Mixing Board Studio Session: David Swain on Starting and Staying Strategic in a Big Comms Job

Mixing Board community member David Swain was an early employee on Facebook’s communications team. He later got the rare opportunity to become Instagram’s first head of communications after the company was acquired in 2012.

It’s hard to remember — or even imagine — but when the acquisition happened, Instagram was still a tiny company and didn’t have a single traditional marketing or communications employee.

Fortunately for Instagram (and Facebook), David didn’t walk in the door at Instagram and slap down a traditional playbook down at the table. He took the time to listen and learn why Instagram was so special and created a team and programs to optimize these core truths.

Here are excerpts from this week’s Studio Session between David and Mixing Board founder Sean Garrett. David and Sean talk about the beginnings of Instagram, playing to your strengths, making big bets and finding your white space.

SG: Let’s start with how you found yourself inside Instagram and why you decided to take that job.

DS: I started at Facebook in early 2008, and it was in that full absolute chaos mode. I think the entire comms team was four people. Marketing was probably similar at the time.Through that experience I definitely learned about myself and that build stage where you have to invent the playbooks where all of the systems need to be put in place. I definitely learned that that was my sweet spot and what I enjoyed and what really energized me.

And Instagram came along — they joined Facebook in the fall of 2012. And it was 13 people at the time of the acquisition, and I think maybe 20 when they joined FB. Instagram was, at the time, very popular and exciting in the art, hipster, city side of life. They had built this magical, pristine brand. And now it’s a buzzword, but what was happening in the community on Instagram then really was magical.

And I met with Kevin Systrom, the founder, in January of 2013. And knew I needed to go to that build phase again of a company. And I knew how much that the community and the brand that you’re starting with and the relationship with the founders, how much, how pivotal that is, and your ability in comms to really be able to do something special.

So we hit it off and Instagram was about 25 employees and the playbooks needed to be built. They had done, obviously, the hard part of building this once in a generation brand — or what was on track to potentially become that if all the pieces came together. So, how do you assemble the pieces on this foundation that’s been built? Knowing there was no comms, there was no marketing, we had no partnerships team. There was this base, this community team for people who had this just deep understanding and belief and conviction around what they were building that gave me working with the team, this incredible foundation that really felt like once in a lifetime, even though people at the time didn’t view it that way. Most people viewed it as this trendy photo-sharing app and you had to look inside what was happening to understand really what it could become. And so I took the leap.

SG: How did you walk into this situation where you had a blank slate, but there was all this activity happening, so much going on, just opportunities galore that you could choose from. How did you decide what to do?

DS: I spent a lot of time with the product team and engineering and, at the time, those teams were tiny, so this was literally like walking across the office. But understanding what the magic was and meeting with the community team at that time, there were these InstaMeets happening around the world and showing up and meeting the community and understanding what was working, and the conviction from that team about what that, I use the word magic, but what were the secret ingredients, the secret sauce of what made the community, what it was.

That was a six weeks where it was formulating an opinion on making some strategic bets and doing that from a foundation where I have a deep understanding and belief of what’s actually already working.

And I came out of that six week period with a few taglines that I used for the four-and-a-half years I was there. Those guided everything we did. Brands always talk about, especially hypergrowth companies like Instagram, how long can you stay in that magic moment and how can you use that to actually accelerate into new areas?

And so we made very deliberate counter-intuitive bets very early on that I think became the foundation for what was to come. And they ran pretty counter to everything I had experienced and everything we had done in the Valley at other tech companies.

SG: Including Facebook?

DS: Yeah, definitely. And again, now in 2021, the word “community” is such a buzz word and so overused. I think that the original Community Team at Instagram was something. And Kevin and Mike’s conviction and belief around it, the first value was community first. And they, at that time, meant it in a way that was so deep and the conviction was so high.

So our first big bets were to, not ignore tech press, but to focus on where we saw the opportunity. Helping the flywheel turn faster, where you could bring Instagram to more people in a way that preserved what was essential about the brand. So we made big bets about what verticals we were going to enter, and then how we were going to do that in a way that was very differentiated.

SG: Walk us through choosing the verticals and deciding to go down that path versus all the easy press that you can get from the tech world.

DS: So we went through tons of white boarding sessions, right? Asking, where is Instagram naturally strong? Where has the community already taken off? And then, where could it be taking off if we were to turn the flywheel and put some effort behind it? And then, as part of that exercise, which verticals need our help?

If you think about Instagram then, there was no video, it was all photos. People could share once a day, there were all of these norms that were built in to maintain quality. And so things like food and travel and art, they were the obvious ones. But interestingly, those were not the verticals in design. Those types of topics that were taking off, architecture, we didn’t choose those because they didn’t need our help, right? They were what Instagram was built on.

And so we took the values that made those communities light up in the early days and made really big bets in areas that were much more complicated, but that we thought could have a major value to the brand over years.

SG: What do those bets mean? What are you doing? Are you hiring?

DS: Some of our first big bets were in fashion, sports, news — and this is more of a horizontal than a vertical — but with teens. So once we made those bets, then all of those pieces came together. What does it mean to win fashion for Instagram? And how do you do that in a way that is authentic and true to the brand? Once we made those bets, it turned into a very deliberate structure of — which people you hire, what events you’re at, who’s at them, which people need to be on the platform, which people you use in your launches from the community.

So if you pick an example like fashion. At the time, fashion was defined by Vogue and Vanity Fair and all of the publications, right? And I didn’t come from the fashion world. I was running part of tech comms at Facebook. So we needed to hire people from that world. So we hired one of our first new community team members from the fashion world. And so we would pick a moment like Fashion Week, and ask what does it mean for Instagram to win Fashion Week? If I were just running press, you would be working with the top fashion publications and highlighting all of the Instagrammers at Fashion Week. But that’s not what we did. We would go in with the community team, I would say, the tail of the community, right? Like the street style artist and the up-and-comers, and you’d bring all of them together in very deliberate events.

And then we would hire a partnerships team that could work with the Burberry’s of the world. And you would have the community meeting big brands with the press pulled into the middle. The way we had architected all of these moments, the story became about the community. We didn’t have spokespeople in these moments, right? The spokespeople were the people on Instagram. And we refined this playbook in each vertical so well, that it turned itself over the years. which was the idea of, how do you design it in a way that it creates the moments and helps orchestrate the moments so well that they can happen organically without your help in future years. And that’s the system that we tried to design.

We had a community person, a comms person and a partnerships person in each vertical. That was one of the first big bets we made, which meant you had to hire all of those people.

SG: So, this all sounds incredibly rational and thoughtful, and like you said, deliberate. But how do you do all that when you have just the general insanity of growth? And crazy trust and safety shit happening on the platform? And people getting hired, people getting fired and whatever’s happening at Facebook next door? There’s a lot of stuff happening while you’re calmly building out these teams.

DS: Yeah, nothing is calm. I give a lot of credit on our ability to do this back to Kevin and Mike, the founders. And then a pretty strong belief from me and other people on the leadership team of having the conviction to play to your strengths and understand what those are. So again, this is still in Silicon Valley, but we weren’t a T-shirt and hoodie culture, right? We had to embrace that and own it. And if you look at our values at Instagram back then, everybody knew them. It was community first. Inspire creativity and simplicity matters.

For many other companies in the Valley, the goal was to be ubiquitous, this platform in the background. That was not Instagram’s goal. Instagram’s goal was to inspire creativity and to do it in a way that is simple.

So when we chose verticals, we weren’t like, “How do you go get every vertical in the world and create this chaotic environment or go tip every country?” It was, “How do you go after nine countries and five verticals and do it so well that it creates the model for the rest?” But it helped so much to have founders who shared that belief because we could have ended up in the reactive mode. We had so many of the same issues that other platforms have, but I think because our goal was not to be in the noise and tech press, our goal was to build the brand and do it in a way that preserved the community.

Our approach was so counterintuitive, that I’m sure we turned some heads in Silicon Valley, but I think that’s that’s why it worked.

SG: There were obviously times where stuff popped up, you had your flare ups and crises and things that were areas where you were outside of your core focus. So how do you manage for those things while you’re trying to create this proactive cadence?

DS: Yeah. And definitely. So before we had even built a team or much of a team, we were introducing ads into the platform, we did ads ranked feed video, we brought video in. The things that we were launching were very significant shifts into the platform, and those of course were dramatically controversial and required a ton of care.

And the reason I was talking a lot about the community team and our approach, even to these verticals early on, is the reason that we managed those launches so well. We had this philosophy, and I know you’ve had (Mixing Board member) Bailey Richardson on before, and I think she coined this, but we don’t talk at the community, we talk with it. Right? And that’s how we launched our product. So those big controversial moments, we weren’t calling people when things were bad. We were making them part of those moments. It’s the magic of community and you can’t reverse engineer this stuff. It has to be part of the DNA for it to work. And making it the DNA made the controversial moments work.

But to your point, how did it all happen? By the time I left, my team was somewhere between 23 and 25 people. Only one of those people was deliberately on more policy crisis comms. We could have easily hired a team that was more 50/50, which would have been much more in line with our peers. But that was a very deliberate choice, a belief that by playing offense so aggressively and being so entrenched in what’s actually happening in the community, and spotlighting and building the systems to lift that up, that’s actually how you weather through the hard moments. And it was, right?

Because Instagram had the same bullying and harassment and issues with teens that are just commonplace and so hard on the internet. And I think because we had such deep relationships in the community — like when things were going wrong, we went and met with people. We didn’t give them the soundbite, right? We answered the phone. So there were all these guiding principles we had in how we built the team that I think made those hard moments a little bit less hard.

SG: You talked about your six weeks of exploration and discovery as you joined the company and how critical that was. For anyone who gets hired into a comms leadership role for a fast moving company, how would you recommend that they structure their first 100 days?

DS: There’s always the nuts and bolts in those first hundred days. When I joined, I think even before I joined, Kara Swisher was writing a feature on Instagram for Vanity Fair. So my first three weeks on the job were managing that story with Kevin, our CEO. The first thing I did was map out what the narrative was. What was the narrative that everybody was saying? This is not the narrative about Instagram, but the narrative about Instagram’s place in the world. Examples and anecdotes from the community were being naturally lifted up. But what was the arc of what we’re building to over the first two years?

I think in comms, you need to have your handle on the narrative from the very beginning. What the narrative is and starting to inform where it can go because that is always the foundation for the big bets you’re going to make.

And then, this gets back into more philosophical points, but I definitely view comms as an extension of the business and not marketing. I have a pretty deep conviction around us being strategic partners and not publicists. So in those first 90 days with that mindset, you’re meeting as much with the monetization and business and growth and legal and policy teams as you are with — well we didn’t have a marketing team. But it paints the picture of understanding who the company is and where it wants to go.

Maybe your biggest focus coming out of your first 100 days is, “We have a hiring problem and all of our focus for the first six months should be on building a narrative around innovation that’s going to help us recruit the best engineers and designers.” And I think that’s going to be unique for each company. I always think getting a handle on the narrative and what your place is in that. Because in that fast growth mode at the beginning — that piece is so foundational because the narrative becomes not only the foundation for the bets you’re going to make in comms, but it forces alignment that is going to help bring in and maintain culture as you’re growing.

SG: In the pantheon of internal partners — legal, engineering, sales, et cetera, who do you see as your best partners? If you were walking into a big comms job, who do you want to make sure that you have a strong relationship, not only at the beginning, but throughout your time in that organization?

DS: I came from very product led companies. So for me, that answer was always the product team. And even on the Facebook side, the people designing the system that is creating the community or the platform. The closer you are to that and understanding the vision for what that can become, the more you can help make that vision true, which I think is the best manifestation of comms. Comms is not running on the side, getting stories placed. It’s actually making bets that are going to significantly impact the trajectory of the company.

And that’s a much harder job because doing it to where you’re actually trying to move the company and help the company is so much more difficult than placing stories. And I think now, even more than when we got started, in the land of press releases and a much different media environment, now you have to be looking for white space, and the white space might look nothing like anything you’ve ever done in terms of how you tell the story and where you tell it.

SG: How do you use that deliberate mindset that you had at the beginning of your tenure and apply it moving forward?

DS: A lot of this for us was about continuing to play to the strengths of the brand and the spokespeople and finding and understanding the white space. In the last five to ten years in what — comms, content, community, marketing, whatever you want to call it, there are so many spaces where conversations are happening. Whether it’s writing in content you own, it’s participating in channels like Clubhouse, where we are now, or on someone’s podcast. And I think evolving where your big bets go once each space gets filled in, is understanding your strengths.

So one of the things we had to do at Instagram was, as the team grew from 20 people to 700, was build out the executive bench of spokespeople. Some of our spokespeople were great speakers and some were great writers, and you have to understand the strength of the people and how they’re going to map in. Some were great on the road, presenting and doing these intimate groups. It sounds common sense, but I think mapping the narrative and where you want the brand to go and your big bets — to how you can play to strengths across the organization — I think that’s one of the most easy ways to continue to find white space.

And that’s almost becoming mandatory because now, one of the other things that’s changed is people demand such a level of authenticity, in a good way, that the people representing the brand and speaking for it need to be really good in whatever channel they’re in. So, Mike Krieger, Instagram’s, co-founder, he was just great with the engineering, design, almost like a Medium post side of things, right? Kevin Systrom could light up a room and carry this vision that would get everybody to keep talking. So finding those moments.

SG: Let’s just say that you’re running comms at a company where Kevin Systrom is not the CEO and people are less deliberative, maybe less strategic, and you’re running hard and fast — and I’m talking about probably 98% of the companies in tech. How would you recommend someone in that role take a step back and do the things that you did to look for that white space? How do you create the space to find the white space in the first place?

DS: Great hiring. In 2014 or 2015, we made a universal decision to hire people who were better than us in each area. You could have just built a very flat, mid-level team. We built a very senior team. But everybody stretched too thin, we have products to launch, crises to respond to, press calling, teams to hire. So the better your teams and the more vision that each person that you bring in has, the more each person can back up and take the big picture view.

But you have to push, are you a publicist or a strategic partner? Part of being able to find that white space and continue to find it is getting yourself that seat at the table where you’re having discussions that are about where the company is going, not just where comms is going. And by having those discussions, you naturally find the openings of where to make big bets.

SG: You mentioned all the content, all the different avenues now, we’re in 2021, we’re not in 2012. How does one make sense of the media environment in a way that keeps you proactive and thoughtful versus reactive to what’s the next big thing?

DS: I think one of the big shifts that’s happened over the last several years — other than there being so many different channels that you could be participating in — there’s far less reporters. The traditional media environment has changed so much. But one thing that it’s forced is, if you’re going to make a bet on something like Clubhouse or a podcast strategy or creating your own content, you need to do that really well.

So we had this “Do fewer things, better” motto, which I think applies more in 2021 than it even did then. Don’t spread yourself too thin. I do think in the content world, you need to iterate a lot and take inputs and evolve to see what’s working, but one of the keys is that you have to be consistent. Podcasts don’t take off overnight. Some of them do, but most don’t and the ones that have staying power, that have influence and reach over time are the ones that deliver every week when they say they’re going to, and that they keep at it. So I think having the conviction to make a couple of focused big bets right now, if you’re in comms or on this side of the world, I think that’s the don’t spread yourself thin, make focused bets that you have conviction in, that you can follow through on for a year.

SG: I think one of the key takeaways from this conversation is the ability to, affect the business strategy, be in a room and be deliberative, and build. Create a plan, create the time and the space to create thoughtful positioning, and then iterate moving forward. But how does one, even before they take a job or decide to take a job, how does one make sure that they’re going to be in a situation where they actually can have that control and actually have the impact that you want to have? Because a lot of times people say that they want the strategy and then that’s the last thing they want once the job begins. So how do you decide on what the right role is? And for folks who want to make sure that they can have the impact that they want to have when they enter a new role?

David: So I was talking about just this notion of playing to strengths earlier — from identifying those for a brand or a spokesperson. But I think that matters just as much for you as a person in comms. What is it that drives you, that wakes you up, that gets you excited in your job in comms? Because maybe you don’t like the strategy. Maybe you like executing the big events or you like writing the FAQ’s on a launch and more of the product marketing side of things and that’s all okay. And I think that, depending on what your answer is around what drives you and why you do this job and what gets you excited about the next few years, I think the more you can map that out, the better you’ll be at picking which company you can have that impact at.

Which people become strategic partners with the leadership of the company and helping, not just react to where the company wants to go, but helping to drive it, that doesn’t have to be that many people in the company, right? And it only can be so many people.

So if your role in that is different, then I think owning it and playing to, really, where you’re going to add the most value, I think … because there’s tons of places where you can be the VP of Comms and be just the most bad-ass product comms person in the world. Right? Because that’s what they need. And I think owning that and not trying to be something that’s not going to really excite or motivate you.

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This interview is part of a regular series of “Studio Sessions” with Mixing Board members. For more information on the new Mixing Board community of brand and comms leaders see our site or check out our launch post.