Brian Phillips, Co-founder and CEO, The Basement (Indianapolis, IN)
Brian Phillips is Co-founder and CEO of The Basement, an integrated (technology + creativity + measurement) B2C and B2B marketing agency with its roots in production. Brian dabbled in art and worked in architecture before he took the artistic principles of rendering positive and negative space to marketing. He explains, “The positive space, the consumer journey, is one we can see and everything works.” He believes marketers can get a lot of understanding out of identifying and analyzing negative space – the things that don’t work – and that these, too, can help define the client journey. He believes “Negative space helps define and form the positive space.” His interests today remain diverse. For the past year, he has avidly read scientific books, pursuing ideas related to how genetics might impact buying and selling.
The agency manages all media and destinations (the social channels and websites where consumers engage), extracting and analyzing as much data as possible and using multivariate testing. As an example, the agency may “cross-reference data out of Amazon” with data from its analytics platform on the ecommerce side.”
The Basement markets its clients through an often complex, multi-touch, multi-channel approach. Larger companies may have as many as 150 datapoints across their consumer journey from “high level impressions down to ecommerce platform conversions.”
Brian has found that insights gained by analyzing data about consumers in the lower funnel can provide information on how the consumer got there and what the consumer will do next. The agency measures its success through outcomes, which, Brain explains, ensures accountability.
Brian says his agency’s focus has always been on growth, but growth “has to be calculated.” When asked about his agency’s culture, he says simply, “Stay fascinated,” and then expands on the thought, adding, “Stay curious, stay ambitious, stay competitive, stay genuine, and stay fascinated.”
Brian can be reached on his agency’s website at: thebsmnt.com.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I am your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Brian Phillips, Co-founder and CEO of The Basement based in Indianapolis, Indiana. Welcome to the podcast.
BRIAN: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
ROB: Excellent to have you here, Brian. Why don’t you start off by telling us about The Basement and where the firm excels?
BRIAN: The Basement is an integrated agency, and there’s probably some backstory there of how we got to be an integrated agency with roots in a production company. It’s sad but true, but one of our greatest strengths is being able to deliver on what we say we can do. I’ve sat at many tables with brands that are unsatisfied with whoever their partners are, and sometimes it’s as simple as just being able to deliver.
I think as a production company, at the beginning that was what we prided ourselves on, and over time we’ve evolved to include that same delivery mentality against the consumer journey and a fully integrated offering of technology and creativity and measurements with the consumer journey in mind. We’ve had a lot of success with brands. We’re not afraid to talk about outcomes. Actually, we prefer talking about outcomes, and we prefer the accountability that comes with that.
We’ve been very fortunate to align with some great brands, and they acknowledge and accept our approach. It’s turned out to be very impactful for both their business and mine.
ROB: Are those brands typically more consumer-facing, or is there some B2B in there as well?
BRIAN: Mostly consumer-facing, but we do have some B2B. Certainly there are major differences there. But we really approach our work systematically and through a proprietary framework that we’ve developed. Technologies roll in, audiences roll into it, but at the end of the day we’re still performing the same services against that framework for B2B and B2C.
ROB: Interesting. Tell me a little bit more about that framework. I think you have some brands that are of a pretty big size, and their go-to-market with customers is probably very multi-touch in a way that would often be hard to measure and hard to be accountable for, but that very much seems to be what you’ve leaned into.
BRIAN: Yeah, there’s no question. It seems like the majority of our clients are that way with the multi-touch and the omnichannel approach. I think it’s important when we start talking with a brand that we’re all aligned on accountability, and where we’re going to hold ourselves accountable and where the brands are going to be accountable.
Throughout that initial phase where we’re working on strategy, we have to come to consensus on how we’re going to measure success. Measuring that success along the consumer journey is something that we work together on and then we measure against. So that becomes, in my opinion, a lot easier to have dialogue and to have fruitful conversations and collaborations if you’re aligning at the beginning. And that approach has been the core of what we do and how we build our integrated offerings.
ROB: What sorts of things are you measuring for brands?
BRIAN: Oh, man. [laughs] One of our larger brands that we work with that is a consumer brand, we’re measuring 150 datapoints across their consumer journey, and that’s everything from high level impressions down to conversions through their ecommerce platform and everything in between. At that point we’re managing all media, all what we call destinations – places where consumers engage, whether that be social channels, whether that be their enterprise websites. We’re going to build that infrastructure inside of that journey so that we can extract as much data as possible.
Then we want to analyze it. We want to understand if there’s any insights we can gain in the lower funnel that can impact how the consumer’s getting there and what the consumer’s doing next. And we’ve got case studies where we’ve seen and applied insights that were upper funnel, that were on the advertising layer, where we were able to test what type of product mix through display ads – we would run multivariate testing and we noticed that these certain product mixes with color combinations and words were effective. That then translates all the way down to the way we communicate on our website and what products we show on the website, how we’re driving conversions through the performance funnel online.
That cross-analysis is very important to us. We use and leverage a lot of technology, don’t get me wrong; technology is extremely important to our business. But at the end of the day, we want to make sure that our core teams that work with the brand are analyzing that data, and we’re looking for those insights and we’re trying to figure things out on behalf of the brand.
Machine learning is helpful. Obviously, it’s a trend and it’s going to be here. It already has changed the business and it’s going to continue to change the business. But at the end of the day, I think you still need to have humans involved in that analysis, and that’s something that we do very diligently with our clients.
ROB: It’s fascinating because a lot of marketers think about knowing how to track marketing when they can track the individual user all the way around the internet, when they can get a hard link through to conversion, that sort of thing. Certainly, you will have that in cases on the ecommerce side.
But it almost sounds like on the broader consumer/general market side – maybe they bought something on Home Depot’s website or Costco’s website or Amazon or someplace where you can’t sink into the data – it sounds like maybe you’re still pulling on the stages of the customer journey at a macro level to see what’s pushing down the funnel. Is that how you’re thinking about it? You know what the stages are, you know what people are doing; even if you can’t link each person, you can still see the echoes of what you’ve done up-funnel.
BRIAN: Exactly. That’s exactly right. Amazon’s a great example where we can get data out of Amazon and we can get data out of our analytics platform on the ecommerce, and we have to cross-reference those. We have to understand why this happened versus something else happened.
My background is kind of an interesting background, but it certainly comes from the creative side. I often talk to my team and in general about the importance of the consumer journey and looking at it very similar to figure drawing. The way that I learned figure drawing is you have positive and negative space, and the positive space, the consumer journey, is one we can see and everything works. But with figure drawing, you need to leverage and use the negative space as templates to help you define and form your positive space.
I relate that to marketing and the consumer journey in a way that says sometimes things don’t work, but understanding why they don’t work and having the measurements in place to understand and help define – that helps us define what’s going to work and what didn’t work. So we really want to look at the positive and the negative space. I think there’s an idea or a wish for marketers and agencies to say, “We just want to find all the positive and that’s it. That’s what we want to base everything on.” We try to look more holistic than that, because we think we can get a lot of definition and a lot of insights out of the things that don’t work.
ROB: It’s fascinating to hear such a – there’s sort of a disciplined line of thinking around the creativity that probably frees you up to be creative in other ways. It’s interesting how it echoes right into marketing. It almost sounds like we’re talking about planetary physics or something while we’re at it.
BRIAN: Now you’re really going to get me going. [laughs]
ROB: Oh, how so?
BRIAN: I study science. I don’t read many business books; I never did. I mean, I’ve read marketing and business books, but I’ve found that the focus on our business and the focus on science, everything from natural order to epigenetics, is something that I’ve been really focused on over the past year and a half and applying that level of thinking.
To your point, you mentioned the word discipline, and I think that’s certainly a strength of the agency and it’s something that my business partner and I have always strived for. If I were to analyze my career, I think a systematic, more scientific approach to creative is something that I’ve always done. The parallels of science and creativity are just so fascinating to me.
ROB: I think you can’t just drop epigenetics into the conversation without actually helping those of us who think we know what that is, but maybe we don’t. [laughs] Can you give a definition of what that is and maybe how it ties into, if it does tie into, your work and marketing?
BRIAN: Any of the scientists in your audience may say, “He’s completely off,” so I’ll use the caveat that this is how I’ve interpreted it. The genes that we have as humans are what I would consider more binary. They do simple on and off. They can’t define the entire character of a person. They may define the way you look, they may define other parts of your genetic makeup, but epigenetics is a newer science that is the study of the chemicals that are how the genes are expressed.
What’s so fascinating to me and what really got me interested in the concept is that these chemicals, these imprints of chemicals can become part of your genetic makeup that you can pass down to your children. There may be a certain way that you move or the way that you stand that wouldn’t necessarily be part of a gene. A gene doesn’t have that in it, but epigenetics have put that imprint on you because of the way that things have happened through your environment. That is what I find so fascinating about it – that study of behavior and getting all the way down to that science to say these behaviors can actually be explored through genes.
Tying that to marketing – I think this is way, way future-focused, but when that data becomes more readily available and people start mapping it, which they are now, how does that bring the science of genetics into the targeting of how people are buying and selling products? That is the stuff that I find fascinating and I read about.
ROB: Is this something in the neighborhood of a gene drive or something like that? Is that what we’re talking about here? Or am I completely out of the neighborhood?
BRIAN: What did you call that?
ROB: A gene drive, where they can take certain things and introduce them – like they can introduce sterilization into the mosquito population not by shooting a mosquito into a crisper or anything like that. It’s called a gene drive. Basically, they can introduce this trait into the population in this external way.
BRIAN: I’m not spending a lot of my time and energy on what they’re going to do with that innovation. [laughs] I do think that the future of medicine is going to be more tailored based on the structural variations within people’s genes. So I do think that’s going to change medicine as a potential outcome. But right now, my fascination and interest has just been the data and what happens when that source, that mapping has been done, what you do with it. It’s like Tesla having all the data of people driving their cars.
ROB: I see. So, you’re able to measure things you’ve never been able to measure before to get insight you’ve never been able to draw before, just by how deep you’re able to look into the picture.
BRIAN: Right. That’s what we keep doing as society. We keep finding new ways to extract data, and that is a parallel to the way we look at our framework and the way that we work with our clients. How can we extract meaningful data from the journey? It’s just going to get smarter and more robust, and the systems are going to be in place and the first party data is going to be there. It’s an interesting time, for sure.
ROB: You’ve alluded a couple of times to your own background and your own origin story. What is the origin story of The Basement? What made you decide to start the firm, and what have been some key inflection points along the way?
BRIAN: How far do you want me to go back? I think there’s some relevance to the first brush of creativity. For the record, I’m about 6’6” and I come from an athletic family, and I was a basketball player. There was a point in my life where I thought I was going to go play basketball. Certainly not professionally, but in college. And I was always an artist.
When I was in high school – this was in the early to mid-’90s – I met a graffiti artist from Chicago. That culture didn’t really exist in Indianapolis in a meaningful way. That culture really didn’t exist in the common culture of society. Hip-hop culture was in its infancy, really, at that time. I became fascinated by that art form.
I think one of the key powers or superpowers, if you will – and for the record, I think superpowers change over time. At that time in my life, one of the things that defined me was defiance, and I think that carried through my career, from graffiti art to wanting to be an animator when I saw the movie Toy Story. That became my goal. My dream was to be a character animator. That’s what my career set off into: how can I make animated films or shorts or whatever? I didn’t really have a definition.
I ended up in architecture, and I spent a number of years in architecture. It was at this period when the internet was becoming relevant. It was getting introduced to businesses. This was pre-broadband. Everyone was on dial-up. We were just at that point in society where the internet and how people engaged online was being defined.
Then I became really interested in creating these very rich, high-end experiences that eventually became online, for lack of a better term, engagements. That’s how my career started. I was doing that in architecture, and at one point my business partner and I met, and I was frustrated with my career and the ceiling that I saw for myself and the work I wanted to do. I wanted to work at Pixar. I left. I just quit my job.
I convinced my business partner to start a business. He was certainly more of a marketing business mind than me at the time. I was very much an artist and a producer. The combination of the two of us has worked out really well. And we left. He left McDonald’s Corporation, where he was a very successful regional marketing director, and I was this young, probably cocky kid who was doing 3D animation and interactive 3D online and virtual worlds, and we took off.
We ended up becoming one of the first digital agencies in Indiana, and from there we started The Basement because we saw a void with traditional agencies that didn’t have an understanding of digital. We saw that as an opportunity and a void in the market and serviced agencies for the first 5 or 6 years of our business as a high-end interactive studio, doing animated TV spots, doing Flash games. We made a number of video games, we made a number of TV spots, we did a number of very high-end, rich websites for consumer brands and national product launches, until we saw an opportunity.
We were really good at building the destinations and the engagement points with consumers, and we would always ask the agencies and the people we were working with, “How are we getting people here? What’s the narrative? What’s that consumer narrative and how do we extend it?” That’s where we started to take on more direct clients. We had clients that were at agencies that went to the brand side and wanted to hire us directly. It really started to snowball, and then we built a media business, and now we have a full national internal media business and analytics business, and obviously creative is still there, still a studio. We still produce a lot of work in-house. There’s a ton of content that gets produced along with consumer journey.
Being able to build that content against a very robust media strategy that’s looking at data, looking for data, that’s the kind of integration that we’ve built. In a very, very short, run-on sentence, that’s how we got to where we are.
ROB: Brian, you mentioned something that I think is very common, which is that a creative firm starts up to work on a particular practice area that other agencies aren’t focused on, and you’ll either take a referral or you’ll get white-labeled under them on the engagement – and then there’s this jumping off point that has to come around to grow more. That’s that graduation from taking other people’s subprojects and leftovers and engaging the clients directly. How did you change the mindset and make that jump in the business? Because a lot of people get stuck there.
BRIAN: I really give a lot of that credit to my business partner. We also have one of our vice presidents who took the client services part of the business. We all worked really hard together, and my business partner’s background in the agency was account service. He knew that business. He knew it very well. He’s very disciplined, and he understands how to build systems, and again, echoing the points that we made, we think systematically.
So we built systems that will hold ourselves accountable, and we made sure that we were honest with each other and collaborated. We’re transparent. I think that transparency was a very important key for us with our clients throughout. If we can do something, we’ll tell you we can do it. If we can’t do it at that time, we’re going to be honest with you and we’ll tell you when we can do it. That formula worked really well for us. I’ve always been an advocate for hiring people that are better than you, and that is what we did.
At that time we had to build a culture, and we built a culture around growth not only for our clients, but for ourselves and for the individuals that are within the company. We fostered the culture, and that culture helped organically make us better. That is I think equal weight in the success of that adoption and being able to change and being able to recognize how something needs to improve. That’s, again, been a big part of who we are.
We have a tagline, which really is the definition of our culture, and that’s “Stay fascinated.” Our culture is defined by stay curious, stay ambitious, stay competitive, stay genuine, and stay fascinated. That idea of staying fascinated is see something bigger than yourself, see something that we can become collectively. When you see something and you strive for something and you strive for growth, things need to change and things get better. That’s how we define our culture, and that’s how we were able to improve. Because I’ll tell you right now, our account service business was not great when we started. It was good. We’ve made it great.
ROB: It sounds like by being honest with yourself and with your clients – both of which takes discipline, which we said before – you were able to avoid getting yourself in the deep end in some areas and say no to the things that were too big while also growing into bigger and bigger capabilities along the way.
BRIAN: Yeah. We expanded our services along the way. Again, very, very proud today. We’ve had tremendous growth over the life of the agency, and we still plan to grow. We are going to continue to grow. Thinking of it from a biological standpoint, organisms grow to the point where they peak and they start to decay. We feel that we’re not even close to decaying.
Growth has always been a part of our strategy, but it has to be calculated. We’ve said no to things that we knew we weren’t going to be able to deliver against, and that I think is very important and has defined us by saying no to things versus saying yes to everything. That was a really good business lesson that we’ve learned along the way.
And preservation of culture, because you can say yes to things and short term you can grow revenue, you can make more money – but at the peril of what? That was something we’ve always been very protective of: the culture, the people, the dynamics within the team. Because as we recruit and we want to hire the most talented people, then you have to protect them and you have to make sure that they are in a position to do what they’re great at.
The point I made about superpowers evolving – as I got further in my career and further into the growth of business, that became part of my role and what I strive to be good at.
ROB: It’s quite a journey, Brian. Thank you for sharing. I feel like there’s a lot more we could pull on; I want to be respectful of everybody’s time. Brian, when people want to get in touch with you and with The Basement, how should they connect with you?
BRIAN: Certainly the website for The Basement, and that is thebsmnt.com. That’s the easiest way to get a hold of us. We love challenges, and we love brands that want to swing above their weight class. We’re actively looking for new partnerships. I really appreciate you taking a moment to have me on and talk about this business that we’ve built out of Indianapolis, which is not typically known for advertising.
ROB: If people don’t know, there’s a lot there. ExactTarget didn’t get as long in the sun as people might’ve wanted it to, but that was a big deal out of Indy, right?
BRIAN: Oh my goodness, yes. ExactTarget has been a fantastic story, and Salesforce is there. Yeah, things are changing. There’s no doubt. Things have definitely changed and momentum is with our city right now.
ROB: Got that Atlanta to Indy connection with Pardot and Salesforce and all that. We appreciated ExactTarget as well. It was good for our ecosystem.
ROB: Thanks so much, Brian. Good to have you on. Be well.
BRIAN: Likewise. Thank you again.
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