Throughout the course of our conversation with Courteney Monroe at the National Geographic Headquarters in Washington DC, we couldn’t stop looking at this framed picture of her and Morgan Freeman on one of the tables by the door of her third-floor office. Undoubtedly, it was somehow related to The Story of Us with Morgan Freeman, a Nat Geo-produced series in which, according to their website, “Morgan Freeman travels the globe in search of an answer to one fundamental question for humanity: what are the common forces that bind us together?” Coincidentally, we were in Monroe’s office to get her take on that same question.
Monroe has a unique grasp on how to “bind people together” through stories as she led the marketing operations for well-known storytelling organizations like HBO and Cinemax. She could be given much of the credit for the notoriety of pop-culture icons like Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City and Tony Soprano of The Sopranos, due to her leadership on award-winning marketing campaigns for both shows, among many others. She also brings Carrie’s subtle wit and Tony’s “buck stops here” attitude with her to the C-suite.
As CEO of National Geographic Global Networks—overseeing all of the television content for National Geographic Channels, Nat Geo WILD, and the Spanish-language network Nat Geo MUNDO—Monroe leads by communicating straightforward, ambitious goals and executing them flawlessly. She believes that unified efforts toward a goal start by communicating a shared vision—what she calls “the castle on the hill.” Monroe has found that reminding stakeholders what the end goal looks like helps keep her organization, its stakeholders, and its users focused on the brand promises of a world-renowned organization.
More than ever before, brands are being forced to compete in a more saturated media climate. Users are now more easily able to access pictures and stories of the world through use of the internet, and therefore, storytelling organizations, like National Geographic, are finding new ways to gain access and influence to dynamic and rapidly emerging digital markets. One example of unprecedented effectiveness in the modern media climate is National Geographic’s Instagram channel, which Monroe called “the greatest brand communication showpiece that National Geographic has.” With 83.1 million followers, @natgeo is the most followed non-celebrity account on Instagram, and the seventh overall account in terms of followers. With such unrivaled access to a growing user base, National Geographic is able to communicate its stories to millions of engaged users instantaneously.
Monroe attributes the success of National Geographic’s Instagram channel to a “tremendous level of authenticity” that has been intentionally cultivated. While most organizations treat Instagram—and social media platforms in general—as a sales tool, she sees it as a platform through which National Geographic can inspire viewers with visually spectacular, true stories of the world. Early in the adoption cycle of what is now one of the world’s most popular social media platforms, National Geographic handed the keys to its Instagram account over to its extensive network of photographers gathering content across the world. This on-the-scenes look at the world from the perspective of some of its premier photographers and videographers has created a truly unprecedented brand following on a rapidly changing digital medium.
National Geographic’s brand messaging and the stories told through the eyes of its photographers on Instagram are inextricably linked, according to Monroe. “Everything we do, if we’re doing our job right, is a piece of brand communication… because a lot of the proof points of the National Geographic brand are the stories we tell or the pictures we take,” Monroe said. The sum of these messages helps remind its base of the educational and high-level missions of the organization as a whole, i.e., Nat Geo’s castle on the hill.
The billion-dollar question, however, according to Monroe, is how to leverage this following to help realize the bottom-line business goals of a complex multinational organization. Her philosophy is that a large audience produces invested listeners and begets real investments from stakeholders of all types: viewers, readers, subscribers, Instagram users, talented storytellers, advertisers, and many others. Being your authentic self—both as an individual and an organization—is the key to cultivating these meaningful engagements and lasting success.
In order to continue to drive this type of success, Monroe builds teams and organizations that are energized by change. Particularly as an organization functioning in the modern media climate, it is critical to be able to chase really big swings in business function and execute these changes without hiccups. In a massive organization like National Geographic, there may be frequent short-term decisions made that seem to interfere with the long-term goal. Therefore, a lot of Monroe’s communications aim to give context to those types of decisions and drive home the point that they are all still moving toward the castle on the hill. Distinguishing between short-term strategies and a long-term vision as a leader is critical to keep people invested in the brand.
Most importantly, Monroe believes in cultivating and communicating a true story. Whether it’s a story of the world, National Geographic, or a person, Monroe feels that when you are not your true self, people see right through it. In order to tell these authentic stories, Monroe said the following on how she leads teams:
“I believe in the art of the collective, and I think any leader who doesn’t is going to get slaughtered in today’s marketplace. I absolutely don’t think I have all of the answers, and my leadership strategy for my career has always been to strive to surround myself with people who are way smarter and way more creative than me with really strong opinions, who aren’t shy about telling the truth, and will tell me when they think I’m wrong. Having these people on my side makes it much easier to determine the best path forward.”