Kevin Winston leads a global team of more than 30 communicators and marketing communications professionals at Applied Materials. His international career has spanned communications leadership positions with Hewlett Packard, Coca Cola, and the U.S. Senate, where he worked with Senator Ted Kennedy. Luckily for us, Kevin joined PRSA Silicon Valley on Friday, June 13th, for a live, wide-ranging conversation about his career and his current role.
What follows below is an abridged transcript of the conversation. PRSA members can obtain a recording of the full 50-minute conversation (which includes video playback of the interview) for free, on request.
David McCulloch (DM): Applied Materials is an almost $8B company in terms of revenues. It is one of the largest in Silicon Valley, yet not necessarily well known outside of tech circles. Tell us who are your customers, and what are the problems that you solve for them?
Kevin Winston (KW): We make equipment to build semiconductors and roughly 50% of what we sell is to three customers: Taiwan Semiconductor, Intel and Samsung. Our industry has been interesting in that we’ve seen a consolidation of the customer base, so, for our function, PR and marketing, it’s really not about helping to grow new customers; it’s about retaining customers and helping them with their tough semiconductor challenges.
DM: What is the role of corporate communications in driving customer loyalty? Is that a big part of your role?
KW: Yes, it’s a huge part of it. The relationship that our team has with the customer buying cycle is an indirect one, but it’s a critical one. What we focus on is setting the right environment; the right context for our sales teams to have successful discussions with customers. A lot of it is about preserving our brand and reputation. We’re the largest in our field and have been for a long time, and when we merge with Tokyo Electron, we’ll be much larger than either before. So we’re also communicating the value-add of this new entity to shareholders, customers and employees.
DM: Tell us a bit more about your team.
KW: We have about 30 people worldwide including internal, external , exec-com and marketing communications and branding. Most are here in California. We also have staff in Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, China, India, Japan and Israel. The majority of our customers are in Asia, so we have our strongest presence there.
DM: Do you still consider yourselves a US company?
KW: With the merger coming up, we will have dual headquarters in Tokyo and here in Santa Clara and we’ll have dual stock exchange listings on the NASDAQ and in Tokyo, so that will create a completely different environment in which to operate, and it will not be US-centric. Not many companies that merge will encounter this cross-border dynamic with dual headquarters, so it’s going to be interesting!
DM: You mentioned that a large proportion of your customer base is concentrated in a few companies. In such a situation, you know who your buyers are with a high degree of specificity. Does that make the ability to communicate directly with your customers, through social media, for example, more important in your communications mix?
KW: Social media is interesting for us! What we do is so IP–centric. It’s very sensitive, and critical to our customers’ ability to compete with their competitors, who we also represent, so we are not all that active on social media. It’s not because we’re an old school company. It’s because there are a lot of things that we just can’t talk about. For us, social media is a huge tool for recruiting. A lot of graduates use those tools to get to know the company.
DM: The challenge of not having customers easily accessible to tell your story on your behalf is one that a lot of PR Professionals can relate to. It tends to mean you have to put more focus on thought leadership. What does that look like at Applied Materials?
KW: For us, thought leadership is about getting out in front of the trends that are shaping the semiconductor industry. Because we are the largest in our field, we are the bellwether for how the electronics industry and consumer tech in particular is doing. So we seek to understand what’s happening in the market from a consumer standpoint and how that’s going to affect the devices that people use; what kind of functionality they need, and how that’s is ultimately going to affect the materials engineering and materials science innovation they we do for our customers.
DM: What makes a PR agency stand out in the pitch process and in getting the job done for you? What are the key qualities?
KW: I appointed the agency of record we have today at Applied Materials. What I look for in an agency is a team I can trust. That comes from a couple of things: certainly the knowledge of our industry matters, but that’s not the most important thing. It’s about the quality of the people that are on the team. That can be hard to ascertain during a pitch process, and sometimes you don’t know until you get into the relationship and kick the tires as to whether it’s going to work or not. But I don’t have a checklist of things that I look for. It’s more of a gut chemistry check for me.
DM: What types of skills are most important on your team? Is a background in public relations really crucial for getting on the Applied Materials PR team?
KW: I don’t think a background in in what we do – materials engineering and semiconductors – is important! It’s a nice-to-have, but I like to have people who have a broad spectrum of experience. Silicon Valley is rife with people who have worked in tech their entire careers. That’s not a bad thing, but I think that limits your perspective. When you have worked across a variety of companies, in different industries, you build a toolbox of how to do things. For example, there are things I learned at Coke and in the US Senate, which I still use here at Applied today. I would not recommend someone to major in PR or communications. It seems too limiting. What we do, you can learn. What’s more important is someone who’s well-rounded and smart; who has the ability to think and be flexible and who can understand the way a company works; the business side of what we do. That’s what I look for.
DM: So, tell us about that perfect Martini that you highlight on your bio!
KW: The most important part of the discussion! You freeze the glass (I always have a bunch of frozen glasses in my freezer). Don’t put the Vermouth into the shaker! Simply have it in a spray bottle. Spray it into the frozen glass. It crystallizes a little bit. Then you pour your frozen vodka (or gin if you prefer) into the frozen glass and it actually changes the taste. I’ve tested this many times, it does make a difference to have a frozen glass and the Vermouth sprayed in. It’s outstanding!
Krista Todd, senior director, global public relations and social media, Logitech, will be the next guest on “In Conversation with Silicon Valley” on July 25th (12.30-1.30pm PT). You can register for “In Conversation with Krista Todd” here.
In Conversation with Silicon Valley is generously sponsored by Text 100 Global Communications.