many of worlds like that, that I didn’t know existed. And I’ve learned that being able to embrace all of those differences and highlight them to the broader community is great. You don’t have to appeal to the masses. You can appeal to a lot of the smaller communities and bring it to life in an aggregate.”
Not only has Nick had to learn about marketing TikTok itself, but he has gleaned many insights about how brands can make the most of the platform. His B2B marketing team uses the mantra ‘don’t make ads, make TikToks’. That means seriously thinking about what it means for a brand to be authentic and personified. It also means not just chopping up ads that have been made for other platforms and cropping in the aspect ratio. The brands that are winning, he says, are those that showcase and celebrate the moments that the TikTok community also celebrates. Ocean Spray is the obvious example, but Nick’s got a soft spot for a Cheerios response last year. In the US, TikTokers had become nostalgic about an old ‘90s campaign, wondering how the family of characters would be doing today. A few users began to suggest that Cheerios should bring that family back – and the cereal brand did just that.
“It showed that even in this moment, with the pandemic, families can still be connected. I think seeing these spontaneous moments of ingenuity and creativity that are borne from the creators of the platform and that are fuelling ideas for brands, it opens up a whole new era of what brand marketing can mean,” says Nick. “You’re not just relying on your agency; you have a whole TikTok community that’s coming up with ideas on your behalf – not because they’re paid to do it but because they genuinely love your brand, and they love to be creative.”
It represents an explosive development in the creative industry, but Nick’s innate positive mindset and a sixth sense for creative opportunity means that he is looking forward to surfing the changes to come. If Nick’s previous roles have readied him for TikTok, his experience at TikTok has readied him for the future.
“I definitely have that optimism. I normally have a pretty calm disposition and I think that speaks to why I enjoy and thrive in these moments. Most people would think ‘Oh why is this happening to me?’ I keep on thinking, ‘wow! I keep on hitting the lottery again and again.’ This is such a fun time to be in marketing and to work with an incredible team that gets to create culture.’”