Ron Tite, founder and CEO of Church+State (Toronto, Canada), discusses the evolution of content and advertising and how, today, a marketing problem is no longer a content problem or an advertising problem?it’s one unified problem?winning the battle for the consumer’s time. Church+State operates under the premise that every ad can be a piece of content if it is good enough, and every piece of content can be an ad if it is authentic enough.
Agencies clamoring for relevancy may define their businesses by affiliation with a (HOT!) narrow niche markets or a specific (and inherently volatile and evolving) platform (such as Facebook). Ron feels it is important to think larger and drop the “buzzwords,” since environmental/technological/legal/platform evolution issues can render a tightly-defined business model irrelevant.
Church+State has developed a consistent flexible approach and process that “elevates the conversation out of chaos,” consistently distilling and bringing focus to those client issues impacting marketing effectiveness. Ron believes the foundation of great brands?and the great people who inspire and lead those brands?is based on what they think, what they do, and what they say.
- What they think: Mission and vision are meaningless. Finish the statement. “We believe that _____.” What is your purpose? More than product, more than transactions . . . what values do you believe are significant and important?
- What they do: What products, services, actions, and processes justify those values and bring those values to life?
- What they say: If you have a product that reinforces your brand belief, what is it? How do you promote it? How do you talk about it? Where do you place that promotion? Where do people go after they consume that promotion? How do we repurpose content for distribution across multiple channels?
- And, finally, how do you ensure that whatever material you provide for customers is compelling enough that people will find it worthwhile?
Ron can be reached: @RonTite on. Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook, whatever. His company’s website is: churchstate.co.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Ron Tite, founder and CEO of Church+State based in Toronto, Canada. Welcome, Ron.
RON: Thanks, Rob. Thank you for having me.
ROB: It is fantastic to have you with your radio voice here. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about Church+State and about what the agency is great at?
RON: Church+State, as you can imagine by the name—and thank you, I will try to use my radio voice for this. Every time someone says “radio voice,” I feel like I should do that—I think it was an old SNL sketch, it was like, “That’s right, you’re listening to the Storm.”
ROB: Oh yeah, get right up close with the NPR voice.
RON: [laughs] Yeah. Church+State is an agency that really believes that people used to vote with their wallets, but now they vote with their time.
Because of that, the worlds of content and advertising, which used to be kept separate religiously (hence the phrase “the separation of church and state”), those two worlds have been unified completely.
To solve marketing problems, to solve challenges a lot of marketers are facing, we can no longer go, “it’s a content problem” or “it’s an advertising problem.” It’s all one problem. How do we win the battle for time?
What we’re really good at is elevating the conversation out of the chaos. We have one standard approach—and I mean, not standard as in you buy it off the shelf kind of thing, but one approach and process that elevates the conversation to the important parts. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re a TV network looking to win viewers over or whether you’re a CPG marketer looking to win the battle for time; both people should be following the exact same process.
So that’s what we’re really, really good at. We’ve simplified the process and made it really, really flexible, regardless of what side of the church and state side you’re on.
ROB: That’s fascinating. It sounds like the content and what you produce is fascinating.
I think to a certain extent, everybody would love to be that relevant. I don’t think anybody sets out at the beginning of the day—I mean, maybe a couple people—to say, “I want to make the laziest, most boring piece of content or advertising possible.” But, I think a lot of us end up feeding the content beast and just trying to put something out there, whether or not anybody cares.
How do you elevate above that? It seems like there’s probably a little bit of a creativity barrier at times, where you feel like you’re trying to make hits—but it sounds like you’re maybe not even completely in the hits business so much, but as a consistent way of mattering to the audience. How do you unlock that?
RON: You’re very right. I’ll just make one comment on the first part of your response there, which was some people want to be relevant. As an agency, I find that agencies are clamoring to be relevant in a desperate kind of way, to the point that we now have agencies who claim to be “Facebook agencies.”
I just saw an agency the other day that was formed that is going to be an agency for the cannabis category, given the legalization in cannabis. You’re one piece of legislation away from being completely irrelevant.
So I think that there are a lot of agencies who are tying themselves to platforms, and that’s great if you’re a Facebook agency, but what happens when the Facebook crisis emerges and clients start to pull their money on Facebook? Is your business model now completely irrelevant?
Man, you should not be positioning your agency in that way. That is no way to do it. Platforms will come and go, and the strength of those platforms will continue to evolve. Agencies have to elevate their offering above all the clamor of the platforms.
We started out as a content agency because I was a former executive creative director at a big multinational shop, and I went, “Oh yeah, content is going to be king. A content marketing agency, that’s going to be the next big thing.”
Then we got into it more, and I’m telling you, Rob, 6 months into it—the first 6 months, we’re like, “Organic content! This is amazing! You can deploy this content through your social channels!”—and then boom, one switch of the Facebook algorithm and suddenly we had to amplify content for it to matter. Then it’s an ad. It’s just an ad at that point, if you’re amplifying your content.
So we quickly started to revamp how we approached things and how we developed things and how we distributed things, and we had to rise above the very buzzword that we defined ourselves by. Once we started doing that more and more and more, we looked at our name (which was previously called The Tite Group) and said “We have to be more strategic about this. We actually do have a way to describe this business, and that is the unification of church and state.” That’s why we went to the name change.
That was just a quick response to your first comment.
In terms of your second comment, of how do you make yourself relevant, there’s a number of things that you can do there.
We think great brands—and interestingly, the great people who inspire and lead those brands—are based on three things. It’s based on what they think, what they do, and what they say.
The first part of that is, what do you think? What do you firmly believe? Every single client we have, that’s where we start. By the way, I know every agency out there has their own proprietary process that they trademark. [laughs] This is ours. We say, what is your brand belief?
Nobody cares about your mission, vision, all that stuff. They have no idea what it means or how they’re different from one another. We say, finish the statement. “We believe that _____.” What’s your purpose? It has to go above product, it has to go above transactions. It has to be something significantly greater and more important than that.
If you’re Red Bull, then you believe that people should live life on the edge. I don’t know if that’s how they use it, but that’s how I would define it. So what is that belief? You elevate the conversation to something that’s more important.
The second part of that stage is the “do” part, which is what products, what services, what actions, what processes have you got in place that justify those values, that bring those values to life?
If you believe, in Red Bull’s case, that people should live life on the edge, but then you just use the same old marketing techniques and you don’t actually do anything to support that value, no piece of content or ad is going to help you. I’m sorry, it’s just not—until you’ve got those actions in place, and until the behaviors of the people within that organization reinforce those values.
Sometimes we help people with that. We bring this Think, Do, Say message from a training perspective right down to frontline employees, employees who are pumping gas or helping you buy technology.
The last part of that is the “say” part. If you have a product that reinforces your brand belief, then how do you promote that? How do you talk about it?
That’s when we get into this process of—there’s a million different ways you can do it, but the first is, what is it? Is it a podcast? Is it a book? Is it an ad? What is it? Secondly, where does it go? Thirdly, where do the people go after they consume that? And the last part is, how do we slice and dice it so that we can repurpose that stuff all across multiple channels?
The piece that you talked about, that creativity piece, is how do we ensure that if it’s a podcast that is distributed through LinkedIn, and then people go and sign up for a newsletter after, how do we ensure that whatever it is we’re putting into this space is compelling enough that it warrants somebody spending their time with it?
That’s the missing piece that a lot of brands don’t do. They just go, “I’ve got to be on Facebook” and then they check that box, but the thing they put on Facebook sucks.
ROB: Right, I think that’s a good point. You kind of make light of the agency process, but I think you also undersell a little bit that that process that maybe everybody has, that maybe sounds good for a client, is a process of aligning who you are as an organization with who they are and having the same conversation.
I think what’s really interesting that you get into here is there are two steps that come before you start yakking to the market about what you’re trying to offer in terms of marketing. You have to have a conviction in what you’re doing, you have to have conviction in actually acting upon that, and then you’re saying let’s talk about making content that is worth paying to promote.
How would you suggest somebody, whether they’re brand side or agency side—what do they do if they feel a little bit trapped under those first two? They don’t know if they have a clear articulation of what the brand or product think or how they live that out.
RON: What gets in the way a lot of times is that we’ve been raised on a process that takes 6 months and a hundred grand. It’s like, “Oh, then I guess we’ve got to go to focus groups and I guess we’ve got to create a mission statement and a vision statement and we’ve got to get everybody on board and we’ve got to collaborate.”
No. You don’t. I’m sorry. If you’re a global CPG or personal finance company and you need to have 25 regional representatives buy into it, then have at it. If you have the budget, then make sure you call Church+State, because we can help you spend that money.
But for a lot of people, there’s no reason why it can’t be a 20-minute conversation with the most important people in the organization sitting around a boardroom table. We’ll do this for clients. We go to clients and we say, look, we can take your money and we can spend your money and do proprietary research and focus groups and quantitative and qualitative. We can do that and come back in 6 months.
Or, we can tell you what we think based on the information we’ve had, and you can either agree or disagree and we can debate it. But let’s move on, because we’d rather spend more of your money pumping stuff into the pipe.
ROB: To switch gears a little bit, you mentioned that you had been an executive creative director. What gave you the motivation and energy and decision to take that leap and go into starting your own agency? Tell me about that process.
RON: It was a moment of stupidity. [laughs] No, it wasn’t at all. I remember not the exact moment that I knew what the agency was going to be, but the exact moment where I knew that there was a move to be made.
I was shooting a TV spot in Montevideo, Uruguay. It was the fourth time I had been to South America that month, shooting a TV commercial or a video of some sort because in Canada, if we want a spring spot, if we want something to be in the sun and ready for spring timeframe, we need to shoot it in January, and most of this country does not have weather that is suitable to shoot in January. And because of production costs, it’s way cheaper to go to Argentina and Uruguay than it is to go to Miami. That’s why we do that.
So I was in Uruguay yet again, shooting. It was a 30-second spot for a multinational brand who will go unnamed. We spent 9 months to launch this product—9 months from the moment the client called us and said “Do you want it?” until we were shooting. That was from various different strategies, that was from creative development, that was everything.
Nine months. We were about to blow, I don’t know, $350,000-$400,000 on production. We had four people from the agency and we had two clients. We had brought a director in from London. We had a local crew of 40 people. And 70% of the media for this TV spot was a 15-second cut down.
So we had spent 9 months, millions of dollars, and a ton of people to shoot 15 seconds for a medium that no one was really watching anymore. I stood back as we took the crew shot, turned to my producer and said, “How is it that we’re still doing this shit?” I mean, how are we still doing this? How are we getting away with this? This is crazy. It’s absolutely nuts. There’s got to be a better way to do this.”
Don’t get me wrong, I love the golden suitcase trips to Argentina and Uruguay, but I remember I went back to the agency the next day and I quit. I told the chairman of the agency, I feel like I’m working at Blockbuster Video 3 years ago, when fewer people were coming in to rent DVDs. Then they woke up one day and it was just gone. I thought, I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to be the creative guy that’s still shooting TV spots when nobody else is doing it. So I just quit and forced myself into it.
Then I looked at the ecosystem of what the networks were doing and what the publishers were doing and what the newspapers were doing and how they were buying content and partnering on content and everything else, and I just thought, this world has changed. Everyone’s pointing their finger at the big agencies, and no one’s pointing their finger at the big clients and no one’s pointing their finger at the big media companies.
This is the holy trinity of people who are completely dependent on one another for their ecosystem, and everyone’s blaming the big agencies. I thought it was bullshit. So I just thought, you know what? Let’s start out.
I wrote the line that brands have to be media properties and media properties have to be brands. I just thought, “Let’s solve that. I don’t know whether that’s a consulting company or whether it’s a blog or whether it’s a web series or whether it’s an agency. I don’t know, but let’s just figure that out.”
Slowly but surely, I started to figure that line out, one project at a time, until we got to the point that we were like, “Yep, unification of church and state. Got it. That’s what it is.” And that took 5 years.
ROB: Did you start the company solo on Day 1? When did other people start to come into the business, and what are some key inflection points along that journey?
RON: That’s a great question. I started it Day 1, me, alone at a desk that I was renting off a production company. I promised myself that I wouldn’t work with anybody I had worked with before and I wouldn’t pitch any clients I had had before, because those clients saw me as the TV spot guy.
I’m really lucky in that I do about 70 keynotes a year, so there is revenue that comes with that. I didn’t need to take desperate projects to feed myself and my family. I had a revenue source (the speaking), and I thought the speaking could fund the development of the agency so that we didn’t have to take on desperate projects.
So a couple little projects, we got some freelance people in to help out and stuff. The very first retainer or client that I had for a year, I took all that money—it was a very small amount of money—and I said, “I’m going to hire my first employee with that.” I hired that first employee. Then we got to the point where we had five or six employees or something.
And then something happened. Remember, I’m a former creative director. I don’t know how to use Excel. [laughs] I just don’t. And my organizational skills are not that strong. We had gotten our first big client; we had to staff up. I hired five people. It was the summertime, so there was no speaking. I had just gotten married, I had just bought a house. So there was no money.
My accountant came and said, “Hey, you know payroll’s on Thursday.” I said, “Yep.” She said, “Well, there’s no money in the account to pay for it.” I said, “We just billed $100,000.” She said, “Yeah, last week. It’s going to be 90 days before that gets here.”
I said, “Oh, that’s what cash flow is. Okay.” [laughs] And then I said, “What do we do?” She said, “That’s for you to solve. That’s why you’re the founder and CEO.” I was like, oh shit, I’m not qualified to solve that problem.
So I called that client and said, “I need you to rush that check.” Lo and behold, they did, and they’re still a client today. They’re incredible.
That’s when I realized I can’t do this alone. I don’t need employees, I need partners. I brought in a president, gave equity, and soon thereafter—probably the next year—I realized I couldn’t be creative director anymore because I was too busy and it was limiting our growth and affecting the work. So I brought in a creative director, who I also gave equity to.
Now we’re four people with equity, three managing partners: President, Head of Strategy, Creative Director, and myself.
ROB: How did you make payroll that time?
RON: I got the client to courier the check.
ROB: [laughs] You figured it out.
RON: Talk about a horrible call to make, right? Like “Hey, I know we just won your business and we just billed you a hundred grand. Listen, here’s what I’m going to need you to do. I’m going to need you to put that hundred grand in a courier so that my people can eat.”
That very first employee, whose name is Brigitte—and if she ever hears this, she has to know I was moved—I’m almost brought to tears thinking of it—she came to me and said, “Look, I saw a couple of the emails. If you need me to not get paid, I’ve been saving and I’ll be fine for a couple of months.”
I said, “Never say that to anybody again. When you don’t have equity, the one thing you get is a check. You get paid every two weeks. That’s the deal. Never, ever offer that to any employer again unless you’ve got equity.” But I was so touched that she would offer to do that.
ROB: That’s tremendous. That’s just a really super cool, healthy work relationship.
I think it’s interesting, your background coming from TV. You’ve come from this world you mentioned where the budgets are really expensive. I think we went through this phase where people felt like they could just spew out content, and content was almost free.
It feels like there’s been a little bit of a correction to the point where now it really helps if you have conviction that the content you put out into the world is worth paying for someone to see. Does that sound like it makes sense, kind of the trajectory of things?
RON: You’re right. Actually, we’re into an overcorrection now. It used to be you throw half a million bucks at it, and whatever. You’ve got triple scale talent and you have the license to “Eye of the Tiger” from Survivor, whatever. [laughs] You blow your money on that, and then you’re like, “What do you mean? It looks great. It’s that guy from that TV show and it’s got that song.” And it wasn’t very good, and you try to save it with budget.
Then we went into this massive overcorrection where we said, “You don’t need to spend all that money, man. You can shoot it on an iPhone. You can do anything.” We got into this zone where people just cranked out stuff. Cost of production went through the floor, and people who had no business creating content were creating content.
Just because you get access to Microsoft Word, doesn’t mean that you’re going to have the ability to write a bestselling novel. You just don’t. So just because the tools to create content were completely democratized, that didn’t mean that everybody should be creating content. A lot of it is crap. It’s just crap.
We’re coming back now where people are realizing, “Eh, maybe I don’t want to shoot it on an iPhone, and maybe I do need actual talent who can deliver on this, and maybe I do need someone who can actually tell a story and shoot a story.”
And by the way, when you had all those massive budgets, it wasn’t the technology that you were paying for; it was the process. It was the process that sent four people from the client on a shoot. It was the process where we had eight preproduction meetings debating about the color of a napkin. It was the process that said that we needed steak sandwiches in the post-production rough cut presentation. It was all that. It had nothing to do with the technology.
Somewhere we have to find this happy medium between not wasting our money on servicing clients and spending more money on the talent that can actually tell the story.
ROB: Got it. I appreciate that context. You mentioned some things you’ve learned along the way; what are some other things you’ve learned from your experience building Church+State that you would consider doing differently if you were starting all over from scratch again?
RON: Would I have preferred to have shown up on Day 1 with the answer and know exactly what the process was? Yeah, sure, I guess. But I love the journey we’ve been on, and I love that we’ve landed in a place where we are so certain that this is the way to approach things because we’ve had some missteps along the way.
I guess the thing I would do better—I think in the first few years, I’d say even the first 3 years, I personally was so hell-bent on doing things differently that sometimes the obvious answers were there, that you did it this way because that’s the way it’s always been done—but also because it was the right way to do it.
Every single decision, I said “No, we’re not doing it that way because that’s the way I always do it!” I was trying to redefine the model while simultaneously redefining how we attacked the problem. That was a lot.
What ended up happening was we didn’t really have sound job titles and roles for people. Because we were out there saying “we’re going to disrupt the agency model,” I think people who were tired of the traditional approach to agencies were drawn to us. What they found out once they got here was that it wasn’t that they were tired of the agency model; it was that they were tired of the industry.
So I think in the beginning there were some people that maybe we didn’t—not that we didn’t treat them well, but I think we didn’t set them up for success. When they failed, we had to move on. It just wasn’t a right fit, but I don’t know that we were the right fit for a lot of people because we were trying to figure so much stuff out.
So for all those people in their first couple years who maybe didn’t sign up for the chaos, I apologize to those people now. [laughs] It’s much more stable, and I will pay for therapy.
ROB: You’ve kind of learned, it sounds like, where to innovate and where not to. I think this is the story we’re watching in slow motion with Tesla Motors and with Elon Musk. He decides he’s going to change cars, and he’s going to change every single thing about cars, and he’s going to build them with more robots than anybody before.
Then he finally realizes, hey, maybe there’s actually a really good reason why a lot of people are still involved in making cars and they don’t do everything with robots. You learn where you’re especially smart and can innovate, and where the client still wants a car at the end of the day. The client still expects certain things in terms of—I don’t know what the standards and truths turned out to be in your world, but there are certain communications, processes, and products of the work together that they expect.
RON: Yeah, totally. There’s only so long that you can get away with “Hey, we’re a startup!” before people go “I don’t care anymore. You’re a business, grow up.”
ROB: [laughs] That’s amazing.
RON: So yeah, just do one thing at a time. My background, again, I was a creative person. How you approach a problem as a creative person is you blow it out. You go, “This is the best possible thing that we could ever do.” Then the process of it is that you have external voices, be it your accounting, your strategy team, and the client, who bring in a dose of reality and go, “No, this is what we’re doing. This makes the most sense.” And you go, “Sure, I’ll do that.”
So I didn’t have that—when you’re an entrepreneur, you don’t have that layer. You don’t have that reality layer to go, “That’s a great picture you’re painting, but we can only afford to do these two things, or we only have the bandwidth to do these two things.” I was stuck in this world of trying to do the biggest and the best and the most unique and the most different without it being grounded in reality.
ROB: It sounds like you have a really strong team around you now, a very strong, senior, capable—it sounds like that is your team, right? You mentioned you use partners for a lot of what goes around that strategically.
RON: Yeah, totally. Robin Whalen is our president. She is phenomenal as a great counterforce to me and to our creative director, Lionel, and our other partner, Daniel Langer-Hack, who is the head of strategy. That group of four of us as a management team is really strong because we’re all comfortable in the expertise that we bring, while at the same time being completely respectful to the perspectives that everybody else brings.
ROB: Fantastic. Ron, when someone wants to get in touch with you and with Church+State, how should they find you?
RON: For me personally, having seven letters in your first and last name, it’s just @RonTite wherever you want to go. Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, whatever. For Church+State, you can just go to churchstate.co.
ROB: Fantastic. Ron, thank you for your time. Thank you for sharing so much of what you know, so much of that background from storytelling through video and through television. I think storytelling and telling stories worth telling is such a neat lesson.
A special thanks today to Lee Odden of TopRank Marketing for this introduction. Great introductions help us with great content. Thank you for coming on and sharing, Ron.
RON: Thanks, Rob, and thanks to Lee—a fine, fine human being and a wonderful marketer.
ROB: Fantastic. Thanks, Ron. Bye.
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