You will fail and succeed — often. While successes are amazing and wonderful and should be celebrated, there will be many, learnable, failures along the way. Do not let them break your spirit. There are great lessons in each failure. Manage through them gracefully and be grateful for the opportunity to glean insights from the experience.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Bennett .
Brian is the President of STIR Advertising & Integrated Messaging. Backed by years of creative work with Fortune 100 companies, Brian has a knack for concise and insightful takeaways that improve business performance. Regularly, Brian is a houghtleader on digital marketing, account-based marketing and inbound marketing. Brian has held senior marketing positions at high profile companies including Con Agra Brands and Ralston Purina. He’s also led brand development, new product launches and integrated marketing strategy for clients Anheuser-Busch, Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, GE Healthcare, Johnson Controls and Quad Graphics. His specialties include health care, CPG, food and beverage, retail, and tourism.
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?
STIR was inspired by my experiences working in highly creative agencies and in marketing management roles for large food companies. During these experiences, I witnessed fragmented thinking. When I managed agency creative, PR and account service teams, I found that getting all of the teams pointed in the same direction was more than a full time job. Additionally, I managed teams with a lack of interest in finessing the small details and too little understanding of the role pricing, promotion, display and integration of concepts play. As a result, STIR was born. The name STIR represents blending together campaign elements to create something new, blended and more effective.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Not all companies have the resources or knowledge to effectively drive marketing and communications across all relevant platforms. I found impactful ways to leverage information and assets to tell a better brand story and create marketplace impact that was greater than the investment made. When I found myself educating my superiors and propelling brands through new, more effective and efficient campaigns, I realized that I could, and should, build and educate a team with my methodology. Thus, STIR was born.
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?
On more than one occasion I felt like it was the end — out of money and time. After managing through those moments, I often reflect on them and feel inspired. In 2009, I bought out a partner and then the economy crashed. Clients stopped spending. I had a lot of staff, but unfortunately had to lay many of them off. As I sat in my office alone, I realized that in order to be successful in the future I need to lead the way personally. You can’t delegate vision and inspiration and need to lead from the front. I read every whitepaper available on Inbound and Social Media Marketing so I could educate the team on these disciplines. That proactivity did more than just save my company, it gave me great satisfaction in STIR’s ability to jump to the head of the pack of digital agencies by looking for opportunities to add to our marketing mix to become even more integrated.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
As a result of my efforts years ago, the company is well-positioned today. STIR is staffed to success with talented team members that bring unique skills that position our clients, many of whom are middle-market and smaller companies, to compete favorably against large, sometimes global competitors. Not only do our clients compete, but we get them to the playing field quickly and efficiently. It’s incredibly satisfying to help change the trajectory of a company by improving its fortune.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We worked with a Midwest-based sandwich franchise for many years. Prior to bringing the company on as a client, I used and liked the brand. However, I saw a TV spot of theirs that was frankly bad. It was doing more harm than good for the company. I called the company President to share my concern. Let me state that it was not intended to be a sales call, but an outreach for friendly advice. A few months later we were hired by the company to rejuvenate its brand image. In the first meeting as a client, the company President said “You need to tell us who we are.” I was stunned, but incredibly honored to receive that level of responsibility. For us, that’s not unusual. The story illustrates the gravity of the type of work we do.
In another instance, I received an email from the White House soliciting our help in putting together a communications strategy to educate the public about the dangers of opioids. Working in the West Wing, I donated my time and crafted a compelling marketing strategy that was used to ultimately save countless lives. It was a bucket-list type of honor. To start a company that has the ability to help our beloved country out of a national crises is a privilege of a lifetime.
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?
Someone once told me that if you don’t make mistakes you aren’t trying hard enough. Clearly I try really hard, because there have been many. I’d say chief among them was the time when we invited CMOs from across the country to tune into a Facebook Live presentation I delivered on Inbound Marketing. Thinking we’d impress with our far-forward technical capabilities, everything went smoothly in rehearsal. When it was time to go live and everyone from the office streamed the presentation from their desk, our network slowed the presentation down and there was a more than three-second delay in the slide presentation. Then, the camera tripod broke and the camera fell to the floor. Yes, all during the live presentation. To this day, I still blush when I think about it. At the time, all I could think was ‘at least we tried.’ We learned valuable lessons from the experience.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
A highly-respected business consultant and coach suggested that I implement the Entrepreneurial Operating System that’s transformed many companies. So, I took a team of agency leaders down that path. While successful for others, I found that for our business model it was a square peg solution for a round peg business. A lot of time and energy was wasted, and in the end we reverted back to a modification of my initial vision. Through the process, I learned that answers don’t always come from a formula or text book. You can achieve success like never before by continuously adapting and creating.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Energy and Enthusiasm: As an entrepreneur you need to fully commit yourself. When the sky fell on us in 2009 and again this year when COVID-19 changed our business landscape, I doubled-down. The adrenaline from these life-alerting times energized me personally and professionally to push myself and the business to achieve success like never before by innovating, learning and adapting.
- Vision and Creativity: I gaze out the windshield, not the rear view mirror. Many business leaders concern themselves with how they’re perceived and what they can put behind them. I choose to focus on what needs to be done and what around me can help me do so. At STIR, we gather information from credible sources, but take it in our own direction. When naming the agency STIR, we steered away from naming the firm after its partners like most agencies were doing at the time. Our agency is built on mixing, or STIR-ing, disciplines together to find the best marketing mix for our clients and that takes vision and creativity.
- Commitment: It is important to show up every day committed not just to your vision, but to your team. Show up every day ready to learn, work and play. It’s important to exercise the last part. Times get tough, so remain committed to celebrating wins, anniversaries, birthdays, etc.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Have fun! Work should be enjoyable. If you take the ‘fun’ out of it, you’ll loose your edge quickly. Also, believe in yourself. Confidence breeds good work, and helps you make good decisions. Map out your plan and monitor your progress. Not only does this help you pivot as needed, it keeps you grounded.
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?
One mistake is avoiding risk. With great risk can come great reward. Before you take a risk, do your best to prepare yourself and your business for all possible outcomes. Remember, there are no certainties in life or business. Another common mistake is not embracing flexibility. It’s important to be fluid in your approach. Keep an eye on opportunities and threats that you didn’t anticipate and pivot accordingly. Both will arise.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
People management is the most underrated component of running a business, but it’s also one of my favorite parts. You can only get so far on your own and you are only good at so much. It’s important to surround yourself with great talent and trust in their abilities. As we build our team, we hire extremely talented individuals who bring different skills, interests and viewpoints to ensure we are well-rounded and we’re complementary of each other. When you have the right mix, the marketing magic will happen!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Having great HR practices is so important to team success and can define your business. If you do not have the time to dedicate to become a good HR practitioner, hire someone who can oversee this important function for you. Remember, happy employees perform their best.
- Talent doesn’t have to always be in house. Over the years, I’ve built an incredibly strong network of freelancers that I pull in on a project-by-project basis. Working with freelancers, consultants and vendors can improve the quality of the work product and can teach you and your team valuable skills and concepts along the way. For a long time, I thought operating with only in-house talent was a signal of strength. Well, it’s not.
- You can and should turn away business. When you’re building your client portfolio, it’s natural to want to take on every customer. However, not every customer is right for your business. Revenue isn’t everything, but reputation is key. A good fit is more important than a good amount of money. Make sure you’re working with clients who share your values and exhibit good character. After all, you are a reflection of who you work with.
- Balance your budget. While it’s important to keep your finances in order, don’t find motivation solely by money. While it’s critical to remain profitable, keep quality work as your main priority. Good work keeps clients happy and brings in new business. I believe it’s better to be small and mighty than big and and not be able to bang out the details.
- You will fail and succeed — often. While successes are amazing and wonderful and should be celebrated, there will be many, learnable, failures along the way. Do not let them break your spirit. There are great lessons in each failure. Manage through them gracefully and be grateful for the opportunity to glean insights from the experience.
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. 🙂
Foster an honest culture. Honesty brings out the best in each other in the workplace. You cannot improve if you don’t know what you need to improve upon. I’ve been told by many that some difficult conversations I’ve had with them, rooted in honesty, helped them immeasurably over time. Also be honest with your time and treasure. If you have the means to do so, donate to or volunteer for a cause or community initiative you’re passionate about.
How can our readers further follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!