Branding Advocacy (on Purpose) with Attitude

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Josh Belhumeur is Managing Partner at Brink, a creative group that uses culturally relevant art content and experiences through a variety of initiatives to engage audiences and build brands for products, political candidates, and progressive causes. 

In this interview, Josh explains how his agency, which started as three guys in a Tucson garage doing web development, evolved into a full-service, “all things media, all things internet, all things digital” agency with attitude and two physical locations. Only recently has the leadership at Brink started to understand who they are, who they want to be, and what they want to create . . . and it is the nexus between brand development and socially-responsible advocacy.

A consultancy branch of the organization works with C-suite level executives to discern product market fit and develop an organization’s ability to innovate. An indie film “wing” distributes about 150 titles worldwide and on subscription platforms. 

On the agency side, client-focused teams (a UX lead, an art lead, a producer, and a strategist)

  1. Help brands identify their purpose and bring that purpose to market 
  2. Produce excellent, timely, relevant, and digitally-rooted creative work

Josh joined Brink (2006) to work on strategy and business development. He moved to Washington, D.C. to expand the agency’s client base and found “a lot of government, a lot of politics, a lot of advocacy” and a lot of “learning.” In Washington, organizations often align under the same brand – a for-profit, a nonprofit, and a super Political Action Committee – separate entities, but run side by side. This provides the flexibility for the organization’s “branches” to have separate missions and do different things while utilizing the same internal knowledge and resources.

Brink grew up with the internet. Around a year and a half ago, troubled by the power of the internet to distort truth, Brink launched a 501(c)(3), now managed by Josh’s partner, to address what Josh refers to as the 4 destructive forces of the internet/ social media:

  1. The filter bubble: Social media platforms will push content to you that matches your beliefs. You are more likely to interact with this content. They make more money
  2. The sensationalist skew: People are more likely to react to the outrageous. Again, more money
  3. Binary thinking: Digital platforms will push people into little boxes. If Facebook senses you are considering buying a home, its algorithms will push content related to home-buying.
  4. Unclear authority: The proliferation of fake news makes it hard to know who and what to believe. 

The goal of the Brink Foundation is to educate people on these four destructive forces and then target messages to offset the harmful effects of the internet and reduce political polarization. Knowing their “purpose” has lost clients for Brink . . . but gained new clients who are better aligned with the agency’s interests. Win-win.

Brink’s unique value ad? The ability to work with brands, introduce activism, help them brands guild out activism programs, and unify that activism into their brand strategy. According to Josh, “Being an activist brand is the strongest way you can find a tribe.”

Josh can be reached on his agency’s website at: https://brink.com/ , where you will find information on the agency, the consultancy, their films, and the Brink Foundation.

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Josh Belhumeur, Managing Partner at Brink, based in Tuscon, Arizona and Washington, D.C. Welcome to the podcast, Josh.

JOSH: Thank you. It’s great to be talking with you.

ROB: Fantastic to have you on the podcast. Why don’t you start off by telling us about Brink and what makes Brink great?

JOSH: Sure. We call Brink a creative group. Part of why we call it that is we’re doing a lot of different things under one banner. The main thing that we strive to do really across all of our different initiatives is to build engaged audiences through culturally-relevant art content experiences.

One of those ways is through something that’s more of a creative agency. We work with brands, do brand marketing. We work with political candidates on the Democratic side and progressive causes. But then we also have a consultancy where we’re working on the C-suite level to help find product-market fit and create a culture of innovation within the organizations.

We have an indie film distribution wing. We have about 150 different titles that we distribute all over the world through both physical media, like DVDs and Blu-rays, and also VOD and places like Netflix, Amazon, Vimeo.

Lastly, we just launched a 501(c)(3) nonprofit called The Brink Foundation, which we can dive into a little bit more later. But, basically what we’re doing there is working to offset the harmful effects of the internet.

So we’re all things media, all things internet, all things digital. On the agency side, we started and got our roots in website development. We used to just build websites, and then eventually apps. But as social media became more and more of a thing, we started adding content capabilities and then started adding marketing strategy, and then before you know it, we’re more of that full-service agency. We have a few clients where we’re even doing things like bus ads and billboards and TV commercials and radio ads, stuff that we didn’t think we would be doing 10 years ago that we evolved to do.

To put an exclamation point on it, I think the thing we’re great at is the strategy, and, in particular helping brands figure out a purpose and then come to market with that purpose. Our tagline is “design on purpose” because we think it’s really important to only work with clients that we believe in and whose values are aligned with ours, but also, it’s how we tend to position brands in the market, leading with that idea of purpose.

And excellent creative, and creative that’s rooted in digital. Doing a lot of video, for example. But being able to do that video fast and relevant and being of the moment and getting it out there to the different platforms in the different formats it needs to be. Those are really our two biggest strengths.

ROB: Perfect. Strategy does seem like a capability that transcends all of those different businesses you mentioned in the group. Whether you are involved in a political campaign, whether you are ushering titles through the modern era of online video, it’s not just a simple matter of manufacturing widgets.

How did you end up in all of these different businesses? Are these different disciplines that came up within the group and you figured out at some point when it made sense to cut them off? Or did you come to any of these through acquisition?

JOSH: It was all just slowly built over time. Maybe to a detriment, we never really early on defined ourselves as having an industry niche. We just knew that we enjoyed making great stuff. So, as we perceived different opportunities, we started to get different skillsets. We’re headquartered in Tucson; that’s where we got most of our start.

Actually, to back up, my business partner, our original founder, had a dot-com startup out of LA called Uground that was doing streaming video content back in ’97-’98, so before everybody had broadband and before streaming video really was a thing. He was well-funded, and they were building a platform, almost like a Netflix but with more shorter form content. But I think it was just too early, and they were struggling to get traction.

He took the knowledge and passion of what he learned in building apps for the web and moved that to Tucson, his hometown, and started Brink to start doing client work rather than being a product or service. Then I joined around 2006, and when I joined it was just three of us in a garage, basically, building websites.

But then I took over our business strategy. I had a marketing degree, and even though I personally have a background in web development and design, I really wanted to focus more on the strategy and business development. I moved us out to D.C., where there’s, as you can imagine, a lot more business than in Tucson, Arizona.

Being in D.C., you touch a lot of government. You touch a lot of politics, a lot of advocacy. So, it became unavoidable that those types of gigs would land on our laps. Then as we went along, we started to learn a lot.

I think that bringing it all together is where we’re at now. Over the last year and a half, two years, we’re finally starting to understand who we are and what we want to be, and we’re creating a singular focus and going for it at this intersection of brands and advocacy work.

ROB: That makes plenty of sense. It’s interesting, because leadership comes in layers. You mentioned you came in as a web developer. Your site says that you haven’t written code since. I think it’s related – first of all, how do you resist the temptation to dive in and put your hand on the steering wheel when a client delivery situation, when something gets hairy? And then longer term, how has that affected how you think about leading these different business units and maybe letting someone else be in charge sometimes?

JOSH: I think that’s probably a journey everybody goes through when we go from three or four people to – we’re at 22 now, split between our two offices. It’s a different mentality to get out of the always hands-on approach and be in more of a delegating role.

I do think that my itch gets scratched quite a bit as far as being able to stay hands-on with just the way we work. We’re very team-driven. We come together and try to create these teams where you have a UX lead, an art lead, a producer, and then a strategist, all in the room, developing both the strategy and the creative concepts together. I’m still one of our strategists on our biggest account, so I get to be in the room and have a hands-on role.

But at the same time, I remember the day a few years ago when something went out the door that I didn’t even look at, and I came across it later, and it felt like a significant moment. Like, wow, we’re producing good work that I don’t even have to see or approve. It comes down to trusting your team and hiring the best team possible. I trust everybody on our team. Of course, I have that temptation to want to approve and review everything, but I’ve found it easier and easier to step back and get the right people in the right roles so that they can represent us well in the work we produce.

ROB: That’s certainly a good feeling, when the good work you didn’t touch goes out the door. I think another interesting aspect of your journey has been coming in the door – you said three people and you’re a web developer. What was the transition like from that moment to then you ended up in charge? How did that come to pass?

JOSH: I approached Danny, our founder, and I said, “I have some ambitions that I feel are a little bigger than Tucson right now. I want to move to D.C.” I chose D.C. out of a number of cities that I evaluated, and one big reasons was my parents had moved out to the area – they live on the Chesapeake Bay – a few years before I moved out to D.C. So, I fell in love with the city when I came to visit them.

So when I moved out to D.C., my arrangement and my role was to find us new business. I was working out of my apartment for the first year, just pounding the pavement, finding any lead I could find, and had a lot of success. I was able to double the size of our revenues over the first year or two. We ended up opening an office, getting me a bit of a support staff.

I was elevated to that vice president/second in command role, focusing on our East Coast. Then as we continued to grow and I continued to really shape who we were and what our identity was, especially in the transition from being pure web shop to more of this full-service agency, it eventually felt like a natural progression for me to take over and run the show.

I was rewarded with a partnership. My business partner has been very supportive, very trusting of me. Now he’s stopped away from the day-to-day fully, and he’s working on the foundation that I mentioned, to put his skills and his expertise and his knowledge to work on a very specific project as I lead us into the future on more of the agency side.

So yeah, it was a natural progression that happened over the course of about 10 years, starting with me finding new business, becoming more of our lead strategist, then the vice president, and then eventually in the last couple years, it just made sense.

Now I do split my time. I actually spend more of my time in Tucson, since that is our headquarters and more of our team is there, but I try to make it out to our D.C. office as often as possible.

ROB: That’s quite a journey. In 10 years, you can understand how that level of trust gets built up and how that track record gets built up. It’s not like you come in on Tuesday after you started on Monday and you get put in charge.

You mentioned the foundation here. Let’s go a little deeper into that. Tell us about The Brink Foundation and where the conviction came that this needed to be a separate nonprofit rather than just some work that you do.

JOSH: The best metaphor I can make is if we were in business as a factory, manufacturing something, and we had industrial waste that came off of that or some sort of pollution or environmental impact, it might make sense for us to go and try to fix that, to clean it up, to maybe put in place a foundation that works to get rid of pollution and care for the environment.

I feel the same thing’s been happening in media, where it’s become clear to us over the last few years with some of the – we’re very firm in our beliefs as progressives and Democratic supporters, but we felt Trump wasn’t a normal situation. We felt Brexit wasn’t a normal situation. We’re seeing a lot of effects on a global scale that we think media has impacted. In particular, social media. There’s a number of different, what we’re calling, “destructive forces” of the internet, as we saw them. I can go through them real quick, the four of them.

We’re looking at filter bubble, this idea that when you’re in a social media platform like Facebook, you are being pushed to only see content that affirms your beliefs because it makes you more likely to interact with it, makes them more money.

There’s the skew to sensationalism. Again, the more likely you are to emotionally react to a content piece, like it or share it or comment on it, the more money they make. So content that skews sensational always gets more interaction.

There’s what we call binary thinking, which is this idea that when you’re on digital platforms, you tend to get pushed into little black and white boxes, yeses and nos. A good example is if Facebook determines that you are likely to buy a home, if that becomes a behavior, you’re going to start receiving a lot of ads for things related to buying a home, so mortgages and real estate agents and all of that. That’s pushing you further towards that behavior. So you start to lose a little bit of agency as a person or as a human, and you start to fall prey to where you’re being nudged by these algorithms. It’s not people doing it, it’s these algorithms.

Lastly is unclear authority, which is probably the most talked about in our current cultural zeitgeist – things like fake news and all of that – where it’s really hard to know what’s real, what’s not, who you should trust, who you shouldn’t.

So, we’re looking at these four pillars of these destructive forces and we’re saying, what can we do to address this if we think it’s a destructive force? That’s what pushed us into wanting to found the foundation. The idea is we as an agency can take our excess capacity and we can donate it towards the foundation, and then we can go out and ask for funding from partners to help push our message through advertising and also help us build crews and hire actors and all of that.

On a basic level, all we want to do is make content that educates people on these four destructive forces and then target it to the people that actually need to hear it. It’s kind of like pulling back the curtain on what’s happening to you in the context of the platform you’re on.

ROB: How do you find the people who need to hear this information, other than all of us?

JOSH: This has been the biggest challenge of all. One, where do you start? And two, what message is going to work with them? These are really the same challenge we solve every day as a communications firm, but for some reason this particular issue seems like the most challenging project you could have. I think it’s because there’s so many layers, so much emotion tied to it.

Where we’ve decided to start is the people that we think are more on the fence or on the bubble between falling prey to some of it and not. We’re not going to go after somebody who’s a hardcore conspiracy theorist tied into flat eartherism and all that. We think they’re a little too far gone. What we’re trying to find is people that would align pretty well with what you would see on a 2020 electoral map for swing states and swing voters. We’re looking for these people that are independent thinkers, they’re not necessarily registered to any political party, and we want to start there and just see if we can get them to, especially going into the election, not fall prey to these forces and think for themselves.

Now, whether we’re effective or not, we’re really working on how best to measure that. We are trying to explore doing some baseline surveys and some tests and then come into a very specific geographic region and do our targeting, and then come back and measure and see if we can make any progress.

But it’s hard because also, we’re not trying to get a bunch of likes or get a bunch of shares. We don’t want to measure engagement on our content because that’s just falling into the same trap. We do want people to see the content, so video views for example are a really important metric for us. And true views, not just 3-second views. But we also want people to actually internalize the message, and that’s much harder to measure.

ROB: Sure. You definitely don’t want to create more outrage with your content that is trying to help people understand the outrage that’s being put upon them.

It’s very interesting. It seems a little bit like this foundation and this capability is an unexpected natural outgrowth of who Brink is and where you’ve come from. You have this D.C. side. You’ve talked to people who are in office, who are thinking about these policies. I would imagine it’s also a good place for you to look for donations for the foundation, in that D.C. orbit. But then you have this West Coast, filmmaking content history as well as the agency side for strategy and amplification. It’s an interesting intersection.

JOSH: Yeah, and I do think that’s a very unique part of where we stand and part of why I feel we’re uniquely positioned to be looking at it. There’s not a lot of people looking at it the way we are. But we definitely learned from the D.C. world. It’s very common out here for an organization to have a for-profit, a nonprofit, a super PAC, all aligned under the same brand, but run side by side. It gives you the flexibility to do a lot of different things and have each one have a very specific mission, where you’re benefiting from this institutional knowledge.

You of course have to have certain walls between the organization. I run Brink and my business partner runs Brink Foundation. The Brink Foundation will have a board; we’re assembling that right now. It’s a relatively new initiative of ours.

But being able to have that flexibility to say we want to go out there and fix this issue anyway, but now with the tax designation of a 501(c)(3), it will be easier for us to fundraise and focus that specific initiative on fixing that, and then really use our for-profit and our clients to help fund and help pay this. It becomes a representation of our mission and our purpose. It’s us putting our money where our mouths are and living the way we expect all of our clients to live and the rest of society to live.

ROB: In politics, of course, for folks who haven’t been in that world before, candidates just about make you pick sides and not ever work with the other side. They want you to be a red company or a blue company. That’s something I’ve experienced, at least. It sounds like you’re very aligned with the viewpoints of more Democrat and progressive candidates.

But then when you also go further and you have this foundation where you’re trying to combat some of this misleading polarization and negativity online, it seems like that would flow back and have some consequences, both in terms of client selection for the political side as well as for the agency side. Have you run into client situations where you end up saying no to business because a candidate or a client wants to use some of the weapons, the destructive forces that you’re talking about?

JOSH: Yeah, we have turned down business. I think that if you are going to call yourself a purpose-driven organization – I know that’s become a bit of a buzzword and a lot of people use it, but it’s going to be unavoidable that you’re going to turn down business. But I think on the other side of the coin, when you really do stand for something and define yourself a little more purposefully, you end up finding business that you didn’t know you would find.

It’s all worked out where even when you look at some of our clientele – like one of our favorite clients here in D.C., Democracy Fund, is funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, and he’s really worried about our democracy and trying to fix it. He has a number of different priority areas within that. One of them is the decline of local journalism, so they’re doing a lot to try to fix that system and help local journalism succeed. Another big one is what they call the public square and civil discourse. It’s very much aligned with what we’re trying to do.

We also just recently did a consulting gig with No Labels, which is a nonprofit. Their big tagline is “fix, not fight” and “not left, not right, forward” – which also happens to be Andrew Yang’s tagline in the election. So you’re starting to see that message come out a little bit more. People are fatigued by the polarization.

I will note that when it comes to the political work we do, we tend to not work with candidates that want to do a bunch of negative attacks or anything like that. We focus on really helping them find their own voice, be their authentic selves, and then represent it in a very creative and easy-to-understand way. We aren’t one of those D.C. firms that is waging war within the political work we do.

ROB: That probably helps clients choose you as well, because they can then have confidence that you’re not going to pull them down that road. There probably is some good symbiosis there.

You have been at Brink for a little while now. What are some things you have learned in building Brink that you might do differently if you were starting all over again?

JOSH: I think really defining yourself, who you want to be, and what you want to stand for. You almost touched on it perfectly with your previous question; I had the other mentality early on, that we don’t want to offend anybody, we don’t want to potentially turn away business, that we have to be careful with how we represent ourselves in the public eye.

By doing that, I feel like we never really came – we’re supposed to be helping other clients define their brands, but we never defined our own. I do think that’s a very common issue in the agency world. You have these 500,000 agencies, and they all talk and look the same.

So earlier on, if I had to go back through this again, I would’ve tried to go through the journey of discovering who we are faster so we could define ourselves better. I think that would’ve served us well in really taking off.

But we’ve been on the Inc. 5000 Fast Growing Companies list the last 2 years. Even though I’ve been at Brink I guess 13 years now and we’ve been around in some form or another since 2001, it’s really only been the last 4 years or so that we’ve really started to take off and become the creative group that we’re becoming today. And that’s all entirely because we’ve learned to really define ourselves and know what path we want to take.

ROB: I was going to ask. So 4 years was when this focus came to clarity for you?

JOSH: Yeah, I think we started articulating it much better in the last 18 months to 2 years, but we were on the right path in the last 4 years, and we started finding the clients to fit that. Then I think 2016, the elections were a rude awakening for us that we need to really be aggressive in what we believe.

So we formed our values, we put them out there publicly, and then the way we would talk in rooms with clients – we’ve always been pretty good at closing business when we got in rooms, but the whole challenge of getting in rooms and getting people to listen to you because you have something unique to bring to the table – I think that’s been, in the last 4 years, something that we got much stronger at.

ROB: That sounds like it was a clarifying moment for you and some other people. I think that’s a good way to find your tribe. If something changed the direction of your own views, you’re probably not the only one. So I think that worked out really tremendously.

And I think you make a great point about trying to do everything as a creative organization, as an agency. I think sometimes we might look at organizations that are much bigger than ours and see that they do all these things, and we mistake that for why clients choose them. Quite often if you’re talking about some big network agency, people choose them because they’re a big network agency and you’re not. Doing everything is still not going to make you that. They were acquired probably for something much more special.

JOSH: Yes. To be more specific to one capability we’ve recently confronted and discussed whether we want to grow it out or not, like I said, we’ve always been great at the strategy and the creative, but as we got bigger and more full-service, there’s more of that expectation to do media and media planning and buying, and then you start getting into more of the data and the analytics.

We recently decided, even though we can do social ad buys, and we do that more specifically, we are not going to build out a media team any time soon, because that’s not what we want to be good at. We’re not going to be good at analytics and data. We’re not going to be good at CRMs. We’re going to find the right partners to work with, and we want to run the show. We want to be the lead strategists that subcontractors can work under us and we can push our projects through. We want to focus on what we’re great at, and leave the expertise for those other types of things to other agencies or other partners.

ROB: So you’re partnering for some of those capabilities you don’t want to build right now. Is that visible to the client? Are you having them get to know the partner there, or is it more seamless for them and it’s more like “we’ll help you with all these things and we’re just bringing in some good extra hands”?

JOSH: It always depends. We’re always transparent when we’re using outside help. Some clients don’t want to have to worry about it. Like our biggest client is a credit union in Arizona. We use a media buying partner. They know we’re using that partner. That’s all transparent. But we’re the ones that fully interact with that partner, and everything filters through us, because we’re the agency of record. We’re the ones that hold the keys there.

But then we have another partner that we just started with here in D.C. that already has a media buying agency. We’re all at the table, and even though they consider us the leads, we’re having group discussions about media with the client included and the media agency included, rather than it filtering through us.

ROB: Got it. Josh, what is next for Brink? What’s coming up?

JOSH: Our biggest thing is we’ve been trying to decide specifically on the brand advertising side, what unique capability set can we bring to the table outside of just saying we have great creative? I do think we have great creative, but I think a lot of agencies have great creative. Sometimes you need a specific expertise or focus area.

Very few agencies have the union of the political, the advocacy work and the brand work that we have. That makes us unique. We’re trying to figure out how to bring that all together. So we coined this term called “corporate social activism.” The reason we called it that is we see it as the natural sequel or evolution from corporate social responsibility.

It’s this idea that if you want to be a purpose-driven brand, in the past it might’ve been enough to do the CSR thing, which a lot of times is supporting what we call the inoffensive charities, so things that we can all get behind, like cancer or veterans or animals. But, to actually take a stand, advocate for public policy, try to shape the culture, try to shape policy. You’re starting to see that more and more.

Best example I always point to is Patagonia. They call themselves an activist company. They’re doing things like suing the federal government, activating their customers to lobby for specific environmental bills. It all ladders up to their brand mission, which is about environmental protection, environmental preservation.

We think that we have a unique set of skills where we can go into other brands that do not have experience doing activism, help them build out an activism program, and help that unify into their brand strategy as well. So it benefits them from a brand perspective in that, going back to that idea of finding your tribe, I think being an activist brand is the strongest way you can find a tribe.

But then we can also do the logistical stuff that a lot of agencies aren’t familiar with, such as integrating with advocacy platforms, building a program that activates people on a grassroots basis to lobby for specific public policy, contact their congressmen, write letters to editors, those types of actions, and bring it all together where it’s unifying our love for brand purpose, our love for advocacy and politics – and I think a potential good entryway for us into other parts of organizations.

So it doesn’t necessarily have to come out through the marketing team. You could see corporate social activism via function of a CSR team or a government affairs team or even just directly with the C-suite. So it’s a new frontier, I think. I think there’s a lot of white space there, and we’re going to be aggressively going after that.

ROB: That’s exciting coming up. Josh, when people want to find you and Brink, where should they go find you?

JOSH: We’re just Brink.com. Very easy.

ROB: That’s a great domain.

JOSH: You can see all of our different – we have right on the homepage, the agency, consultancy, film, and foundation, so you can see all of that.

ROB: Perfect. Thank you so much for joining us, Josh. Best wishes as you keep on building into that focus.

JOSH: Thank you. Appreciate it.

ROB: Take care.

Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email info@convergehq.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.

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