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.
Early advertising, Jamie says, “was much more informational” than today. As advertising evolved, information had to be packaged with some entertainment and hooks to get people’s attention. The agency adapted and grew through that transitional period.
Today, at 92 years old, the still independent, family-owned full-service agency focuses on communications, planning and strategy, research, design, advertising heavily, retail, events, mobile, social, and “moving our clients’ businesses forward.” Jamie says, “All that history doesn’t mean we know everything. It teaches you to question everything.”
He then describes his agency as “a team of around 40 people” . . . with “new ideas, new media, new ways of communicating” – “quietly making noise with purpose” – to keep the focus on the client.
Initially, Jamie wanted no part of his family’s business. A few internships changed his mind. Today two of his sisters run groups of accounts in the agency. Jamie’s third sister, the fourth sibling, went to law school and serves as a federal judge.
In this interview, Jamie discusses in depth the mindsets, tools, attitudes, and strategies SMZ has used to survive so many years and how an agency changes as it is passed down through the generations. Jamie says the first generation, the founders, the creators, tend to stay involved. The second generation had to wrest control from the founders. The transition from second to third generation has been much smoother. The long-term plan is to keep the agency going as a legacy business.
Jamie says the agency business can be all-consuming. He has found it important to take time from day-to-day client servicing “to think about the future, the visioning, the structure, the governance, all that.” A second tip he offers is that companies need to codify and write down their values.
Driving out to his employees’ homes to deliver packages of information made Jamie aware of some of his employees’ beastly commutes. He says his intention going forward is to be flexible . . . in a number of ways. That flexibility has probably contributed greatly to his agency’s “long life.”
Jamie can be reached on his agency’s website at: smz.com, where visitors can find the agency’s blog, and Jamie’s Generation Excellence podcast, which explores generational family businesses. SMZ Advertising is also on all of the social platforms.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Jamie Michelson. He is the President and CEO of SMZ Advertising based in Troy, Michigan. Welcome to the podcast, Jamie.
JAMIE: Thank you for having me, Rob. I’m really looking forward to our conversation.
ROB: It’s exciting to have you here. Why don’t you start us off with an introduction to SMZ? Tell us about the firm and any key metrics, any key focuses, key verticals. Go for it.
JAMIE: People like to talk about the elevator pitch; our agency is located on the first floor of the building, so it’s more of a “walk in the door” pitch. I guess I would start with very few things survive 92 years, let alone biologically or in business. It’s something to remember, something to know. At SMZ Advertising, we’re proud of that length of time of operation. I’m proud of our long-term and enduring relationships with our clients.
But it’s kind of like all that history doesn’t mean we know everything. It teaches you to question everything. We say we remain an independent, family-owned, creatively driven, full-service – and we like to go, “accent on the full” – agency doing work in communications, planning and strategy, research, design, advertising (heavily), retail, events, mobile, social, and more. We’re a team of around 40 people, moving our clients’ businesses and then ours forward. New ideas, new media, new ways of communicating.
Our theme for our agency, if you will, our own headline, is what we call “quietly making noise with purpose.” There’s a tension between quiet and noise. Really, it’s about the spotlight shining on our clients and being humble about ourselves and very focused on them.
ROB: How does that propagate out to a client campaign? Does that echo into their campaigns, where there’s a “speak softly and carry a big stick” mentality in that as well? Or do they get to be a little bit more boisterous?
JAMIE: There’s all these books out there about filtering through the noise, avoid the noise, ignore the noise. Yet we are trying to make appropriate levels of noise, and strategic noise. I feel that our approach to it – and this goes back to roots – I’m part of a third generation of a family business where there’s a strong belief in likeability. You do business with brands you like and people you like. And it’s not namby-pamby likeability; it’s not love or “lovemarks,” but it’s just that someone likes you and they might buy what you’re selling. So, we want people to really like the work we’re doing and the brand and the business. Especially with so much choice and so much competition.
ROB: We don’t normally jump so quicky to the origin story here, but 92 years is a little bit of something. We are talking about quite a long time ago. We are talking about a Great Depression era business. What is the background here? Was it always something we would call an ad agency, or was it even something different in that regard?
JAMIE: It’s a great question. It’s a pretty neat story. Clearly, the world doesn’t look like it did in 1929. We’re faster and global and colorful and we know a lot more. But the origin was a gentleman who was my grandfather and a partner. When you talk to newer agencies, oftentimes it’s a partnership. A couple people have a dream, a vision. One’s a business guy, one’s an artist or creative.
Their early work was what we would today call ad kits. It was the artwork for jewelers. Jewelry stores, jewelry retailers around North America. There was no digital way to distribute that. There wasn’t even FedEx to deliver it. It wasn’t even Slicks, for those who go back to those in the early print/design ways. It was packages that were sent with art that became print, catalogue, even newspaper, and that got them into some jewelers as retailers and the roots of a retail agency. This is a Detroit-based company.
It was actually, weirdly, software as a service. It was subscription as a service. These people were buying this package each month so they could promote and showcase jewelry. And along came layaway and credit and these innovations in retail and business that they were a part of, and then moving that into outdoor and radio and the whole explosion of media.
ROB: Wow. Thinking about that, how are you distributing what goes into outdoor advertising on potentially a distributed basis? It’s more about a package and a solution than it is about hours and the hour trap.
JAMIE: They talked about getting that package out, because it was very calendar-driven, time-driven. Sleeping around the agency on cots and stuff to make the deadlines. Again, what’s old is new. But the idea that in the earlier roots of advertising, stuff was much more informational, and then you started to get into the beginning of having to package that information with some entertainment, some other hooks to get people to pay attention to it. It was really an agency that followed that journey.
I think what it says is – as you talk about COVID years and difficult times the agency’s gone through, there’s certainly some level of resilience in the company that starts in 1929, hits the Great Depression, the stock market crash, world wars, other follow-on wars – there were pandemics, even, in that 90-some years. You don’t assume, “We’re going to make it because we’ve been there,” but there’s something woven into – with brands, we talk about DNA a lot. I think because we’re from Detroit and it’s Motown and whatever, we talk about soul. There’s something in the soul of this agency and its people. It’s hard to describe and find, but it makes us proud of what we did and charging forward.
ROB: When in your upbringing did you become distinctly aware of the business and what it was? I don’t know if you knew it as something your grandfather was involved in, or your dad. When did you start to figure out what it was?
JAMIE: Agency people, we have this role of you do business with who you do business with. If you have a product, you have a service, you support that. Whether they did some work for Pepsi-Cola bottlers or a potato chip company or a restaurant brand, you’re using those clients’ products. One of the cornerstone accounts of the agency in my childhood years was Big Boy Restaurants in what would’ve been their heyday. There were a lot of Sunday night family dinners at the Big Boy, even to the point of my father and his partner, who are the second generation, owning a Big Boy restaurant. I’d get to be back in the kitchen as a high schooler and experience it close-hand.
But with that, I was not running into this business. I grew up around it at the kitchen table and that dinner table at restaurants. “Okay, my grandfather did it, my father did it.” When you’re a teenager, typical is rebellion. You’re going to do the other thing. I wasn’t disinterested, because I understood – I went and studied finance; I was going to be an investment banker, the whole Wall Street thing. I’m still passionate about business. But I didn’t really want things to do with this business until I experienced it firsthand with some internships and through college years and different parts of the business.
Back to that soul thing. It’s definitely in my blood. It’s just absorption. [laughs] So I worked since college at basically three different agencies, independent agencies for the most part. Never client side. A little bit, one weird little thing. But my whole career. That’s what I know, and I’m still fired up about it.
ROB: Did you have siblings that also looked to get involved, did get involved, chose to actually rebel? What is that dynamic?
JAMIE: I have three sisters, so we have four children in the third generation. Two of my sisters are involved in the business, run groups of accounts, and have been very involved with the agency and each had their own path or track into it. And then my third sister, the fourth sibling, went to law school and to a law firm and is a federal judge. That’s what’s fun. We refer to her as the black sheep.
ROB: [laughs] The woman who is a federal judge.
JAMIE: [laughs] Exactly.
ROB: That sketchy business, right?
JAMIE: Yeah. She’s good counsel to the agency because she’s sure learned to ask probing and challenging questions.
ROB: I think there’s probably an interesting season here. It’s interesting that you chose to spend some time getting experience in other businesses. Clearly, the agency had to change. The whole firm went in and out of the golden age of advertising, the kind of Mad Men. How has the firm navigated these shifts of adding services, keeping a sense of identity – that balance of not getting overwhelmed with the shiny and becoming a social media influencer agency exclusively, but also not being mired in – you’re not just broadcasting car dealerships, either.
JAMIE: I think about that all the time, the path. They talk about sins of omission/commission, those things you didn’t do or you passed on those things you did do. We talk a lot about those decisions we made or moves we made where you do them and then you go, “We should’ve done this sooner” versus “Why did we do this at all?”
The things that we’ve done were good moves for the most part. Not a lot of giant blowout mistakes, disasters. I remember stringing phone line to plug into a computer to go through modem sounds, to be on AOL, to have earliest of site stuff. Our URL is SMZ.com, so to have a three-letter URL says you were in it early. But not necessarily going on all things digital. A lot of it has been your clients take you, smoothly or kicking and screaming, into some of these new spaces and areas, or you do it the same way with them.
I think we’ve been open-minded all the time to experiment and try. It’s always changing, like you said, and there’s going to be that next new thing. Don’t get so enamored with the shiny, but don’t get to the “This is how we do it” or “It was better then” or “God, I wish it would slow down and not change.” I refer to myself – you gave my formal title, CEO/President or whatever. I talk about being Chief Agitator. I’ve got to keep the place and myself shaken up a little bit so that we don’t rest and settle.
ROB: Was SMZ a longer name at one point?
JAMIE: The original company was Simons Michelson Company, SM Co. Simons Michelson Zieve for the gentleman, son-in-law of one of the founders, my father’s partner, second gen. And then that got shortened to SMZ, I think for the poor person who had to answer the phone at the front desk all the time, saying that over and over and over again. [laughs]
ROB: What did that transition of you coming into the business – you had some experience from other places; I guess your dad was in charge. What did that transition of generations look like?
JAMIE: The transition from the first generation – and I’m a big student and have a podcast I do called Generation Excellence where I’m focused on other generational businesses and the follow-ons, G2, G3, G4. Not just because HBO does Succession and it’s super dramatic, but it’s a fertile area.
The first generation, they’re the founders, the creators. Those two guys worked, and that’s what they did. They didn’t really retire. They kept involved. The second gen had to wrest control from them a little bit. You’re talking about guys now in their seventies, eighties, whatever it was. The transition from second gen to this third generation was much smoother.
I give my father, Jim Michelson, incredible credit because it is a very hard thing to be in that command chair, be the president, running an agency, and then give away both authority and responsibility and not backtrack. Not jump back in, try to fix stuff if you don’t like how it is. You’re giving up control and letting others go make those mistakes you talked about, make those new moves. He did that and really set a model for me that I have memorized. As we figure out whatever’s next after me – because that’s the plan, the infinite game, keep this going as a legacy business – to be able to do that that same way.
ROB: I interned once upon a time at Chick-fil-A corporate. I was there under the Truett Cathy regime. Truett was there for forever, and then his son Dan comes in, and the window for Dan was much shorter. They’ve transitioned off to the third generation now. It seemed much faster. He seemed very happy to transition it sooner than maybe he did. I don’t know if you’ve looked at what they did and what they’re thinking.
JAMIE: It’s a multiparty thing. And then you’ve got the people who work for the agency, and they’re watching how this goes. You have the clients. It adds a layer on top of any other business when you add this family dynamic to it.
We do have now as a company a formal written policy that next generation family members need to have some successful work experience outside the business, because it is really nice to be able to do what you do not just as a son/daughter of someone who created a business, but on your own merits. Make your own way.
ROB: It’s funny you bring up Succession. I didn’t think about it as you talked about having these four siblings –
JAMIE: It is much less dramatic within our walls and halls.
ROB: But also interesting because you have three siblings. Presumably at least some of you have kids. We’re on video; I can see a picture behind you of a couple of fresh faces.
JAMIE: Yeah, a couple of young adult daughters working out there in the business world in both geography of where they want to be, areas they want to be in – my one daughter works out in Portland, Oregon. She’s been five years at Nike. She’s an engineer. She’s very much involved in sourcing, manufacturing product at scale. So different than what a more boutique agency does where everything is bespoke and one-offs and ideas that you can’t touch. For a lot of businesses, a lot of our clients are marketing the invisible. My other daughter is a business consultant, so more in our space at one of the consulting firms as she finishes business school this year.
They’re making their way. Again, grew up around it at the dinner table, and they know some things. It’s really helpful to have that perspective of what they’re going through. Use of social media, use of digital tools, how they communicate, remote work – every bit of those things as a mini focus group, really.
ROB: Do you even have maybe some nieces or nephews that are also in that leadership pool for the next generation?
JAMIE: Yeah, what they call the “cousins’ consortium” in family business land. The next oldest would be my nephew, who’s 20. He’s in film school. Very talented creative. I think looking to go more out West and be involved in the movie business. It’s still a bit of a journey for him to even join us. So, we have some things to figure out in our transitioning future, which is one of the things that excites me about the coming years of the business part of the business.
ROB: Yeah, absolutely. You’ve done some transition, you’ll see some transition. When you think about your history with SMZ, what are some things you think about as lessons you might tell on to the next generation about maybe what you’d do differently or what they should think about?
JAMIE: We meet probably not regularly – you know that old expression, work on the business/in the business. The agency business can be all-consuming. Your list of things to do can be so filled with serving your clients, and you have to work to take that time to think about the future, the visioning, the structure, the governance, all that. We try to take some time to do that.
In a recent meeting, I had a quote up on the screen from Tallulah Bankhead, an old Hollywood actress. She said, “If I had to live my life again, I’d make the same mistakes, only sooner.” The definite advice I’d give or the thing I’ve learned is, businesses that are longstanding like ours and legacy, when they started out, there wasn’t all this content and advice for startups and podcasts and videos. They were just running a business through the Depression and then going on.
The agency definitely had values, and they are woven into the place. It took us a long time. It was really only recently that we codified those values in writing, where they’re on the wall, where they’re on a sheet, where you share them with everybody at the agency and use that more as how we operate, how we hire, how we put that in front of our clients. That’s not a new idea, that businesses are based on their values, and that as good marketers, you don’t just pick the same six buzzword values that every business has.
But to do that work, to have them be really true to who you are – you mentioned Chick-fil-A. They’re a business that I think their values and their approach – and somewhat controversial sometimes – are so much a part of how they operate and who they are.
ROB: Is there anything in particular that’s happened – you could argue that for some portion of the firm, the values were intrinsic. A lot of firms starting from scratch, the values may be absent. You’ve seen this need to move the values from intrinsic to explicit. What do you think may have changed in your time there and your time in business – is that a necessity now? Has something changed? Or is it just a better way that we understand now to make them more explicit?
JAMIE: Many of us in business have had the good fortune to go to seminars, webinars, conferences. You go to those and there’s a moment, something hot for a moment, you come back, you bring it up all charged up, and then it fades off.
But I did, a few years ago, attend – Family Business has a conference called Transitions. They do it once or twice a year. You’re immersed for a few days with other – these are not all marketing firms. These are just businesses that have that test of time thing to them. The title of their thing was “Values-Based Businesses Are Valuable Businesses.” Example after example was brought up of how these different businesses had used what was true to the values that they were all about to help them not just operate, but grow – whether it was Bigelow Tea, down to the detail of the person whose name is on the teabag inside the box that packaged your product. Kind of like some of the car manufacturers where there’s someone who signs the engine, or one of the parts inside, or the steelworkers sign the last beam highest up. Just to be much more explicit about it.
JAMIE: You see people react well to it and be involved in that process.
ROB: Yeah, that involvement in the process is so key for ownership, for carrying forward. Earlier, you talked about remote distributed work. How has that played into SMZ at this point? How do you think it plays into SMZ moving forward? October 2021, some folks are never going back to the office. Some people are already back in the office full-time. How are you thinking about that dynamic right now?
JAMIE: It’s certainly front, middle, back of mind a lot of the time. I’ll start with our feeling that our physical office we’ve always felt is a competitive advantage. It’s a great box. It’s colorful, it’s alive, it’s well-designed, it’s functional. We like being there. We like working with clients being there. Great.
At the same time, we’ve had some creative people who have worked remotely for 15, 20, 30 years and interacting with people at the agency. We’ve had others who have had all kinds of different flexible schedules and been accommodating that and learning from that. So at least for us, it wasn’t a full 180 or whatever, like maybe for many other businesses. We’re so open right now to the idea of how this is going to work, listening to our people, and using it to hire and fill new positions – which we’re able to do. It’s hard, but hybrid – my next car will probably be a hybrid. We talk about hybrid a lot in other categories and stuff that mashes together.
One of the things that was eye-opening to me was one day I took some packages and delivered them, driveway deliveries, to almost the entire employee list. My wife helped map it out on a map thing. A few of the people I got to, that commute for them, the most outlying spots, the time that they get back if they can have a few of those days where they’re not having to come into the office and can work from home – that’s life-changing. So, we’re going to embrace it.
We went back mid-July to three days in, two days remote, everybody in on Wednesdays, and we had to revert back a little bit to an all-optional in the office mode. So, there’s always somebody in each day, but it’s small groups.
ROB: It seems like the most important thing is to have an intentionality about it. Some of that’s going to be aligned to the culture and the place where you are. It seems to me that somebody around Detroit can work virtual for anyone, but they’ve chosen to be there. I think there’s an extent to which if you’re in digital marketing, if you’re in Detroit, you’ve chosen to be there.
ROB: So, giving people more reasons to be there and to enjoy why they’re there is meaningful and life-giving.
JAMIE: I’m glad you brought up Detroit. We’re a proud Detroit-based business. That’s our roots, physically in the city for 50-some years in operation. A bunch of clients that are Detroit downtown-based, or the whole city. We love our region. Nationally or internationally, it gets some press reviews that aren’t fair and accurate. It’s a great place to live and work. So, there’s that spirit that people have here about our hometown, and we want to have people from here work here and be connected to here.
At the same time, this place is still a community that makes a lot of stuff. Manufactures and builds. Those operations, you can’t do that from your kitchen table. You’ve got to go to those buildings and warehouses. It’s still 30% of people that have this luxury of remote or this tech work, and everybody else has to go to the hospital, go to the school, go to the manufacturing facility, go to the supermarket, do those jobs. That’s going on around us. We’re part of that. We’ll figure it out.
The biggest part for me is – we’re having this meeting right now. It’s virtual. If it were physically in the conference room with a couple clients and you were in there with them, Rob, I might just walk by – our place is a lot of an aquarium. It’s got a lot of glass boxes. [laughs] You can see in most everywhere. Pretty transparent. You see these meetings going on and you can stick your head in and say hi, and you can see clients and you can see people. That’s the biggest miss for me, those little, quick – you just don’t know those things are going on. Not to disrupt them or interrupt them, but just to wave. Just to see that that meeting’s going on. It’s actually uplifting. You see those meetings going on and go, “They don’t need me in there. They’re doing great in there.” [laughs]
ROB: It’s meaningful for you, it’s meaningful for them. It’s meaningful for the client. I don’t know if there’s going to be a client situation –
JAMIE: Clients love getting away and going to the agency. We’ve got a dog running around or somebody’s dog running around. It’s just a different environment.
ROB: It’s going to be hard for them to get on a plane to go to an agency. At some scale, yes, but mostly no.
JAMIE: It’s taking a while. It’s really productions or major things that our people are getting on a plane or those people where, again, you have to be somewhere, versus it would be nice to be there.
ROB: Jamie, when you think about what’s coming up next for SMZ and for the marketing landscape that you’re in the middle of, what are you excited about? What’s next?
JAMIE: We talk about that history and we use that number 92. What got us driven a little bit more a year and a half ago was we embraced a program called EOS, if you’re familiar with it. Entrepreneurial Operating System. We used that. That 100-year milestone is a pretty neat concept/sound. What are we going to smell like, look like, feel like when we get there? I’m really excited about being this smart, steady, scrappy, creative – still creative; I think ideas still matter – growing agency, celebrating that in the right way. Not just “We made it” and it’s a moment, but that whole year should be something, and that should be a stepping stone to what’s next.
So that excites me. I mentioned before, mapping out, going to visit people who work for the agency. That’s what we do for clients. We ask them that question all the time. “Where are you trying to go? What are you trying to be? How do we get there?” We don’t always do it as well for ourselves as marketing firms. So doing that work and doing that visioning. And when you do that and you have goals and you write it down and say how you’re going to get there, you tend to not only get there, you tend to get there faster and even a little better.
The other thing that excites me is I was really caught up or hung up with the trend – and it was real, and we faced it. Clients were in-housing a lot of stuff. This whole great reshuffle of everything that’s going on from where ships are to where chips are to where people are is upsetting that, too, for in-house operations. I think it’s going to yield opportunity for, as your podcast is for, marketing leadership and marketing firms of all shapes and sizes. They’re like, “I can’t get the people to do this,” so now they’ve got to go back to outsourcing and finding folks to help. We’ll certainly going to be there and do that. I hope I’m right on that.
ROB: That’s definitely a tricky wave. Sometimes it’s even very client-specific. I’m usually in Atlanta, and to an extent, the fabled Coca-Cola company is perpetually on one end of the pendulum or the other on in-house, out-of-house. Certainly, macro trends also impact that.
JAMIE: Yeah, there’s that whole thing of get closer to the data. I get that. But when you said growing up around agencies, or my sense of it, that concept of being – we talk about being partnerships or even beyond a partnership with clients, stakeholders and very involved, but still objective outsiders at the same time. That combination can be powerful for client operations. We think we age well with the client relationships. We learn more and we get better.
ROB: Jamie, you mentioned a little bit earlier on the digital real estate, but when people want to find you and find SMZ, where should they go to find you?
JAMIE: It starts with smz.com, which is our website. That also houses our blog and the podcast I do called Generation Excellence, which is for those who are really interested in that very niche-y space of generational family businesses. And then SMZ Advertising is on all of the social platforms, sharing stories of our people, our clients, our work, a little thought leadership, little bit of our fun and things that we do to stay connected, which is a big effort right now inside of work and outside of work. I guess that would probably be about it.
I welcome anyone who wants to reach out to me via the email address on the site, or call me. I’m open to talk about this business. I’m very fortunate to steward a unique and special place, and I want to put my energies against it being successful, but I love helping others.
ROB: Definitely. Congratulations on being 92 going on 100 as a firm. That is exciting.
JAMIE: For those who can’t see me, the firm’s 92. I’m a little bit younger than that.
ROB: [laughs] Yeah. We’ll see what a 100-year-old SMZ looks like. We’ll look forward to that. Jamie, I wish you and the team the best. Thank you for coming on the podcast.
JAMIE: I thank you for having me on this. I like that you blend the individual story and the business story, because they are intertwined and interconnected.
ROB: In this kind of firm, absolutely. They’re inseparable.
JAMIE: Yep. Thanks, Rob.
ROB: Thanks, Jamie. Be well.
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