Old Agency Flexes with a Focus on New

Jamie Michelson, President and CEO, SMZ Advertising (Troy, MI)

Jamie Michelson is President and CEO of SMZ Advertising, a Detroit-based agency that started in 1929, producing and distributing jeweler artwork ad kits. These ad packages, delivered as a monthly subscription service, provided graphics to promote and showcase jewelry and were used in catalogs and newspaper advertisements. 

Continue reading “Old Agency Flexes with a Focus on New”

Franchise: Focus, Scale, and BOOM!

Adam McChesney, Owner and Partner, Hite Digital (St. Louis, MO)

Adam McChesney, Owner, and Partner at St. Louis, Missouri franchise of Hite Digital, a service digital marketing agency with 15 locations. Adam’s agency provides logo design, branding services, website design, search engine optimization, paid advertising, and recently launched Hite CRM, a technology-based software based on GoHighLevel’s white-labeled CRM. 

The goal? “To create an ecosystem that . . . helps us generate more business for them, . . . turn(s) those leads into customers, and then turn(s) those customers into walking billboards for our clients.” He wants to “turn a client’s business into “a scalable model” that helps them reach their goals and helps them get more out of what they put in.” Adam says over 75% of his clients are in a home-service or contracting-type industry.

Before Hite, Adam sold medical devices for around five years. When Covid hit, he decided he wanted to get into marketing. His background in prospecting, sales, and growing business gave him the skills he needed to get clients. He studied up on website building, ranking, and paid ad production so he could do the work. 

He started his agency in July of 2020 and grew it “from basically nothing up to 30 or 40 clients,” but then came the problems. A lot of issues – fulfillment, account management, and scaling – were breaking the agency and its business. Adam started looking for ways to outsource. After he became “official” with Hite in June of this year, he doubled his agency’s monthly revenue in 90 days . . . jumping from $30K to $60k a month.

Hite Digital at the corporate level handles processes, systems, fulfillment, and some of the prospecting and administration services, leaving Adam with the time and energy to focus on prospecting, selling, growing, and scaling his business. Daily franchise calls with other franchise owners cover different business topics – each week starts with sales, then progresses through mindset, general operations, product, and on Friday, family-oriented personal sharing – providing a rich source of franchise “lessons learned,” but, more importantly, supportive relationships.

The franchise has allowed him to leverage the resources and abilities of about 150 full-time team members and 15 distinct locations, and do work at a scale that a small, independent agency could not. Adam feels the franchise certifications, high-profile sponsorships, and publicity have increased his “validity” . . . he no longer has to sell himself as an individual product. With Hite corporate providing the processes and systems (“Sales are not going to outperform and out-scale bad processes and systems,” Adam warns), he now has the time to be “hyper-focused on what’s going to take this agency and continue to grow.” He then concludes, “The things that are happening behind the scenes – strategy, everything like that – have continued to stay the same.”

One key to finding quality clients? Adam is in a number of mastermind groups where he meets with business owners from all over the country on a regular basis. Many of the people in his mastermind groups are his clients or become his clients . . . and those people refer new clients to him, as well. Adam feels personal branding contributes to his ability to get and retain clients, because people know, like, and trust him based on the relationship created before they even consider a partnership.

Adam is available on Instagram: @adamlmcchesney or on his agency’s website at: hitedigital.com/st-louis

Transcript Follows:

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined today by Adam McChesney, Owner and Partner at Hite Digital St. Louis, obviously in St. Louis, Missouri. Welcome to the podcast, Adam.

ADAM: Yeah, Rob. Thanks for having me on. Super excited to be here today. Appreciate you having me here today.

ROB: Excellent to have you on the podcast. Why don’t you start off by telling us about Hite Digital St. Louis? Tell us what you all are doing, what’s exciting there, what clients seek out.

ADAM: Yeah, absolutely. Hite Digital St. Louis is a franchise operation of Hite Digital. Hite Digital has 15 locations as of this recording today, and I’m lucky enough to be the owner/partner here in St. Louis, Missouri. We’re a full-service digital marketing agency. We do everything from logo and branding, website design, search engine optimization, paid advertising, and we’ve recently launched our own CRM as well.

We do things a little bit differently over at Hite. Some really cool things that we have in the works. But we are a franchise model, so we leverage the resources and the abilities of about 150 full-time team members and 15 different locations. It has allowed us to do a lot of things at scale that, if you were basically your own little hyper-agency like I was before merging with Hite, you just couldn’t do. Some really exciting things we have going on.

ROB: It’s a really interesting model, and I think it’s one we really haven’t encountered before on this podcast. How did you become aware of Hite, and how did you get drawn in? I’m sure that’s a process; I’m sure there’s some aspirations of what you can build on your own, what you can build together. It’s probably a journey.

ADAM: Absolutely. It’s definitely been a journey. I’ve been an agency owner full-time now since July of 2020. Quick backstory on me: I was in the medical device sales field for about five years. Worked my way up through multiple companies and was pretty successful, but right as COVID was going on, I realized I didn’t know if this was necessarily for me. I’d always wanted to take marketing full-time to see what I could do, helping local businesses – especially during such a unique time that we were seeing with the pandemic. So, in July of 2020, I left.

My background, my strengths are really in prospecting and sales and growing business, so I never really had any issues finding people that were interested in allowing me to do their marketing and advertising. And then I was taught through courses and programs and a lot of self-teaching how to build a website, rank a website, do all the paid ads. So, I could sell and then I could also do it, which was nice, but it also brought its own set of problems for fulfillment and account management and scaling. As I took my agency from basically nothing up to 30 or 40 clients, I had a lot of issues that were breaking the agency and the business as a whole. I started looking into ways to outsource.

Hite Digital was one of those ways that I was looking. Hite Digital in the past had been a white label fulfillment company for agencies that obviously didn’t want to do the work internally. So, transitioning over to this franchise model – I had heard about it; never heard anything like it. I thought, “Wow, this is way too good to be true.” They handle the processes and the systems, they handle the fulfillment, they handle some prospecting and admin stuff. For me, it was a perfect storm where I was at in my agency to be able to continue and focus on what I wanted to do, which is prospect and sell and grow a business.

ROB: It’s really fascinating. It sounds like the whole delivery aspect of the business is something you don’t really have to worry about on a day-to-day basis.

ADAM: That’s correct.

ROB: But then with that also comes – you still do have to sell something that is aligned to what Hite can deliver as an organization. How do you think about the alignment between what you’re selling and what’s being delivered?

ADAM: Luckily, I had a taste of what Hite was able to do before I came on as a franchise. I knew a couple other people that were already franchisees of Hite, I had seen it from a white label standpoint, and most of what I’m selling today was also what I had previously sold and also done myself. So, for me, it wasn’t much of a transition. The biggest transition for me was to get out of a lot of the mundane tasks of the day to day. So, managing the accounts, managing the projects, building a website myself – all the things that in theory were good for me in the beginning to get access to knowing how to do it and be able to better sell what I was selling, but it got me very focused on the things that weren’t going to grow and scale a business.

ROB: What kind of territory do you have, then? Is it St. Louis in fact, and someone else might come in and do Kansas City or Nashville? You’ve got about 100 miles? What’s your range?

ADAM: Basically, right now I’m the only one in Missouri. I can’t remember the specifics on the range. I want to say it’s about 120 miles that I can remember. For example, in the state of Texas we have four franchisees down there. We don’t really necessarily have a boundary of where we can do business, being digital marketing. There’s not any caps on anything like that. But I want to say it’s about 120 miles in terms of where another franchise would be opening.

ROB: Got it. It reminds me – the NBA operates kind of like that too, and they seem to be doing all right for everyone there. [laughs]

When it comes to prospecting, you almost get to go out and prospect a bit more unencumbered with the day to day of the operations, which is fascinating. Quite often in the medical sales field, it’s I think a little bit similar. How do you think about which kinds of clients you’re working with locally?

ADAM: Where I really got my start was online networking. I’m in a variety of different masterminds where likeminded people are coming together. I’m meeting business owners all the time, and whether I’m working with people within those masterminds as clients of mine or they’re referring people to me, most of my clients were all over the country.

This has now given me an aspect to start doing some cool things locally in terms of networking, getting my name out there from a standpoint that actually means something. When I am the product, the service, and everything, and I’m telling people, “Hey, this is what I’ve got,” no one really understands that. Now I can send them over to Hite Digital, show them all the team members that we have, all the certifications, all the sponsorships, all the stuff that has been written about Hite Digital throughout the publications. It has a lot more validity.

So, I’m more proud to be able to go and show that and do that, and it’s given me access and more time to be able to do it. Personal branding is such a big aspect of where I’ve been able to get clients, keep clients and retain clients, because people know, like, and trust me based on the relationship that we’ve already created before even coming into a partnership together.

ROB: Where does that lead you? Are there particular verticals or sizes of companies? Is there a typical client right now in St. Louis for you?

ADAM: Most of the clients I have are in the home service or contracting space. That’s really where I got my start and where I’m heavily involved from a client standpoint. But transitioning over to Hite, we’ve been able to work with clients of all shapes and sizes and a variety of different industries. Even started getting into the ecommerce space, which I had never been into before. There’s really not a cap, but if I had to say, majority of my clients, 75% and above right now are all in a home service or contracting type industry.

ROB: Got it. That certainly makes sense from a services perspective, whether you’re talking about SEO, whether you’re talking about paid search. All of those kinds of things, you need a certain kind of website; you need to be distributed certain places. You can definitely see how there’s a lot of them, and you’re prospecting probably looks a little bit similar on that side too, going to the medical. There’s lists of these people. You can find them, you can build trust with them, and keep on going. Does that transfer?

ADAM: Exactly. That absolutely does.

ROB: You mentioned the CRM product, then. Is that a Hite central offering? What does that look like?

ADAM: Yes. We partnered with GoHighLevel to create a technology-based software of their white label CRM. It’s called Hite CRM. We launched it probably about two months ago right now. We’ve started to have some people adopt it. But essentially, we want to create an ecosystem that not only helps us generate more business for them, but able to obviously turn those leads into customers, and then turn those customers into walking billboards for our clients.

The strategic part about what we do isn’t just getting them more lead flow or more calls; it’s how we turn your business into a scalable model that helps you reach your goals and helps you get out more of what you put in.

ROB: That part makes sense. I do wonder – and this is always a little bit of a tricky art between that transition from sales to delivery in terms of relationship. You mentioned relationship, you mentioned retention. How do you think about the ownership of the relationship when a client goes from sales in your office to delivery, which is across the world, and certainly has to be at a level of quality – but it seems like the boundary of who owns the account is a little bit trickier than maybe if you had everything in-house.

ADAM: Absolutely. Technically, we still obviously have it in-house. My account managers that I have are full-time. They just work with my clients. We have created the relationship and created that on a very high level. People obviously do business with me because they know, like, and trust me, and then I transition to not necessarily completely step away from the account, but “Hey, here is Kevin or Moe that’s going to be able to take care of you on a daily basis.” The problem in agencies, as you grow and scale, and the issue I was having, is I was lucky if I was able to hop on a call with a client that was paying me a good amount of money once per month. In that, I wanted to make sure that the customer service was to a tier above where I had it and that we were still getting the results, that we were getting the correct reporting, that we were building efficiencies around how we do things for our clients.

The aspect of the touching of each account and to the effectiveness we’ve been able to do it has completely gone through the roof in the transition. Obviously, that comes with me stepping back and delegating and putting processes and systems in place so I’m not the face of the day-to-day communication. But at the end of the day, the things that are happening behind the scenes – strategy, everything like that – has continued to stay the same.

ROB: What does it look like? What’s maybe the most extreme example of what it looks like to scale a city as a Hite franchisee? What’s the limit? There’s almost an unlimited amount of business.

ADAM: Yeah, there’s unlimited amount of business. Ideally, I think in the future we create physical offices, we have all these different things. Being able to work remote and pretty much anywhere in the world, I think there’s a ton of opportunity just with one location.

Just to give you an idea, I came into Hite officially June of this year, and by stepping away from the account management, by stepping away from the fulfillment and the admin tasks, I’ve been able to double my agency in 90 days. We went from about $30k a month to over $60k a month. And really all that is attributed to me being able to step away and not have to worry about “When’s this project going to be due?” or “How am I going to figure out how to get all of these reports out to these clients and then hop on calls with them, and then hopefully for 30 minutes to an hour a day focus on my personal brand and also prospecting?” Those things tend to go in the backseat when you have to figure out the projects and the account management. For me, I’ve been able to be very hyper-focused on what’s going to take this agency and continue to grow.

ROB: A lot less fires to fight, for sure. A flipside of that, I would think, is maybe having fewer people around you when it comes to having a table of different opinions to help challenge the business, to move it forward, to think of what’s next. How do you think about finding peer support and things to drive you forward in that way?

ADAM: Luckily, the support system with the franchise model at Hite is absolutely phenomenal. We have a daily franchise call. Each day of the week is a particular sector or topic of the business. Today was sales, getting the week started off right. Tomorrow is mindset. Then we have general operations, product, and then family-oriented personalized stuff. So, we talk together on a consistent basis, even though we are completely on opposite ends of the country or the world or wherever we’re talking.

I think by having all of this communication and collaboration in the last 90 days, what’s also taken me is I’m finding new ways to put different twists on my business based off of what all these agency owners are doing, because we’re all in it together. If someone is finding success in a certain area, we’re going to share it with the team because we want to grow and scale at its height. If you were to just have a daily call with 15 agency owners, I don’t know how many people are going to start sharing their secrets every single day of the week to help you grow. You might get one or two things. But we’re able to do this thing at scale and really help a ton of clients, a ton of people, and do it on a consistent basis. So that’s been a really cool part.

ROB: Right. From a geography perspective, there’s no competition. You can be fully transparent. Someone can tell you exactly one account they’re having a hard time with, they’re weak, they’re dying, the client’s at risk, and you can’t go steal that client. There’s nothing you can do. That’s their client, and they need the help to succeed, and you can learn from it.

ADAM: Yeah, it’s been phenomenal. To also give you an idea, we have one of our owner/partners who’s in Nashville, and he’s a real estate investor himself. He got into the space for being a real estate investor, to try to grow and scale his wholesaling company. He’s jumped on calls with me to talk real estate with potential clients that he’s never going to see anything from. No one’s ever going to take time out of their day to do that if you’re not a part of something like we have going on at Hite.

ROB: One thing that seems like it would be tricky – and I’m sure they’ve solved it – how do you handle the question of product offerings and pricing? Because it seems like there’s a lot of room for transparency there. There’s a lot of room for you to try to mark up a service 10 times the rack rate. There’s room for Hite to mark up a service 10% and tell you to just deal with it. How does that balance work from the pricing as it flows through to a client?

ADAM: We have our fulfillment costs of what we pay per project or per service offering, what have you, and then we have “Hey, here’s what we recommend selling it for.” You can sell it for what you want. If you want to package something together, if you want to offer X, Y, and Z free for 90 days or at a percentage off, you have the complete ability to do that. Clients are never really getting access to what our cost is on anything, so you then can go and say, “Hey, here’s what I want to do in my business to be able to get to XYZ goal, and I’m going to reverse-engineer back knowing your costs.” So yeah, we haven’t had any issues with it thus far.

ROB: It’s an interesting thing. It also allows you to be entrepreneurial because you can assess the market conditions locally, the competitive situation. It all makes sense. It still feels like selling, sounds like.

ADAM: Yeah, it does. The huge thing for us is we’ve been able to get access to opportunities that we would’ve never gotten access to if we were just our little agency here in St. Louis. We were the VIP sponsor out at Traffic & Conversion. We got a ton of exposure there. We’re a sponsor on Dave Ramsey’s podcast. There’s a lot of things you can now do when you have 15 locations that are all pooling things together. We have an opportunity generation department that helps out with our prospecting and even sets appointments for us. There’s a lot of really cool things you’re able to do when doing it at scale.

ROB: Absolutely. That did ring a bell, actually. I have listened on the EntreLeadership Podcast. I have heard Hite Digital. It did ring a bell, and part of me wondered how much that sponsorship cost. I don’t expect you to know that, but… [laughs]

ADAM: I don’t know it. [laughs]

ROB: It’s probably something you wouldn’t do on your own.

ADAM: Yes, exactly.

ROB: Very good. Adam, you’ve done your own agency, you’ve chopped the delivery part off now and freed yourself to focus on some strengths; what are some lessons you’ve learned on your journey leading the agency that you might go back and tell yourself if you could rewind the clock and try to play Back to the Future and tell yourself what you ought to have known?

ADAM: There’s a variety of different things. It’s only been 15 months of doing this full-time, and I’ve had a lot of success, but I’ve made a lot of mistakes, so the list could be very long. But I think the biggest thing for me, being a sales rep in my past, is sales are not going to outperform and out-scale bad processes and systems.

When I first started running this full-time, I leave medical device, I leave a very lucrative industry, benefits, security, all those different things, and the shiny object is “Just go get sales. Take whatever product or service you can get in here and start selling it. Get people in the door.” Which was fine to an extent, but then my weakness – and why it’s been such a great transition into Hite – is the processes and the systems. It’s the organization. It’s the fulfillment aspect.

Trying to outsell bad processes and systems is never going to be the answer, and I think so many agency owners experience those problems where they’re just focused on the shiny object, which is that next deal or that next month’s worth of retainers, when not focusing on a process or system could set you back next month, 90 days, 6 months from now, and keep you from scaling to grow your business. 

ROB: Sure. A lot of the processes are handled for you. How do you think about the processes that are not handled for you? How do you think about keeping consistency? Is there a playbook you’re pulling from Hite? Is there a playbook you’re writing yourself? How do you keep those account managers locked and loaded? How do you think about the next zero on the size of the business?

ADAM: There’s definitely a playbook and framework from Hite, but with how we do our business – to give you an idea, not everyone is going to have an account manager based on where they’re at in their franchise. I happen to have two of them due to the size of our franchise. There’s different dynamics that are coming in. I’m doing things a little bit differently than someone else is doing them based on our comfortability and based on where we’re at with our clients and what projects we have going on.

I’m managing it and learning new things each day, because I’ve really never managed people in a full-time aspect, especially in the account manager role, and I’ve also never been just an account manager. So, there’s a variety of different factors that are going on. The next level in my agency is to bring in an integrator type person with digital marketing experience that really knows how to grow and scale an account management team, eventually a sales team. That way, I can really focus on what I’m doing best, which is at the top, strategizing, growing, and scaling the franchise itself, and not in the day to day still when it comes to managing people and the operations aspect.

ROB: That lets you focus also on bringing in a very interesting sort of integrator, because you’re not talking about a full-scale ops and delivery integrator. You can think about it as a different sort of organization, probably bring a more specialized integrator into that role.

ADAM: A specialized integrator, one that’s done SOPs, one that’s done the product and the service aspect of what you do, and that likes doing it. Because at the end of the day, I think a lot of people are put in positions or pivoted to be an integrator when really they could be a visionary type of person or someone that doesn’t like “I’m going to check the boxes and do all these different things.” My mind races at 1,000 miles per hour, and I need someone to help reel that in, and when we do have a good idea or a new process and system that could take the business to the next level, have someone that can run and put it into place and actually make it work.

ROB: Absolutely. You’ve mentioned there’s different scales of these franchises; there’s one-man/one-woman shows. You’ve got a couple people around you. With the visibility that you have, what’s the biggest you’ve seen a franchise get so far, and what does it look like from a work structure?

ADAM: The franchise model is actually not even a year old. It’s super new. We have people that have come in with agencies of all sizes, and then also people that are brand new to running their own agency, which I think is really cool. I think on the spectrum of where things are at, our average agency – we just saw the numbers today – is doing almost $30,000 a month. That’s between all the agencies that are out there.

Our agency here in St. Louis is definitely the largest in terms of I have two full-time people. I think everyone else pretty much at least has another full-time person or is working towards that. From a monetary standpoint, those things are going to be on every which end of the spectrum. But the average is right around $30,000, which is pretty healthy for 15 and only being a year old.

ROB: Yeah, and you’re setting the pace then a little bit, creating what this looks like. I wondered up front what it looked like perhaps from a pride perspective, because you start your own business and then you’re merging, you’re rebranding. But it almost sounds like a way to think about it is it’s a way of making a bet and investing in growth. You’re saying, “I think if I take this path instead of another one, I’m going to rebrand, I’m going to gain this halo over me” – and I guess some podcast ads, and this conference, plenty of other lead routes. But sometimes a merger is an ego battle, and it sounds like this is a little bit more of an investment strategy.

ADAM: Yeah. It was a concern for me, to be honest. I was a lot more concerned with the way that I thought it was going to go versus how it actually did. For me, it wasn’t so much the ego, but it was that I was the product, the service, and the everything. Basically, taking feedback and taking how the customers at the time and eventual customers took it, I took all that stuff personally. Some was good, some was not so good, and there were areas of opportunity.

But for me, it was more so we each have our own commitment at Hite, and we’re committed to so many different things of helping people, empowering people. I am the commitment to live a more whole, well-rounded life. If I want to do that, the way I do that is by impacting as many people as possible. I can only impact so many people if I’m doing everything, and I don’t have the support, I don’t have what I have now at Hite.

Now, in 90 days, I’ve already grown the business double to what it was already at before, which was helping a lot of people. It’s really cool to see even what we’ll have at the end of the year and then this time next year. We’re able to fulfill our commitments at a higher level, and in the process of that we’re obviously going to lose clients that maybe we wouldn’t have lost if I stayed and did my little agency. But we have to look at the bigger picture. I have to look at the bigger picture and what’s best for me, my family, my agency, and everything else that’s included.

ROB: For sure. When you’re looking ahead, Adam, at the next year, if we were to catch up a year from now, what’s going to be new from the Hite Digital fulfillment mothership, and what will be different in St. Louis? What should we be looking forward to?

ADAM: I alluded to earlier, over the next three to six months, I really want to bring in an operations integrator type manager to help take this business and plug up the holes that are here. What I think that allows us to do is to grow our team here in St. Louis – adding that person that would be local here in St. Louis, potentially adding some sales managers, more account managers. But getting very strategic on the partnerships and the things we’re doing, investing in relationships, investing in masterminds to make sure that we’re impacting not only as many people as we possibly can, but the right people, the right clients to come in here. The more people we’re able to work with on a consistent basis, it’s really going to help everyone win.

I think in terms of Hite, we have ambitions of taking it from 15 franchises – I don’t know what the end goal looks like in terms of a specific number of franchisees, but I think the people we’re bringing in are all quality. They fit the bill of what makes Hite, Hite. And the best part is we’re attracting all of these people. We’re bringing in agency owners that we’re connected to in our market, we’re in other masterminds together. There’s just a uniqueness to what we’re doing. I think that continues on over the next couple months and throughout the years.

ROB: Excellent. Adam, when people want to find and connect with you and Hite Digital St. Louis, where should they go to find you?

ADAM: The easiest place is going to be my Instagram account. That’s @adamlmcchesney. That’s where I’m probably the most active in terms of messaging back and forth with people. You can also go to hitedigital.com/st-louis and find our information there in terms of what we offer and everything we have going on here at Hite Digital St. Louis.

ROB: Excellent. Adam, thank you for coming on. This really does uncover a model we haven’t talked about a lot on this podcast. It’s a different path. It’s clear it’s working for you, it’s exciting, and I think we’re going to hear more about it. Thanks for coming on and sharing your experience, sharing your vision and leadership thus far, and we can’t wait to see where it all goes.

ADAM: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure to be on. Super excited for the future.

ROB: Thanks so much, Adam. 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.

Branding for Fast, Disruptive Growth

Sara Helmy, CEO, Tribu (San Antonio, TX)

Sara Helmy is CEO at Tribu (tribe in Latin), a 20-employee digital marketing and branding agency that prides itself on “building tribes for the brands that we serve.” Sara, with a passion for SEO, started the agency ten years ago with about $6,000, no outside funding, no debt . . . and for the first three years, doubled-down, boot-strapped, added things over time, and eventually morphed the agency into a branding powerhouse with close to $3 million in service revenue this year.

Tribu serves a diverse group of clients . . . facilitating government-supported projects (like San Antonio’s 300-year anniversary celebration), B2C (Devils River Whiskey), B2B, and healthcare . . . but most clients have one thing in common: They have high, ambitious growth goals . . . and they want to be disruptive in some sense.

Tribu’s view of “brand” is far broader than having a logo and a website. Sara includes in “brand” the assets a company creates and deploys, the nurturing, the daily “rock pounding,” the tribe growing, the follower building, and the activities compelling potential customers to sign up for email lists. Branding efforts may be for a brand that never existed before or for existing brands that are looking to “reinvent themselves.” 

Sara says that branding (and rebranding) are more about identifying and extracting value that is already there, something unique that will resonate with customers, rather than in creating something new that didn’t exist before. The invention part comes in creating a new way to communicate that message.

When the agency works with a new brand, there is more freedom . . . but, without an existing customer base, Sara says, “You’re a little bit more blind.” A brand may think it knows itself, but often, Tribu has to collect data from potential customers and focus groups to show companies how they are “seen.” Sara says “95% of good businesses are going to choose to honor their customers.”

When a company already has an existing customer base, rebranding may be easier because customers will tell you who you are . . . but it is also harder because, if the business direction changes substantially, you risk alienating existing customers who got you to where you are. 

In this interview, Sara offers two important business tips: 

  1. Invest in “A” players, because they are the ones who will solve your problems, help navigate, and help your agency grow.
  2. Plan, nurture, and control your culture . . . the health of your finances will often match the health of your agency culture.

Sara can be reached on her agency’s website at: Wearetribu.com – and from the beginning to this day, the onsite contact form goes straight to her personal mailbox!

Transcript Follows:

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Sara Helmy, CEO at Tribu based in San Antonio, Texas. Welcome to the podcast, Sara.

SARA: Thank you for having me, Rob. I’m excited to be here.

ROB: It’s excellent to have you here. Why don’t you start off by introducing us to Tribu? What should we know? What is your specialty?

SARA: Tribu means “tribe” in Latin. We pride ourselves on building tribes for the brands that we serve. More literally, I guess you could consider us a digital marketing and branding agency. We’ve been around since 2011, so this year will be our 10th year in November. We’re very excited about that. In general, that’s Tribu.

We’re a tribe of 20 people today. When we started, we started with about $6,000. No outside funding, no debt. Just doing really good work and climbing ladders. We’re still a small agency. We’ll do probably about $3 million in service revenue this year with our tribe. (That’s what we call our team of 20.) But in 10 years, no outside funding, no debt. That’s just been organic growth by serving a whole bunch of partners we’re really thrilled and excited to have every day.

ROB: Congratulations on 10 years, on $3 million, on 20 people. I’m sure there’s days when that feels like a lot of responsibility. Dig a little deeper with the brands you serve. Is there a typical example you can give us of who you work with, what the scope of the engagement or the range perhaps can look like?

SARA: Absolutely. We’re actually a little bit everywhere when it comes to industry. We don’t have a particular industry niche. But most everybody that we work with has really high and ambitious growth goals, and they want to be disruptive in some sense. So far, for us at times that’s spanned government – it’s a lot of B2C, B2B, healthcare. We’re literally everywhere. What they have in common is they’ve got some project or some initiative that they consider disruptive and they really want to grow it fast.

More specific examples. Devils River Whiskey was one that we worked with for very many years. Travis Park, which is one of the oldest municipal parks in the United States, was one that we rebranded and revamped. When San Antonio turned 300 years old, we helped them put on that celebration. Then we’ll also serve the plastic surgeon who’s got really high ambitious goals, or we’ll partner up with a private equity who buys companies and turns them around and plug in as their marketing partner.

So we’re a little bit everywhere in that sense, but what they all have in common is they want to disrupt and they want to grow very fast.

ROB: It seems like that branding component of what you do – I think a trick with branding agencies can often be the “What next?” I did the brand and then the engagement falls off. It sounds like you have this pairing of people who are using the rebrand as a jumping-off point to get more aggressive overall.

SARA: Yes, I would say that’s pretty accurate. It’s either a ground-up brand that hasn’t existed before, or there’s a big rebrand initiative in there somewhere. One of the things we deal with all the time is that your brand is so much more than a logo and a website. Those are assets that you created, that you smartly deployed, but brands aren’t created just when you create those things. They’re created through nurturing, through pounding the rock every single day, growing a tribe, amassing a following, giving people a compelling reason to sign up for an email list. When we say brand building, we mean so much more down the line than just getting a new website or designing a logo.

ROB: Sure. Brand is also partly who you actually are. It’s who you actually are when you are out in the market. How do you take a client who is looking to rebrand and get past who they think they are or who they think they should be and get to who they actually can be and break through with that?

SARA: I love that question. I think a lot of people think when you’re rebranding or something, you’re creating something new. In actuality, you’re extracting, with a very good strategic understanding, what’s compelling that lives there. A lot of times, a partner or business will come in and tell you all about their brand, all about what they do, all about their history.

I think what we’re doing is inventing the way that’s communicated, but it’s so much more than inventing things to invent things. You’re extracting something that’s there. Typically there’s a differentiator. There’s something unique about them, and it’s just hidden. When we enter a rebrand, or when we decide we’re going to brand something from the ground up for somebody, we’re extracting more than we are inventing what’s valuable there. What is there that would truly resonate with a tribe or an audience? Who is that audience, and where’s the match?

So it’s more extracting. It’s more strategic identifying of those things, and then you build a brand around that – the more traditional, well-known aspects of it, like what it looks like, the tone of voice, the colors and the typography, and our strategy for getting in front of this tribe, or what most people refer to as target audiences.

ROB: Is there an aspect of that that is easier when there’s also an existing customer base? Because in some cases then the customers actually tell you who you are.

SARA: Yeah, it’s easier and harder when there’s an existing customer base, I think. Easier in the sense that you’ve got the best resource ever. You’ve got customers, and exactly what you said, you can ask them and they’ll tell you. Harder in the sense that if the business’s goals are to substantially change, you have to consider the existing customer. You can’t just 180. You’ve got to love the people that got you where you are.

So preserving equity and being mindful in how you do that sometimes makes those circumstances more complex than when you’re starting something at the ground floor and you have a little bit more freedom to work with. But also, you’re a little bit more blind because there’s not a customer base that you can tap into at that point.

ROB: How do you help someone when they have this conception of themselves and there’s a better dimension of themselves that they actually need to be highlighting, because they really can’t inhabit the brand of what they think they are?

SARA: I think you show them. That’s one of the most beautiful parts of the digital marketing world and living in the technology we live today. There’s a way to show them. There’s data, where maybe previously marketers had to fly a little bit more blind. It’s super easy these days to ask a question and get a response. You don’t necessarily have to always have a 10- or 15-person, immaculately sourced focus group, conducted very formally. So in that situation, you show them, and at that point you let the business decide. I think 95% of good businesses are going to choose to honor their customers.

ROB: I get it. You mentioned 10 years ago, $6,000 to start; what led up to that moment, though? What led you to say, “I have this $6,000” – maybe you saved it up, maybe you didn’t – “and I’m going to put it on the line to make Tribu happen”? What did that look like?

SARA: What a bootstrap startup, right? I was young. I was 22 years old at the time. My father had passed away, unfortunately, probably two years before that. So I had learned life is short, and I was a little bit less scared of entrepreneurship failure potential as a result. Also, when you’re young, it’s easier to get something off the ground when you consider that you don’t have a mortgage to worry about or a family to feed at that point.

I happened to be working in SEO, and I absolutely love SEO. That’s the service in this world where I got my start. I was fortunate to, at such a young age, be an operations manager for an SEO division inside of an agency. The entrepreneurial itch, the combination of losing my dad and realizing that life is short, finding an industry that I absolutely loved, a field of study I was completely passionate about – it collided.

Also, because I was young, I just didn’t really have that much money. Hello. [laughs] So $6,000 was what I could put in. I was fortunate enough that I had a little bit of a measly extra that I could live off for that first year, really. So it had to work within that year, at least enough to get me to the next year. That was pretty much the backstory of how Tribu started.

ROB: When you’re bootstrapped, it’s a little bit harder to decide those moments when you’re going to actually – you make decisions to invest in the business sometimes, especially in the services thing, no investors. You can take the money out or you can double down on certain aspects of the business. What were some of those bets you made early to invest in particular aspects of the business that were maybe some key decisions?

SARA: In hindsight – I don’t know that I was doing this then; it just seemed like what you had to do when you’re bootstrapped. But I think we doubled down a zillion times. I paid our staff before I ever paid myself. There were several years in Tribu’s early start that I would pull enough out in terms of – I didn’t get a salary. I would distribute enough that I could eat a meal if I needed to. In the meantime, there were graphic designers who were employed and we were doubling down in the sense that the money was going to that. We doubled down when we purchased our own building, probably about four or five years in.

I hope I didn’t fail to answer your question, Rob, and go roundabout, but I think there was a series of doing nothing but doubling down in those first three years, probably, of Tribu’s life.

ROB: Sure. There’s an extent to which every hire is an investment into the business. Some make you choke on payroll a little bit harder than others, when you’re like, “We’re going to hire somebody who makes what?” Then you have to say, “Yeah, I guess we’re going to do that.”

SARA: [laughs] Yep.

ROB: How do you make the jump, or connect the dots, then, between SEO and brand? I might see a shadow of it, but it’s not a common conversation, right? Most folks in SEO don’t get really excited about rebranding, except for what keywords they’re going to target. How did you get there?

SARA: I love that question. Honestly, I think when you get really, really deep into SEO and you start trying to guess the algorithm and what Google’s up to and what it’s going to change towards and what’s going to be their next move – the deeper you go, the more you find that the algorithm – my theory is that it’s going to go towards what is genuinely, authentically inspiring to another human being. That’s what we want to show in our result when someone enters in a query. And that’s what led me to, okay, brand really, really matters from SEO, if that makes sense.

I think that’s where the connection was made. I also think good SEO strategies, good organics, really focus on – even though it’s not stereotypical in an SEO’s mind, engagement rate really matters. What’s your popularity? That’s a very big one in terms of SEO. In order to get there, sure, you can do all these little tips and tricks and technical hacks, and it’s really good to know them, but in order to get there you’ve got to have some substance. You’ve got to have a good brand.

That’s where the interest came from. I also think previously, I was very rebellious when I was young. [laughs] I did not know that I was going to necessarily love a subject of any sort in school, but I absolutely loved creativity. I know this is marketing, but business and entrepreneurship is a very good way for a rebel to be a productive person to society.

So you take that and you combine that with creativity and this fortunate thing that I landed in SEO, honestly, and it all hodgepodged, and that’s how we went from SEO to brand.

ROB: The connection’s definitely there. There’s all of the parlor tricks, and then there’s the conviction that eventually what Google’s going to keep doing is optimizing for giving people what they want. If that aligns to who you are – the essence of the brand is who you are, and the essence of SEO is what people want, and you put those together. It ties, but it’s not often in the same conversation. I haven’t heard it very much. It’s fascinating coming through who you are.

SARA: It makes it an interesting combination for Tribu, honestly. It’s a cool combination for our partners to enjoy. There’s that very technical, astute digital marketing aspect and strategy, but there’s also that very award-winning, strong creativity coming out of Tribu. I feel like a lot of times when partners or customers in the marketplace hire agencies – not every agency puts them in this, but a lot of agencies put you into making a choice. Like, “I can hire really good strategy, really good technical stuff, or I can hire really creative stuff, but I don’t know that the message is ever going to completely go as far as it could go.”

We’re not the only agency that does this, but we do pride ourselves on it at Tribu. We try really hard to be the agency where you don’t have to compromise between creativity and strategy and the digital, technical stuff that helps brands really grow.

ROB: Absolutely, for sure. It’s very self-aware, and I think it’s important for entrepreneurs to keep in mind their rebellious streaks. I went through a profile of one sort or another this past week, and basically, I scored ultimately on this axis where it’s like “If somebody tells you to do something, you’re probably going to do the opposite.”

Another entrepreneur who was in that conversation – I think a lot of us, especially in the services world, have this acquisition fantasy that someone’s going to show up someday and drop a big pile of cash on the front door and acquire your business. But most of the time, that actually ends up looking like an earnout. So someone I know who’s in the middle of that had this rebellious streak, the want-to-be-the-lead-horse streak, and this particular analysis – they didn’t know anything about what the person’s experience was, but it said, “Something in your life is out of alignment here. At work, you are not being that lead horse that you usually are.” It was because they had a boss.

Have you ever contemplated this sort of agency acquisition fantasy that some of us have? Or maybe you just realized that wouldn’t go well? How do you think about it?

SARA: I don’t know. I hope I’m self-aware in that regard. What you just explained, I am so guilty of, which is like as soon as you add the boss on top of me, I’m a miserable person, even if the boss didn’t tell me anything. [laughs]

But yeah, in terms of Tribu’s future, I don’t know, maybe one day there will be an exit. I’m not ever going to say never. But we’re not working towards that right now. That’s not our strategy. That’s not where our eyes are at. We’re still at that phase in business where we’re realizing our own best and obsessed enough with figuring that out for ourselves and especially for the people we serve.

I think knowing about exit strategy, even not wanting to right now, is valuable in the sense that what you have to do to prepare for an exit makes you a better business. It makes you cleaner on financials. It makes you put together core processes that help everybody get more aligned. So we like to know about exits, and sure, we think about them sometimes because it makes you a better business, but we’re not coming at it from the perspective of hoping for an exit. That’s not in the plans right now.

ROB: That’s so key, and people don’t realize it when they start to look at the checklists of especially what makes a services firm worth more than like 1x revenue on an earnout. It’s all of those things. How well does this thing operate without you? How are the processes? How are the renewals? It’s all of these things.

Do you have a particular set of tools you have found work really well for you to store and maintain and update processes in a way that everybody knows where to look? Do you have anything that’s working?

SARA: We struggled with that for a couple of years when we started. Where we landed was Asana, which is our project management system. It’s also where we store all of our core processes so that if you’re working at Tribu, the program that everybody, regardless of your position, is working in is also the place where you can find all the core processes. That’s pretty much what we landed on in terms of tools for that.

We at one point had one-sheeters on everything we could think of in Google Drive, and then everybody would forget what one-sheeters existed. I don’t know if that was too literal of an answer, or if that’s what you meant by systems, but literally we decided to store them all in Asana.

ROB: That’s right. It’s interesting at two levels. There’s one that is the lesson that there is one place and that’s where you go. You don’t have to say, “Is this in Drive or in Gmail or in Dropbox?”, all the way down the line. I think it helps you realize why there’s so many of these systems out there, but also why people switch. People switch when they can’t find a way to invest enough in their PM tool to make it the source of truth.

SARA: Yeah, honestly, in marketing, that’s one of the things that’s happening in general. There’s so many tools out there, so many things you can use. I think in marketing in general, that’s one of the things that makes it more fun – I like change – but it makes it harder to play. I mean, how much momentum and how deep can you get if you’re changing the tool you’re using every four months? We just made the decision that we don’t need it to be the most perfect thing, but we need it to be a stable thing. We need it to be a constant thing. We need it to be a thing that maybe doesn’t have every feature that we want, but is going to do the job really well.

ROB: But commit to it.

SARA: Yes.

ROB: Sara, when you rewind this journey, these 10 years so far, what are some lessons you’ve learned that you might wish you could go back and tell yourself to do a little bit differently, if you were intercepting yourself in that moment of the business?

SARA: Oh God, so many. I think we’re a great business today, but we’re definitely not perfect and we have our moments in history where we look back and go, “Uh, we should’ve thought about that one a little bit more.”

I think the biggest takeaway is ‘A’ players. Nothing replaces ‘A’ players, whatever ‘A’ players is to your agency. There were times where I think we compromised out of desperation. We grew too fast, like “We need to fill this role – someone get a body in there.” But we’ve I think learned the hard way that you never compromise on ‘A’ players. You figure out whatever you have to figure out, but get the ‘A’ players in because they’re going to solve the problems. You get them in, you take care of them, and you trust them. They’re going to solve the problems. They’re going to help navigate. They’re going to help grow. That was a big lesson learned for us, painfully at times, as we were getting to where we are today.

Another lesson that I think goes along with that is – and it’s the most stereotypical thing; you hear it all the time – but culture. Culture is the thing that has to be managed and taken care of and nurtured and planned and intentional and worked at. Don’t just let it be a thing that roams free and gets away from you. Controlling that is so important. I’ve seen times in these short 10 years where I wasn’t very proud of the culture we had at that moment in time, and I’ve seen times where I’m like, oh my God, how can I clone this cultural moment? You can basically put those times alongside our financials, and they match. [laughs] The good times, the finances look good; the times that culture’s not so great, the finances don’t look so great.

So ‘A’ players and culture. Those are things I would’ve – it’s 20/20 hindsight, always, but I would’ve put more importance on those things earlier if I could go back in time.

ROB: That’s another area where I think we get tempted to fake it, on culture. You feel like you need to make up some values or something like that. But it doesn’t work until it’s real, and you can’t keep the ‘A’ players until that part’s real also.

A question that comes to mind right where we are right now, October 2021 – I’m sure you spent at least some, if not a lot, of last year working apart where maybe you were accustomed to working together. How do you think about spreading, driving, reinforcing culture when you’re not in the same place, and maybe the patterns that helped form it before aren’t available?

SARA: How do I answer that? There’s so much to say there. That’s such a great question. That was actually something that in some ways we did so excellent last year, and in some ways we did so poorly. It was such a year of learning.

One of the things I think we did excellent in terms of “How did we do that and retain it?” was just surprises. When you’re inside an office, operating in a good culture, there are pleasant surprises that happen in your day that you don’t necessarily think about because that’s just your day. That’s just every day. So being intentional about creating those surprises when we were all apart from each other, whether that was mailing everybody a cookie kit or something that they didn’t know was going to come, but they can do with their kids and send pictures and create conversation about that maybe had nothing to do with work, but to make up for that passing hallway conversation that you miss out on – those are things I look at last year and I’m like, that was pretty cool that we did that. Patting ourselves on the back, that was smart.

There are other things that I look at that we did last year as we were learning to navigate remote where, now that we’ve been doing it longer, I’m like, we should’ve done that better. Like making time to say, “How are you?”, not “How’s this project?”

And then also – and this one surprised me – I think most executives were worried about productivity drops. We had a productivity skyrocket. People could not turn it off. So something that I didn’t learn, because I was actually expecting in part an opposite result, but we had to help our team turn it off. That was a surprise to us and something I think we would’ve done better, or do better now, honestly. When you’ve got Slack going and everybody’s remote, it’s so easy for someone to send you a Slack message at 8:30, 9:00, and it’s totally fine to let that wait till the next morning, but you just don’t want to do that to your peer, your coworker, your friend. And then eventually it just never stopped. So that was a surprise to us.

ROB: Definitely, my own habit, I’m a sloppy Slacker. I tell everybody involved with me, look, if I don’t send you this Slack message right now, I’m going to forget this thing, and it’s important, but you should not respond to it if it’s the weekend, if it’s the evening.

SARA: Of course you can read it, right? [laughs]

ROB: You should just hold it right there, and when you get to work on Monday or in the morning, pay attention then. Please do not – unless I tell you “Do this now,” which just doesn’t happen – because if something’s on fire, they’re already responding to it. They understand urgency. That false urgency is potentially pretty dangerous.

Sara, when you think about what’s coming up for Tribu and the kind of work that you all do, what are you excited about? What’s next?

SARA: Again, bootstrapped, organic growth. We’ve had to add things over time. We recently this year formally added videography and production in-house. We were collaborating with an awesome group of freelancers and many people before to fill those needs. I’m very excited about having that in-house. It makes everything else we’re already offering much more powerful.

And then in general, the industry, what’s coming up that I’m super excited about – and I think all of us at Tribu are – things like TikTok. Not necessarily that there’s a new social media platform. It’s more so the format change that a platform like TikTok is driving – that informal, very human, fun, relatable, just people being goofy. That type of content. That’s just so exciting that brands are going to get to play in that space.

As the world’s moved – we talked about it when we were talking about SEO – whatever’s really core and authentic to a human’s heart, to those tribes, seems to be the good business move in terms of brand building as well. So to see that that’s an opportunity for brands to have more fun and be lighthearted and participate in those types of conversations, to show more of their human side because of platforms like TikTok and the formats they’re encouraging, that I’m very excited about. I think we all are at Tribu.

ROB: It’s a great point. It’s almost like TikTok broke all of us, in a way, because you could kind of pretend that every channel was the same if you really were committed to it, and it just breaks the narrative. I think it helps you be who you need to be on Twitter versus LinkedIn versus Facebook. It fractures everything by making more than one message. I think it helps people get channel-specific, even if they’re not even touching TikTok, because sometimes it might not make sense. Maybe it always makes sense if you can figure it out. I don’t know.

SARA: If you’re on alcohol, they don’t let you play on it right now. So sometimes even if it did make sense, it’s not an option yet. [laughs] But yeah, for sure. You said it so spot-on. TikTok really is breaking that format, and it’s going to inspire a lot of channel specificity in marketing, which we’re excited about.

ROB: Especially with that video capability. Sara, when people want to find you and Tribu, where should they go to connect with you?

SARA: Oh, thank you. Wearetribu.com. A little fun secret is that as we’ve scaled, the one thing I refuse to change is that that contact form goes straight to my inbox. So if ever anybody wants to send in a message, I’d love to hear from anybody.

ROB: Fantastic. We’ll get the site dialed into the show notes as well. Sara, congratulations on everything so far. Looking forward to what comes next as well. Thanks for coming on and sharing with us.

SARA: Thanks for having me.

ROB: You bet. Be well.

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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