Leah Norton, Managing Partner at Fishhook (Indianapolis, IN)
For 15 years, Leah Norton, Managing Partner at Fishhook, has been leading this communications team which focuses on “getting out the message” for churches and faith-based ministries. Leah had left her previous agency to stay home and raise her young daughters. She started working part-time at Fishhook, coming on board to build out the founder’s ideas and work on long-term client relationships. Last March, with her girls in their teens and in the midst of the pandemic, she bought out the founding partner, Evan McBroom, and brought in a new partner, Shayla Kenworthy
In this interview, Leah explains the similarities and differences between secular and faith-based marketing. As an example, many churches, in an attempt to be good stewards of their resources, are more likely to try to do their own marketing. The churches that work with Fishhook soon see that bringing on an outside partner is an investment that boosts ROI. Once Fishhook is involved, assessments of an organization’s mission, goals, and its communications lead to branding and marketing strategies with a full range of integrated web design, social engagement, and YouTube channel “pieces.”
Fishhook works to help churches uncover and embrace their stories and unique qualities and then to craft communications and marketing efforts that serve the congregations by bringing “hope and encouragement” to the church community. Much of what is happening in marketing in “the rest of the world” informs Fishhook’s initiatives. Fishhook’s goal for 2021 is to help client churches “make their communications very personal, creative, and authentic for the people they’re trying to reach.”
The agency is currently a team of seven – communication strategists, writers, graphic designers, visual designers, and web developers – and looking to hire.
Client churches range in size from 40 members to as many as 80,000. Leah says that it is important that there be consistency between people’s online experience and what they would experience on campus or in the church building. Covid has increased churches’ awareness of online opportunities . . . digital programs that used to be secondary offerings are often now the main focus.
Leah is a strong believer in balancing priorities . . . in being “all-in” at work, but also being able to pull away and be “all-in” with family and friends outside of work.
She can be reached on her agency’s website at fishhook.us, on Facebook and Instagram at Fishhook HQ, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The agency provides a wealth of articles, webinars, podcasts, and videos covering communications and communications planning, strategies, branding, and digital ministry at: fishhook.us/learn.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Leah Norton. She is the Managing Partner at Fishhook based in my home state of Indiana. She’s in Indianapolis. Welcome to the podcast, Leah.
LEAH: Thanks so much, Rob. It’s really a delight to talk with you today. Thanks for having me.
ROB: Yeah, it’s great to have you here. We’ve already had a great warmup conversation about Indiana winters and so on. But let’s talk about you. Let’s talk about Fishhook. Tell us about the firm and where the firm excels.
LEAH: Yeah, thanks for asking. The Fishhook team, we are 17 years old. I’ve been part of the work and leading the team for the last 15 years. Evan McBroom was our founding partner. Believe it or not, in the midst of the pandemic, in March, I fully bought him out and then brought on a new partner, Shayla Kenworthy. That’s added all kinds of interest and drama to the year in the midst of the pandemic. But it’s been good. It’s just a great opportunity, and it’s been a joy to continue leading in this season.
We have a very interesting niche. We’re a communications team that focuses on serving churches. All of our clients are churches and faith-based ministries. Evan, the founder, and I both came from corporate and agency backgrounds where we were working with incredible, large companies, organizations, and we loved that work. Loved doing communications marketing with those large corporations. For us, our faith is an important part of who we are, and we looked around and knew that churches and faith-based ministries and organizations needed more help. They needed an outside partner that would come alongside them to help them communicate and market well to serve people and to get their message out, their story told.
So Fishhook was born, again, 17 years old. What we really focus on is coming alongside our churches to help them uncover their distinct story, what makes them special and unique, and to help them then embrace that story and then translate it through their communications and marketing efforts to serve people, to bring people hope and encouragement. I would say that is really our focus.
We’re a team of seven and growing. We’re actually looking to hire. We’re a team of communication strategists, writers, graphic designers, visual designers, and web developers. We both work on the strategy side to help our churches uncover their distinct story, and then as they’re translating that into personal, creative, and authentic communications – those are the keywords we love to say – as we look to 2021, we want to help our churches make their communications very personal, creative, and authentic for the people they’re trying to reach. That’s what we strive to do.
A lot of that is online, obviously, through social efforts and web, and then in other ways as well. So that’s our focus. That’s who we are.
ROB: That is a super fascinating niche, and that is one we have certainly not had on the podcast before. So I’m eager to dig in deeper here. When I think of churches and marketing, first of all, you’re talking about a completely different kind of conversion than most marketers, and that’s fascinating. [laughs]
LEAH: But there are similarities. It’s interesting. There are parallels. We want to be learning and growing with many people, but I think of inbound marketing – the Inbound Conference over the years, that community has been a huge inspiration to us. That’s just one example. And there’s so much to learn as you think about what people maybe in the more secular world are trying to do with their marketing and sales efforts, or as they’re working with employees or shareholders or trying to acquire more new customers. There’s just so many principles. We are constantly learning from what’s going on in the rest of the world and in the marketplace and thinking about how that applies to our churches and ministries.
ROB: It is perhaps the original customer journey before we got so wise in these new marketing ways.
ROB: When I think about churches and staffing and particularly communications, it seems to me that quite often, they take the communications piece in-house. More than most functions, they try to DIY. What is it that you’ve seen in terms of churches and perhaps their tendency to DIY and how they reach that moment where they actually realize they can maybe get in a better cadence working with somebody like you?
LEAH: Great question. I think in a church setting – and this also probably applies to other nonprofits. I think there’s such a focus on being good stewards with the resources they have. A lot of times you bring on staff and you try to really be careful with the resources, the budget that you have. In a nonprofit setting, for example, you know that donors have given money or you’ve worked hard to receive grants and that kind of funding, so you want to be so careful with those dollars and those budgets and stewarding it all well.
I think more and more, our churches are seeing that, my gosh, there’s so much value that comes with outside resources, outside partners. The folks that want to work with us really see it as a valuable investment that brings so much ROI to their work. A lot of the folks that contact us or we get connected with and start working with us, they know it’s a significant investment, and we don’t take that lightly. We are so grateful for what they want to invest with our team, and we always hope that there’s lots of momentum and fruit and results that really serve them well.
ROB: What’s a typical range of members or attenders for the types of churches you work with most often?
LEAH: We get asked this all the time because I think people assume that we work with maybe the largest churches who have maybe more resources available. We say at Fishhook that we want to help every church that is connected to us, is reaching out to us. We have the privilege of working with churches across the country. Rob, we work with some churches that have 40, 60, 80 people all the way up to churches that have 60,000 or 80,000 people, and everyone in between.
For our team, that is just a blast that we get to come alongside churches of different denominations, different sizes, different locations. We work really diligently to listen to them and their situation. Who are they? Where are they located? Who are they serving? We try to be so empathetic, and like I said, to listen so well to what their situation is, and then to customize our work for that. We say we work with churches of all shapes and sizes, and we really do.
ROB: It’s really, really interesting, the range of sizes and the range of communications. There’s a whole lot of different sizes of church in the world, obviously. What you do reminds me a little bit in parallel of Dime. Are you familiar with them?
LEAH: Sure, tell me. Tell me more.
ROB: My understanding is that instead of marketing, Dime is the finance arm of a church, where you need some expertise outside of yourself. You need to have somebody in a church to do the books.
ROB: There are so many stories within churches of somebody running off with the money. So having somebody guard that and even guard your ad budget as well, and use it well – it seems like it’s an expertise that is really hard to hire for within a church.
Now, one trend I am starting to see significantly – and maybe we are just extra crazy down here in Georgia, but –
LEAH: I think the whole world is crazy right now, Rob. [laughs] The whole world is crazy, oh my goodness.
ROB: [laughs] The churches that are meeting in person are starting to really hammer that message. I am seeing this on signs, I am seeing Facebook ads for churches that are saying, “Hey, we’re meeting in person.” That’s a very obvious differentiator for some people. Everybody wants to meet together. I’m not sure I would recommend it, but we will sidestep that for a moment. It’s a question of how, I think also. It’s a question of how that needs to be resonant.
But you, I would imagine, also work with some churches that are choosing not to meet in person right now, which seems to present a tremendous marketing challenge. I think we can probably extract something out to other businesses from this. How are you looking at these churches that are not meeting in person? How are they engaging new people? How are they differentiating? How do you make this “Join a Zoom call and watch our Sunday video” appealing? Or is there a completely different strategy you’re seeing that’s also working?
LEAH: You are asking some great questions, because this year has actually been an unbelievable year for all of our churches. I would say in years past, most of our churches were very focused on what they were doing in person – the experience that people would have as they came onto their campus or came into their church. There were online offerings as well, maybe either services being streamed online or available on demand or maybe a group or a class that you could be a part of online, but that was almost like a secondary offering that our churches made available for folks.
Well, we all have lived through 2020. In March, April, as our nation was really shut down, our churches were so quick to respond. Obviously, they knew they needed to close to be safe and to make that the priority, and then very quickly they made digital, their online opportunities for their congregations and communities, the main focus.
Even now, several of our churches are meeting in person; they are making that available – but all of the data that we see – I would say most of our churches are seeing less than half of what they had seen pre-COVID. They’re seeing less than half of their numbers coming back. For a variety of reasons, people are choosing to stay home and be incredibly safe. We hear our pastors and church leaders wanting people to do that. They want people’s health and safety to be a top priority. So our churches continue to make those online opportunities a high priority and are thrilled to be connecting with people in that way.
ROB: I feel like I could pull on so many threads and go so many different directions here. One thing that does fascinate me a little bit also – when you’re working with churches, because a lot of the job is on the weekend, I think many churches struggle with boundaries. When you have weekly communications that need to go out, for the sanity of your own team, Leah, I imagine you have to set some boundaries that you hold to that the client doesn’t really like. How do you think about being adaptable, but creating a cadence and a process that is respectful of what needs to go out and also respectful of your team, even if the client doesn’t like it?
LEAH: You’re right, Rob. There’s so many ways that we could take this conversation. This has become so important for our team this year, and this applies to our churches. I think it would apply to your listeners as well. No matter who you are, where you work, this year has rocked all of our worlds, and I believe it’s been a huge gut check time for every single one of us. Are you passionate about the work you’re doing?
So for us at Fishhook, for our churches – but I’m hearing this from my friends who work in all kinds of companies and organizations; maybe it’s even a friend who’s a stay-at-home mom or dad – this has been a year where we’re all feeling unsettled and you’ve had to dig deep to carry on. So for us, with our team, we’ve done a lot of soul-searching. Are we called to our mission? And how are we going to live that out?
What we’re finding through these months is that we feel more passionate about our work than we ever have, so we kind of let passion over boundaries sometimes drive us. How that looks for our Fishhook team is we try to just be all-in with our work, but then all-in with our families or our friends or things outside of work. Sometimes there is a time to run hard to meet a deadline for a client or to be available, maybe as you’re saying, on a Saturday or Sunday if something comes up, to be able to help them and troubleshoot.
But then you know there’s also a time to have rest and downtime and to step away. So we are always trying to balance those priorities. In a given week, if someone jumped in to do something to help one of our churches on the weekend, are they taking some time during the week off, or are they working shorter days or whatever? So I would say day in, day out, week in, week out, we’re trying to juggle that. We work with our folks to make sure that they’re getting to be the person they want to be, both in the midst of our work, being super passionate about our work, but also as a wife, as a husband, as a mom, as a dad, as a friend, as someone involved in their own church, in their own community.
ROB: That’s a great combination of focus on the client but also on providing that rest when it’s needed. You mentioned an interesting dimension. Even the journey of the firm is interesting here. You came into this company two years in. How did you become enticed to join and eventually even to go so far as to buy out your partner?
LEAH: Thanks for asking. It’s my own personal story. Again, I’ve mentioned my faith means so much to me. For me, I just feel like God has been at work in my life and He opened up some opportunities for me. Step by step, I was able to take those, and it leads to where I now have full-time work with this growing team and getting to do work that I care so much about. That’s a huge blessing.
I would say 15 years ago, Evan McBroom, our founder, had just started the firm, and his hope – it was kind of aspirational at that point – his hope was to serve churches and ministries. He was definitely getting some traction and taking on different projects. He is an entrepreneur. He has lots of ideas.
We had started our family. I have an 18-year-old and a 16-year-old, and I’ve been here 15 years, so I had left the agency that I’d been with for several years and was staying at home with my children. I knew Evan; we got together for coffee. The opportunity to do some part-time work at that point so that I could be at home with my daughters and to also do this work with him to start building a team – I was at the right place at the right time.
Really, our skillsets, Evan’s and mine, matched so much. He had big ideas and was looking for someone to come alongside and really help put arms and legs to that. And that’s really my skillset, to really build things out and to work on longer term relationships with our clients. He had gotten some initial projects going, and I had thoughts and ideas about how to make that work that would be even more strategic and longer term to support our churches and ministries.
For me, that is a huge lesson as a leader. I’m always looking for who is my complement, who is our team’s complement. As you’re looking for who will lead with you, as you’re looking at who will serve on your team, who brings what you need? Who complements you? We all have our different gifts and strengths, but who can come alongside you and really propel you forward?
That’s how it started with Evan, and we’ve been able to build the team. We have an incredible team. They all care so much about our mission and add so much to the work that we do, and I would say of the seven of us, we need every single person. I could literally walk through each person and say what they bring to our team that is just so important, both within our team as we work together internally, but then also as we serve and support our clients.
ROB: For the sake of the audience that may not know what a typical cadence of communications looks like for a church, what are the different touchpoints of communication that you find yourself involved in? Let’s say for a church that’s using most of what you do, let’s say on a weekly or monthly basis.
LEAH: Sure thing. For us, our favorite relationships are the ongoing ones where we really get to know – and I would assume this is true for every agency setting, where it’s an ongoing relationship. There’s trust, there’s open communication. Those relationships where you can each say whatever you’re thinking – in a respectful way, but it’s like no question is dumb, no idea is too big or too small. I just love those kinds of relationships with our clients.
Often with our clients we start with branding work. Let me step back. We do assessment work and then branding work, and those parallel together. Those are a great complement together where we’re working to understand that church, how they’re communicating. Their key audiences are often their internal staff and leaders, their congregation, and then their community – and when I say community, I mean both locally, who is physically their local community, but then also online.
So, really assessing what their mission and goals are, what they’re trying to do, and then thinking about how their marketing and communications efforts can propel their mission and vision forward to connect with either young people or families or the people of their community, whatever goals they have set out. Often we’re assessing who they are and what we see and then working on brand development with them, and then working to carry that out.
What does that look like? Obviously we’re doing a lot with our churches and their online strategy and presence, so web work and social strategies, and what they’re doing with their YouTube channel. It’s fun because our churches, more and more, are thinking, “Where is our congregation and our community at? The people we want to connect with, we want to reach, where are they at? We want to be there too.” That’s what a lot of our work is spent on: “Who are you, church? Let’s define that. Let’s define your distinct story. Who are you already connecting with? Who’s part of your congregation? And who are you striving to connect with? Where are they? Let’s build communications and marketing efforts that will help you reach those people.”
In the old days, I don’t know, the ’80s or the ’90s, when I was growing up, in a church setting you would have a bulletin which was handed to you as you walked in on a Sunday morning. You’d maybe have a printed newsletter or a flyer or a postcard. There’s still a place for a couple of print pieces here and there, but so much of what we’re thinking about now is I would say two things. Their online strategy and how they’re connecting with people digitally – what they’re making available, out of weekend services typically, but also what they’re making available every day. How are they engaging with people online, answering questions, giving hope, encouragement? What support groups or classes are available? Really, churches are doing ministry every single day of the week, and obviously, online you can do it 24/7 as well. So helping our churches really stretch to connect and be ready where people are.
The other thing we think a lot about with our clients is their experience when people do come onto their campuses, interact with them, whether through an event or a service or whatever they might be doing within their church building. Is that experience reflective of who they are, what their brand is? Just trying to make all of this consistent so that any time you interact with a church, it’s on brand. It tells their story, and they’re bringing value to you.
ROB: Brand experience all the way through to churches. Makes sense once you say it and once you think about it. Leah, when you reflect on the journey so far with Fishhook, what are some lessons you’ve learned along the way? What might you do differently if you were starting anew – let’s say in 2021, so you don’t have to assume too much about 2020.
LEAH: Is this like lessons throughout my career?
ROB: What would you do differently in building Fishhook?
LEAH: If you do Enneagram, I’m a 3. Myers-Briggs, I’m an ESTJ. So I love to achieve things. Like, what’s our plan? Come hell or high water, let’s get it done. Let’s move forward. That can be my go-to or my default. What I’ve learned along the way – and goodness, 2020 has been an incredible reminder for this – is there’s a time to really be most focused on how I can help and serve others, and a lot of times it’s time to set aside my own personal agenda or thoughts.
In 2020, as I lead at Fishhook, there are times where it’s like “But this is what I want to happen. I want to move this forward. I’m ready to go.” And it’s like, you know what? That’s not what our team needs right now, or that’s not what our churches are capable of right now or asking for. It’s not a good fit for the situation. So I have to sometimes set aside my own personal drive or my agenda.
The other leaders – Shayla, Amy, who I lead with – they are so great at processing with me what’s going on and what’s right in this situation. We’re continually thinking, what does our team need? How can we be focused on serving each other as a team in this season? We have some internal values that we try to live out. And then with our clients, what do they really need? What will really propel them forward? Let’s care for them first, let’s build the relationship first, and then we’re going to help them go fast and far, we hope.
Those are some of the things I’ve been learning.
ROB: It sounds really helpful to have those sounding boards around you as well. Leah, when people want to connect with you and with Fishhook, where should they go to find you?
LEAH: We would love for folks to check us out online, fishhook.us. We just launched a new brand experience and a new website in recent weeks. So we are really trying to get even more focused on who we are and the value we bring to our churches. You’ll have to let us know. We’d love to hear from folks what you see as you take a look. We are trying to put out more and more content, so if you go to fishhook.us/learn, there’s all kinds of content there to interact with. We’d love to hear from people.
Also, on social media, Facebook and Instagram, we’re at Fishhook HQ for that. I’m happy for people to email me as well at email@example.com.
ROB: Excellent. Leah, thank you for coming on the podcast. Congratulations to you and Fishhook. This has been great to dive into an unfamiliar niche for this podcast, but also see how much really is theoretically consistent, even though the purpose is much higher in your case.
LEAH: Rob, thanks so much for the opportunity. Appreciate it.
ROB: All right. Thank you. Be well.
LEAH: Take care.
ROB: 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.