Q&A with Northwell’s New Deputy Marketing Director

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Joseph Leston details what he is focusing on in his new role and talks about the unique internal agency of the system.

Joseph Leston joined Northwell Health, a nonprofit healthcare system serving the New York metro area through 21 hospitals, in 2016. Since then, he has served as assistant vice president of marketing and customer communications for CareConnect Insurance Co. ., a commercial health plan owned by Northwell. Most recently, he served as vice president of marketing services for the healthcare system.

Due to a recent appointment, Leston now serves as Deputy Chief Marketing Officer of Northwell, where he will report to Ramon Soto, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing and Communications Officer.

In his new role, he will continue to lead the health system’s internal marketing communications agency, which functions as the marketing services arm of the $14 billion health system and produces about 95% of the system’s advertising. He will also lead content and creative, customer insights and analytics, marketing operations, multimedia and digital channel strategy.

In a recent interview with HealthLeaders, Leston details what he’s focused on in his new role and talks about the system’s unique internal agency.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

HealthLeaders: When was the internal agency created and what is the role that the agency plays for the whole health system?

Leston: When I joined Northwell, the agency was born shortly after. One of the things that my boss, Ramon Soto, the director of marketing, and I talked about when determining what would be the best role for me at Northwell was this consolidation of services. Before that, each of these functions reported to Ramon and they did an amazing job; they were just more siloed than we would all like, with their own disparate sets of goals. Putting them under one person allowed us to synchronize the goals of all functions and begin to break down the processes so that there was one admissions system for the entire department. This intake system is fully integrated with all the work that we do, and we can really operate as efficiently as needed, because there is a mass of work that is only getting bigger every year, which is good.

Prior to the creation of the agency, all advertising was done through agency work, not just through our agency of record (AOR) at the time, but through smaller agencies that we had partnered with, and the work was very random. When you work with five, six, or seven agencies, you get five, six, or seven agencies’ interpretation of your brand guidelines. Everyone is pushing for something new and different for the sake of new and different, because that’s what agencies are charged with providing, and it shows in the marketplace. You could see that outside of the big brand work that was officially coming out of the store, all of the tactical and more consumer-focused work, supporting the service line, seemed to be a little messy.

One of the main tasks of the agency and its creation was to bring together all this publicity work for the clinical and regional marketing sides of the house, so that we were a little closer to the business. We could send work much cheaper, much faster and better because we knew the business better than any outside agency.

HL: How will you continue to collaborate with Ramon Soto?

Leston: Very close; he is my boss and my mentor. He is extraordinarily talented and I still have a lot to learn from him. He runs a very large store and part of my new responsibilities is branding work that was previously out of my purview will now come in. Now we will also unite the internal work that the agency had created before with the great brand work that our AOR had created under the auspices of a different leader. Now, it will give us the opportunity to unite these two sides of the house so that creation works in concert together, and it will also allow us to understand what the next chapter of the Northwell brand is. And that’s really the biggest thing on my plate over the next few months to try to work and develop and establish, and also push.

The brand is in an extraordinary place, especially considering where it was before Ramon arrived. It has reached new heights in awareness and consideration and continues to do so each year. The landscape changes. Competition is increasingly fierce, consumers have higher expectations. Everyone says the same thing in our space. Our challenge will be how to differentiate ourselves in this industry and do it in a way that impacts consumers, it’s a promise we can keep, and it’s a promise consumers want to hear.

HL: What are the main issues you address through your marketing efforts?

Leston: Part of the challenge for our next chapter is how to beat the competition and how to make sure we’re at the top of consumers’ minds when they think about healthcare in New York.

One of the biggest problems isn’t just specific to healthcare marketing, it’s general. Every marketer talks about how to really A) define the brand value you’ve created; what is the tangible value of it so you know how much to keep investing and what value it brings to the organization, then B) what is the value of your more tactical marketing efforts from an ROI perspective, so we make sure we get $2 for every dollar we put in the market.

Northwell is a huge organization. It takes a lot to move the needle for us, so expectations are high, as they should be. I’m thinking about how to make sure we’re good financial stewards of the dollars entrusted to us and that we deliver and add value to this exceptional clinical organization that is Northwell, so that we can do more and be more in the future.

HL: What advice can you give to other healthcare marketers?

Leston: I would say health care is a bit behind—I don’t think it would be controversial for me to say that. Consumerism hits us hard. Consumers have high expectations that are set by other industries. Health marketing, for a long time, was able to pass by without having to really innovate and I think that era is changing.

My advice to young health marketers and health executives is that the time to think differently has already come. They would be very well served to try to get out of this healthcare box that we all live in and start thinking about things from a consumer perspective. We need to be able to get closer to the people we serve.

HL: Is there anything else you would like to add about your new role?

Leston: I’m flattered by the trust Ramon has given me to take this #2 position with him and try to take this brand to the next level. I think we’re going to do amazing things. Northwell as an organization is in a unique position to build greatness in this market and I think our marketing communications boutique is also in a unique position.

We have some extraordinarily talented people in the store. I have been fortunate since the day I set foot here to be able to work with some of the very best in this industry and outside of it. It is a joy to come to work every day and work with them.

I couldn’t do it alone; I couldn’t do it without Ramon, and I couldn’t do it without my team. My team is the reason it’s so exciting to come to work every day. I have a lot of very smart people supporting me and they are extraordinarily motivated, talented and driving this business forward.

Melanie Blackman is Strategy Editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.

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