Hiring people who take their work personally, and other lessons from marketer Cord Silverstein at Capstrat

Photo of Cord Silverstein of CapstratYou might know Cord Silverstein as EVP for Interactive Communications at Capstrat, as a blogger, or as an active participant in the N.C. Research Triangle marketing community.

But did you also know:

  • he helped launch Dell’s first ecommerce website?
  • he’s advised the U.S. military on using social media in Iraq?
  • he’s followed the Grateful Dead across two continents?

I spoke with Cord two weeks ago at his office in Raleigh, North Carolina. He shared why he wants to hire people who take their work personally, how individual consumers are more empowered now than ever before, and why Capstrat’s client proposals include success metrics from the very beginning.

Cord Silverstein

EVP, Interactive Communications at Capstrat in Raleigh, NC
More info: @Cord, LinkedIn, and MarketingHipster.com

Marketing Trends: Past, Present, and Future

Since he started in 1993-1994, Cord noted marketing has become more customized:

“I just don’t think the homogenized ‘vanilla’ marketing works anymore. [There’s so much] technology now that gives the individual control over who and what is marketed and communicated to us. Everything from DVR to satellite radio to pop-up blockers online — the individual is now in control over what kind of communication is given to us or supplied to us and so this ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach just doesn’t work any more.

“For a long time, people used marketing communication to try to control the conversation and I think today, it’s not about control. It’s about educating. It’s about influencing. It’s about engaging but you can’t just control.”

He talked about the power that individuals now hold:

“Think of as little as 20 years ago, if you had a problem with a company, with an organization. You got a bad product, you had a bad experience. What could you do? You might send a letter to the editor or you might call customer service. You might file a complaint with the BBB. But other than that, that was about it.

“Today, if I’m unhappy about something as an individual, there’s an incredibly low barrier to entry to be able to get my voice heard. I need a computer and an internet connection, and pretty much other than that, there are all free tools that require a real low level of technical savvy. If I wanna put in the time and the effort, I can really make my voice heard, and that’s incredibly powerful.

“On the flip side, I’ve worked with clients where that scares the living crap out of them. It works on both sides of that fence, from the standpoint of how can businesses, organizations, and so forth be prepared for this in the future. You know, it is not a question of ‘If someone’s gonna get online and say that they’re unhappy with your company.’ It’s just a question of when.

I asked what he follows and reads and attends to keep up with trends:

“I try to stay on top of Twitter as much as possible. I have my RSS reader with probably several hundred blogs I try to pay attention to. At night, when my wife and I take a break after dinner, maybe we want to watch a little TV. We both get on our computers and hit the readers and then go through the articles. I know that sounds romantic as hell but, you know, that’s the world that we live in.

“I like to attend conferences. I love podcasts. I subscribe to more than a hundred podcasts and that’s actually how I go to sleep at night. I put on a podcast and fall asleep. So that’s how I keep up with things.

“I think often it’s just really talking with colleagues. I have an amazing group of really talented and really smart people here. And everyone has different interests. For instance, I have several guys just totally digging the mobile space. They share a lot of stuff and talk about their resources.”

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Launching the First Dell.com eCommerce Site

I asked Cord how he got started in marketing, after graduating from Hofstra University in Long Island, New York. He said:

“You know, I’ve been doing the Web for most of my career and I’ve been playing on a number of different sides of the web fence. I started as a developer — crazy as that might seem — and I used to do HTML, JavaScript, and some ASP. I was just about dangerous.”

While he was at Grey Interactive, the Dell.com site was basically an online version of the printed catalog — there was no ecommerce capability. I characterized that as ‘brochureware’:

“Yeah, totally brochure. And that’s literally what we did. I was in a room with five or six HTML guys and we were just literally hard-coding each and every page.

“Anytime they had a spec change or a price that dropped, we had to go in and change everything. It was like the chip would change from the SP4400 [to] the SP4400A. And you had to go into like a hundred pages to add that “A” to every single one because there’s no database at all. It was all just hard-coded to each and every page.”

His work at Grey led to his next job:

“One of our clients that I headed up after a while was Dell. This was prior to Dell launching the ecommerce site, and then Dell asked me if I will be interested in jumping ship, moving from New York to Texas, because Michael Dell had an idea of selling his computers online. So I moved down to Dell and launched the first Dell.com ecommerce store.”

I asked what that was like:

“I described Dell as you’re a big shark in a small pond with a whole lot of other big sharks. If you start to slow down or stop paying attention for one second, you’re gonna be eaten like nobody’s business. It was a real 24/7 kinda gig for a while.

“It was a great experience. I learned so much and I met a lot of great people. I think eventually, I missed the change of seasons. After several years of Texas summers, I was interested in coming back to the East Coast.”

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Helping the U.S. Army Use Social Media to Connect with Citizens in Iraq

Out of curiosity, I asked Cord about the Army poster and Airborne emblem on his office wall. He said:

“About eight months ago, I was contacted by a group within the Airborne that was deployed in Iraq. Their focus was about social media and how to engage with the Iraqis. [At any one time, half the team is deployed and the other half is working in the U.S.]

“They contacted me to see if they could come in and talk about some engagement strategies, things like that. And so we said yes, absolutely. We had a day of just talking and sharing our thoughts and hearing their thoughts. The captain who put things together gave me those as a thank-you.”

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Managing Teams and Creating Metrics for Client Success

I noted that one of his LinkedIn testimonials said Cord should have been an attorney (because he’s good at asking questions to get to the root of things). Another said he’s like a drill sergeant (employees love and respect him, and they’re glad he’s on their side).

I asked him to describe his leadership and management style:

“I hate micromanagement. I hate to micromanage so I dealt with that. [I follow] an open-door policy. Everyone has a voice in what we do. They’re an integral part of the team.

“We’ll sit down and talk about exactly what Person A needs to do and spend as much time with every question that they have. And then, if they’re cool, when they get up and walk out of this office, then they’re fully responsible for getting that work done. We can talk about it [again in the future, but it’s ultimately about] treating everyone like adults and just getting stuff done.”

I’ve heard that Capstrat has a pretty open blogging policy, in that no one pre-approves what employees post. Cord said, “Capstrat’s policy is, ‘Don’t be stupid.’”

He mentioned the importance of setting goals with clients, so there’s no question about whether Capstrat got results. This starts in proposals and continues in the initial engagement Blueprints:

“We include success metrics, which our clients need to provide feedback and sign off on. From Day 1, everyone is clear about what outcomes our client needs to deem this campaign a success.

“And so that we’re clear, we really drill down and get to understand real low-level, specific things. That sets up all our strategy, ideas and everything else. We keep coming back to that as the foundation, to make sure that we will meet and exceed our clients’ goals.”

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Hiring People Who Take Their Work Personally

I asked Cord what he looks for when he’s hiring people at Capstrat:

“I’m looking for smart people who can effectively communicate, who have a passion for what they do. Someone who, to some extent, takes their work personally.

“There are some people where no matter how bad the day they’ve had, when they walk out the door at 5:00 or 5:30, it’s all gone. And I have friends like this. They shut down, they go home. Honestly, part of me envies someone like that.”

I remarked that it’s like those people have an on/off switch:

“Exactly. I’m not one of those people. I’m not sure I want to hire someone who has that on-off switch. Because if something is not going right or something is bothering them, or they didn’t feel like they did a good-enough job, I want them to think about this.

“I would want them to get annoyed. I want them to be pissed. I want them to come back the next day going ‘Okay. I’m gonna kick ass and take names.’ And I want them to kinda carry that.”

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Career Advice: Agencies vs. In-House Marketing

I asked Cord how he’d describe the pros and cons of working on the agency side versus the client side, if he were giving advice to someone who’s new to marketing. He talked about the agency side first:

“In agencies, the positives really are that you have an opportunity to wear a number of different hats. You kinda have freedom to experiment and try new things. You also have the flexibility of working on a number of different things instead of doing the exact same thing all the time. It’s usually fairly fast-paced and exciting. I’m one of those guys who would rather be mad busy than bored.

“I don’t know if I would say ‘negatives’ but I’d say maybe some of the drawbacks are that your client is sometimes on a 24/7 schedule. If a client calls on a Friday at 4:30 and says ‘I need something done by Monday,’ well, this is the world that we live in. The answer is ‘Yes sir.’ And you go and get it done.”

He noted the pluses and minuses of working in-house on the client side of marketing:

“You have an opportunity to focus on one thing and really develop that thing through the long term, versus where you’re kind of in and out depending on what you work on. From my experience, usually there’s a little more bureaucracy on the clients’ side than the agency’s side, which at times can be frustrating.”

I noted an advantage of working at an agency is that you’re surrounded by people who love marketing as much as you do. Cord agreed:

“Absolutely. And forget about just people who are really into marketing. With an agency you’re really [working] with people who are just passionate about what they do. And that can be anything from marketing to their hobbies or anything else. They tend to just be passionate about things.”

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Behind the Music with Cord Silverstein

I asked Cord what excites him about marketing. He replied:

“I really enjoy effectively telling a story. It’s being able to take a subject that at times may not be the most exciting thing in the world. Taking a certain product, a certain brand, and being able to figure out ‘how can you tell that story effectively?’ I really enjoy when you know you hit it right and you can see the fruits of your labor.”

I asked if there’s anything people might not know about him. He mentioned the Grateful Dead:

“I reference this every once and a while — I was, am, and always will be a huge Deadhead. During high school and college, I used to travel with the Dead during summers, and I even took a semester off school and traveled with the Dead throughout the country and into Europe for a period of time. So I was a big Deadhead with a huge Afro, the whole thing.”

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Thanks for sharing your advice, experience, and insights, Cord!

This is the seventh in my series of interviews with marketing experts and business leaders, in North Carolina and beyond. If you know someone I should speak with, let me know and I may be able to feature them in a future profile.

Photo credit: Capstrat.com


Using Social Media to Connect with Fans


  1. says

    What a great interview. I work for Cord and his passion is infectious. He has a way of bringing out the best in people and when you go to him with a problem, you know you will leave with a solution. Great interview Karl. Happy to learn about his love of the Grateful Dead. And he’s right, we take our work personally.

  2. says

    Great interview! Great job to both you and Cord. I think it means something when I can read an interview in its entirety early in the morning without even wanting to blink. And I agree with Angela-Cord’s energy and high spirits light up the office!

  3. says

    Catching up on your RSS reader with your honey at night IS romantic, so long as it’s not every night. But I’m not so sure about falling asleep to podcasts, Cord. Seems like that could set you up for some really bizarre dreams.

  4. says

    @Cord: Thanks for taking time to chat last month! Beyond the valuable content, I was struck by your energy — it was like you were ready to start running around the office.

    @Angela: Yes, I loved the “attorney” and “drill sergeant” analogies in his LinkedIn testimonials.

    @Lydia: Glad to hear this made for good early-morning reading!

    @Ginny: I wondered about subliminal messages from the podcasts…

  5. says

    Karl, great interview with one of the most dynamic and interesting people I’ve met in the past year. Cord is really a great guy and has been instrumental in helping me with Triangle AMA social media. His organization of the Triangle AMA social media training camp, the Social Media Special Interest Group has help tremendously in bringing value to our members. Also since I’m a huge Deadhead as well I envy that Cord was able to go to more Dead shows than me! Nonetheless he’s a great guy with a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience!

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