This advertising CEO uses neuroscience to sell you stuff | How I Made It
Jessica Hawthorne-Castro, 40, is chairwoman and chief executive of Hawthorne Direct, an 85-employee advertising agency that uses “neuromarketing” to generate a stronger and quicker response from consumers. This year, Hawthorne-Castro was the winner in the transformational leader category of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards of Greater Los Angeles. Hawthorne Direct’s clients include Apple, Nissan, Spectrum Business, Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles and the U.S. Navy.
Marketers have always tried to tap into consumers’ subconscious, Hawthorne-Castro said, but her company uses neuroscience to enhance campaigns so that they are more likely to resonate with the audience and employs detailed analytics to measure what is working. “Neuroscience aims to go beyond figuring out what people want or like and dives into the underlying forces that shape consumer decision making,” Hawthorne-Castro said. For instance, she said, neuroscience explains that testimontials work by exploiting humans’ need for social validation, and products and services that help consumers avoid a bad outcome are leveraged by humans’ “pessimism bias” that helped our ancestors survive.
The Philadelphia native grew up in Iowa and later became a fine arts major at UCLA, showing talent for painting and photography. But it can be very hard to pay the bills with the usually uncertain income stream that comes with being an artist. “I was an artist, but I was also a realist, right? So, I thought ‘Well, I’m good, but I’m not great.’ Nor is it a really good career to go into,” she said.
An internship during her UCLA days provided a better idea for a career. It happened when she was working for music video and film director Bille Woodruff. A member of his crew made an important suggestion. “He said, ‘Have you ever thought about becoming an agent?’ I had not. Of course when I heard that, then I started reading all about it. I knew artists so well, that representing them, whether they be actors, writers or directors, was actually just a natural fit,” Hawthorne-Castro said.
In 2001, she joined what is now known as William Morris Endeavor, remaining there through April 2007 as a television literary agent. “I represented writers, directors and producers for TV,” Hawthorne-Castro said, helping clients work on shows including “Lost,” various iterations of the “Law & Order” franchise, and “Entourage.” She was particularly fond of the latter because she had “lived that real-life story, because I had worked for Ari Emanuel as an assistant.” Emanuel, said to be the real-life inspiration for “Entourage” character Ari Gold, is now the co-chief executive of William Morris Endeavor.
Find your mentor
Some people hope to be discovered by higher-ranking employees who will advise and promote them. That’s way too iffy for Hawthorne-Castro. “You need to kind of self-select a mentor,” she said. “So, finding someone at partner level or management level, I think, is always critical: working hard, improving yourself and making their life easier so that they want to bring you up the ranks.”
Her next gig was with Hawthorne Direct, her father Tim’s company. It had been an infomercial pioneer when that advertising platform was wildly popular in the last century but was struggling in the digital age. She was coming in to help but wasn’t sure it made sense because it involved a substantial pay cut. “No one just stops being an agent if you’re successful, right? No one. Maybe they do so more now, but, they certainly didn’t 10, 15 years ago, unless you were kicked out.”
Working with dad
Hawthorne-Castro also wasn’t sure she would work well with the boss. “My father and I were fairly reluctant because we never thought we would work together,” she said. Hawthorne-Castro worked her way up through the company, from vice president of operations and client services to chief operating officer. She became the company’s chief executive in May 2014.
“I just worked harder than everyone, just set the pace that no one had ever seen. And so it was a pretty natural. No one told me to take over the company or take on these roles,” Hawthorne-Castro said. “Whatever I’m doing, whether it’s a board or organization, I just naturally kind of start kicking things over, seeing where the holes are and kind of organizing the troops.”
Know the biz
“Working your way, seeing all aspects, is really important,” Hawthorne-Castro said, especially if the task involves a sharp change in direction. “I saw from the very beginning what was good, what was working and what needed to be improved. And there’s nothing that anyone can run by me, or get past me,” she said. “It definitely kind of gives you the bulletproof way of operating, that you know all aspects of it.”
In an advertising campaign for Home Advisor, Hawthorne-Castro’s company focused on the unanticipated problems that can suddenly happen around the home; “vignettes were used,” according to her company website’s case studies, “to create humorous problem/solution scenarios at multiple time lengths.” For Credit One, the idea was more psychological. Knowing that credit card customers hate giving out personal information, Hawthorne Direct “portrayed a world where everyone asks for ‘too much information,’ and then shared a more private and secure credit card experience.”
“I give people a lot of leeway,” Hawthorne-Castro said, “but I also expect a lot of out of them. So, there’s always going to be problems or things to improve, in anything — in life or in business — and that’s fine. So I’m always looking for how to do things better, but don’t just come with your complaints, come with your suggestion” on how things can be improved.
Hawthorne-Castro has been married to husband James Castro for 17 years. Their son Braden, 7, “aspires to be a magician at the Magic Castle” in Hollywood. When she’s not working, she loves to travel. “Traveling is really, really one of probably my biggest passions,” she said. “I don’t get to do it quite as much as I would like to, especially since my son has been born. But I think I’ve been to all the continents, except for Antarctica, and 130 countries at this point.”
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