Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Brad Nierenberg, the CEO and Founder of RedPeg. Led by the idea to create an agency he’d aspire to work for, Brad created RedPeg, an award-winning, proudly independent experiential marketing agency. He leads a team of passionate experiential marketers who serve as counsel for brands looking to increase their consumer engagement through impactful activations and lasting memories. Brad’s personal and professional accomplishments match those of RedPeg’s, being named Best Boss by Winning Workplaces, landing a spot on DC Inno’s 50 on Fire list, and spearheading his own million-dollar fundraising platform, Chance for Life. In addition to partnering with influential brands, Brad continues to be a sought-after marketing resource/voice with features in The Washington Business Journal, Fast Company, The Wall Street Journal, and more.
Thank you so much for joining us Brad! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Ilearned about marketing from my days working at a bar in Georgetown called “Champions.” I was in charge of the nightly promotions and fell in love with understanding the drivers of decision making process customers go through. I saw firsthand how price, signage, influencers, and bartender incentives made a difference and started to understand how brands are built.
Next, I became a beer rep in DC, determined to switch people from drinking Bud Light to Miller Lite. So determined, in fact, that my nickname at the time became “Miller Lite Brad.” In this role, I started to understand the value of brand ambassadors as a source for personifying a brand. From there, I grew to work for an agency that replicated the “Miller Lite Brad” model, but in 20+ markets all across the country, and across multiple brands. This was my first official foray into experiential marketing.
But the system was flawed. Though the agency created great work, I felt they didn’t value the importance of the point of interaction between the consumer in the brand, which was critical. Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how creative or strategic your idea is if the people out there selling your experience don’t feel enthusiastic, motivated, empowered, and trusted.
I left that agency three years later to create a shop that would invest most of its energy in hiring and training the best people, RedPeg. It’s something, to this day, we still pride ourselves in.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
Mistaking optimism as certainty. One of my biggest mistakes was being overly optimistic, one year in particular. We had grown almost 100 percent through a single client, and I assumed that growth would only continue the following year. So, we staffed up accordingly, without a contract in hand. That put us in a tremendous financial bind when the business didn’t grow according to my optimistic plans. And it was one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced, because we lost so much and could have lost everything. From that experience, I learned to get much more focused on understanding the basics of our numbers. I now know I can be positive and optimistic, but I can’t let optimism drive business decisions.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
To start, I think it’s important to have the mindset that you’re never done learning and growing. And that never being satisfied is essential to continual growth, both on professional and personal levels. At RedPeg, we’re still very much on the road to what eventual success looks like. To date, we’ve been very focused and have had the opportunity to work with some of the biggest brands out there — Amazon, AT&T, and Southwest, to name a few. We’ve done so by not getting distracted by smaller business opportunities and staying focused on the type of business we want to do, the type of clients we want to work with, and the type of work we want to accomplish.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? You own it, so own it.
At the end of the day, the CEO takes all of the responsibility for everything that can (and will) go wrong. I learned quickly that you can invest time and money into hiring the best, smartest, and genuinely good people, but things don’t always go the way you want. It could be due to a number of different factors — a lack of investment in a position, lack of training, lack of insight gathering, etc. Whatever it is, the ultimate responsibility falls to the CEO.
Embrace the Trust Fall (The 50/50 Rule). There’s only one CEO and, in my case, both Founder and CEO. Though you want to impart your passion on all your staff, at the end of the day, you are the only one who owns the company and no one will care quite as much. And that’s okay. As a CEO, your job is to figure out how to motivate the people around you. At RedPeg, I do this through an open door, 50/50 relationship, creating an environment where employees are willing to walk through the door and share their thinking with confidence. All that said, as the CEO, I open the door, but it’s the employees’ job to walk through it.
Once you get to the top, don’t let the clouds ruin your perspective. Everything looks different when you’re up top looking down. The view from a plane makes everything looks smaller. A seemingly small employee challenge may actually be something larger. You need to remember how you felt as an employee. You’ll never truly be able to lead if you don’t make that part of your philosophy. As an entrepreneur for the past 25 years, it’s something I need to remember. Because I’m the boss, how can I exceed their expectations?
Celebrate everything. Business always has negatives. You never win every account, never land every interview, and people will always leave. So, how do you counteract the negatives? We create moments people can rally around and traditions they can look forward to, from Free Money Mondays to Pegsgiving (our annual Thanksgiving party), to making something as simple (and typically un-fun) as cost savings a friendly competition.
Chances are, no one is going to retire here. But while you’re here, learn a lot, grow, experience great things, and leave a mark. Physically, after a year, we recognize our employees as being part of the building blocks that make our company great. Recognition is critical to all parts of our business and best of all, recognition is free.
To get deeper engagement, you’ve got to make the first investment. Since RedPeg’s conception, I’ve understood that our people are our lifeblood and worth the ultimate investment. That said, it needs to go beyond just throwing money at “company culture.” Culture doesn’t come from a certain amount of money. It comes from organizations that invest time towards it.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
You’ve got to have something other than the company that gives you joy. You have to have distractions that you truly enjoy, whether it’s running or biking, working out, or spending time with your family. You have to invest in something that is outside of work that will keep you engaged and excited for what you do. For me, staying healthy and family are the greatest motivators. It gives me great drive to want to be successful. I think that is such a critical thing to have.
Also, there’s great organizations you can join. Having a peer group of other CEOs is tremendously helpful for your psyche. It’s a great way to recognize that you’re not the only one. The challenges you’re having are across the board. Before I had that I thought all of my challenges were unique. But they’re not. They’re very similar to others and it’s always helpful to hear how people in my position are approaching and solving similar pain points
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?
There was a political professor that saved me from failing out as an economics major, helping me to understand that politics and public speaking, and other things that I enjoyed doing in my personal life could steer my career to Washington, D.C. That’s where I started my to really establish myself.
That’s where I met Mike O’Hara. He’s the famous guy from the “Poverty Sucks” poster and was my mentor. He really showed me how an entrepreneur thinks and the drive an entrepreneur needs to have to be successful — not to mention what vision truly is. He was the guy who created the sports bar craze before there was a sports bar craze.
There’s a story I always tell. I was in charge of bringing in people every night at Champion and was supposed to have one to three events a night, and my job was to walk up to every person at the bar and find something special about them. Whether they were graduating, getting engaged — everybody had something special and I had to invite them to host an event at our bar.
It was a rainy, Sunday, January night and I had nothing going on. Mike came in the next morning and said, “so how’d we do last night?” and I gave him the number. I said, “It was rainy, it was cold, no one wanted to be out.” He goes, “Brad, there are no bad nights. Just bad promotions.” There are no excuses and I tell that story all the time. He was right. I respect him tremendously and he helped me learn a lot about marketing.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Personally, I lean right into Chance For Life. It’s something that I want to show my kids at age five and six. It instills a greater awareness of life and also the importance of giving.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
At the end of the day, people remember you for the impact you make. I want my company to be known as a place with great heart. What we’ve done for the last 15 years is create Chance for Life. It’s all about the difference we make in the world. We have 15 kids in our clinical trials that we single handedly funded through Chance for Life. We provided hope to these families who didn’t know where else to turn and we will continue to support families and children with cancer for years to come.
If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
I believe we’ve already started a movement with Chance for Life. What started as a 20-person poker tournament in someone’s home has grown into a nonprofit foundation, with an annual celebration of life for 2,000+ guests. We’re saving lives each year with the money we raise and the trials we fund.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Chance for Life
@ChanceforLife on all social media
@RedPegMarketing on all social media