Get Past Local. Go Global.
If you are a Melbourne, Dallas, Cardiff, Charlotte or Boise ad agency you just might be stuck herding smallish clients in your regional market. Becoming a global advertising agency is simply not going to be an option if you position yourself as a generic full-service or digital agency. Bottom line, a New York or Sydney client is not going to take a second look at you (or find you) unless you have a very specific service specialty that crosses borders – even states. Clients are willing to rule out the need for a local agency if they perceive that you have a specialty that they need – regardless of geography. Having a specialty will also make you stand out and drive your search engine marketing – as you will see below.
Boise’s Oliver Russell figured this out three years ago and blasted past their western state borders to become a global player.
Here is my interview with Oliver Russell’s CEO Russ Stoddard. Russ started Oliver Russell in 1991 and he and his agency have become leaders in the world of marketing purpose-driven companies, sustainability initiatives, and socially responsible organizations to help them better compete in the marketplace. Russ’s dedication to a category focus has delivered on his objective of becoming a global player.
Russ Stoddard Has Gone Global
Peter: What’s up?
Russ: I’m Russ Stoddard, and I’m a social entrepreneur. I have a creative marketing agency in Boise, Idaho, that works with purpose-driven companies.
Peter: How is business these days?
Russ: For us, it’s going remarkably well. We’ve got an area of specialty and differentiation, which means we actually have people coming to us, rather than having to chase clients down.
Peter: That’s great news. In terms of agency history, has that always been the case, or did you switch to a more specialized perspective at some point in recent history?
Russ: We’ve been around 27 years, and it took me 23 of those to finally take the medicine.
Four years ago, we repositioned very strongly around working with purpose-driven companies, which we define as those that have a very intentional bent around creating a product, service or business model that benefits society.
Peter: So you mean to tell me that Crest toothpaste does not benefit society?
Russ: Well, if it does, it’s not intentional and it doesn’t go beyond a brighter smile. How’s that?
Peter: All right, brighter smile, dating, and possibly increasing the population through marriage. Something like that. Back to reality. What kind of clients live in this purpose-driven world?
Russ: What kind of clients? It’s super interesting. They range from startups … and it seems like the startups we work with, at least most of them are being started by middle-aged corporate refugees who’ve had successful business careers and have jumped overboard and decided, for the rest of their professional career, they’re going to make a change in the way the world works for the positive and not for the negative. That’s everything from a leading Silicon Valley tech executive who’s starting a new learning center that provides coursework in yoga, meditation and professional development around purposeful careers, to a company in Singapore that has an online giving platform for small businesses.
Peter: Interesting, so you’re finding that this client base is international. It’s not necessarily U.S. It’s really more about how they feel than where they are.
Russ: Yes, it’s completely international. Last night, I had dinner with a super-successful entrepreneur from Munich, Germany, and my first call this morning was with an entrepreneur in Paris, France.
Peter: Interesting. What are their issues? How are they different from other types of client categories?
Russ: They’re trying to create different types of companies that add value to a community. Look at value, social and environmental, that’s created through a supply chain. They are creating different types of governance that values stakeholders beyond shareholders, and for each and every one, typically they have a product or service that very specifically, in a for-profit manner, competes in the marketplace, and at the same time delivers value and public benefit.
Peter: Is their market defined more by psychographics than demographics? As in how their customer feels about things, rather than who they are?
Russ: That’s a really interesting distinction, and it’s probably different for every social entrepreneur that we work with, but I’d say probably more about the psychographics of how a customer feels. They want value, they want convenience, but they also want to feel that they’re a part of something larger than themselves that has meaning and is creating a better world. So that’s definitely in the feeling side of things.
Peter: Does that push you, or their marketing tactics into more social media platforms than let’s say you might do with a pure advertising client?
Russ: Oh, yes. In my mind you’re not telling a story; you’re actually trying to be a story when you’re a social enterprise. That enables the client to get a lot of pass-along and third-party coverage, so it’s super important to be on social media and to work with digital influencers. That’s one of the things that we’ve been able to cultivate over the last four or five years, are connections and networks of people who can be very helpful, especially when they’re called to service in the name of a social enterprise that’s trying to create a business for good.
Peter: How do you use that background, that sort of psychographic background, to find their audience?
Russ: It’s kind of interesting. As I mentioned, we are always counseling the clients to try and become the story, not just tell the story. It’s almost as if it’s a pheromone that attracts people, whether it’s through effective content marketing or creating social communities or what have you. People find you. People are starting to seek out products, services, companies, entrepreneurs that fit with them and have something of relevance as far as society goes.
Peter: I wonder if there’s a demographic sweet spot. I can see millennials being certainly a hot group for this, as well as people 55-plus, maybe, with more disposable income. Is there a certain type of person that responds to a socially conscious message?
Russ: You outlined both the groups there that kind of the sandwich generations. The younger people don’t trust corporations, and have multiple careers instead of a single job for their lifetime. They want to have, number one, meaningful work. They want to invest their talent in companies that have values that align with them. By the same token, they also take the extra time to investigate and act on purchases around a company that shares the same values.
I think, for the old baby boomer generation, it’s equal parts having disposable income, they have fewer life concerns as far as supporting kids or what have you, and they’re also able to look back on their lifetime and see many of the ills their generation has helped to create. They’ve decided, instead of just bouncing a grandbaby on the knee or going to the YMCA to simply volunteer, they’re going to become proactive not only in their purchasing but their retirement.
Peter: I assume that this social mindset and vibration are beneficial for your employees.
Russ: It is. I can’t tell you how much different the work environment is here, because we operate as a Certified B Corporation first and foremost, and one of the aspects there is creating a healthy and productive workplace through progressive policies that value a person as a human resource, as opposed to simply a financial resource.
At the same time, the types of clients that we’re working with, oh, man… they are bright. They’re engaged, astute, experienced, and they’re all working in a different channel of the same river, which is to try and make the world a better place. It just creates a completely different environment and working relationship with a client.
Peter: Right. It sort of … There’s a parallel here. I remember when I owned my agency, we had Harrah’s Casinos in Las Vegas, the Montana Lottery, and we had a casino, a large Oregon casino as clients, and I … I’m sort of laughing, but I remember that none of my staff woke up in the morning saying, “Let’s try to find new ways to bilk people out of their salary.”
Russ: Yes, I hear you.
At our agency, it’s more like the … they’re not necessarily a client but a partner, and that’s a different dynamic as well.
The Global Business Development Angle
Peter: I got it. Congratulations on becoming a global advertising agency (and still get to live in Boise). Switching to the business development side of things, how do people find you? Do you find them or do they find you?
Russ: We are found by reference, reputation and content marketing. We have a huge amount of inbound interest, which we do through smart and frequent thought leadership from our website. Also, trying to get other online media points with a high domain authority ranking to actually break the content that we are developing here. We get a lot of that. We get it from people that are in Washington D.C. or North Carolina, and sometimes they can’t even tell us why they came to our website in the first place, but they do.
Peter: You recently published a book, Rise Up: How To Build A Socially Conscious Business. What made you decide to write a book?
Russ: I wanted to share my knowledge based on nearly three decades of building socially responsible brands with others who are interested in creating a different, more meaningful type of business model.
Being a marketing guy, I also wanted to use it as a business development tool.
Peter: What has been the response, I see that it has moved up the Amazon rankings.
Russ: The response has been pretty rewarding. It’s been promoted in airport bookstores and every week someone sends me a photo of the book on a shelf somewhere around North America. I also get contacted by social entrepreneurs around the world asking follow-up questions. I’ve been asked to speak at conferences and a couple of professors are using it in university courses. Oh, and I’ve sold a few books, too.
Peter: Is the book a key element of your business development program?
Russ: Yes. It helps build my leadership brand around the category of socially conscious business and to create content opportunities across traditional and social media to generate leads and hopefully convert new clients for my Oliver Russell. So far, I’d say it’s meeting expectations.
Peter: How do you use it as a sales tool?
Russ: I’ll mail hard copies to influencers and business prospects – a great door opener. It also provides a wealth of content for posting to social media.
Peter: Last question, how long did it take from conception to publication?
Russ: It took a little more than a year. I pretty much put my butt in a seat for most every weekend and a lot of nights and just cranked it out. I’m a writer by trade, so it was probably easier and more fun for me than most.
Peter: Thanks. It is great to hear about an agency that has built a global specialty.
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