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A conversation with Lathi de Silva

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, August 17, 2013, at 10:52 p.m.

Lathi de Silva, vice president and director of brand reputation at Sullivan Higdon & Sink, recently returned from Portland, Ore., where the agency was named Ad Age’s 2013 Small Agency of the Year-Midwest.

De Silva said the firm’s own branding – We Hate Sheep – helped it gain notice in the crowded competition.

“When we were talking with the Ad Age group, one of the things they kept coming back to was the We Hate Sheep mantra,” de Silva said. “It’s interesting how that brand has helped us get invited to the table.”

What does We Hate Sheep mean?

“Docile ideas don’t stand out,” de Silva said. “Knowing where your audience is and creating those compelling ideas rise to the top. And then you get more notice.”

Sullivan Higdon & Sink, founded in 1971, employs 125 in three offices – Wichita, where it was founded, Kansas City, Mo., and Washington, D.C.

De Silva is a native of Sri Lanka, a country going through the strife of a civil war when she was young. Her family moved to Wichita when she was a child, and her father, Dharma de Silva, joined Wichita State University.

She majored in business communications at the University of Kansas and did an internship with the San Jose Museum of Art, where she fell in love with the art world. After college, she accepted a public relations position at the Wichita Art Museum and stayed five years.

She joined SHS in 1998.

Sullivan Higdon & Sink now focuses on four main areas: food value chain, health and wellness, aerospace and defense, and marketing to men.

This year, it launched FoodThink, a research-based initiative aimed at understanding how and why consumers make the food choices they do and what will drive them in the future. It also launched UpTake to provide news, trends and insight into the aviation, aerospace and defense industries.

Clients include Cargill, Merial, Borden Cheese, Pratt & Whitney, Spirit AeroSystems, the Kansas Health Foundation and Intrust Bank.

De Silva and her husband, Paul Diefenbach, have two children, Luc and Ian.

You’re the director of brand reputation. What does that mean?

We try to anticipate how best a brand should be positioned wherever their important audiences are. Our job is to enhance and protect and anticipate a brand reputation. Sometimes public relations is the answer. Sometimes it’s a mix of an integrated campaign to help ensure we’re reaching the right audiences.

You operate with a team approach for a client, bringing strategists, creatives, Web designers and everyone else together. What’s the advantage?

Agencies are usually departmentalized – creative people sitting in one corner, account people sitting in one corner, Web people sitting over here. (At SHS) all the functions sit together on a team. When a client walks in the door here, they’re going to get a very integrated set of thinking. They’re not just going to get my view. They’re going to get my peers’ views. ... We don’t want to come to you with an advertising solution or a media solution or an online solution. What are the best mix of ideas for what the client wants to achieve.

How has the technology and digital explosion changed how you function as a firm?

It’s been a big boost. It gives us another tool. We don’t say, “What’s the latest trend,” and then recommend that. ... We’ve embraced digital because it allows us to talk to audiences in another way, but we haven’t alienated other ways. The audience has to be utilizing digital for it to be relevant. It’s allowed us to expand the universe for whoever your customers are.

Audiences today are so fragmented. How have you adjusted to that?

Today's consumers are more tech-savvy and they want to be in control of where, when and how they consume information. Communications in the digital age means we have to better understand who we want to reach and what touch points are relevant to those people we want to influence. It's important to integrate a message across multiple channels. No longer is one form of advertising or a singular channel enough.

You just launched a venture called FoodThink. What is that?

We’ve done research with over 1,500 consumers nationally to help understand insights and motivation on why America eats what they eat. ... That’s an important thing when you’re a farmer or a grocery store or you’re creating a food brand or a new food product into a new category. It’s a key part of building our food value chain business.

What is the most challenging part of what you do?

Part of it is containing myself. What I love about this job is how every day is so different. I want to take on everything that comes my way. I get really passionate. ... The challenging part is how do you give all that energy you want to all of those things. It’s that balance of being really smart with your time and figuring out the best way to help.

How do you turn it off?

I don’t know that I ever turn off my work mind. After the kids go to bed, I get back online. My team knows that midnight e-mails from me are not uncommon. It helps me get closure to the day, to make sure I’m being responsive to my team.

What’s one thing that not many people know about you?

I worked at a French bakery in high school. And that set me off on a lifelong pursuit of finding the best food and wine I can find no matter what city I'm n.

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @mmcmillin.

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