Deep Diving to Sell What’s Hard to Sell

Heather Isch, CEO, and President, LKF Marketing (Kalamazoo, MI)

Heather Isch is CEO and President at LKF Marketing, a B2B-focused full-service marketing communications company that specializes in working with manufacturers with complex, often highly technical products and complicated sales channels; governmental agencies working on regional economic development; and local community-focused arts organizations and nonprofits (the agency’s give-back “passion” projects).

Heather describes the process of getting to know LKF clients as a “deep dive” – into understanding all of the different industries they work in, the “customer levels” within each of those industries, who clients are trying to reach (which may vary by product application), what clients are trying to sell, and how they are trying to solve their customers’ problems – and compiling that information into “customer maps.” In addition to questioning clients, the agency gets industry information through accessing existing research, consulting with trade partners, following industry trade journals, through trade shows (when possible), or by, when something is completely new and needs to be “explored,” commissioning paid research. “We spend a lot of time with engineers,” Heather says. 

Another piece of the “deep dive” is market research: finding and figuring out how to effectively reach target audiences – where these people are, how they make decisions, their internal “cultures” and inter-relationships, and the right media mix to support client messages.

LKF started in 1989 with two partners, graphic designer Charlie King and strategist Brad Lawton – and soon added media buyer Carol Fricke. After a number of years, Carol bought out her partners and invited Heather on board. In 2015, after Heather had served in the role of vice president for about 8 years, Carol retired and Heather took over as owner. Heather says that this transition was “always part of the plan” and that “when you plan for . . . transitions, they go a lot smoother.” Even now, Heather is working with her team so that when it is time for her to go, her current team of leaders will have everything they need to make the transition seamless. 

In this interview, Heather talks about how her team of 17, each of whom has a specific “area of expertise,” has maintained relevance through the years. She explains that the agency’s culture supports “keeping ahead of trends” and not fearing trying new things or failure. The agency actively promotes continued training, attending seminars, and trying out and leveraging new client-appropriate tools and technology . . . all with a focus on delivering results for LKF’s clients. A recent example: LKF developed a trademarked Content Management System, McConimore, to facilitate rapid/ agile Web development and overcome some of what Heather describes as WordPress’s “intrinsic flaws.”

Heather takes a very holistic view of her organization. She explains that LKF’s passion statement, “Assisting the people in our family to thrive,” applies to the agency’s clients as well as the agency’s internal work family, employees’ families, and the community the agency serves.

Heather can be reached on her agency’s website at: lkfmarketing.com and on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

Transcript Follows:

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m excited to be joined today by Heather Isch. She is the CEO and President at LKF Marketing based in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Welcome to the podcast, Heather.

HEATHER: Thanks. I’m glad to be here.

ROB: Super great to have you here. Why don’t you kick us off by telling us what LKF Marketing excels in? What’s your specialty? 

HEATHER: We are a full-service marketing communications company. We primarily serve B2B. We like really technical, confusing kinds of clients, so we have a lot of clients in the manufacturing space. We also have a lot of digital skills, so a lot of web development, that kind of thing. So helping clients with complicated sales channels, complicated products, that kind of thing.

ROB: Got it. When you say “technical and confusing,” let’s pull on that thread for a minute. What would something technical and confusing sound like? Even though once you describe it, it may not sound so technical and confusing.

HEATHER: A lot of our clients serve highly technical clients. They might be working with highly engineered products that might be sold into packaging or beverage or wastewater treatment. Sometimes in the medical industry, like for MRI equipment. So a lot of our clients have technical products that you really have to dig in and understand, spend a lot of time with engineers so that you understand what you’re talking about, first of all. But then those clients typically have very complicated sales channels, and it’s understanding how to get to and share their messaging in a variety of different industries to a variety of different levels, whether they’re influencers or the buyers.

In other markets that we serve, we work in economic development, so we have a lot of development clients working with, in our case, the state of Michigan working to understand brownfields and redevelopment credits and all kinds of crazy stuff. And then we have some of our more fun clients that might be a little bit more – those are our passion projects, more in the community that we live in. We like to give back, so we’ll be working with people in our arts community or some of our nonprofits. But we’re not typically the consumer products group, if that makes any sense.

ROB: It certainly does to an extent, although I’m now also contemplating who a wastewater influencer is. [HEATHER laughs] When we get into the particulars of it, take us down a layer on that. The complexity affects who you’re targeting, it affects your marketing channels. How do you take a problem like wastewater treatment – I imagine the client is very helpful in informing you of what they know, but they also might not know, and the knowledge may not transfer over the same way as if you’re in a core B2B context.

HEATHER: Right. With a client like that, it could be a wastewater treatment plant, it could be – here’s one for you. We’ve started working with some of the people that are trying to do extraction in the cannabis market. That’s really been more of an exploration. Who is making these decisions? Same thing in wastewater treatment plant. It may be the facilities manager that we need to get to; it could be an operations person in a specific area, but then you may also need to be speaking with the director of public services, depending on the different cities and states.

A lot of times it’s doing a deep dive with our clients to really understand all of the different industries that they’re working in, who they’re trying to connect with, what we’re trying to sell them, or how we’re trying to solve their problems, and then really going to work and putting together all of those customer maps. Sometimes there’s research that exists; a lot of times we rely heavily on some of our trade partners. We’ve spent a lot of time with engineers.

And in some cases, there might be actual research that we commission because we’re really in exploratory mode. If the client’s trying to launch something new, then we have to go down that paid research path.

ROB: It seems like some of these prospects for these products – they’re almost going to be pleasantly surprised if you can reach them with a convincing message directly. But how do you think about reaching such a specific customer? This certainly doesn’t sound like billboard and TV ad territory.

HEATHER: Not typically billboards, no. Usually there’s heavy emphasis in the different – there’s trade journals for everything under the sun. We work with a client that makes products for linemen to keep them safe when they’re up on utility poles. You would be amazed at how many trade journals there are for that industry and for very specific titles.

So for that particular group, we might be doing a combination of traditional print mixed with some social media, heavy web presence. Honestly, it’s trying to do the deep dive by industry, figuring out where these folks are, and doing the right media mix. Sometimes it’s tradeshows thrown in there, although COVID has not done us any favors in that department, so we’ve had to get a little more creative with how to reach our customers.

ROB: That’s wild, because I’m also thinking that linemen are probably not on LinkedIn very much. Maybe less than other industries, if you will.

HEATHER: Right.

ROB: I can’t imagine all the trade journals you get at your office. That must be a heck of a picture on its own.

HEATHER: Yeah, we have a lot of trade journals that come here. Also, I think one of the things that has been fascinating is the connection that linemen have with each other. There’s a very tight, almost like a brotherhood. There are a lot of ways to reach this group, but they’re also very connected and become very attached to their brands, and we are lucky enough that our client is very, very well-known, and linemen ask for it by name. That’s been an interesting little twist in their industry.

And we find that across the board. Every industry is very different, so you really have to figure out what’s going to get the best result based on the market. You learn to talk. You learn to figure out where these people are and how they make decisions.

ROB: It’s interesting, especially with the linemen. When someone’s going to get up near high-energy power, downed lines, all that stuff, when they ask for safety equipment, I feel like you listen to them. [laughs] But I don’t know.

Also, you’re talking about getting deep into an industry. It seems to me there could be some big opportunities – if somebody’s been marketing with a firm that doesn’t take the time to get in deep, there could be huge uncovered opportunities that are maybe even pretty low-hanging in the content and search world. Have you found examples of keywords that are lying out in the wide open for the taking, but weren’t claimed by the industry?

HEATHER: Absolutely.

ROB: What’s that look like?

HEATHER: I think that’s probably one of our key strengths. We are hell-bent on getting results for our clients, and the way you do that is really digging in deep and understanding their business and what they’re making, what they’re creating, what that end game is. We have search engine optimization talent on staff as well as usability experts, and a lot of this is really just years of learning to understand, I guess as best as anyone can, Google. They change everything every day. That’s a full-time job. But I feel like we’re pretty gifted in that department.

ROB: Heather, let’s rewind the clock a little bit on this. What is the origin story of LKF? Where did this business come from?

HEATHER: This business was actually created in 1989, and there were two partners, Charlie King and Brad Lawton, the ‘L’ and the ‘K’ in LKF. Charlie was a graphic designer and Brad was a strategy guy. Then they met up with Carol Fricke, and she was a media buyer. She came to Kalamazoo after a long stint in Atlanta, Georgia, and she teamed up with this group. They formed the trio, Lawton, King, Fricke, and operated for quite a few years together.

During that time, I was actually a kid fresh out of college and I met Carol while I was selling ad space for one of the papers. I continued to have that relationship with her for many years. I left publishing and became a marketing manager for a manufacturing company, which is where I probably learned to really love all of those nerdy technical things.

She and I stayed in touch, and actually LKF did a lot of design work for the manufacturing company that I worked with. During one of our lunches one day, she told me she wondered what was happening with me. I said I was negotiating hopefully what I thought would be “the job” with a local agency, and she said, “I don’t think so. I don’t want you to go work for another agency. I just bought my partners out, so I think you should come and work for me.”

So I did. I worked with her for many, many years, and in 2015 she was ready to retire, and I took over as owner.

ROB: Congratulations. It’s a good long story, and some of the best stories are those long stories. I find that every change of control of an agency is a little bit the same and a little bit different. What do the mechanics of assuming ownership, as it were, of an agency – I mean, you don’t have to get into particulars and percentages, but how does that even work? These are often somebody’s baby, but they also don’t want to care for it anymore. So what does that look like?

HEATHER: I think one of the things that was really beautiful about our transition is Carol and I had talked about that early on. That was always kind of the game plan. Neither one of us really had an end date, but we worked towards that, and I worked as the vice president for about eight years before taking over as owner.

I think your point about the same yet different – there are so many things that make LKF who we are today, and we have always been uber-focused on delivering results for the client. That’s just embedded in who we are. I think the culture piece also. We’ve always had this – it’s overused, but “work hard, play hard” focus. We always enjoyed each other’s company. Carol made it possible for me to be a vice president, help run the company, but also raise two small children. I had a very flexible schedule throughout that time.

I think when I took over, I wanted to put a bigger light on that, taking that to the next level, really looking at giving our team the ability to take care of their own families but be wildly successful here at the agency. I think we’ve been doing flex schedules – it was fashionable before COVID made it fashionable. [laughs] So we’re very blessed in that department. Our passion statement is “Assisting the people in our family to thrive,” and in the LKF bunch, we describe our family as our clients as well as our internal work family, their families, and the community that we serve.

I feel like that has just gotten bigger, I think, in that transition. But it was planned for, and I think when you plan for those transitions, they go a lot smoother.

ROB: How does that inform where you sit now? I’m sure someday you are planning to not run the agency anymore. How are you thinking about even the next generation? And really, you’re talking about handling a 50-year-old agency before too long, 40 even sooner.

HEATHER: That’s my goal. I would say my vision is that my current team of leaders are getting everything that they need so that the day that it’s time for me to go, it’s really seamless. I think good leadership is not about the who or the personality cult of what’s at the top; it’s what has made us who we are. Is everybody trained and schooled in all things LKF Marketing, the LKF way? How do we push that down in the organization so that there’s a seamless transition when the time comes?

ROB: Nobody’s surprised, right?

HEATHER: Nobody’s surprised.

ROB: It makes logical sense to everybody involved.

HEATHER: Yep.

ROB: That is quite a journey, and congratulations on everything so far. In the time that you have been there, when you track back to 1989, in terms of skills of the team members, some things are still very valid and helpful. There are still media buying elements there. But how media is bought and the other marketing channels that are involved have shifted entirely. How has the team over time been able to continue to stay relevant?

You mentioned even getting up into social, and then there’s stuff beyond that. There are so many places where an agency can get stuck in media, in SEO, in PPC, and others keep going past that. How do you think about these practice areas, which ones are ready to adopt for the agency, and how to either upskill or add skills to the team to get there?

HEATHER: I think that’s always the question. How do you keep yourself relevant? One of the things that we’ve always been very good at is not being afraid to fail and not being afraid to try things. Having experts – our team is very small. There’s 17 of us. But every person on the team has an area of expertise, and they’re really charged with keeping ahead of trends. We put significant emphasis on training and making sure that we’re attending seminars, that we’re trying out tools, that we’re figuring out which tools make sense for our client base and how to apply them so that they’re getting the best results and we’re leveraging the right technology, and we’re not becoming irrelevant.

I think that’s also something that has happened during the past 18-20 months, this explosion of digital tools, technology. And that’s what we’re excited about: how are we going to harness some of this new technology and really apply it to our client base? One of the things we had started working on pre-COVID was a new web development platform. We in the past have had a proprietary development platform, and over the years we’ve realized that’s just not a thing anymore.

But we’ve also seen the need for some tools to allow rapid or agile development. WordPress is always the thing that people are all about, but we’ve always felt like it had some intrinsic flaws. [laughs] So we went to work and have come up with our own product in that category. It’s been trademarked. We’re really excited about using that, alongside many other tools. But I think that’s a testament to how we’re staying relevant. We’re constantly saying, “This is good. We tried this; it didn’t work. That’s okay.”

And honestly, every client, because of the industries that they’re in, they’re pushing us to try things that might work for them but don’t work for one of our other clients. So I think that also helps us to stay relevant and on top of what’s out there.

ROB: Very, very interesting. Very tricky, of course. You’re saying you’ve built a new CMS up from scratch? Is that my understanding, or did I miss a detail there?

HEATHER: Say that again?

ROB: You have a new CMS that you’ve put together?

HEATHER: Yes.

ROB: Wow. What’s it called?

HEATHER: It is called McConimore and we don’t widely – it’s really only available to our customers.

ROB: Pretty interesting. There’s always room for new ideas there. That’s a category where everybody’s always trying to dominate it and nobody ever does. It’s sort of the tale as old as time. WordPress is always there, but you’ve got your GoDaddys, your Webflows – all of the things. But nothing ever dominates. It’s pretty interesting.

Heather, as you look at your tenure, as you look at your time in LKF and overall, what are some key lessons that you’ve learned as you’ve been leading that you might want to go back and tell yourself if you could rewind a little bit?

HEATHER: I think for me personally, I am a thinker, a big picture person. I love data. But once I have enough data, I’m definitely ready to move, and I think my younger self could get talked out of moving as quick as she would like to go. [laughs] There has to be calculated risk. There has to be data, all of those things. But I think that is part of, in our industry, staying ahead of everybody else. Failure or trying things on, that’s all part of the learning journey, and I hope that’s one thing that we instill in our teams: to never be afraid to try something and see if it works. I think that’s probably it.

ROB: Very good. As you’re looking forward at the future of LKF, the future of marketing in general, what are some things you are looking forward to? What’s next?

HEATHER: I think really taking our team to the next level. We are training up newer teams, and I’m looking forward to being able to serve more clients. We’re ready.

I also think harnessing all of these different technologies and leveraging them for our clients. There’s been a really big shift over the last 20 months, and I think as people get back online, helping them to really innovate and think about how to solve some of their challenges – that’s been a topic of discussion for us because I think we’ve been so focused over the past 18 months on tomorrow and next month. We’ve got to get people asking different questions, thinking about how we’re going to do it differently, how we’re going to tackle this problem in a different way. Some of the previous solutions just don’t work.

So I’m excited about what’s next for our clients and how we might go to market and start looking at things from a different perspective.

ROB: Absolutely. I always enjoy thinking through the individual contexts of where people are. It sounds like you are very aligned to your local community, to the art community. If someone has not been to visit you in the place that you call home in Kalamazoo, what should somebody go see? What are some of the highlight reels of your home?

HEATHER: We have a beautiful downtown that is very vibrant with lots of fun little boutiques and breweries. Wonderful little shops. We also, on the outside edges of Kalamazoo, have a wonderful Air Zoo, which is a great museum to take your families to. We also are home to Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo College, Kalamazoo Valley Community College. We are a town that is very focused on education and keeping our talent here in Kalamazoo.

We are also home to The Promise, if you’ve ever heard of that. The Kalamazoo Promise has been talked about all over the United States. We have a very philanthropic community. So lots of good reasons to come and visit.

ROB: It sounds wonderful. I always like to dig in and honor – my team is around the country, and I just like to have us all think about what makes each other’s homes special. So thank you for sharing that. I know we always see Western Michigan jumping up and biting some other team in college football that wasn’t expecting to get beaten that week. They’re one of those upstarts that likes to surprise people, but it sounds like the people there are not surprised.

HEATHER: Kalamazoo is a great place to live.

ROB: Heather, when people want to get in touch with you and with LKF, where should they go to find you?

HEATHER: You can find us at lkfmarketing.com. You can also find us on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

ROB: Fantastic. Heather, thank you so much for your time, for sharing your journey, for sharing that unique depth of understanding that you get into with clients to sell things that I think are hard to sell by a formula. That is very much to your credit, so congratulations.

HEATHER: Thank you.

ROB: Be well, and we’ll look for more great things from LKF.

HEATHER: Thanks, Rob. It was great talking to you.

ROB: Thanks, Heather. Take care. Bye.

HEATHER: Bye.

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 info@convergehq.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.