Latin Players: Meet Miguel Piedra & David Naranjo of Rock Orange

When you walk into the main conference room of the Rock Orange headquarters in Miami, the phrase “Dream even bigger” on the wall stares back at you. You could say it’s a good tagline, but actually, it’s more like a guiding principle for the way things are done around here.  

Led by principals/managing partners Miguel Piedra and David Naranjo, Rock Orange has gone from that startup you root for to one of the hottest fully integrated communications agencies on the block, amassing some impressive accolades (and big-fish clients) in just three years since its launch.

In 2014, they took home the Bulldog Agency of the Year award, and this year, they were recognized by the SABRE Awards with a nomination for their work on Cotton’s 24 Hour Runway Show, a non-stop, outdoor fashion show with musical performances on Miami Beach (which is also now a Guinness World Record holder for world’s longest fashion show). 

In February 2015, the agency worked with a new client, Macy’s, and a longtime client/friend, Mexican pop icon Thalia, to activate the launch of her fashion line at the department store. It was the first-ever Hispanic-backed exclusive clothing collection at Macy’s, so Rock Orange hosted a high-fashion soiree showcasing live looks for an intimate crowd of influencers in New York. They also live-streamed the event on Thalia’s Facebook page, breaking down the walls between her core fans all around the world and those privy to a first-look at the collection in person. 

The activation is a case study in what Rock Orange does best, which is connect brands with celebrities and vice versa. In 2014, they worked with Botran Rum to build awareness among U.S. consumers. After bringing Latin music mogul Emilio Estefan to the table as the face of the brand, the agency kicked off a multi-channel marketing campaign that included a media familiarization trip for key influencers to the rum's distillery in Guatemala, celebrity-driven launches in New York and Los Angeles, participation in the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, and other grassroots events and sponsorships. Emilio makes perfect sense as a spokesperson, considering he got his start at Bacardi before launching his music career with the Miami Sound Machine. For Naranjo, there's a personal connection to Emilio and his superstar wife Gloria Estefan -- before launching Rock Orange with Piedra, he was at the helm of the Cuban power couple's marketing, strategic partnerships, public relations and global branding efforts at Estefan Enterprises. 

Which brings us to another one of Rock Orange's most memorable case studies. In 2013, the agency worked with Sony Music Masterworks on the public relations campaign for Gloria's 27th album, The Standards, which took the Conga queen into jazz-inspired American standards territory. Key to their strategy was touting Gloria's status as a legendary artist while introducing her to a new genre of music and a new audience that wasn't a part of her core fan base. Rock Orange focused on three areas: record sales, brand awareness, and social media amplification. That included securing national coverage with a total market approach (from Despierta América to Good Morning America). Perhaps the most memorable hit was Gloria's interview on Oprah's Next Chapter, which reaffirmed her status as "the most successful Latin crossover artist of all time." Additionally, Rock Orange and Sony partnered with AARP (the world's largest-circulation magazine with more than 47 million readers ages 50 and over) to put Gloria on the cover, and offered a free download with an exclusive promotional code. The campaign paid off in a big way. Upon the launch of the album on Sept. 10, 2013, Gloria debuted in the Top 10 of the Billboard 200 chart -- something she hadn't done since 1994. The Standards campaign garnered the then-new agency a 2014 Billboard Latin Music Marketing Award in the best public relations campaign category.

At the root of Rock Orange's success is the almost 30-year friendship between Piedra and Naranjo, two Cuban Americans who met in the seventh grade while attending W.R. Thomas Middle School in Miami.

Their personalities, while different, complement each other, and the agency’s name itself is a nod to this "solid/fresh" balancing act. Piedra, whose name translates to “rock,” brings business acumen, keen problem-solving abilities, and time-tested crisis management skills, which he honed while leading the international marketing and communications divisions at corporate giants like Burger King and Disney. He's also the agency's interior designer, photographer and tech enthusiast. 

Naranjo, whose name means “orange” in Spanish, has a warm, vibrant energy that is characteristic of a showbiz mover and shaker. Having worked for Sony Music during the height of the Latin pop explosion before moving on to Estefan Enterprises, he’s the one with the finger on the pulse of pop culture and the endless celebrity Rolodex. As David puts it, “If I come up with an idea, Miguel is really great at refining that idea into something real.”

Both share a background in broadcast journalism, a creative spirit, a worldly sophistication, and a deep appreciation for their team, whom they lovingly call “Rock Stars.”

Standing in the back of their offices, it’s almost like they’re still in middle school and this is their playground. The space has a backyard barbeque feel. 

Here, “The Rock” and “The Orange” share some pearls of wisdom for everyone dreaming of entrepreneurial bliss.

Go Ahead -- Mix Business With Friendship

MP: When you have a true friendship, you know each other's idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities, and you can complement each other. David loves relationships and he can walk into a room and command it. I'm more reserved in that perspective, but when it comes to finances or the business strategy, that's my biggest focus. The reason that it works is that even when we disagree, we have communication. At the end of the day, we believe in the same thing and it's apparent in the people that we hire and the clients that we bring on.

DN: I would add to that -- in any relationship, you have to communicate, but another key thing is admiration. I always admired Miguel and it's about showing to the team how much I admire him, and he does the same to me. It lifts the team to greatness and it makes them want to be a part of whatever we're a part of.

Labels Are for Amateurs

MP: You have to target people as people. It should always be based on emotions, not, “Oh, they're Latinos, so they like rice and beans” or “put on some J.Lo, Marc Anthony, and a little salsa music.” When you take it so literal, you lose the essence of the message, especially with the younger generation. We have folks in the agency that speak the language of digital and speak the language of creative, and folks who speak the language of insights, so we consider ourselves multicultural and multilingual in the sense that everyone at the table with us has a different perspective. 

DN: The biggest mistake that brands make when targeting their consumer is not taking the time to know truly who that consumer is other than just a label. With us, because we're two Cuban guys from Kendall, we're automatically labeled a Hispanic agency and that happens every single day. We're proud of who we are, but we're also fortunate enough to live in a wonderful country like the U.S. where we can do global work. I learned a lot from my time with Emilio and Gloria Estefan. They always taught me, “Go through the big door because that door is for all of us, and that's what America is about.” One of the things I'm proudest of [while at Estefan Enterprises] was partnering with Target on "Emilio's Picks," a program consisting of entertainment sections at Target stores with Latin-themed music, books, and movie selections, all curated by Emilio. [It was the first time that Target had asked someone outside the company to curate a section. The partnership also included the launch of the Sound Machine premium headphones by Monster, created with Emilio's contributions to music in mind and equalized for percussive sounds and horns.] 

Be Able to Say "It's Handled," Olivia Pope-style

MP: When you're in crisis-management mode, the one thing that you cannot allow into it is emotion. You have to separate yourself and be very methodical about how you analyze the information. I was working on something recently and the client was saying, “We're going to push this out because this is what we need to tell people.” And I looked at the conversations happening online and I didn't really feel that people were having that conversation so I said, “Do you really know what it is that we have to answer for?” And they didn't; they were going off their own emotion because the media was calling and social media was blowing up. So we pushed out a quick piece of research to figure out what was the barrier that people had, and then responded. Nowadays, especially given how fast everything moves with social media, you have to react quickly, but you have to react quickly with the facts.

Keep Your Friends Close -- And Your Former Employers Closer

DN: Working at Estefan Enterprises for 13 years, presumably I had the best job in our industry. Leaving was the hardest conversation I've ever had, not only because they were my employers, but because I also consider them my family. But I knew in my heart that they were going to be alright with it because they filled me with the entrepreneurial spirit. Everything they've ever done in their career -- from producing films to making music -- is about propelling other people to greatness. So the second conversation was, “Where's our contract so we can sign up as your client?” What we do at Rock Orange now is in line with what I did my last five years with the Estefans, which was connecting the world of entertainment with the corporate world. 

MP: I had been at Burger King as their chief communications officer for four years, so when David and I agreed it was the right time [to launch the agency], I approached Bernardo Hees, then the CEO of Burger King who is now the CEO of Heinz. At first he was like “You can't leave,” and after months of conversation he said, “I'm going to let you do it, and we will be your first client.” So when we opened in January 2013, we had myself and David and two employees and we were in a small office in the third floor of the Burger King building. He visited recently and said, “I'm so proud of what you and David have built.” We now have 27 employees, clients around the world, and the business is growing. To me, that was validation.

Don't Shortchange Yourself When It Comes to Clients

MP: There are a lot of great ideas out there but they're constrained by the reality of their brand or the reality of budgets, so the great ideas don't always come to fruition. A dream client is someone who will say to us, “No barriers — from a budget or an execution standpoint. Go create.” With Cotton, we went into the pitch as the underdog, the smallest agency in the mix competing with a bunch of multinationals. It was going to be the third year that they developed the fashion show and they were putting a lot of money into it but no one even knew that it was happening or that it was related to Cotton. So we came in and did a campaign that involved influencers, social media, and celebrity talent performances and a ramp-up plan with fashionistas and fashion editors. The share of voice grew by something astonishing -- it was national media coverage everywhere on all the entertainment shows, so the media value also went up. Finally people paid attention and the client was part of a conversation that they wanted to be a part of. [All in all, Cotton's 24-Hour Runway Show garnered 636 media hits, 579 million media impressions, and a 469 percent increase in coverage from the previous year, with an equivalent ad value of $1.1 million]. 

DN: Cotton is the perfect example of what Rock Orange is -- a 360 approach to every campaign, from the event management and production of the 24-hour runway show, to the intense media and public relations side of the project, and the entertainment injection of it all. We knew that fashion was the lead and the brand's use of cotton was the main story but we also understood that in our world, everybody loves a little entertainment. So we brought in some international talent -- Jason Derulo, Fantine, and several DJs [Trey SmithDJ IrieDJ ChinoAulden Brown and Jessica Who, among others] performed, and Jason Kennedy and Giuliana and Bill Rancic hosted. 


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