What We Are Trying To Do At SMACK

I’ve been working for more than 20 years trying to help brands create great content right alongside their products and services. I’ve had varying degrees of success along the way. My first attempts were in the mid-90’s trying to help a company (that is now a division of Hallmark) develop greeting cards based on a short story I’d developed about a rabbit and a squirrel. It’s a way better pitch than it sounds. Seriously.

We’ve come a long way in the ensuing 20 years, although the market as a whole still doesn’t get it. A couple of years ago I pitched one of the world’s largest brands (one of the inventors of the soap opera if that gives you a hint) on a comprehensive approach to building an audience of their own, and the brand manager’s response is indicative of the state of the market. He said, “we have 75 years of marketing a certain way, all this institutional knowledge and all of this training. Plus I have a huge budget, so it’s just easier to buy my audience and buy my likes on social media.”

His response reminded me of the proverb about the rich man always having friends. He’s right, too, and that’s part of the problem. He did (and does) have a large budget – for now. But what happens when The Honest Company’s of the world build up an audience of their own? What happens when they have 10, 20 or 50 million people in their database who love the company and look forward to their content? Those big budgets will start to dwindle right alongside their revenues.

We all talk about media fragmentation and agency proliferation, but what we don’t talk about is who this all impacts – the consumers. They are footing the bill for this after all. The last stat that I heard is that $800 of every new car goes towards advertising. I’m sure it is more by now, and I’m also certain that I’ve not gotten anywhere near $800 of value from the content a car company shares with me — interruption or otherwise. I will say though, of all the cars that I’ve owned over the years, Subaru is impressing me as a company that’s at least moving in the right direction. Their magazine Drive just came in the mail, and it seems to be a step in the right direction.

You know who isn’t going to stand for this approach to marketing and advertising? Millennials. You can find article after article about how hard it is for marketers to reach them, how they don’t respond to advertising, and how they dislike most branded content. But the truth is that this is an always-on generation who has never been easier to reach. Go and ask anyone under the age of 30 who they follow on Snapchat or Instagram or even YouTube. You’ll learn very quickly who has all of the mindshare of the next generation. It’s the content creators.

This is what we are trying to do at SMACK. We are building a company that makes great content for brands. Why do we do this? So, brands can use paid and earned media channels to build an audience of their own. We are trying to help companies do content marketing right.

Here’s three ways we are doing this.

We are building a content marketing company.

We are not an agency. We don’t think the world needs another agency. There’s plenty of them already. So, we are building a company (more on that below). Our company is focused on one thing – building an audience for brand that will help them build their businesses. We think that too many companies are building other people’s business instead of building their own.

Sure, we like [insert your favorite media company] as much as the next person, and we think these companies are great ways to reach an audience. But we use these media platforms to find your audience and then convert them into customers. It is simply too hard and too expensive to keep renting eyeballs from media companies. And there’s really no need to any more.

My partner did this for his last company. He leveraged Google and Facebook to amass an audience of 18 million women who were interested in all things country. Their audience is so powerful that they’ve pivoted the entire company into a country lifestyle destination built primarily on content. The country music industry came to them to help launch albums from new artists and superstars alike. It turns out an audience is a powerful thing. We think it is essential to all businesses from this point forward.

We are building a great company.

We are not building an agency. An agency is a different kind of animal altogether. I’ve worked in, around, with and for a great many of them over the past 20 years. I’ve hired, fired and partnered with them. And I’ve learned that there is a difference in building a great agency and building a great company.

Great agencies are all about the work and the talent. To be a hot agency, you need to do work that gets the industry talking about you. You do this by convincing a client to pay you for this work, entering it in an awards show, and then using that as PR to grow your reputation and profile.

It’s interesting that most agencies do not use advertising to grow their business, isn’t it? Why is that? It’s because they have learned that something different actually works to grow their business – content. Specifically, earned media content about their agency, their talent and their awards is what they’ve learned grows their business—but not advertising.

We are not playing this game. We are using our own marketing philosophy and approach to build our audience and our company. The fact that you are reading this article proves it. We believe in content. It’s why we make it for ourselves.

When you are building a great company, other things matter to you. Culture matters most. So, we spend a lot of time internally talking about our mission, vision and values. We talk about our principles and practices – the things that create culture for us. We are building a place that is exciting, challenging and demanding to work. We are building a company that gives people a sense of place and purpose bigger than their own portfolio and next career move. We are building a great company.

We are building a scalable company.

Scalability is essential to growth, but agencies are not scalable: win a new client, hire more people; lose a major client, fire those people. This kind of revolving door makes it hard to build a culture that is lasting and meaningful to people. When everything hinges on the next pitch, it creates an odd dynamic internally and creates a culture of competition that does not foster trust and experimentation; two things essential to our approach to marketing.

Agencies create each new program from scratch. This bespoke approach means that everything is new every single time. This is a very inefficient model for scaling. It makes it almost impossible to scale for the agency, and it means that the quality of client work is directly related to the quality of the people working on your business. This breeds the talent-driven mindset in the agency world, and it breeds the competitiveness within the agency because you want to work on the “best” accounts.

So, we decided to build a company that runs a single marketing program. The marketing program my partner and I built based on our last 20 years of acquiring customers and producing content. It is a program we use ourselves. We’ve seen it work for companies of all shapes and sizes – across industries. We built it to be ideal for brands who are selling a product across retail channels. And we’re building the technology needed to support it.

This means that we can scale up quickly and easily as the business grows because we are not trying to figure out what to do each time. We know what works, we just have to dial in the program for each new business. Our technology platform gives us insights into the performance of the program in ways that are difficult to do by hand. It also makes it easier to on-board new hires to our approach to marketing.

The Next 20 Years…

I don’t know what the next 20 years of marketing holds, but I believe that we have the opportunity to transform the way that brands connect with their customers. I believe that companies who operate in this new way will reap the benefits of having an audience of their own. I also believe that companies who don’t will find themselves with a more expensive, less effective marketing proposition. It’s my intention to invest these next 20 years of my life building this company and helping brands transform their business and the lives of the people who love their products and their content.