…Build the infrastructure. Find the tools and software that you will need to make or acquire the product, distribute it, and manage inventory. All of the systems and operations infrastructure needs to be thought out and built before you start marketing.
As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Highly Successful E-Commerce Business”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carl Fremont.
As CEO of the full-service advertising agency Quigley-Simpson, Carl has focused its value proposition around brand and demand which combines brand building initiatives with performance focused intelligence and creative that drive consumers to action. Prior to joining Quigley-Simpson, Carl spent his career in leadership roles at WPP and Digitas/Publicis working across industries in automotive, car rental, financial services, consumer packaged goods, retail, technology, eCommerce, pharmaceutical, telecommunications, and travel. Most recently, he spearheaded the creation of a business alliance between two WPP powerhouses — Wavemaker (Media) and Wunderman (Digital, Data, CRM) — to help brands achieve an integrated approach to communications centered around the consumer journey.
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?
It may sound cliché (and also date me!), but my early interest in advertising actually came from watching the sitcom Bewitched. I especially loved the episodes that showed Darren and his boss, Mr. Tate, at work. The creativity of coming up with ideas every day for a living just seemed so appealing. At the time, boys were encouraged to think big and be astronauts or baseball players, but I wanted to be Darren Stephens.
I decided at an early age that advertising was where I wanted to be. When I was in college, I heard about an internship at Ted Bates, a very traditional ad agency in New York City. I really wanted it. I knew it was important to get someone’s attention, but this was before email or Fed-Ex, so I started sending faxes to the hiring manager. Once a week, I would send him information about myself, letters of recommendation, samples of my work, and some thoughts about advertising. My tenacity paid off. Over 200 people applied for an internship and only 10 were selected, and I was one of those 10.
When I got there, I was a sponge. I did everything they threw at me and would ask a lot of questions and take tons of notes. I spent hours in the agency’s library — reading books, taking notes, and thinking of questions to ask my manager. I remember one day he said to me, “You ask so many questions.” And I replied, “Well, that’s the only way to do it. Not only do I learn, but then I can help you more.” I felt like I had to take ownership of my career from the start and it worked, I got a job there after I graduated.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I began my career at a time when big advertising campaigns, positive brand perception, and high awareness were enough. Today, CEOs and board members are looking for more immediate proof that their marketing efforts are leading to sales, which puts intense pressure on CMOs to move away from solely long-term branding toward marketing efforts that have quick results. Brands are struggling to find the right balance between branding that creates long-term connections with consumers and tactics, like discounts, that drive more immediate demand for their product. With my background in both brand advertising and direct-to-consumer marketing, I understand both sides of this equation. To me, the answer lies in the middle, in a new space that couples big branding initiatives with the intelligence, creative work, and strategies and executions that drive consumers to action. Something we call brand and demand.
When I joined Quigley-Simpson as CEO in 2019, it was with the express intent to marry and balance their impressive performance marketing practice with a continued focus on branding — and to head an agency devoted to brand and demand. These transformational marketing solutions are created through the connection of media, technology, data, insights, and always-on creative content and my intent is to continue to build our expertise in all of these key areas.
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?
When I started in advertising, I wanted to be on the creative side. I thought I would end up as either a copywriter or an art director. When I was in college, I supplemented my traditional education with courses at the School of Visual Arts and Parsons. I was assigned to the media department at Ted Bates, and I admit that in the beginning I wasn’t really sure what the media department did and I assumed the real creativity was with the creatives. I did a good job, but I was always looking for ways to work with the creatives and trying to add to my portfolio. I began to notice that in my own department, I was being overlooked for promotions. I asked my manager about this directly, and he agreed I did good work, but said it was clear that I wanted to be somewhere else and he wanted to promote people who wanted to stay in his department.
I took this to heart and started to concentrate more on what I was doing in the media department, and I realized that there was actually a lot of creativity in my work. We were working with a lot of data and information — this was before AI or automation, so we really had to draw out what the data was telling us and then explain it clearly to others. I realized that we were storytellers too, just that instead of brushes or pieces of charcoal, we had insights and information to draw a story. That’s when I changed the direction of my own thinking and of my career.
Also, I still have that portfolio and it turns out that I’m not a great artist after all.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
At this point my career in advertising has spanned four decades and I’m still going strong even though the advertising industry looks nothing like it did when I started. I made a conscious effort to anticipate change and put myself in parts of the industry that were future focused. I left a traditional ad agency in the mid-1980s to go to one of the original direct-to-consumer marketing firms. The direct relationship between brands and consumers seems obvious today but it was a new way of thinking then, and we helped brands figure out how their advertising and marketing plans were impacting business and how you could measure it. I stayed there for 17 years, but then I saw how emerging technology — the internet — was going to change everything yet again and I went into early digital marketing.
My next pivot, which is how I got where I am today, was less around the work and more around the environment I wanted to work in. At that point, so many advertising agencies were owned by big holding companies and I realized that these behemoths were going to struggle to change if for no other reason than the size of the decision-making machine. I wanted to be at a smaller agency that could be way more nimble in coming up with integrated marketing solutions.
I guess that’s my version of grit and resiliency, planned and concerted efforts to move my career based on shifts that were happening in our industry.
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?
The first thing that comes to my mind is a photoshoot at Ted Bates. We had the General Foods account, which was huge, and they were launching a new frozen desert. The shoot was in our offices and the brand sent a bunch of boxes of the product. Way more than we needed for the pictures. So, I started walking around, handing them out to everyone. It turned out that these samples had all been treated with some chemical to prevent them from melting under the lights. They tasted terrible. People were doing spit-takes all around the office. I guess the lesson is don’t eat the props.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Quigley-Simpson’s superpower is our intelligence and ability to unite brand and demand by helping our clients rapidly interpret data and deploy creative in strategic ways that consistently drive sales. Our methodology is derived, in part, from our agency’s roots in performance marketing, which has given us a unique understanding of how to directly reach consumers and drive them to action. We helped Hulu drive its first 12 million subscribers and helped with the launches of Hotels Tonight and Plated. Brands come to us because we know how to effectively treat the brand and drive business performance, whether it’s a well-established brand like P&G and JPMorgan Chase, or an emerging challenger brand.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I think people need to understand that their career is a partnership between their employer(s) and themselves. People starting out need to take ownership not just of their work but of their career. It’s the advice I gave my 25-year-old daughter. I told her not to expect anyone to lead her by the hand, she has to take control and look for opportunities to grow.
The real way to avoid burnout is to continue to grow and challenge yourself to learn new things. If you look at your job as a job, you will burn out. But if you’re curious and you have a strong appetite for learning and you look at your job as one step in a potentially long career, you won’t. I am naturally curious and always seeking out new information which means I am never bored or burnt out. I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I could go on for another 40.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
The person I most looked up to in advertising was Lester Wunderman. He was the father or maybe even the grandfather of direct marketing. So many of our modern-day marketing methods, we owe to Lester Wunderman — he was the pioneer of the toll-free 800 number, loyalty rewards programs, Columbia records, and buy-one-get-one-free offers.
I remember talking to him in the late 1980s. As I said, I was always looking for what was coming next in advertising, and I trusted his instincts above anyone else’s. So, one day I asked him his opinion on the next big thing. He pointed to the computer on a desk in the corner of the room. It was an Apple IIe, which looked like a fish tank and was basically a glorified typewriter. The monitor displayed in green only and it was useless without a giant floppy disk. Home computers didn’t do much at the time but I believed Lester that they were the next big thing and I started learning as much as I could about the emerging field of digital marketing.
Years later, at Lester’s 90th birthday party, I thanked him for pointing me to digital early but told him I had a bone to pick with him. “When you pointed to my Apple computer back in late 1980s and told me it was the future,” I said, “you forgot to say that I should buy stock in the company. It was only 5 dollars a share at the time!” Lester laughed, leaned in to me, and said, “I bought stock.”
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that eCommerce businesses are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?
For me, it’s a little bit of back to the future. It’s back to where I began, which is selling direct to consumers. The pandemic has been the catalyst for a closer relationship between buyer and seller. Brands have had to find the best ways to reach their consumers in these rapidly changing times. One major change is all of the options consumers now have in terms of how to shop. Especially when we talk about big retailers like Best Buy or Bed, Bath, & Beyond — when stores closed these businesses were forced to up their eCommerce game but also started offering other options, like curbside pick-up. Most stores are reopened at this point, but these options are still very appealing to consumers who don’t want to shop in person. I think this change is here to stay, which will have an impact on smaller eCommerce retailers moving forward.
Amazon, and even Walmart are going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
At the heart of any eCommerce business is customer service — ensuring that the promise of the product is achieved. I think paying attention to customer relationships and customer services can be the big differentiator between the megacompanies (either here or overseas) and smaller e-retailers.
I’ll give you an example. I recently ordered a desk blotter and when it came, I got a note inside the package that thanked me for my purchase, noted they were a family-owned company, and told me to reach out if I was dissatisfied for any reason. The note, which was signed by the company’s two founders, continued: “We need your help. It is truly a challenge to sell on Amazon without product reviews. Would you kindly take two minutes and write a review…We are dedicated to improving every day. If this product hasn’t met your expectations in any way, please reach out to us (and they shared their contact information). Before leaving your review, we’d love to make it right.” This personalization made me feel instantly more connected and loyal to the company and made me want to write a positive review. Which I did.
If a small company wants to succeed in e-tail against the giants, they need to be about service and personalization.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start an eCommerce business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
I think too many founders don’t look at the entire customer experience. They focus on one part, whether that is acquiring customers or marketing the product, but the ecosystem of any
eCommerce business is vast. Customers must become aware of the brand (marketing), they must be able to convert that awareness to purchase (front-end eCommerce site), they must get their product in a timely manner (order fulfillment and infrastructure), and they must have positive experiences after sales (customer relations and CRM). Many companies get it wrong because they don’t look to connect all of these components of the consumer experience. They also need to realize that the consumer experience doesn’t have to be static, it should evolve over time as consumers interface with your brand. Test what works and change what doesn’t.
In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Essentially there are three parts of eCommerce — business strategy, infrastructure, and marketing. If you don’t have a plan for all three of these areas when you start, you are not going to be effective. I think new companies often focus on the selling part because that drives short-term revenue, but that’s not sustainable. Yes, you can spend money on Facebook and drive sales but if you haven’t thought through all aspects of fulfilling those sales and creating aftermarket consumer relationships, you’re not going to have long-term success.
Can you share a few examples of tools or software that you think can dramatically empower emerging eCommerce brands to be more effective and more successful?
There are tools that can help with every part of the eCommerce ecosystem but no one system is perfect for all businesses. I think you first have to determine what stage of eCommerce you are in. Are you just starting a new business or have you been around for a while but are looking to expand? Are you planning on developing your own eCommerce site/system or are you going to sell on an Amazon or Walmart marketplace? Then determine which parts of the ecosystem you most need help with; there are tools that can help with planning and strategy, supply chain and distribution, and marketing and consumer relationships. Tech companies will tell you their product does everything, but in truth, they all do some things better than others. The big names are Salesforce, Oracle, Shopify, Big Commerce, and Adobe. Understanding your needs will help you choose the right ones.
The most important thing to know about software, however, is that whatever you need already exists. At this point, no new eCommerce company should be developing their own tools — there are plenty of off-the-shelf packages that can be easily adapted. But, it’s not enough to buy the product, you have to find team members who really understand how to use it.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies an eCommerce business should use to increase conversion rates?
There are three strategies for increasing conversion. Number one, of course, is high relevancy. If the product is relevant and has core benefits and features and you are targeting the right audience, you will get conversion. Of course, you can have the best product in the world but if you don’t put it in front of the right people you will get “lookers not bookers” as we used to say. So, the first strategy is finding a high match rate between the people who will benefit from your product and the ones who see your ads.
Which brings us to the second important strategy — constant testing. You have to test different messages, different offers, different creative, and see what cuts through the noise and leads to sales.
And, finally, the third strategy is to use technology to help ensure there’s a connection between your product and the consumer who is seeing your marketing messages. AI can automate your decisioning processes by analyzing tons of data on consumers at speeds we mere mortals just can’t compete with. Embracing AI can help you get the right product in the right place at the right time and, in doing so, help up your conversion rate.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that an eCommerce business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
I know I said it earlier, but the number one factor in becoming a trusted and beloved brand is customer service. In real estate, it’s location, location, location. In eCommerce, it’s service, service, service. What are the ways you are helping and reaching out to your customers both before and after they buy your product?
We are also in a moment when brand values are very important to consumers — whether that is a commitment to the environment or a stance on racial justice, consumers want brands that align with their personal values. Having strong values and demonstrating a commitment to them will also help a business earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand.
One of the main benefits of shopping online is the ability to read reviews. Consumers love it! While good reviews are of course positive for a brand, poor reviews can be very damaging. In your experience what are a few things a brand should do to properly and effectively respond to poor reviews? How about other unfair things said online about a brand?
Someone has to be in charge of monitoring what customers are saying about your brand 24/7. Have a community manager whose job it is to respond to reviews and social media posts and develop a set of guidelines for how they respond to various situations. The actual response will depend, and your legal department will likely have lots to say about the approach you take. If customers experienced bad service you must apologize, but if the complaint is about the product you can offer a more classic “non-apology, apology” like “we’re sorry that you did not enjoy it, we stand behind our product and many customers are very happy with it” and follow that up with a refund offer or credit for the purchase of a different product. Just make sure to have a team who knows exactly how to respond each time.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful eCommerce business? Please share a story or an example for each.
The first thing is, do your homework, understand the market. You have to understand what the consumer wants and needs and how large the opportunity really is, given the competition. There are many ways of going about this research, from focus groups to online surveys to looking at third party reports, but research and developing the insights you need from that research takes time. The mistake that many new companies make is having a good idea and jumping right in without fully knowing the landscape. Be patient.
Second, you need a business plan. Take all that research and put it into an actionable plan. What are you selling? How large is the market opportunity? How will you sell it? How will you distribute it?
Third, you need to build the infrastructure. Find the tools and software that you will need to make or acquire the product, distribute it, and manage inventory. All of the systems and operations infrastructure needs to be thought out and built before you start marketing.
Fourth, test, test, and test again. Before you go out and spend a lot of money, you need to understand how all these systems are going to work and operate and the only way to really do that is to test on a small scale. That way when things fail — and trust me they might — you still have the resources left to regroup.
Finally, and this is the point I want to really drive home — have a plan for customer service. How do you help customers who have questions before they buy your product? Who do you have who can engage directly with your consumers? What do you do when consumers don’t like your product? What’s your return policy? How will you respond to negative reviews? And, how will you amplify the voices of your most loyal customers? Envisioning the customer service solution from the beginning is critical.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’ve already talked about how consumers want brands to stand for something that is meaningful. What if there was an app that could match consumers with brands that share their interests? Let’s say they are very into water conservation or reducing their carbon footprint, they could look for a brand that is giving to groups working on those issues and also living its own values by helping conserve water or reducing the carbon footprint in its manufacturing and shipping processes.
Years ago, before there were social networks, American Express decided to do something like this. The company had 30 million members at the time and wanted to connect them around a common social cause. So, it allowed members to choose projects that were meaningful to them and ultimately opened up a vote. The project that got the most votes received 1million dollars from Amex.
I see this app as doing something similar. A frictionless way to bring brands and consumers together and build a community of like-minded people. It will increase consumer loyalty to brands by reaffirming their commitment to causes and, more importantly, could spur additional brands to champion important issues.
How can our readers further follow you online?
You can follow me on LinkedIn: Carl Fremont and on Twitter @cfdorset. You can check out Quigley-Simpson at https://www.quigleysimpson.com. And you can learn more about brand and demand and tap into conversations and POVs by some of the country’s most well-respected marketers at The Continuum, thecontinuum.online, which is a new media platform centered on the value of embracing brand and demand. It’s a completely unbranded, media agnostic platform that we created to share senior executives’ perspectives.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!