In this week’s episode, Eric Sugalski speaks about the recent rebranding process that took his company from Boston Device Development to Smithwise. We examine the nuances of rebranding in practice and discuss best practices. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
The post Rebranding in the Real World: Eric Sugalski, Founder and President of Smithwise appeared first on Finch Brands.
In this week’s episode, Carter Weiss and Frank Lin of Silas Capital explain how they leverage strong brands and storytelling to grow the businesses in which they invest. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
The post Investing in the Brand – Carter Weiss and Frank Lin, Silas Capital appeared first on Finch Brands.
In this week’s episode of the Real-World Branding podcast, we host Deborah Fine, who’s successful career includes executive roles building and managing brand-first organizations like PINK, Avon, and Modell’s Sporting Goods. In this episode, we look at how omnichannel marketing is changing the way brands communicate with consumers. If you like out podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
The post Omnichannel Observations: Deborah Fine – CEO, Board Member, and Private Equity Consultant appeared first on Finch Brands.
In this week’s episode, we sit down with Josh Rosen, VP of Brand Strategy at Finch Brands and master of all things digital, to review Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends Report. Among the trends she highlights, we cover those that are most pertinent to brands and businesses including, the rise of voice search, increasing movement back to brick and mortar, consumer device preferences, and many others. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Bill: Greetings, one and all, this is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premiere boutique branding agency, and this is One Big Idea. This week, we’re going to talk about, and we’re certainly not the first to talk about it – it’s become a pretty big deal every year, which is the Internet Trends Report.
Mary Meeker, formerly of Morgan Stanley, I think, and now, of course, of Kleiner Perkins, a preeminent analyst and venture capitalist, comes out once a year with this trend report. It’s been out in the last couple weeks; it’s dense; it’s two hundred some slides in a deck. It’s covering the world of technology from a lot of different angles. In order to extract some of the wisdom for brand builders and marketers from this, we’re bringing Josh Rosen to bear today. Josh, welcome.
Josh Rosen: Hello.
Bill: Josh is Vice President of Brand Strategy at Finch Brands. He comes to us after – and you can talk a bit about it – but the start of a career at Campbell Soup in a more traditional brand role, moved to Anheuser-Busch on the brand side, but moved quickly into digital for Budweiser and other brands. Then, even went further into the realm of 0’s and 1’s, at Amazon, a little brand some folks may have heard of in Seattle.
So we’re lucky to have him both at Finch and with us today. Josh, feel free to weave in any back story as we talk through this. We tasked Josh with the feat of extracting a couple of nuggets from here and from Mary Meeker’s report that we thought would be of particular interest to folks in our audience who are thinking about building businesses and brands with regard, specifically, for technology use.
Anything, Josh, that off the top caught your eye. We’re kind of the Cliff Notes folks here. I’d love to hear your overall take.
Josh: Sure. Well, you know, it’s always a fun report for me to read. I was a brand manager, self-taught digital, but was able to move in that world and really experience it. I’ve always found that a lot of the benefit of technology, really as a consumer or as a marketer, is very early on. You get a lot more surplus if you’re in on something, and a lot more benefit before it becomes saturated and busy.
This is always a report I look forward to. I think the big thing that jumped out – she always gives the global statistics on how big the Internet’s growing. This year it’s actually starting to slow down a little bit.
Bill: You think it’s going to catch on, the Internet?
Josh: The Internet?
Bill: I know a little bit about that. Yeah.
Josh: I think it’s got some potential, yeah. The Internet, mobile, all that stuff, there’s something there. The big theme that she really took some time on was the idea of voice search.
I think a lot about talking to robots really, and the Amazon Echo success of this past year – contrasting that to smartphones which are now a mature market. It used to be every year; it was all about smartphone penetration how it was growing in India, growing in China. It was going to eclipse the Internet – mobile is above fifty percent.
Now, mobile, still underspent as the report pointed out, marketers still have an opportunity there, but now those sort of devices, in the traditional way we thought about mobile, is changing and the Internet of Things is coming. One of the key features of that is this voice activated search notion.
She made some pretty big statements in terms of really how far she felt voice search could go and alluded to the idea of it getting to something like Echo getting to the level of an Amazon, or of Apple, or things like that.
Bill: That would be amazing. When we think about already seeing some consumer applications for voice, we’re in a Comcast area and the X1 remote, a big push for them around voice activated commands on your remote control. We certainly have that already with Apple TV and with some other things.
Any kind of, again rapidly coalescing here, but words of wisdom around possibilities for brands in that world? There’s noted, the earlier you get somewhere the more of a pioneer you are, obviously, potentially, the greater the benefit. What does this all mean for those who do what we do?
Josh: I haven’t actually been involved with trying to get in there, but I think Google and Android came out, and they mentioned in the report that one in five searches is now done via voice. I think it’s about getting ahead of it and making sure your content, and your mobile applications, and anywhere that people can interact with your brands, really making sure that you’re ready and that your content is optimized and you’ve got content that is useful.
The brands that I think hopped on Alexa, the Echo platform early and built skills for it that are getting some good attention. Domino’s built a pizza ordering app; Uber built an app. It’s gotten mixed reviews, but those brands are getting a disproportionate amount of attention. Again, that surplus, it is a messy marketplace on there right now, but there’s a few brands jumping out that are able to capture way more.
Just like when smartphones first came out, there were a few brands that were early into apps and really built themselves on being there first.
Bill: That’s interesting you say that because when it comes to being early, it seems like there may be a couple levels of benefit for brands. One is actually, obviously, the transactions that you can do using these new methods of communication. Beyond that, given how much coverage there is of these spaces and of technology, it seems like this is a way to burnish an innovation reputation, even if there are comparatively few eyeballs, or in this case, voice boxes that are being activated and pursued of interaction. It seems like there may be perceptual, as well as, business driven benefits.
Josh: Yeah. I think as you’re looking at your P&L, you have to think about it as much as, ‘Are you going to get your dollars back for it because this will take off?’ Or, ‘Could this be a PR thing that continues to brand you as an innovative brand?’
Domino’s is a great example of a brand who you can order via tweet; you can order pizza a gagillion different ways. They’ve really tried to put themselves at the forefront of whatever comes out. Generally, for most brands, that’s a favorable place to be.
Bill: Yeah, no question. One of the other things you mentioned that I thought was interesting, there was a little bit of a, contradiction is not the right word, but Meeker said in her report and you underlined that, because of the growth of smartphones tapping out, she still does believe that mobile media is underspent, but at the same time she made a strong point of warning that a lot of online advertising, especially video, is ineffective at this point.
We see so many brands but also media companies rushing towards video as a way to be differentiated and as a way to break through, take advantage of the fact that we want to consume media in a slightly new way. How do you help us untangle what seems to be a blurry, messy type of situation?
Josh: Well, she highlights in the report the leader who she feels like is doing video well right now, which is Snapchat. Best I can tell, and really the struggle with online video, is making it not interruptive for people.
Bill: Right, right.
Josh: That’s going to be a little bit of a sociological kind of learned thing, but you also have to think through the consumer’s experience, and where they want to see your ads, and what’s going to be interruptive versus what’s going to be complimentary to what they’re doing. That’s what’s really created the native ad marketplace and content marketing because people don’t just want to have a pure interruptive ad, like they do on TV.
They’re looking to integrate. I think this underscores it, but you also have to think about the different form factors you’re operating on. Snapchat has done a great job of creating a video ad format that is optimized for their app and is optimized for mobile. Which is an increasingly hard place to do any sort of video advertising because on the iPhone it takes up the whole screen.
Josh: On Google, it’s kind of playing small, but it’s not the type of place. You’re very one to one with the person; they’re pretty focused. We used to talk about this, with TV, there’s ‘lean back’ and ‘lean forward.’ If you’re on your mobile phone, you are leaning forward – it’s a fairly active activity compared to if you’re watching TV, you can zone out if a commercial comes on and things.
You really have to consider the form factor, as well as, just the experience of what getting your ad is like, so you can do well and obviously use targeting. The thing that’s come up that’s interesting is for a long time Facebook has thought of itself in a very dual nature. They have amazing targeting capabilities and great ability to target people, but now they’re getting to the point with some big brands in certain things where they have scale if somebody wants to pay. You have to really try to think about targeting and using targeting smartly. Maybe on some of the bigger platforms, even though it may be tempting, not necessarily throwing yourself in there unless you feel like you have a meaningful piece of content to share with consumers.
Josh: Yeah. We also don’t necessarily get charged if they skip it too quickly. It’s a pretty big challenge. What I always used to say was, the two tragedies of digital marketing, one is having great content without enough media spend, or having lots of media spend with no content.
I think you really have to balance the spending, and the problem is that content on most marketer’s budgets is still looked at as non-working. It’s still not something that you can tie an ROI to. The media is what gets the ROI, so it makes it challenging and that’s why you’ve seen a lot of media companies come in and start promoting content creation for brands, because it’s that dual spend where it doesn’t look like an eyesore on the P&L.
Bill: Sure. It also maybe has some built in – at least the theory goes that, the content creators, on the publisher side have built in – they coalesce with the voice in a way that maybe your agency may not be able to do that quickly, but again, it remains to be seen. I think to Mary Meeker’s point, there’s a lot of ineffective both structural and content based deployment of video and other mobile platforms.
The future, it seems, of the media is dependent in part upon nailing this. It will be fascinating. These are a couple of great ones when it comes to tactical marketing and being ahead. Here’s one that Meeker underlined that I think certainly has big brain development applications, and that is this continual blurring of the lines between products, and brands, and retailers.
As you mentioned, we were talking about this before, you have obviously traditional retail became e-commerce, but now you’ve seen e-commerce companies like Warby Parker going in the other direction or opening stores.
Amazon’s even opening stores. We have some clients in our base who will remain nameless, who have done that. ThinkGeek is a client we can name, who after being acquired by GameStop, now they’re opening stores. Again, what to make of all this, what should brand developers be feeling or thinking about when it comes to the fact that the channel is a lot more about blobs than straight lines today than it used to be.
Josh: Yeah. You are much more responsible for the relationship with the consumer across a lot more touch points than you’ve ever been. If you think about it what the Web has enabled, I come from grocery side mainly, but it was product locators at first and just being able to find your product, and that being an expectation and a potential disappointment for a consumer. All the way to now, the expectation that I could buy my product direct from you and you could ship it to me, and that being an expectation.
You just have a lot more responsibility on a lot of different places. For a lot of companies, they’re going to have to either figure out the right way to do it internally and take some hard time or find the right partners to do it with, recognizing that brands across all these different channels you may not be cut out to run all of them directly. You may have to partner with somebody who knows how to do it a little bit better. It’s important that you take the time to think about it.
Being able to build a store and build it in a way that your whole business doesn’t rely on it because you’re not a brick and mortar store, you’re mainly e-commerce, allows you to better express your brand. It also helps you perhaps look more innovative and create a really powerful experience that somebody who owns five hundred stores, and is totally reliant on them, can’t necessarily bet down and invest as much in the experience.
Bill: It’s fascinating because if you think about one of the net effects of this, for branding people has to do with the word you used, which is experience. The expectation of experience in an e-commerce domain versus that of physical retail versus all the stuff that’s in-between, that’s connective tissue there. It places a significant onus on let’s take native e-commerce and now moving to retail.
This is not the way they’ve thought about business development, periodically or historically. Whether that’s the importation of certain traditional skillsets or whether it is re-envisioning the role of retail, when you’re going in that backward direction, it definitely forces these companies probably to use some muscles that they maybe hadn’t used as much in the growth of their business.
Interestingly, we see though, in some cases at least, the trend moving from the Web into brick-and-mortar, that reverse, whatever we’d want to call it. The decision is made that in some ways these stores, if we want to call them, are almost physical homepages. These aren’t high inventory; these aren’t big exhaustive product experiences.
I’m not sure what their financial expectations are, but in some ways, this is the true definition of flagship retail. This is not about product depth, but it’s about getting people in a smaller format to experience the brand live and in some cases you can transact and not carry bags home. You’re doing it in an act that it’s delivered to you.
It’s retail, but it’s almost extending the brand. It’s almost not sales channels, as it is another instrument of e-commerce traffic and experience. It’s fascinating stuff.
Josh: Yeah. I think everybody since Apple has done what they did in the retail space has been chasing that. The huge lines outside the store, the passion, the experience, really what they were able to deliver – every e-commerce player and really marketer, in general. I’ve been to all sorts of iterations of people. I think Comcast has some high end stores in the area and things. I’ve been to an AT&T store where they have concepting.
Bill: I think Microsoft has a small number of them.
Josh: Yeah, Microsoft. Everybody’s chasing having that experience and that power through delivery where it’s just, to your point, it is another form of marketing or just almost the store’s existence itself is an experiment in real-world marketing that amidst all the digital chaos, all the fragmentation of media can really break through, especially in major metros.
Bill: It’s the literal definition of showrooming. We used to say, “Showrooming is when people would browse around the store, then they’d do buy it online, on Amazon.’ It certainly happens, but as opposed to what an auto dealership does, where they showroom – they have just a brand experience with some product exposure, and they have those lots out back if you want to drive something home – but it really is about experience. It’s about the atmospherics. It’s about the aesthetic. Even if it isn’t about piling every single SKU in there and having the warehouse out back that people go back.
Really interesting stuff, I think maybe we stop there and hopefully we’ve wet the appetite a little bit. This is a really, every year, a profound deliverable by Mary Meeker, both in its size, as well as, in its scope, and everything else. It obviously gives us a lot to chew on, I think, when it comes to, certainly our client work.
It’s very situational in terms of what lessons are applied, but it is a good way to track how the industry is changing, and growing, and being shaped, and shaping all that happens in terms of how consumers act and behave. Any closing thoughts, sir?
Josh: No. I think reports like this, and just keeping up on the change, and consumer media and technology habits, as a marketer, as a brand manager, it’s absolutely essential. Her report is a great example, when you look at all the comparisons from 2010, from 2005, and how much things have shifted.
I was shocked to see that now the internet is accurate, at least the desktop, the non-mobile version is now at spend, which years ago, five years ago, it was nowhere near that. There was always that gap. Now, it’s just mobile at this point. I think it tells you, just the extent of the shift and the importance of just really keeping that lifelong learning curiosity throughout your career and keeping up with stuff like this.
Bill: No doubt. Josh Rosen, VP Brand Strategy, student of the game, lover of all things brand, and digital, and everything else. Thank you for your insight and for your time.
Josh: My pleasure.
In this Bonus episode, Bill reflects on the life and legacy of the late Muhammad Ali through a brand and marketing lens. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all, Real-Word Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency. This is One Bonus Idea. We do typically one specific topic in the branding world and the art of business building in every off week between the interviews that we do with brand and business builders. However, I think today and in general we want to get into the habit of opining on topics or referencing topics almost like a blog would, as they arise.
Of course, the world is talking about the passing of Muhammad Ali, the icon, the legendary heavyweight champion – this world figure, humanitarian figure, who passed this weekend. I think we wanted to do a couple minutes of recollection of how Ali may have crossed our path. Think a little bit about his legacy and maybe there’s a takeaway in there for marketers. I know there definitely is.
The most fundamental way in which Ali crossed Finch Brands’ path was when we were doing the rebranding process with Everlast. When we began our work with Everlast, it was not a ‘rebranding’ and these are the specific deliverables that we need to have. It was more a case of ‘what do we do now?’ There were various conditions in the business that made that an appropriate time to give some thought to it. One of the things that was a challenge that has so largely been surmounted, or at least was in the intervening years, was this transition from a brand that had 80% market share in boxing, but boxing was not growing fast. But 80% market share.
How do you transition into a fully articulated athletic lifestyle brand while at the same time maintaining that core strength and credibility in boxing? The brand had been around for over a century. It was called The Choice of Champions. The reason that Ali was so fundamental to that was I spent probably a day scouring his quotations and reading the various things that he’d written or had been written about him. We were thinking in some ways who could be best symbolic for Everlast of that transition from being a very narrow boxing brand to something that was larger and more significant beyond just that one application.
Ali is archetypical of that. He was somebody who was a champion, obviously, and has identified with his sport of boxing but became larger, deeper; he was more broadly defined and more broadly understood. As we were thinking about ways to express the ideas that we were building into the Everlast brand, we discovered that it isn’t just about the specific physicality of boxing but it’s more about the spirit.
The data that we were receiving from global research was that while most people weren’t ever going to do anything related to boxing specifically in their training or their athletic life. There had been some momentum around cardio kickboxing, there had been some momentum around principles of boxing, but this brand really needed to understand and stand for what consumers identified as the spirit – what we began to call the ‘Everlast ethos.’
What boxing was all about was not just about hitting somebody, but it was about individuality. It was about authenticity. It was about a set of attributes that Ali really embodied. When we rebuild the vision and mission to make it more broadly applicable to whether it was somebody who was interested in boxing, but also what about that person running their first 5K? In many ways, we sought to lay claim to the training space, long before Reebok ever did it, on behalf of the Everlast brand.
The emergent vision and mission was to unleash strength and determination in every individual. Again, about fighting perhaps, but fighting is not narrowly defined through a specific physicality. Then as we went to develop the tagline there was – I don’t believe this phrase was actually Ali’s, but obviously you’ll recognize the echoes of it in him – the tagline became ‘Greatness is Within.’ Obviously, Ali spoke a lot about being the greatest and a lot about what greatness meant. We were very inspired to connect that idea of greatness to an inward sense of self and developing level of energy and accomplishment and aggression.
Really reacquainting oneself with Ali, not only his major fights, but also what he meant during that process was fascinating and really rich for me. Ali’s legacy, however, is complicated in some ways. Obviously in the aftermath of a death, especially someone as beloved and well known as Ali, there are these tributes. It would be bad form to be negative, and I don’t certainly seek to be negative here at all, but he has a complicated legacy. Ali was a deeply polarizing figure all the way back to his refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War, his strong association and outwards expression of black nationalism and the Nation of Islam, and everything else.
Ali had a very unstable family life in addition. And as a Philadelphian, a lot of us, I think, can’t get by, at least not fully by, the way that he treated Joe Frazier. Particularly in the run up to their first fight, but across the trilogy. Joe was not in any way up to the verbal sparring and consequently, Ali just rained down epithets on Frazier. He was an ‘Uncle Tom’; he was a ‘gorilla’; he was a ‘tool of white America.’
Ali was ever the hype man. It was positioning, probably largely positioning that fight as a match between Ali who was a reflection of the so-called ‘angry black man’ and was really rallied around by the counter culture at the time, both in the African American community and beyond. Naturally, the positioning of that fight had to make Frazier the ‘tool of the establishment.’ That led to a lot of adjectives that we wouldn’t tolerate today, frankly. I think it embittered, at least I’ve read, embittered Frazier for the rest of his life.
Anyway, incredibly complicated legacy. But today and this week, what you’re hearing appropriately is a tremendous amount of praise, both for Ali the man and the athlete, but also his historical and cultural significance. That led me to think a little bit about why, given how polarizing he was across his life, has he become almost universally revered at this point. It wasn’t just being positive from when someone’s passed away that has led to this out pouring. It’s deeply felt, and it is authentic.
In recent years, there was no backlash against Ali. Ali was an enduring, central, iconic, world-wide figure who was really, really beloved. Couple reasons that I think at least, just one guy talking, about why this went from polarity to near universal acclaim and love.
One is that in our culture, cool is king. By that, I mean that the experience of Ali, the way he dressed, the way he looked, the way he spoke, overwhelms whatever inconvenient truths may exist in terms of whether he was as nice as he always could be, whether he was a great family man, whatever. We didn’t care. We embraced him as historical and even a present day figure, because he was just a bad ass. He was awesome. He had an edge. He was so cool to listen to and to watch.
When We Were Kings, when you watch the documentary, you could just see the richness of Ali, the cultural meaningfulness of Ali. It’s like in some ways we watched Madmen because we love just the aesthetic of that time, even if the characters were horrible in terms of the things they did. I’m not comparing Ali to that in any way, but the Ali aesthetic was just so meaningful. In some ways, you see the bravado and the style, modern day hip hop is an expression of that, one mainstream through the culture. Ali was, I don’t know this much about a style of music, but Ali’s aesthetic was just so rich. That’s one thing.
Secondly, just practically speaking, so called subversives or counter culture folks are really now in charge of a lot of institutions in America, from academia to the media, etc. When people came of age during a time like that, and they were of a very similar mind to Ali at the time, these people are now almost dominant communicators in our culture.
The folly or tragedy of the Vietnam War is generally accepted in a way that it certainly wasn’t when Ali was refusing to be drafted. Ali’s views on race at the time were radical and threatening. They’ve been largely mainstreamed now. At least, many of them have been. We see his actions throughout his life, from the draft and well beyond, as acts of immense courage rather than subversion. They were clearly acts of courage at the time. They were deeply felt. He gave up a ton in his time for standing up for what he believed in.
But when we look at them in the rear view mirror and we look at them when what he was railing against or protesting against has fallen very, very deeply out of favor in the US, and has been, as Reagan said about the Soviets, ‘in the ash bin of history,’ what the domino theory and Robert McNamara and pro Vietnam perspectives. That is not to say there aren’t folks who still considered Ali to be very polarizing, but the balance of power has shifted. What seemed to be very subversive at the time is largely accepted to be true today. Ali was somebody who was respected for being early to many of those topics and fights.
I think lastly his illness and all that it sapped from him made him a sympathetic figure in recent years, being limited as he was, having borne a terrible physical price for what he did so well to entertain us and his boxing career, etc. His illness and his bearing as he did with great dignity, by the way, with his illness, sanded down some of his rough edges. It removed from his persona some of the anger that had been there. It invited sympathy, either visually or actually. Ali seemed mellower. You couldn’t help but be, when you’re as under the control of an illness in the way that Ali was.
But it was clear the spark was still in his eye. He interacted so touchingly with children and with others. I think there’s very little doubt that that was the real man, but at the same time the sight of this man, afflicted as he was, yet still finding the ability to frown his face and take that fighting stance with kids or with others, was just heartbreaking and affirming to watch.
There are a couple reasons why I think the reference for Ali has become almost universal. The best rule for branding here is that, like Ali, and I’m not speaking in a personal branding, endorsed products type of way, but taking inspiration from the texture that Ali was and expressed. The best brands are truly 3 dimensional, and they are deep, rich, and authentic. They have shape and form; they have emotion in addition to reason.
To truly become a brand versus just being a product or a collection of products, one needs to or can benefit from understanding how Ali became not just a boxer but an icon. He wore his values on his sleeve. There were all kinds of content about him that was beyond just, ‘Here’s how you throw a left hook,’ or, ‘Here’s how you rope a dope.’ He certainly had excellence, almost transcendent excellence in his core, which was that of being a warrior.
We find brands that succeed obviously need to be excellent in their core. They need to have content that surrounds them beyond just what they sell and the specifics of those products. They need to have their values outwared for all to see and understand, and they need to consistently live up to those values. Ali did all of those things.
Those are key lessons we’ve been talking about on this podcast for a year. They’re perhaps the most important Ali related takeaway for marketers, is how you transcend what you make into being known for what you are, which includes what you make but transcends what you make. Farewell, Muhammad Ali, pugilist, humanitarian, warrior in and out of the ring, larger than life personality. May he rest in peace. He will certainly always be remembered. We’ll sign off from the Cradle of Liberty.
Ray Carballada, a media, content, and advertising executive, shares the ways that content is shaping how brands communicate and shares insight into what the future of content may look like. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Ray Carballada: Quality when it comes to video content is a commodity, people don’t buy quality anymore. Really the value now on the content side is in the idea and the creative, and that’s really where all the value is.
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency. Thank you for joining us. A little bit of housekeeping before we get to our interview with Ray Carballada. Three ways to help us here at Real World Branding; one of which is to subscribe in the app store of your choice and make sure you do not miss an episode.
The second is to provide your input on Twitter or Facebook or anything else. We really enjoy the dialogue about guests and topics, and it’s been a lot of fun. One of the most fun things I think about doing this podcast has been the dialogue with folks who are enjoying it and have really good ideas about it.
Then third thing, again if we’ve earned it, is to give us a rating in the store of your choice, we understand that not only does that make us feel good, it helps make sure that others who would enjoy this are able to find it as they search.
Today’s guest is Ray Carballada. Ray is an entrepreneur and a strategist, a manager at the intersection of creativity and business growth. He’s a bold face name in the Philadelphia landscape and has been for quite a while. Most recently, Ray spent the last four years as President and CEO of Alkemy X and before that was President and COO. Eighteen years total helping transform a sleepy organization called Shooters Post and Transfers into, and through the re-branding process, to become Alkemy X. A real leader in content creation and in production, and Ray is certainly going to speak about that as well as the role of content today, as well as his own career path. Enjoy Ray Carballada.
Bill: We’re here with Ray Carballada. Thank you so much for joining us.
Ray: Thanks for asking me.
Bill: It’s our pleasure. If we could start, and it’s a fascinating story I’m sure, with a bit about your journey, most recently eighteen years building what is now known as Alkemy X and a lot before and a lot betwixt and between, could you take us through your path?
Ray: Sure. I guess it’s easiest to start at the beginning, I’ll start there.
Bill: Go for it.
Ray: I’m a Still Photo major, I went to RIT for photography and did some other things while I was there but took a lot of business classes and some other things. Then decided to work in Danville, Pennsylvania at the Geisinger Foundatio versus a job offer that I had in New Orleans to be a journalist photographer. Because Geisinger was going to pay for me to go graduate school and I wanted that.
Bill: That’s not so bad.
Ray: I think that made that decision and when I went to night school, I worked full time and got my graduate degree in business from Bucknell.
Ray: Yes. Some of that was I just that I knew I wanted to be in the creative business but I wanted to be in the business of being in a creative business. Then I got recruited to work at a startup in Washington DC. It was a video startup of a major printing company and what I didn’t realize was that the guy that hired me and the company was about a month or two old, the third month he was gone.
Bill: Figure it out, right?
Ray: Exactly. It went well other than there were some challenges where they had a big sales staff trying to sell video, and selling printing and selling video work and creative content is very different. Needless to say, I learned how to sell when I was there which was very valuable in my career going forward.
The company was doing okay. We were very successful selling printing and video combinations to high schools and some other stuff like that. I got a phone call out of the blue from a headhunter about a job at Campbell’s, running their internal media department. I spoke with my father who is still a big mentor of mine and he said, ‘You’re young, having a Fortune 100 Company on your resume is not a bad thing.’
I came up, talked to them, and it was a really interesting challenge in that they were still primarily an analog department but they wanted to move into digital. There was a guy there that was retiring after thirty-five years then I was going to be taking his place, and it was a great. I decided to take the job, and it was one of the best things that I did for a lot of reasons. I learned about design and graphics and printing and digital photography and all that stuff. I learned about a lot of that stuff when it was so new that nobody really knew whether or not you were doing it right or wrong which was good.
I also ended up working very closely with the C-Suite executives because my department managed all the events including all of the Wall Street presentations and board meetings and things. The culture there was really interesting because the executive at the time was a self-made boy from an Australian farm. He was very open and willing to talk to me about his presentations, and it ended up being a really good partnership. I really learned a lot about business, and I think he learned an awful lot about messaging and audiences and communication at the time.
Bill: Forgive me for interrupting … This was the mid 90s, this was when everything was happening in terms of the internet. Did you find an organization that large maybe had aspirations to understand digital but because of their resources were they faster than others or because of their heritage were they slower?
Ray: Much slower.
Bill: That makes sense.
Ray: They were using slides when I got there.
Ray: You have no idea.
Ray: Also that’s a great opportunity too. If you go into a place that really needs a lot of work then it’s a good opportunity for you. I consolidated purchasing and some other stuff and ended up with a fairly large department a few years later and one of the consulting firms … I’m not going to mention which one … comes in and essentially does a restructuring and my department goes down to three people pretty much in two weeks, overnight. Because the thought was, ‘Well, if we just cut all these, then all these expense will go away.’ Needless to say majority of that stuff was all negotiated contracts and things like that. In my mind, we were saving the money but they ended up putting it all back after I left.
I was planning on somewhat staying and then three guys that ran a company named Shooters at the time which was a Campbell’s vendor of mine approached me because I think they thought I was potentially losing my job. Their company had been around for fifteen years, got a few million dollars in sales but hadn’t really been able to scale it since then. I decided, ‘Well, let’s go ahead and take a shot.’
I did that and there was a lot of opportunity at the time and a lot of potential. We were able to really start growing the company by expanding them out of primarily crewing services into advertising then after that moving into Downtown and expanding into television and visual effects and some other things.
A lot of those things were done to diversify so that we weren’t so heavily based in advertising but also when you’re trying to scale a company with just cash flow, because we did that by business development and cash flow, and we didn’t have any outside money coming in. You have to figure out how to leverage your assets. If you think about all those things, there’s a percentage that overlaps, whether or not it’s engineering, servers, administrative, or whatever. It allowed us to scale the company fairly quickly up until 2008 when the recession occurred.
Basically the company really changed almost overnight when film went away. A lot of it buried entries to the post-production business and primarily went away and the industry changed a lot. We expanded into New York and did some other things to mitigate that but coming out of the recession, you need to be in a very different place in the media business and transitioning into that is hard for a lot of companies. Alkemy X was on the path, in my mind, to do that.
We talked about it a little bit before we started with the mics. My contract was up for renewal, and I was already thinking about, ‘Maybe it was time for a change.’ Through that negotiating process, it became clearer that it was. Now I’m out playing golf.
Bill: Without the mobile phone you said. What a blessed emancipation.
Ray: I’m talking to a lot of people, and I’m actually having a really good time. I’m doing some consulting. It’s interesting in that a lot of the consulting I’m doing has nothing to do with the media business. I’m working with a toy company right now, and I’m having fun.
Bill: Terrific. You realized fairly early it sounds like. You, as noted, were in undergrad at RIT focused on photography but pretty quickly it seems like the business side of the creative world grabbed you. Did you always have both sides of the brain working or was there a moment when it became clear?
Ray: I think it goes back before that, both my parents’ families were very poor. My father was very successful in the banking industry as an English major. My favorite thing was to sit around at the Thanksgiving table with my dad and my uncle and stuff, and they would just talk about business and I would just love to sit there and watch them. I thought that they really knew what they were doing. I realized much later that there was a lot of wine involved at that point.
Bill: Stories got inflamed a little bit.
Ray: I really enjoyed doing that. I had a paper route when I was twelve; I would cut lawns; I did everything I possibly could. Actually part of that motivation was for whatever reason I wanted a camera. I bought a regular SLR camera. It was my first camera that I bought and my grandmother really encouraged me. My mom thought it was a bad idea of course but my grandmother was like, ‘You know, that might actually lead to something, why don’t you go out and buy that?’ I’ve been doing that ever since. I’ve been always involved with some business or helping somebody with his/her business.
I think I always wanted to be on that side of things and things have changed a little bit, but I was in the creative companies for a lot of the time and actually there’s still probably a good percentage from there that aren’t really run by businesses. That means that if you can run your creative company like a business, you have a competitive advantage over the ones that aren’t.
Bill: It’s a distinctive executive profile that you bring for that reason, and I would imagine the big skews in the direction are being run by creatives in a way that’s a little bit peripatetic. Then, on the other hand, there’s a danger when it becomes too business in that you kind of squeeze the inspiration out of it and having an appreciation for both sides of the head, both sides of the house probably put you in a really good stand I would think.
Ray: It does, it gives you a little credibility with the creative staff, you also understand that you just can’t manage them- you just can’t. Whether you say you’re going to manage creative staff or not, if you think that you’re managing them, you’re really not- they got one over on you. It’s really understanding that it’s a very fluid environment and you have to, I used to use the term all the time, you have to fence them in as a manager. There’s a wall that you don’t want them to go over because they’re going to hurt somebody or themselves but anything that they do inside those parameters, you just have to let them do what they do because that’s the way their brains work.
The other side is that they have to trust you and some of that is that you’re always trying to do what’s best for the enterprise or them. Also, I had a track record of letting things, if they really were passionate about something, I would go with the flow with it. Also, they understood that if I was really passionate about something or I wanted something done a certain way or whatever, I very rarely did that. Over time my relationships with some of the key staff was that they would come and ask me opinions on some things because I just have a different way of looking at things.
Bill: That’s valuable. Eighteen years or so, driving this growth story of Shooters Post and Transfers, it was noted at a certain time into not only the re-branding to Alkemy X but also the growth from a smaller, mid-size production shop, as noted doing a lot of the advertising work here in sleepy, Philadelphia that long since not been the agency town, much into the giant content, giant maybe is too strong of a word, but the content company and leader that it is today, what were some of the key ingredients that led to this incredible growth story from your perspective?
Ray: I think that some of it is really not fighting the marketplace so much no matter what you would like to sell, it doesn’t really matter – understanding what the market wanted. Also, I think there were some opportunities in Philadelphia for a while that were an advantage. Others were not afraid to make smart risks or take chances. The diversification into television and visual effects pretty much saved the company through the recession. If we hadn’t done that, we would have been too entrenched in advertising. The other thing is understanding where the marketplace was going a little bit in that content was becoming a big buzz word in the mid 2000s. What better way to learn about content and, ‘Why don’t we do television? How hard could that be right?’
Bill: Figure it out.
Ray: Honestly, we probably got a little lucky on the first one, but we were there and the company actually took some financial risk on the first show. Without getting too specific, we ended up retaining some rights that ended up paying off. Those are the kind of smart things that we did and I’m sure there’s a bunch of things we can talk over, they weren’t too smart.
Bill: We’ll save those for another time.
Ray: Hire really good people. I think that the biggest thing is really as a leader of any kind of entity, you have to be three or four steps ahead of everybody else in your company and that yes you deal with operational issues and things like that, but you have to constantly be trying to grow in my mind because you never know what’s going to go away. If you ever sit back and say, ‘Okay, I’m comfortable with where I am.’ What are you going to do if one of your major accounts goes away or gets bought by another company? There’s so many different things, you have to constantly try to grow and move forward. I think because we did that, we were successful in a lot of things.
One thing led on top of each other and also one of the critical things was not using outside account reps. We were one of the first companies that built our own internal sale staff and things like that and that helped a lot. We had talked about a little bit earlier, and it was at the time a lot of the company’s cash flow was just being dumped right back into the company to grow the company.
The other is diversity of product mix, all those things have two factors; one they help you grow but they also help you if any one of those sectors doesn’t do well. You can’t fight the market again if the market’s way down no matter what you do. You can’t overcome that unless you have substantial financial resources and stuff like that, especially if the product is not something that people are buying and that’s why the diversity really helped us.
Bill: Interestingly, when we talk about where the market’s going and not fighting it, starting your career with a publisher that was seeking to start up a division in, I’ll call it video but I’m sure the creative folks will call it film, and now looking at what media companies are trying to do racing to video is a way that captures some eyeballs and builds brands and stands out above the wall that Facebook and others are creating here. With the management side, the creative side, and content, how is the notion of content and its role or its value evolved over time from your perspective?.
Ray: I think there’s two factors. One is your premium content is more valuable than it ever was. It’s more valuable than it was but also a lot of content has become a commodity. Interesting conversation I had with somebody recently about quality, quality when it comes to video content is a commodity, people don’t buy quality anymore.
Bill: Its all in everyone’s pockets, at least to a certain degree.
Ray: What people don’t think about is that fifteen years ago, there was a technical aspect to quality but now the software is so that it white balances your own phone – the levels, and it has stabilization. Everybody thinks that they take all these great pictures. There’s stabilization in these phones, you know what I mean? People don’t realize all that. That immediately creates a situation where technical quality is almost a commodity. Really the value now on the content side is in the idea and the creative and that’s where all the value is.
What’s interesting with technology and with the internet and self-distributing and all that kind of stuff is that the true creative talent, there’s two folds; one of them might want to be part of some sort of group together but there’s a lot of people now that just do work on their own because they don’t need to and they are the product. What’s in between their ears is their product. I think that that’s really a big change for the agencies and production companies and things like that and that the truly talented don’t need to be associated with anybody else because anybody can find them instantaneously.
Bill: Youtube, Instagram, these are platforms that are yielding superstars like Twitter, little bit less multimedia but the right level of snarky delivered succinctly and all of a sudden the Webby Awards are people that we’ve heard of now. It’s not just a trade type of thing.
Ray: I know of a story where a creative director was looking to find a director for a commercial that they were doing and the guy said, ‘You know, I know this video game. It’s very similar to what I want to do.’ It took him less than half a day to figure out who the director of this video game is which happened to be a film director, and they hired him.
Bill: That’s amazing.
Ray: You could have never have done that ten years ago. You couldn’t have.
Bill: I guess the logical question maybe is if this incredible democratization has widened the ability to be true content creators, what is the value or the prospective value of team development from development? What are the capabilities that a firm brings to this that maybe individuals can’t? As you said the barrier to entry is not on technology, anyone can have a drone now. You don’t need to have or buy a helicopter or anything else. Do you see a future evolution in terms of this lone wolf between the ears versus groups that may have a greatest hits ability when it comes to different things?
Ray: I think that in the future content companies will be built around some creatives that probably are ownership or maybe have a big ownership stake. Think about a really successful law firm. They’re usually built on the backs of a couple of really talented lawyers, same kind of concept. I also think when it comes to content, there’s going to be more and more of it, but I think that people are starting to realize the difference between good content and bad content. Very similar to when desktop publishing came out, everybody thought they could do design then they realized, ‘Oh, there’s bad design.’
People are starting to realize there’s bad video content, and I think that there will be potentially less of it in the future being produced. The really good content will go to the truly uber-talented in that space because if you took a hundred percent of the content that was produced ten years ago by the professionals, eighty percent of that can be done in house at almost any organization. Only twenty percent of the people that are doing it are going to, I guess you can say, in the future make their living doing that.
Photography would be a great example. You still hire a photographer for a very special event or a photo spread or whatever, but how many times have you seen people hire a photographer to shoot a picture of somebody taking a check like they used to do twenty years ago? They don’t need to because you can look on your phone, ‘Oh yeah, that’s good everybody is in focus, everybody’s eyes are open, okay.’
Bill: But, if it’s your wedding, Uncle Jim is not going to do, right?
Bill: Fair enough. We talked a little bit about the unique challenges of building and nurturing teams on the creative side of the world, but are there, across your careers, some philosophies that you’ve formed or put into practice about building teams, driving culture that you think continue to be as valuable as they’ve always been? Or what are the secrets to building the right kind of teams, in a creative industry or beyond, that can achieve the kind of goals that you’ve achieved?
Ray: The old adage that you should hire somebody smarter than you or better than you is, I think, really important. The other thing that again somebody smarter than me said this to me and said this about people is, ‘People that are really good at something and don’t realize they’re good at it because it’s very natural to them.’ You have to understand that when you look at something that seems very obvious to you, don’t expect for it to be obvious to your team because they’re not wired like you. They’re wired differently than you, and they’re not going to solely see it. I think that part of it is to understand that everybody is wired differently and that you have to, like in my role as the CEO of Alkemy X was to respect the creative team, understand that they really know what they’re doing.
I’m not the creative guy. I’m not the creative director. Yes, could I pretend to play in that field a little? I’m not terrible there but I was really good at running the company. They respected me in doing what I was doing and I respected them, and I think that some of it is to understand that old adage. Everybody thinks they can direct — that’s not true. It’s just as much of a talent as coming up with a creative concept or managing the company where people are wired differently. You have to understand that from a cultural standpoint especially in a creative company.
The other philosophy is always do your best. You can today, no matter what, even if it really sucks because you have been dealt terrible cards, as long as you’re doing the best that you can, tomorrow it will work out. Don’t get hung up that you didn’t get a job or you missed delivering something or whatever. If something goes wrong, if you did everything the best you can, and something came out of left field, there’s nothing you can do about it.
Another thing is some people manage to get really hung up on making the right decision, and I think you have to make the best decision that you can at the time. I want to qualify that slightly in that you have to do all your homework. If you do all your homework and you make a wrong decision, you most likely learn something from it, but you did all your homework. The other side is that if you didn’t do all your homework and you make a decision that’s wrong, that’s not too good.
Bill: That’s on you.
Ray: That’s bad. Yeah, that’s bad. I think that that’s really more and more in today’s world, you have to be really comfortable with that because things are moving so quickly. If you figure it out totally, even if you make that decision, it might have been the right decision but that was two months ago, now it’s a wrong decision because two months have passed.
Bill: Makes perfect sense. What’s next for Ray? We talked a little bit about it before the mics came on, the ability to play nine holes of golf without a phone constantly interrupting. You’ve talked about some of the consulting stuff, obviously there’s an incredible creative perspective that you have but this entrepreneurial spirit, this intelligent risk taking, this leadership and growth capability that you have, obviously in you meeting a lot of people as noted, but have any idea of what the next move looks and feels like perhaps?
Ray: For me, it does have to be something that’s entrepreneurial and challenging, and that’s something that I want to do right now. I guess you can say I’m already thinking about what the next thing was and that is trying to do something that potentially has some sort of impact would be great on my next thing after. If I could combine those two right now that would be great, but for me I’m not saying no to any meeting because there’s some things that have surprised me a little bit as far as things that there’s some very interesting things going on out there.
I told myself when I was going to do this that I was going to make sure that I took my time and didn’t rush into anything right away now. If I had some opportunities, if I come back twelve months from now I’d go, ‘You know, I probably should have done that.’ Who knows? It always ends up working out in the long run, it always does, no doubt.
Bill: With the ability to lift your head over the past couple of months and look around, what’s your take on Philadelphia at this point? Because of the entrepreneurial economy, as a creative culture, anything that you’ve learned? You obviously spend a lot of time in various places driving the business at Alkemy X but now that you’ve had a chance to meet some folks and look around with fresh eyes, how are we doing regionally?
Ray: I think that Philadelphia could be on the brink of another Renaissance if you look at what’s going on here. There’s a lot going on here but honestly if you go to Brooklyn, it’s double what’s going on here just in Brooklyn with building and stuff going on. I do think that there’s been a change growing in the city that everybody is always worried about, ‘We’re too close to New York.’ All that kind of stuff. There’s some validity to that but at the end of the day if you have a great company and a great culture and you have a great product that people want to buy and you’re successful, not all but a large percentage of the people that might want to work for you would rather work in Philadelphia than New York. It’s just a better quality of life especially if they have families and things like that.
There are certain positions and certain people that if your aspiration is to run Viacom some day you have to be in New York, you just have to be. It really depends on what your aspirations are but I think that Philadelphia has a huge potential and if you think about it, it’s because the world is getting smaller, we all talk about that. You can be in Philadelphia and compete for any job in the world if you want to. Where you’re actually located is becoming less and less of an issue.
Bill: Indeed. As we close and thank you so much for your time and insight, Ray is a well-regarded, well-known executive and author of success stories in this region and beyond. As you look back on your career path and choices that you’ve made, you referenced some of the decision making as you’ve done different things but summing it up for those who’ve been inspired hearing about your journey, we’ve mentioned a few but any other words of wisdom with which we should part?
Ray: I said always try to do your best but the other is you’ve got to show up. I don’t know if people have heard that before but I’ve gotten more business or more contacts or more success from going to that event that I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to. It’s late.’
Bill: It seems to be the one that’s always great, right?
Ray: You have no opportunities unless you show up and I think that especially in today’s world, obviously we network electronically but physically going to events and networking with people and building relationships. What I found is that it starts to build a level of trust. It gives you either somebody you can ask questions to or if you’re going to be doing business with them, it’s a different type of relationship. I think the phones and electronic stuff is very important, but don’t underestimate going to these events and going to these things and trying to network and build your network outside on the franchise of your business really. Go to things that you might think that you’re not going to find business at and you’ll be surprised what you find at those places.
Bill: Actually getting back, real quick, then we’ll close. Thank you for your time. Since we’re here on Real World Branding, how old is the Alkemy X re-branding project? Two years old, three years old perhaps?
Ray: About two years.
Bill: Any reflections on that process and what was easy? What was not as easy? What you anticipated versus how it felt to be in the middle of that?
Ray: We didn’t go into the process trying to re-brand the company. It was more of restructuring the company with all the disruption in the media business. What did we need to do to stay relevant? I brought in a couple of consultants and staff to help me with that and really it became clear that the brand was confusing. I guess you would say the old brand was confusing and some other stuff. Some people would debate with me on this, but I don’t think we moved fast enough. We had a big competitive advantage of being a one stop shop especially in New York, nobody else was doing that. The brand really reflects that if you think about it.
Alkemy X, we put together a lot of different things in different ways that nobody else did, and the clients got it. The clients loved it once we released it, but the issue was is it took us so long internally to make that change. I can understand why – we were living with that brand for thirty years.
When we announced the name, three of our top competitors in New York a week later announced that they were basically the same thing because they had seen what we were doing. They had fleshed out their services, and we had lost a lot of our competitive advantage, especially in New York. Stuff like that happens. I think that the process of doing it was more than just the name. It was really looking at everything else that was going on. I still feel very strongly about the re-positioning of the company into that spot. It was really relevant going forward. The issue is it’s a very different business model that the company has to own because the business model that existed five years ago just doesn’t exist.
The whole post-centric technology based business model, what does it mean? There’s no barrier to entry under the post side and technical side now because it’s all creative and it’s all talent and that’s what the goal was when doing that. I guess you could say that’s my biggest thing: I think we didn’t move fast enough no matter what the name was going to end up being.
Bill: Thank you so much for your time and insight and for all the work you’ve done that helps put this marketplace on the map. I can’t wait to see what comes next. We’re definitely going to take advantage of the inner imperative having maybe some windows in your schedule to spend some time and seek your expertise. Thank you, Ray.
Ray: Thank you very much.
Bill: Many thanks to Ray for his time and his insight, his journey is a fascinating one, his future is also fascinating. He has so much to offer, and he’s so thoughtful about not only the world and role of content, but he has an ability to see where the world is going. We can’t wait to see through his eyes as his career continues. Thank you for joining us on Real World Branding, as always we appreciate your support of what we do and we’ll sign off from the Cradle of Liberty.
The post The Power of Content: Ray Carballada – Media, Content, and Advertising Executive appeared first on Finch Brands.