“I wish that no one smoked cigarettes, make no mistake about it. I wish there was zero demand.”
Not what one expects to hear from the official voice of one of the world’s largest tobacco companies. But Marian Salzman is no ordinary media figure.
An online pioneer, trend sage, feminist icon, and activist, Salzman has built a reputation with a trophy case of firsts. She launched a digital agency while the internet was in its infancy, popularised the term 'Metrosexual' while gender roles were still widely regarded as static, and championed causes for equality and diversity in marketing before it was cool. Salzman has established herself as the strictly-no-bullshit opinion leader who demands complete attention.
In April, after close to a decade running Havas PR for North America as both CEO and chairperson, Salzman shocked the PR world by taking up the position of global head of communications at Philip Morris International, based in Switzerland. She has no illusions as to the magnitude of the career shift.
Everything was really pointing against [taking the job], and it was really in discovering smoke-free and what it could possibly mean for people. I said, ‘This is the chance of a lifetime, I've gotta do this.’
She explains, “I didn't expect this to be easy. I’ve worked on products that are loved. I knew I was joining a company where that wasn't necessarily the case and that the people who do love the product are really embarrassed they love the product. So I understood it was a very, very different phenomenon.”
Salzman’s professional background seemed to be in total conflict with the hire. An industry saint turned devil’s advocate? Yet it was her personal life, as a vocal survivor of two heavily publicised battles with brain cancer that made this choice truly puzzling. Salzman herself openly admits that when first courted by PMI, she wasn’t buying what they were selling.
“I had no motivation to leave Havas. they were like a work family to me. I had no motivation to leave the US, I had already been expatriated before. I knew what I was getting into [taking the job]. To make it even more complex, I had no desire to make my commute to where my family is 20 hours.”
However, after nine months of PMI providing her with reams upon reams of data on alternative product R&D, Salzman made a difficult and unlikely decision to take the job.
“Everything was really pointing against it and it was really in discovering smoke-free and what it could possibly mean for people. I said, ‘This is the chance of a lifetime, I've gotta do this.’”
Smoke-free is pivotal to the future of PMI. The company has dedicated a staggering amount of time, resources, and marketing mojo into what they call 'reduced-risk products' (RRPs) and 'smoke-free alternatives'—products that allow users to absorb nicotine with methods that they claim could cause less harm and improve a traditional smoker’s quality of life.
PMI’s official line is that it’s gradually moving out of the traditional cigarette business for good someday and is currently putting their entire focus on converting existing users onto using these potentially healthier products in the meantime. Salzman’s 70-person core team is focused entirely on this mission, with none on traditional products, and she provides an interesting job description.
Recent and related
“I see a lot of analogies in a way between working for a condom company and even what we're doing here in that you have to give people safe sex choices. You can't just tell people to abstain cos some people just won't abstain and some people just will not abstain from tobacco so I'd much rather be part of giving them better choices.”
It was her personal background that made her decide to be part of what she views as a movement.
She explains, “I had a father who died of lung cancer and I'm not [a smoker] and it probably makes me feel even more strongly that good choices, choices that are better for you are really crucial.”
PMI is championing RRP and smoke-free technologies as safer and lobbying more countries to legalise the import of products like the Iqos* device. But studies continue to pop up and counter PMI’s claims. Couple that with the tobacco industry’s poor historical record regarding scientific study veracity and you’ve got an uphill struggle.
Asked whether she views overturning public opinion of the devices as a Sisyphean task, she answers that the scientific process will lead to vindication and support. As independent and company data is made available and challenged, the process of creating longitudinal case studies will eventually yield inarguable results, she says. Long and painful but not pointless.
“Look it's a marathon, this is not a sprint. When I signed up for this, make no mistake, I understood that even if I was semi-successful, this would be the last thing I would do in my career.”
For so many years, we've been bruised, and apologetic, and maybe afraid, and suddenly we have something to be extraordinarily proud of.
For any media professional, leaving the relative freedom of an agency to be locked down with a single brand is a sacrifice. It’s an entirely different level when that brand is in a disfavoured industry that’s under constant attack, and the commitment is going to be for the long haul.
“[At Havas] I was always an agent. I was always an advisor,” she says. “I was never ultimately accountable for some of our client problems. You play an important role, but you're still the person who's consulting. It’s not your problem to solve. And when I was approached to do this job I saw this as the ultimate challenge.”
The shadow of history
The mission is conversion but what’s the challenge? As Salzman puts it, after pouring more than US$4 billion dollars into new product research, it’s about having the confidence to share a positive narrative.
“For so many years, we've been bruised, and apologetic, and maybe afraid, and suddenly we have something to be extraordinarily proud of.”
The core of this stance is honesty without the baggage, with Salzman saying she encourages a message of, “The past was the past. It has very little to do with the present. And nothing to with the future, except lessons hard learned.”
The searing negative attention on tobacco companies has softened since the high-profile scandals of the '90s. But is PMI being overly audacious removing the 'cone of shame' quite yet? Salzman thinks not, that the hanging guilt of those wrongs isn’t going to help people today.
“Once [the industry] knew what was going on I think it was a very humbling experience for the people who worked there. I did not work there during that period. I think, ‘why do we need to be proud?’. We need to be proud of our science, we need to be proud of the fact that we've invested our profits and our shareholders' profits in trying to create better solutions for people who won’t quit smoking, who won’t quit using tobacco.”
Putting the focus on the science has been a key part of PMI’s extremely public moves. For instance, the brand’s beachside presence at Cannes was noted with more than a few raised eyebrows. Salzman finds the criticism misguided, claiming attendance at such events is essential to spread awareness of safer tech.
“We need communications partners who are gonna help us to make that message accessible to regulators, to individual people, to our commercial partners to our stakeholders. So I guess we didn't see it as bold as maybe you see it, we saw it more as we can't keep apologising for the past, we need to bundle together with people who wanna go forward.“
While Salzman talks up a bright honest future, her tenure has begun in the midst of a publicity nightmare awkwardly reminiscent of tobacco marketing’s past transgressions. A recently surfaced report by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and Netnografica asserts that online influencers as young as 18 have been aggressively targeted to feature PMI products in their posts. Influencers were allegedly encouraged to break regulations and omit any signalling that these were paid advertisements. Though this would have occurred long before she arrived, Salzman’s been left holding the proverbial bag.
Her reaction has reportedly been swift, with the management of influencers being moved under her chain of command and a damage-control team assembled. Salzman has now begun to erect heavily regulated, heavily monitored and in her words “absolutely transparent” policy regulations to prevent any repeat event.
I need to look you in the eye a year from now and say ‘I don't have anyone on our ambassadorial team who wasn't constantly tagging that they're being part of our team, if they're being paid.’ I need to have those guidelines clear and absolute.
She says, “Believe me the criteria's so tough, most of the agencies we've worked with on influencers historically are probably not going to be willing to work with us because we are becoming so extreme in terms of age, meaning we're even ageing older. I think we won't work with influencers now under the age of 25.”
According to Salzman, PMI’s internal investigation has been incredibly extensive but has found a relatively small amount of infractions compared to the resources expended on the audit. However, as pleasing as Salzman tells us this is to her, she informs Campaign that under her watch, any mistakes will be unacceptable.
“Anything that deviates from strict policy will not be tolerated. And it won't be tolerated on my team and it won't be tolerated externally. People will go over that. I mean, we just have to be strict on it.”
She adds, “I need to look you in the eye a year from now and say ‘I don't have anyone on our ambassadorial team who wasn't constantly tagging that they're being part of our team, if they're being paid.’ I need to have those guidelines clear and absolute.”
Salzman says the biggest roadblock to her team getting the influencer policy finalised is that even with her connections, no one exists with the specific knowledge to ask for help.
“There aren't even people that I know that are doing influencer great to begin with,” she says “And then they're not doing great in a heavily regulated category. And they're not doing great with the kind of unfortunate history that we have. So all these [experts] have to come together to make them the best policies in the industry.”
PMI is gambling big on its new product range beating scientific scrutiny, on an unapologetic identity, and that this tobacco behemoth can survive long enough in the most health-conscious consumer generation in history to change course. And while RRP and smoke-free tech may help push a revamped nice guy image, the fact remains that out of the 1.1 billion smokers worldwide, 80% live with middle to low incomes and the number of traditional cigarette smokers just continues to grow in the poorest regions of the world.
Salzman assures Campaign that the company is working on making the tech both cheaper and more attractive to converts in these areas. That the tech will trickle down. But one must wonder how much Salzman’s team can flip public and media industry perceptions of PMI. In response, she is refreshingly frank.
“I'd like to see communications at PMI actually make a difference so that people start hearing us with an open mind. I'm not asking for any advantage. I'm not asking you to treat me like you might treat Apple. I'm just asking that you can hear me clearly and respect my point of view.”
And what of herself? When all is said and done, can the reputation of Marian Salzman remain untarnished in this role, regardless of a seemingly noble intent? She answers that she has no illusions, that the negative connotations will undoubtedly reflect on her, but that it’s worth it.
“I think it's such an important mission, I'm not particularly worried about what happens to Marian Salzman in the course of this. I am much more concerned that we don't get information out to smokers that there are better choices.”
* This article has been updated. It originally stated that "IQOS" stood for "I quit original smoking", but the company now asserts that the brand name is not an acronym. The company prefers all uppercase letters for the name, but our house style is to treat non-acronyms as normal proper nouns.