Build a great brand (loved and admired): beyond a logo, the company’s brand should be the defining set of experiences, visuals, and memories that drive employee value, external marketing, and turn customers into valued ambassadors. If you close your eyes, and think about your favorite brands, you will probably see a logo, a color, or perhaps an experience that forever changed your perception of that company. Great companies have great brands. Southwest Airlines is a great example. They have an admired brand, because their ideals are matched by their employees, their operations, and their bottom line success, which is why one of their brand marks showcases a heart as the center of their brand — — if you can create a brand that is loved, then you are truly GREAT!
As part of my series about “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Steven Seghers.
As CEO of Hooray Agency, a globally focused full-service advertising and creative agency, Steven has been a key driver in the agency’s success and evolution since joining in 1994. Having worked with high-end brands such as Sony, Starwood Hotels, Pfizer, Hyatt, Montage Hotels, Salamander Resorts, Preferred Hotels & Resorts, and most recently, Resorts World Las Vegas, Steven is a notable industry insider and marketing expert, especially within the travel, hospitality, and healthcare space. Steven has utilized his deep expertise in the space to grow and evolve Hooray Agency, continually pushing the boundaries on what is possible and making Hooray impossible to ignore.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
When I was in high school, I worked part-time at my father’s office at New York Life and also moonlighted audio-visual and production work at a local Orange County California studio. It was during this period, that I embraced my potential for creativity, technology, and probably a bit of old-school business — or as much as a teenager can absorb while listening to sales agents.
It was during this time that my step-father, Nick Singer, a man with vision beyond measure, decided to create a digital marketing and development agency — before such company’s really existed. I was lucky enough to drop out of College, join the company, and learn my way from sales to design, advertising, account management, and every position imaginable in between.
I started with this agency when I was 19-years-old, with a full-set of glorious brown hair, a passion for creativity and the desire to be part of the “90’s digital revolution” (way before Google or Facebook). I’m proud to say, I’ve maintained my youthful outlook while losing every bit of my beautiful brown hair.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Imagine starting a company with services and product solutions that no one knows or cares about. That was Hooray in the 90’s — a digital agency — before the term had any meaning. Let’s keep in mind, most PCs or Macs at the time had very limited multimedia, and generally appealed to big corporations, gamers, or education. And while the “web” was starting to emerge as a consumer-facing channel with AOL, Compuserve, and others, it was simply uninspiring and very limited.
After two years, we had struggled to even acquire one client. We were slowly running out of cash. I went deeper into debt) and decided to do something crazy. Go all in. My drive to succeed outweighed the risks of losing it all — and when you believe in something, it’s worth it to fail, and live with the knowledge that you didn’t hedge against yourself. One goal. One purpose. One solution at a time. It was during this period of strain that some of our best work was developed and that’s when our business started to take off. We decided to focus our efforts on important industry verticals that could benefit the most from our agency services: healthcare and hospitality.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I was doing a photo and video shoot for a resort in the Bahamas. During the process, I started to argue with the property’s manager about the video narrator and the use of Bahamian local speech and pronunciation. I forcefully told the property manager that she was wrong, and I was right. To my horror, she turned out to be the owner’s niece and she was 100% correct about the proper pronunciation. The relationship ended soon after.
I learned quickly that the customer is and WAS always right — you have to accept that you don’t know everything. I’m a firm believer that the best leaders embrace failure, surround themselves with the best people, and they are constantly improving and preparing for what’s next.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
With a name like “Hooray Agency” — you better stand out, or else! The challenge with a company name like ours is setting the wrong expectation. We all want to say “hooray!” but say it too much and it loses impact. Hooray is a not a single event, but a philosophy of crafting sustainable impact points for brand experience, customer relationships, or a set of memories.
We focus on creating meaningful hooray moments, not gimmicks, so we develop highly personalized customer touch-points that showcase our company in unique ways. One of my favorites was a personalized, hand bound book, with an invitation for the client’s future grand opening — the opening starts now! The other was for a sponsorship of a hospitality event, where we gave away small airline liquor bottles with signs representing a company’s state of mind or mood: Vodka for creative, Tequila for technology, and Fiji water for consulting — it was a great way to force people into a category, makes for a good laugh, and connects customers to the hooray brand.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
This will sound counterproductive but work less, and sprint more. The most creative and inspirational moments come from personal reflection, in whatever form you choose, such as athletics, yoga, travel, reading, or simply doing nothing. Create these silent moments where you can be solely in your own head and open your mind to the next set of objectives, whether creative or strategic. Then shift into major sprints, pour yourself into a set of critical objectives, problem solve, and react quickly. The key is to stay focused, and leverage your newfound energy to get more done, over an extended period of time. By working less, and sprinting more, you will get more done and actually see give yourself a 2:1 advantage in output and creativity.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
For over 25 years, the answer remains the same, Nick Singer my stepfather and original founder and Chairman of the agency. Without him, I would not have had the opportunity to grow, prosper, and lead. When I was 19 and 20-year old kid, I would often have to meet with clients one-on-one and attempt to close deals. He gave me the rope to learn, taught me to be self-sufficient, and to not fear rejection. This confidence allowed me to pursue business deals that I had no business trying to engage (Disney, Westin Hotels, Sony, Harrah’s), but it worked, at least enough of the time.
On one occasion, I asked Nick to join me on a “close meeting” with a general manager in downtown Los Angeles. I felt certain to close this business deal, and I had worked this account for months. My confidence was very high. I walked into the meeting and was literally chewed into bits throughout the negotiation. I had no words and felt completely helpless and overmatched. In short order, Nick was able to realign the potential client, and we were able to acquire the client. That said, I learned a valuable lesson: never go into a meeting unprepared, and always have plan b, c, or d.
Beyond this, and probably the most important lesson learned from Nick is to look beyond what you see in front of you — — look at business deals holistically and find ways to create value that extends for decades. Never think in millions, think in the billions. That process of thinking “big” will serve every interest and force broader thinking.
How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
A good company is generally profitable, has a good reputation, a solid team, a foundation for growth, and measures success based on competitive landscape of its industry.
A great company does everything a good company does, but is loved equally by its employees and customers, and seeks to create new benchmarks for success by leading the industry through innovation and reinvention.
What are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Hire the best (way better than yourself): finding passionate, smart, ambitious, engaged, and diverse talent is critical to the success of any company. The team you hire should fit your culture and your brand ethos, and they should bring something totally different to the organization. Two of my most senior executives started at our company at the very lowest levels of management and worked their way up to senior VPs. I want to hire people that see no ceilings for themselves and would gladly take the leadership mantle.
2. Get out of your industry (and comfort zone): the difference between a good fast car and a sports car is a mere 1 or 2 seconds (from 0–60), so going from good to great is about the small things and not necessarily the big things. I have consistently found that by looking outside your own field of expertise, you can find new ways to thinking, evolving, improving, or innovating. Every company should look for inspiration in new, and unexpected areas. A great example for us is learning from the hospitality industry, the art of customer service and how to provide “5-star” service in everything we do.
3. Create imperatives (not a mission statement): change begins with saying what you want to change and why. I think great company’s focus on establishing clearly defined imperatives for their team. In turn, this becomes a rallying cry for executives, managers, and front-line employees. It’s human nature to want to be part of something, and when the entire organization is working on the same set of imperatives, then it allows for sweeping changes to occur. What are your imperatives? How are you living up to them? When we were doing work for Pfizer, one of the CEO’s imperatives was to become “a trusted and reliable source of public health information” — as part of this imperative we helped them create a major consumer facing campaign that put Pfizer in the hearts and minds of the customer (via health and wellness resources). In turn, Pfizer started to be recognized more than a drug manufacture, but a true resource for being healthy and staying healthy.
4. Build a great brand (loved and admired): beyond a logo, the company’s brand should be the defining set of experiences, visuals, and memories that drive employee value, external marketing, and turn customers into valued ambassadors. If you close your eyes, and think about your favorite brands, you will probably see a logo, a color, or perhaps an experience that forever changed your perception of that company. Great companies have great brands. Southwest Airlines is a great example. They have an admired brand, because their ideals are matched by their employees, their operations, and their bottom line success, which is why one of their brand marks showcases a heart as the center of their brand — — if you can create a brand that is loved, then you are truly GREAT!
5. Embrace failure (innovation culture): creating a culture that embraces failure in a positive and productive way will help your company break new ground. This is a tough one for many professionals, but the reality is that failure is a pathway to moving to higher results. If every decision you make is based solely on a safety net, how are you going to leapfrog your competition and create new solutions? You must be willing to try new things and accept failure as a part of that necessity. Nearly every great invention over the past 150 years was built, bent, and created out of trial, error, and optimization. One of my favorite quotes comes from Henry Ford, and he basically said that if he did what the customer wanted, then he would have built a faster horse and carriage. Instead, he embraced new opportunities (and failed a lot) but opened up an entirely new industry.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business or consider having a social impact angle?
Human beings are driven by emotion. Period. When you look at the motivating factors for employees or consumers, very few put salary or price as the number one consideration. Why is that? It’s because we all want to be part of something meaningful, so if your company embraces a social cause, community engagement, philanthropy, or some other form of personal connectivity, it shows real authenticity and makes the company (or brand), feel tangible and important. All that said, the purpose that your company chooses needs to be true to your culture, brand foundation, and should never come across as self-serving or overly prescriptive.
What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill? From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
Every great brand, from Apple to Nike, goes through periodic lulls in their business cycles. Their success is no different than small business, so they are continually adapting their products, solutions, and customer offerings to remain competitive. The difference for most smaller businesses has nothing to do with size or liquidity, but their unwillingness to adapt or completely change their business models. Success often breeds complacency. Blockbuster famously told Netflix that their business model was ridiculous and untenable. Too big to fail doesn’t exist. And that story is repeated throughout our history, so you must be prepared to change and adapt constantly, and well before you flat-line. My advice to any business that has plateaued is simple: rebrand and reimagine or prepare to sell before it’s too late.
Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
When the economy is weak, I recommend two critical paths to drive growth or gain market share. 1) Embrace your current loyal customers: loyalty is the engine that will keep you warm during economic downturns. Create programs and solutions that reward your best customers and ensure that you are pouring significantly more dollars into loyalty and retention. 2) Attack your competition, aggressively. Downturns create opportunities, whether through acquisition, customer conquests, or strategic advertising, this is the ideal time to capture as much competitive market share as you can. Bottom line: in a down economy everyone is hurting, so your opportunity lies in assertive action while the market is wobbly, you can pick up the pieces and achieve remarkable gains.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
The financial levers. I don’t mean the basics of the balance sheet, but the highly detailed health card on every aspect of your business operation, down to the revenue per square feet. Understanding your detailed financial mechanics, will allow your business to grow faster, stronger, and be in a position to capture more market share during down periods. The best example is your own personal health — only 50% of your fitness goal is working out, lifting weights, running, etc. — — what’s the other 50%? Your diet: what you eat, your body composition, and how you are calibrating your food intake to meet your personal goals. The is exactly what a successful business needs to address, not just the overall “calorie counting” (or sales) exercise of financial health, but the deep analysis on how each aspect of your business is affecting your short and long-term business objectives.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
To increase conversion rates, you must improve the customer experience. It’s truly that simple, and that complex. By adapting the customer journey, through better customer service, enhanced visuals/audio, interactive content or displays, etc., you will see your conversion rates go up significantly. Depending on your business this will involve two factors. One, for digital or ecommerce businesses this is all about the user-experience, content curation, and adapting offers or products in a compelling manner (think Amazon). Two, for brick and mortal businesses, this is about customer engagement, pathways, and ensuring that you simplify the customer engagement. In both cases, the key to increasing conversion is creating and adapting a customer experience that feels personal and rewards the customer for converting into a sale. In most cases, company’s fail to make the customer feel great about their purchase at the point of transaction. If you can close that loop, you will see your conversion numbers climb dramatically.
Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Be true to yourself. Period. If you position your company as the pinnacle of customer service, then your experience should be perfectly aligned to meet that lofty foundation. Trust is lost when brands overpromise and underdeliver. Companies that focus on cornerstone success items (and do it really well, such as In-N-Out burger) are the ones that benefit the most from positive reviews and have the trust and credibility factor. What is your business or product promise? What should the customer remember about you? How are you living up to it? Does every employee understand how to deliver it perfectly, every single day? (think Chick-fil-A, and their quality of customer service, how they make you feel). If you can answer those questions, then the reputation and trust will be following naturally.
In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
Ask! Ask your customers, do focus groups, create internal customer experience teams. Work with creative agencies to create and ideate and develop new innovative ideas that will impact your customer and create those viral moments. Test, learn, and optimize your efforts over time. There are no templates for this, but the wow for any business is the surprise and delight moments we all crave. Ultimately, the customer experience “wow” needs to be something you can replicate, so create tiers of moments or experiences that you can quickly operationalize. Last but not least, never stop evolving the wow.
What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.
- We all recognize that social media is an important, ever evolving, communication platform. However, I’m a firm believer that not every brand or company should engage or even create company channels (hello Apple). Ultimately, you must decide how you want to leverage each channel and determine the type of engagement that suits your company’s brand (OR NOT). It is critical to choose the right social channels that align to your business objectives, and to be prepared for the associated risks — reputational or otherwise.
- Bottom line: If you are not prepared for the reputational risk, then you should not engage. The benefit of social media is that it’s a fluid, multidimensional platform for engaging, reacting, and listening to customers. The danger of social media is that it’s a free-flowing multidimensional platform for engaging customers. Every brand must accept this reality and be prepared for the dark-side. Otherwise, stop the presses, and stay out. For those willing to engage, it’s important to rise above the noise, and recognize that your brand may be challenged, and you must be willing to engage in a thoughtful and “real” way.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
- I call it the “one thing” mindset. Every entrepreneur believes their ideas are the best, because that’s what’s makes them great entrepreneur’s. You must believe. You must be positive. That said, the most common mistake is their unending focus on what makes them/it/the “one thing” so great. For example, “if we can capture just 1% of the market, then….” “If we can just show our product to the investors, then” … “If we can just get in front of the right decision makers, then…”. The “one thing” mindset quickly leads to morale declines, lost business opportunities, and failure.
- Ultimately, the focus needs to be on the customer and the brand. How is my product going to evolve and improve the life of the customer? How am I changing and adapting to the business needs? How am I changing the customer’s behavior? It’s critical to avoid drawing lines in the sand, but instead, focusing your efforts on building relationships, creating a team-first mindset, and allowing the “one-thing” to be many little things, over time.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
We must reward success and breed it! Imagine an environment where companies that hired, inspired, and became successful were rewarded for helping the next set of leaders, build, earn, hire, and grow their own company? In my utopian vision, small and large companies that employ and empower, would be given tax incentives and loans if they hire new employees and support local charities through education, wellness, and hands-on training. Imagine a success cycle that is created by entrepreneurs and supported by the local and national government. The more you create, and enhance, the greater you benefit and prosper.
How can our readers further follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!