Turning the Tables: Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands
In this week’s episode, we turn the tables and interview the man behind the microphone at Real-World Branding. Bill details his professional background, explains the key trends he sees shaping the branding world, and provides insight into what it means to be a real-world branding agency. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Bill Gullan:What drew me to branding, what caused me to fall in love with it, and what we keeps me fired up about it every day, is these big ideas and big moments that help businesses and brands progress.
Bill Gullan: Who’s this joker?
Steve: This week we’ve decided to turn the tables, and we’re going to interview Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands and the usual host of Real-World Branding. So while my voice may be unfamiliar, you will get a lot more of Bill than you may have ever wanted. Here he is, and Bill, thanks for being here.
Bill: My pleasure, and we can blame the several people who asked for this. I bear no responsibility for what comes next. It’s all on them.
Steve: No, this is going to be very informative, and it took us over a year to even jump into this. You’ve been interviewing people on this show for 47, 48 episodes now, and no one really knows too much about you, so this week we’re turning the tables, and why don’t you walk us through your career journey.
Bill: Sure. Thanks, Steve. I’m glad to be here. My career is not perhaps as linear as some others with whom we’ve had the pleasure of going deeper. I was born and raised in Philly, Philadelphia, Mount Airy, Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, and I went south for college to Davidson in North Carolina, classic liberal arts, college town USA. I was a political science major. I didn’t know anything about what I wanted to do and in the liberal arts tradition, this was very much not pre-professional. We were taking this core curriculum of art and history, math and science, and some of which I did okay in, some of which I didn’t.
But as a political science major, the time came to move on with life, and I think among my classmates, probably half of them knew what they wanted to do and they set about doing it right after graduation. For the rest of us, it was going to be a process of figuring things out, so I settled in Charlotte because a lot of my friends were there and it was sort of a halfway house for Davidson graduates, of which Steph Curry and I are, maybe not the two most notable, but he certainly is. There we were in Charlotte, and the first career move, and the first stop for me, the New York Life office in Charlotte had strong connections to Davidson, and I went in and went through the process of their agent training program – selling life insurance, mutual funds, all these other things. I learned a lot on the journey.
The model there, unfortunately, wasn’t well suited for me. You were supposed to sell to your friends and family, and then you get referrals and you fan out from there. Of course, my friends were 22 and penniless, my family was up here, so I vividly remember the evening cold call-a-thons when someone from the office would go down to the courthouse and get all the new mortgage registrations. The thinking was that if you had that mountain of debt all of a sudden you had a greater life insurance need. They’d come back with these things, and we’d call down the list over dinner and hope that people were nice, and hoped that we could leverage that into an appointment. That’s tough.
It was not the Glengarry Glen Ross from a standpoint of being so negative and so awful, but in fact it was a lot of fun. You certainly learn a lot and you develop a thick skin, even back then before the telemarketing thing became so intrusive. A lot of rejection, but it was a great learning experience.
I think along the way I also had a chance to get my first exposure to marketing, even while I was doing the training program, and trying to build my own business. I was working with a senior agent who had been doing this awhile, and then I was focused on marketing throughout the Carolinas and helping him widen his acquaintance and communicate with his policy holders, etc.
From there, I realized it wasn’t for me. Again, learned a ton not only about financial products and about insurance, but also what it takes to self-start, overcome some degree of discomfort and find your voice, your confidence. But alas, it wasn’t for me, and I did it about 9 months. Then I did something that Steve, people of your generation probably would think is so quaint and silly, which is I answered a job ad in the newspaper. There used to be things called newspapers.
Steve: In the what? The newspaper?
Bill: Right. The newspaper, it got all over your fingers… Anyway, there was a section in there where they would post available jobs. We didn’t have all these job boards where you just click or touch your screen and all of a sudden there you are. For whatever reason, Charlotte at that time had a couple of really well regarded firms that focused on naming. It was primarily naming and identity and brand consulting, and things like that. Of all places, Charlotte had a few, and the job that I answered was with a couple of guys who had been successful in one of the larger firms and thought they could do this themselves, and they went out and they put a shingle on the building. The job they were posting for was really, I think the third member of the team, and it was the first sort of full-time sales guy. I figured, ‘I can do that.’
I show up day one, and on my desk is not a computer with email, because we didn’t really have that, at least not everybody did in ’96, ’97. I show up and there I am, and on my desk is a stack of annual reports. They said, ‘If you look in the back of these reports, you will see the names of the officers of these large companies, like Coke.’ It was really kind of almost the Fortune 200 were there on my desk, and the plan was young Bill’s going to make 150 calls a day and he’s going to smile, and he’s going to charm as best he can, and he’s not going to get down when no one answers, or when he’s rejected, and over time, he’s going to widen the acquaintance of this firm, and create opportunities with large companies to do naming of new products and new services, occasionally some corporate or divisional re-branding.
That was the plan right out of the gate, and I quickly realized a couple of things. One, this wasn’t so bad. I actually had a good time calling and talking to people about the weather and about sports, and learning all the area codes, and trying to charm executive assistants and referring me into different places so I could create a book of contacts and a network of contacts with which to sell these services. The other thing I realized is that if you’re making that many calls in a day, every now and then someone will answer, and you better darn well be prepared and intelligent about the subject matter that you’re selling, and know a little bit about branding and identity, and these different things.
I plowed myself, in part to prepare for these exposures, into reading about this industry. There’s Trout, and Ries, and all the old classics that lay out the intellectual frameworks for branding and positioning and all of these other things. I really started there, and over the course of my time at that company, and it turned into probably 3.5, 4 years, we grew from 3 people to 30, up to $5 million plus in revenue. It was a really great experience.
Their model was if you close something, you got to manage it. You sort of eat what you kill, so you close it. There I was, because I had perhaps a little bit of talent, certainly persistence, when it came to building relationships and ultimately creating engagements for this firm, I’m out there in Redmond with the Microsoft brand team. I’m in Auburn Hills with the Volkswagen brand team, with GM, with IBM, with American Express, all these big companies.
I was 20-whatever, didn’t know much, and so the feeling of this was on one hand, I guess it was terrifying because I didn’t know much, and they were looking to me, but on the other hand it was very liberating and exciting. I guess you sort of fake it until you make it, but this exposure to high level, big ticket branding issues, that I had earned for myself through all of that dancing on the dial of my finger as I was trying to sell these things, awakened in me a love for branding as a discipline and an interest.
I realized, I think many years later, that, again, my academic career had been really, political science was my major, and what had always drawn me to that was not comparative systems of government – how do they do it in Guatemala versus somewhere else, or how a bill becomes a law. It wasn’t the nutsy-boltsy kind of civic stuff, but political philosophy was really my thing, and it had been for a very long time.
This was answering fundamental questions of humanity and justice, and all these big ideas that sort of guide civilizations and countries and everything else. That’s what I was fascinated by and what I really chose to study, and I realized many years later, I think that what led to me really embracing and falling in love with branding as a discipline, was that some of the itches that it and political philosophy scratch are common.
Political philosophy is about systems of belief. It’s about how societies should be organized. It’s about how ideas and people connect. It’s about human nature and choice. Branding is about all those things, too. It may not always be as glorious or large, at least in terms of the intellectual element of it, but it’s the same thing. For brands, even today, 18, 19 years into my career, we’re counseling clients on how and on what basis to advance their values in a way that connects with consumers that galvanizes and motivates members of teams.
I think I realized that my love for branding came in part from my academic direction, but in any case, I was with that firm 3.5, 4 years, did what many others did in the late ’90s. With a couple of friends, we raised I think about a million dollars in institutional investment, as well as some angels, to launch an Internet startup concept, and it was called Shy Genius. It was the world’s first online creative exchange. It was designed to connect companies that were seeking innovation with individuals who are creatively minded and enjoy generating ideas. There was a lot to that, and when you look however many years later at all the user-generated content, whether it’s product ideas or marketing ideas, or whatever it is, we didn’t have the benefit of every consumer having basically a camera in their pocket or a microphone or whatever.
Boy, what we could have done if our consumers back then had the technological ability that’s become commonplace today, but in any case. It may have been 10 years early, but it was a fascinating experience. I think the Internet bubble burst in Charlotte perhaps a year after it burst for everyone else. But by the time we went back to re-raise capital, we had accomplished a lot, but were still finding our footing. When we went back to re-raise, it was too late. The market had dried up.
So here I was, a one and only child from the Philadelphia area, thinking it might be time to get back up to the northeast. I extended that interest to my network, really from Boston to DC, and had a bunch of meetings and interviews and different things, and it turns out the job that was the right fit was for a cheeky, South Street Philadelphia ad agency, big personalities, super creative, but what they were looking for at that time was a layer of business insight and a bit of brand strategy that would round out the creative offerings.
In some ways, I think I was hired to be the adult in the room. I’m not sure that I was that at 26, 27, but in any case, up I came. The agency was called Fab Gorgon, and their office was at Fourth and South. Jordan Goldenberg and Jesse Kramer had built this agency from having done a lot of nightclub and hospitality work, really succeeding because of how clever and damn good they were intuitively, and they were looking to make that next jump into corporate accounts to advance the business.
From ’01 really to ’03, I was focused on that. I was doing some new business. I was certainly managing accounts, and whenever we had a client that really wanted to think through messaging and really take a strategic approach to how they communicated, I was the guy that would manage processes like that, learning by doing. Along the way in brand consulting, I learned a bit about research, and certainly about positioning and other things.
There we were, and the next milestone was, there was a merger. Fab Gorgon, this agency, had come to know a small, yet super high-powered consulting firm called Kanter International, and these organizations had worked together a bit, and had begun to co-pitch. Oftentimes the consulting work left off when there was a creative need, and oftentimes the creative certainly would benefit from the strong strategic and business insight of this consultancy. Kanter International and Fab Gorgon merged on I guess Jan 1, 2003, and really the seeds of what Finch Brands is today date back to that very point, both in terms of people and certainly in terms of philosophies.
Over the course of really 2003 to 2012, I was focused on building and then ultimately managing the strategy workflow at Finch Brands, which was about research-based business and brand strategy. Along the way I’d acquired some confidence when it came to focus group moderation, when it came to various forms of qual and quant research, and so we built that platform here at Finch Brands. Then I moved into more of a general management role and the title that I have now, the job that I occupy now, in 2012.
Since then I’ve been really, really enjoying being involved in engagements, continuing to be involved in engagements that match the skills that I’ve developed, the experiences that I’ve had, while also working with my colleagues to chart a bit in terms of our future, and in terms of how Finch Brands can continue to innovate in terms of how we do what we do as well as what we do for clients, and really focus on our growth.
Steve: Well, thanks for that, Bill. I know it’s a pretty fascinating back story of really not coming from a marketing discipline, and then putting your nose to the grindstone and learning by doing. Very interesting, and definitely a good example of how a lot in this industry have progressed. You mentioned that Kanter International was the seeds of Finch Brands, the Finch Brands that is, today. Can you tell a little bit about how Kanter became Finch Brands, and really the background of Finch Brands in general?
Bill: Sure. No, be glad to. Listen, I could write a book about this. I’m not sure many people would want to read it, but it’s a fascinating business history. I guess a lot of companies have these kind of innings and eras, and whatnot. Kanter International had been founded by two gentlemen, both of whom had been very sort of high-ranking, highly successful, what we would call client-side executives, Daniel Erlbaum, who remains our CEO here at Finch Brands, and is well-known and well-regarded across a variety of the things that he does. David’s Bridal had been his family business, and when he came out of the University of Michigan in the mid-’90s … He’s much older than I am and it shows. He came out and he went to work for David’s Bridal across the executive ranks doing different posts across the various facets of the business. They wound up going public and then selling David’s Bridal to the, well I guess the May Company which then became Federated May and God knows what it is today.
His partner at the time, was Steen Kanter. Steen had been the president of IKEA in North America. He had built the brand in 5 countries. He had been with IKEA, he’s Danish by birth, for 20-some years. He went on to be CEO of The Body Shop Cosmetics, and some other things, and he was ready to put all those lessons into practice on behalf of entrepreneurs and brands in a consulting way. Those guys met, joined forces in, I guess it was ’97, ’98, and that consultancy was born.
Later on, as noted, there was a merger. Kanter International stayed on the door all the way up until I think it was the end of ’07. Steen’s consulting model had always been fly to a different city every night and ask CEOs tough questions, the answers to which would enable them to really reflect on what they were doing or not doing in advance of driving the brand and business strategy forward. It was sort of a pure play, CEO-coaching, classical consulting model, very successful, because Steen’s amazing and interesting and experienced.
By ’07, ’08, I think he really wanted to go back to that. He didn’t want the responsibility for growing the firm and the infrastructure that was around him. He really wanted just to go back to solo consulting with one or two folks who he knew that he could plug in. The terms of the deal were we would be so generous as to give him back his name, and I think we had a few months to get this done.
We launched into our own re-branding process, we took our own medicine. We did it the way we do it for clients. I think what we realized is that we had been using a metaphor of evolution for a while to describe what we did. It was helping business and brands respond to the ever-changing nature of the world around them and to evolve, survive, and thrive.
As we were, on the creative side, thinking through nomenclature, we were looking at Darwin and his life, and he had done much of the research that led to the theory of natural selection in the Galapagos Islands, on the beaks of Finches. The name is a reference to Darwin and to what, at the time, was our tagline. It was ‘Business and Brand Evolution,’ to that metaphor that we had been using for so long.
Now, we knew the name, for those who had access to that story, it would click for them and hopefully they would smile and like it. For those who didn’t, it was a pleasant name that was easy to remember, that may suggest that there were a Mr. and Mrs. Finch sitting behind this thing, and it was a strong business that was based on great people. Now, there is no Mr. and Mrs. Finch, at least not involved in Finch Brands, so that’s the real story in terms of the Darwin connection.
I think a lot of times when we think about brand development, and the Finch Brands story is an example of this, Jordan Goldenberg, a colleague, used to call this the ‘bridgeable gap,’ which is often, for those who hear the story, when it connects, there is some satisfaction in getting it and understanding it. For those who don’t, it works just as well.
Steve: Great. Now that we have the background on Finch Brands, what does the future hold for Finch Brands? What are we looking at?
Bill: Well, our vision, mission is sort of separate from our business objective, but our business objective is: ‘To become the best known, best regarded boutique branding agency in the country. To really be that high touch, high impact answer to the big branding or re-branding shops.’
Some days that feels like a journey, a long road admittedly, but that we’re galloping down. Other days it feels like we’re standing on the side of the road looking at a map and scratching our ass, no offense to my colleagues. But, it is a long journey, and objectives like this are intended to be grand and intended to be long. We all can unify to march down that path together, and that’s the ultimate goal. Now, there are a couple of things in terms of how we operate day to day, the things that we value, our own philosophies that are central to making this growth real.
We call ourselves a real-world branding agency, which is also the name of this podcast, and is inspired by that, for a couple of reasons. One of them is that our team development and hiring philosophy has been to bring in brand managers, innovations people, insights people, creatives, and marketers, from what this industry calls client-side experience, experience holding client-side jobs. Many of my colleagues, their careers were forged in the crucible of brand-first organizations, operating, growing, and managing brands, at Campbell Soup, at Toys”R”Us, at Anheuser-Busch, at Amazon, at Target, at Urban Outfitters, all these different places.
We really do believe that the best agency people were once clients themselves, because they understand. Those experiences help one understand the unique rhythms on the operating side, and also give people the ability to hone their intuition, the ability to deal with really big decisions.
Honestly, I think some agencies, they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about when it comes to what it actually takes to build and grow a brand and business. One of our philosophies has always been to place a really high premium on what we call real-world experience, client-side experience, brand development experience, not just bouncing around and serving clients from agency to agency. That’s important to us, and I think what real-world branding means is not just the bios and backgrounds of our core team, but also a laser focused accountability for the results of what we do.
Branding can be squishy, but the greatest hits that we have in terms of the financial output of clients like Everlast, or ThinkGeek, or Conair, we’re so proud of that. In reality, our only scorecard, the only one that matters, is our clients’ performance. Not awards, not being clever and making other clever people know that you’re clever at cocktail parties, or whatever the case may be. That’s really all we care about.
The real-world branding piece, both in terms of the team as well as just the general orientation, is the leverage point that will get us to achieve that objective. Along the way, we’ve built a variety of frameworks around topics that recur in the lives of our clients. Obviously every project is different. The content is completely different, and the situation, based on what the client needs and the environment in which they’re dealing, but we’ve been able to build proprietary, intellectual and development frameworks around things like helping clients with vision, mission, values; helping clients and their teams understand and choreograph the entirety of the customer journey; helping companies that have been involved in mergers and acquisitions, or private equity situations, make choices about the right brand architecture and brand strategy.
We have been building, over time, through experience, these frameworks that we put to the test for clients. We take very seriously our responsibility, not only to be on the leading edge in our category and contribute to the overall knowledge base, but to bring tried and true best practices into our work for clients.
Last thing I’ll mention that we’ve been spending a lot of time on, and that is really important to our present and our future, is what we’re calling a Consumer Insights Community. We do a ton of market research here, and primary research, qual, quant, online, offline, traditional, non-traditional, moving into new territories through technology, things like eye tracking and biometrics. Then your good old-fashioned ethnography, observation, talking to people, and everything in between.
We have a variety of clients who come to us as needed, or for research processes, and we thought, and there’s been some movement in the market in this direction, wouldn’t it be great if instead of having to come back and strike up the band every time, and all the time that that takes, the dollars that takes, if we could provide our clients a continuous flow of input and feedback around key strategic, but also short-term tactical issues.
On the strategic side it could be, who’s our customer and how is life changing for him or her? On the tactical side it could be, should we do this packaging design or this one? This home page or this one, and everything in between. We’ve built these Consumer Insights Communities for clients that are really focused on that continuous flow.
They save time, they save budget for clients. Over time they get ever more effective as you continue to use these panels and the organization becomes acclimated to including the voice of the marketplace into decisions that previously it wasn’t either financially possible or in terms of timing. There’s a lot of benefits for clients. I think the benefit for us is a greater line of sight to, and predictability around our own work flow, in terms of always having the bandwidth and desire, and energy to support clients, depending on what happens to be in-house at any given time.
We’re spending a lot of time on product development, in particular the Consumer Insights Communities, is one that we’re really proud of and excited about, so to your question of what comes next at Finch Brands, I think in some ways it’s more of the same. We’re really proud of what we’ve done, but as we grow to be that branding agency that really represents our business objective, really, really strong grounding and foundational philosophies around the type of people who succeed here, the type of people who are best geared to serving our clients in the ways that they deserve, as well as the content of the work and the work flow itself.
Steve: Thanks for that. It’s very exciting, and now that we know Finch Brands, we know you a little bit better, are there any key trends that are shaping the work that we’re doing here at Finch Brands, or in the marketplace in general?
Bill: Yeah, there’s a lot of them, and by the way, Steve, you’re part of this unfolding story, so you don’t get off the hook here. Steve’s become a really important team member. In addition to being the executive producer of the Real-World Branding podcast, and guest host, Steve is a really valued member of the team across a variety of different functions, so don’t get a big head.
Steve: I appreciate you saying that, and the head’s already big, so it doesn’t matter.
Bill: That’s true, but that’s more of a genetic, just sort of visual thing. But we can get over that. Key trends. A lot of them are well-documented. Everyone talks about millennials and social media, obviously, but I guess there’s 4 things that I’ve noticed that really have an impact on how I’m looking at things, and maybe how we are by extension.
One is it is amazing the degree of skepticism that consumers have about big institutions today. Certainly that extends to media. It extends to Congress. It extends to the White House, it extends to Big Corporate, Big Bank, Big Soda, Big Tobacco, Big whatever. Consumers are very, very skeptical today.
There’s hysteria around nutrition. There’s hysteria around conspiracy theories, and I don’t say hysteria dismissively, a lot of this is helpful in terms of progressing the way that companies do things. The top-down marketing history of companies communicate and consumers buy, that just doesn’t exist anymore. We’ve done, and I’ve probably moderated 500 focus groups in my career along the way, and I love to do it. I’m greedy about doing it, in part because it helps me hear what’s happening. It helps me connect dots, and certainly, if we’re responsible for answering questions, I damn well want to be the one that asks them, because we can make sure that those conversations deal with what they need to. But focus groups across wine and spirits, across pro wrestling, across technology, all these different categories that seem to not have much in common, but one of the common themes is this skepticism.
We find that consumers in many ways are more likely today to trust the 24th page of Amazon reviews, or what someone they’ve never met says on social media, than they are JD Power and other sources, Good Housekeeping, Consumer Reports, their seal of approval used to mean something.
I think in part it reflects our time, and in part it also reflects the fact that there’s a low threshold when it comes to those who can be publishers, whether it’s an individual just through their own social media feeds or through tweets, or whether it’s bloggers. There’s really no barrier, and it’s a good thing, and ultimately it is a democratizing thing, that many different voices can be heard, but I think the net effect of this is that everyone proclaims to be an expert.
I think in some ways, we, and by that I mean corporate marketing, has overplayed our hand historically, and we bear some of the consequences for this loss of trust. The antidote, I guess, is brand humility, brand transparency, communications that are real and honest, and aren’t likely to trigger these eye rolls that are just so readily occurring across categories.
Another trend, John Kasman, who was a recent guest here, from PGAV Destinations, spoke about brands entering the realm of experiences. We see that all the time. Now, obviously in the extreme case, the types of things John works on, experiences, brands that may be wine and spirits brands, now they have a pub. It’s about bringing these things sort of to the ground level. But, even short of that, the thinking around brand connection is less transaction and more experience.
It’s something that we’re seeing all the time, and that’s why, in a very progressive way, thinking about and choreographing that customer journey has become so important for brands. It isn’t just about buying the product at a price that we all agree to, and hopefully liking it. It’s about making people feel something all along the way. Experiential branding from very tactical uses like pop-up shops and other things on one hand, but all the way to the philosophy on how brands are built is another trend that’s really important in this marketplace.
Thirdly, I think brands, winning brands today, are leading with values. Now, there’s obvious examples of folks for whom corporate social responsibility is baked in to the business model. But I think even brands for whom that piece isn’t as prominent, have an opportunity to convey what matters to them. Beyond just, ‘Hey, this is what our detergent does,’ into that benefit ladder from functional up to emotional.
Brands that convey that their value systems are real and that they are important to what they do, and have the ability to connect with the consumers on that basis. I think in a lot of ways this is in response to the fact that the personal seems sort of small ‘p’ political today. What you do, every decision that you make – whether you go to a chain restaurant or a local one, whether you buy Apple or Samsung – what you do, all these decisions you make today ultimately express to the world who you are and what’s important to you.
Brands, we’ve always said, and this podcast has covered the fact that we see commerce as being downstream from culture, and what that means is that the forces that are shaping the culture are ultimately the forces that are shaping winners and losers in the business and brand world. The degree to which brands can, again, without being too treacly or too maudlin, or too creepy, express a value system in a way that enables consumers to connect, is an important element of winning today.
Then, I guess the last one is the people. I think our industry has a lot to answer for, honestly, the agency world does when it comes to respecting and understanding, and taking the time to understand what motivates consumers across a variety of different categories and aesthetics, and income levels and ethnicities, etc.
This world that we occupy, tending to be clustered around cosmopolitan big cities, tending to consist of highly creative folks, well-educated folks, for whom snark is the currency of the day. I don’t know how many back rooms I’ve been in for focus groups, none of our clients thankfully, or how many agency folks I’ve interacted with, fortunately none on our team, who are really dismissive, if not sort of almost ridiculing the manners and morays of the clients to whom they’re supposed to sell product.
At Finch Brands, working with Ashley Furniture, mainstream furniture, all the way to Frederick Wildman Wines that have been imported and tend to be on the value end of the marketplace, to WWE, pro wrestling, the aesthetics here for these brands and many, many others, Nutrisystem weight loss, may not be what we would choose as consumers, although I’m a huge pro wrestling fan and I certainly could lose weight. But these may not be exactly what we would choose, but you have to enter an experience like that, either strategically or creatively, with a belief in the inherent dignity of the consumer, and the agency of their choice, the power of what they value and believe in.
When you’re not doing that, I don’t see how you can possibly be an effective advocate for those brands in the marketplace. I think one of the trends that concerns me, and as the world becomes ever more vulcanized and polarized, is that our industry only consists of, or is moving in the direction of only consisting of people who are oh so precious, oh so urban, and oh so clever. I really think that diminishes our ability to be effective, so I’m very concerned about that generally, and we manage against it very, very closely when it comes to Finch Brands and what we do.
Steve: Great, and thank you for that. Now, as we always do on this podcast, there may be some out there who have been inspired by your career path.
Bill: Poor things.
Steve: You know, your work ethic, figuring this out as you go, working and by doing and eventually coming to this place of expertise. What would you share with those listeners who have been inspired in such a way?
Bill: Well, first of all, we will blame this entirely again, upon the people who suggested that I be a guest on my own podcast, so take it for what it’s worth, but just a couple points, some of which we lightly covered.
One, not to get melancholy about this, but you have got to make it count. We get one shot at this. I’m 42. I have a great life. I have a great family, great kids, great wife, great company that we’re building here. But I’m very keenly aware of the fact that I’m 42, and hopefully I defy the actuarial tables and that means I’m 1/3 or 1/4 of the way through life, but more likely, and hopefully I at least get to the point where I’m halfway through.
You never want to look back on decisions that seemed at the time to be more convenient or easier, or whatever, and regret them. I would, if I were ever to get a tattoo, and no, honey, I won’t, I promise. I would look ridiculous with it, but if I were ever to get a tattoo, it would be something along the lines of ‘make it count,’ to remind myself day in and day out that you get one shot and you’ve got to make it count.
The second one is reflecting a bit of my educational past, I think whatever I sacrificed in terms of clarity of future, in being a liberal arts guy, I’d like to think that I’ve gained many times over in terms of the benefit of that sort of broad-based and multi-disciplinarian education. It doesn’t stop when the cap and gowns are on. Afterwards, and when you get out into the world, to embrace cultural literacy, and to be multi-disciplinarian, to understand that there’s a lot of things that are happening that people totally value and geek out on and are into, they may not be the things that you’re into, but the deeper you go, the more A. you can connect dots that you can apply to your work in this industry, and B. the more that you can build connections with different types of people, whether they’re clients or colleagues.
Something that’s new and that’s happening, I may think might be the most ridiculous, stupid thing in the world, but it is on me to understand major, both historical as well as contemporary influences in the worlds of art and theology, history, journalism, writing of all kinds, politics, and just ideas and influences, the degree to which, the more culturally literate you are, I truly believe, the further you will travel. That may make sense just in terms of the ability to meet up and connect with people on their own terms, but I think it keeps the brain firing.
That doesn’t mean that everything I see, I process with wonder and joy. There’s a lot of music that I think sucks, but someone loves it. Understanding what’s new and what’s happening, as well as what have been these foundational experiences that have driven our culture, puts you in really good stead, I think, as a business person, as well as as a fully formed human.
Next, I would think is say yes early in your career. We have sort of moved, in some ways, out of the generation where the paying of dues is widely expected as something that you do. I’m not going to be one of these ‘get off my lawn’ types of people, but I think Brock Weatherup, who was a guest a few months back, spoke about this. At his first job or second job, he was moving in a bunch of different directions that may have moved him onto a project that maybe wasn’t as interesting, or in a division that was away from the one that he wanted to be in. What he did is he made the best of it. He said yes. He saw the opportunity in learning new things. He saw the opportunity in building new relationships and creating additional enthusiasts in his network, and it doesn’t mean you say yes without thinking.
It doesn’t mean you say yes automatically, but the orientation, certainly earlier in your career, should be in the direction of yes, or if you have to say no, you say, ‘No, but.’ I think the more that folks take advantage of these early years where you may not have as many mouths to feed, or may be more mobile geographically, may still have and should have an open mind about what life’s going to be like for you. The more you say yes, the more you experience, and again, from someone who came from a situation where I had no idea what I was going to do, the fact that I was saying yes to all these things I think has really helped me.
Then lastly, I think the respect for people that I talked about in terms of trends is super important in terms of individuals. Obviously we talk about people not getting along, and everyone’s yelling at each other about politics, about religion, about all these different things. This isn’t just a simple admonition to just be nice, although that perhaps bears repeating too, but in this industry and in marketing, this is behavioral economics. My wife’s a psychologist. This is about psychology. You can’t ultimately be good at this unless you have endeavored to absolutely understand, not embrace, but understand where people are coming from, whether it’s clients, whether it’s colleagues, whether it’s consumers.
Having that level of respect for the marketplace, and for the task that’s in front of you, for the brand that’s hiring you, for the colleague that’s asking for help, whatever it is, is a hugely important part, I think, of being a good teammate, of being a fast growth, high velocity professional. Also being a citizen, being a dad, being a spouse, all the things that you may want somewhere down the path in life.
The road here, just to kind of sum up, Steve, at Finch Brands, is fun and fascinating. It’s a wild ride always. It’s the relationships with clients, with colleagues, that we’re ultimately going to remember when all is said and done. Those are the things that, like shards of light in late afternoon through the trees, kind of shine through when you think over the years and the innings that we’ve been through doing this together.
I think what makes this super fun still, almost 20 years in, not quite, but almost 20 years in, is the big ideas. There was one project that made a big impact on me, and just sort of thinking about people, and how they make decisions, we were talking about culture. This was a project, I can’t name the client, but where we were really studying the intricacies of social groups among high school kids.
This was a few years back, so it’s certainly evolved since then, but at its most simplistic, I think the data told us there were really 4 groups. I don’t remember the names, but it was like there were the cool kid, jock/cheerleader type, who were setting the pace and setting the tune socially. There were, I guess what we would call sort of the nerds. I don’t mean that disparagingly, but they were very academically inclined. This was a fashion brand, so we were focused primarily on style and the nerds weren’t really interested in that. That wasn’t really their game. They were about playing in band or doing great in school, and they didn’t really care.
Then there were the good boys, the good girls, whose sense of style was sort of influenced by the trendsetters within their group, and they weren’t risk-takers. They weren’t likely to put themselves out there, but they would embrace certain trends when they got watered down and came downstream. Then the 4th group, I guess we would lump loosely, loose confederation of sort of freaks, whether it was punks, goths, skaters, surfers, or hip-hop back then. These were sort of fandoms, I guess, or small marginal groups that had really distinctive and deep cultures, but they weren’t large. They ultimately weren’t terribly influential in terms of how the high school operated, in terms of the social circle.
What was interesting to find out was that when, you would think in some ways, the All-American boy and girl, the jock, the cheerleader, would be the ones who were setting the trends, but what we found was that, no. It was the freaks. It was the skaters, the punks, who had very outspoken trends that they were finding their own style, and then manufacturers would take those trends, water them down in a mainstream way, and then deliver them through Abercrombie.
You look at graphic tees, for example, for 35 bucks, these were all based on the surf lifestyle, or a lot of them were. The entire Hollister brand was based on that, and so in some ways, when you were looking for where the culture was going and when you were looking for where the next trends were, you were not looking at the popular kids or the mean girls. You were looking at these sort of adjacent sub-cultures that sprung up around the landscape, and that was super interesting. That was one example.
When we were re-branding ThinkGeek, this notion of turning a geek from a noun that was pejorative into a verb that was about celebrating your interests. Or with Conair and Scünci, tying hair accessories to this notion of feminine confidence. These are big ideas, and what is so much fun at the end of the day, and back to where we started, Steve, at the beginning of this, what drew me to branding, what caused me to fall in love with it, and what we keeps me fired up about it every day, is these big ideas and big moments that help businesses and brands progress. I’ve blathered, but I hope that answers the question.
Steve: Absolutely. Wise words from a wise man. I know I’ve enjoyed getting to know you in my time here at Finch Brands, and I hope our listeners have found a lot of value out of getting to know who they’ve been listening to day in, day out on this podcast. Hopefully, knowing the man who sits behind the microphone and interviews all the other brand and business builders that we meet with on a bi-weekly basis, has definitely opened their eyes, I hope, and given them some perspective. Three ways as always to help us here at Finch Brands.
Bill: Got get them, tiger. I hope I have a job on this podcast next week. You’re nailing it. Three ways.
Steve: Three ways, and that is to subscribe in the app store of your choice, so that you don’t miss an episode. Every week we do one of these episodes, whether it’s an interview with a brand and business builder, or a One Big Idea, more of a monologue. If you subscribe to us, you will not miss an episode, and you will get little nuggets of information every week.
The other way is to leave us a rating in the app store, 5 stars if we’ve earned it. That helps us be found by others who might be interested in this content, as well as gives us feedback on how we’re doing.
Finally, let’s keep the conversation going on Twitter, @FinchBrands or @BillGullan. You guys speak to us, we’ll respond back, and any ideas you have for future guests, questions you want answered, we’ll be happy to respond, and we love to keep that conversation going.
One other way to help us, sorry, this is a shameless plug, but we do have some internship openings, so if anyone is interested or has been inspired by these journeys, please apply now. Thank you. Thank you again, Bill, for being with us today.
Bill: My pleasure.
Steve: We’ll be back next week with a One Big Idea. For now, signing off from the Cradle of Liberty.
Bill: Way to go, Steve.