Group think. Getting together and always leaving the door open to come up with new ideas as a company. I believe in a culture where everyone has a right to an opinion and idea, and I make sure that people aren’t afraid to share them. In company meetings always leave time for the question: “does anyone have an idea to improve the company”.
As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Spencer Hadelman, Founder and CEO of Advantage Marketing — a Chicago-based marketing and media agency that values the importance of client relationships, building longstanding and genuine partnerships that provide customized, personal service and care to achieve their client’s marketing goals. Spencer founded the company in 2015, but the entire Advantage team has over 30 years of combined marketing experience. Spencer leads his team at Advantage Marketing by doing more than just implement marketing campaigns, he listens to client needs and takes pride in offering clients a cost-effective model to achieve strategic goals quickly and efficiently. The scope of industry work is broad, ranging from national golf resorts like Sand Valley and Bandon Dunes, to higher education institutes such as University of California Berkeley, and retail and e-commerce such as Stance and Sanrio (Hello Kitty).
Spencer is a seasoned speaker, having given keynotes at multiple education institutes and conferences across the country, as well as at The Golf Business Conference, and Videonomics. He is also the recipient of prestigious industry awards, including Crain’s Chicago Notable Entrepreneurs, Entrepreneur 360, and Chief Marketer 200.
In addition to founding Advantage Marketing, Spencer is also an investor in multiple companies, including Uncle Nearest and Lime Scooters, as well as an equity advisor in Curve Cartel and Think 53. Spencer also volunteers his time across four boards amongst two organizations — Canine Therapy Corps, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Chicago.
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?
After a decade of experience in marketing, I founded Advantage Marketing in 2015. I realized it was time to start my own company after seeing clear holes in the agency industry, with client relationships being my top priority.
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?
One major challenge I encountered when I first started Advantage Marketing was learning how to prioritize clients and how to effectively manage my time. I learned that not everyone is going to be happy with every decision that is made, but it’s important to go with your instincts and make the best decision for yourself and the company.
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?
When I first started Advantage, I was on my way to pitch a new potential client and I ended up going to the wrong address — the company I was pitching had the same name as another company, and I ended up at the wrong business. It was a good learning lesson for me to always double check email signature and not rely on Google..
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our dedication to our clients’ success sets us apart from other agencies. We take the time to get to know our clients and develop personal relationships with them, acting as partners and an extension of their internal teams, and working in the trenches alongside them. I consider a lot of my clients friends, and we are there for each other not just in work, but also in life in general.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Always make sure to schedule time for breaks. Working in an agency atmosphere with multiple clients and projects to juggle can easily take over all your time. Being able to still maintain a work/life balance is important to avoid burnout. Make sure that you have an activity that allows you to be away from your phone and email for 4–6 hours a week to clear your mind. We are always connected and people feel like they always should be working, it’s important to have an activity you enjoy and to take care of your mental health.
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?
My father showed me how to invest in relationships and how to care about people. He showed me the right way to do business outside of a business setting. When my father worked, he would always play golf with clients and he said during that time he didn’t talk about work once. He invested in the relationship and he showed me how to get business done in that sense.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. 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 a company that does what they say they’re going to do, is consistent, and delivers on expectations. What makes a great company is going above and beyond this with intangibles, showing that they care. A great company is a proactive vs. a reactive partner. They are not afraid to make a mistake; instead, they think outside of the box and are ok with making calculated risks. While a good company is content with the work as is.
Based on your experience and success, 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.
- You can never learn enough
I think it’s important to always be reading business books, biographies, investigative reporting, and other forms of journalism. It’s important to always be learning and exposing yourself to different examples and processing them to see what can come of it.
2. Group think
Getting together and always leaving the door open to come up with new ideas as a company. I believe in a culture where everyone has a right to an opinion and idea, and I make sure that people aren’t afraid to share them. In company meetings always leave time for the question: “does anyone have an idea to improve the company”.
3. Have and promote a confident culture
As a company, you need to believe in yourself, your process, and have the faith you know what you’re doing and that you’re doing it right. Have the confidence to go out on a limb and take chances. For example, hoping on a plane when you have a 10% chance of getting a client, but they’re willing to see you. You need to take those chances and believe in yourself and what you’re doing.
4. Be adaptable when it comes to your employees
You must always adapt as a company to become great. Understand situations where your employees work best (i.e. as a team, with clients, on the road, etc.)
5. Incentivizing every level of employee to buy in
You want everyone to buy in — for example, giving a commission on a potential new client introduction, etc. Give people the opportunity to buy into the company and give them a reason to want to.
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?
We are living in a time when purpose is regularly being integrated into mainstream businesses. Before you dive into becoming a purpose-driven business, you need to remember that you can have the greatest desire to make a difference, but if you can’t effectively execute on it, your mission will not see its full potential.
With that said, I agree that having a social impact angle will most often result in success for your company. Now more than ever, consumers are demanding more — more transparency, more inclusivity, more sustainability — from the products and services they choose and the companies they support. People want to know what’s going on across the supply chain and how an organization is supporting people and the planet. In 2015, a Nielsen study found that millennials are willing to pay more money for items if they believe them to be sustainable. Furthermore, Neilson states that sales for products linked to sustainability have increased approximately 20 percent over the last five years.
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”?
Have an honest conversation with yourself. Self-evaluation of your work, your process, industry analysis, competitive analysis, etc.. Find out what’s causing the plateau and think about how you can evolve — are you being too comfortable? Don’t become content with what’s currently happening, always be thinking about how you can evolve and grow — not just when you’ve plateaued.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
It’s important to always remain nimble and set up contingency plans, especially during uncertain times like we’re all facing right now. When planning strategies, budgets, etc., you need to prepare for hypotheticals and how your company will deal with uncharted territories and roadblocks that come up. Work for the best outcome possible, but always have a backup plan to prepare for the worst.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
There are a lot of things to keep in mind when running a company. The downside of entrepreneurship is not always talked about enough. Some things to keep in mind are:
Employees will always disappoint you — As much as you like and believe in someone, there comes a time when they do something that is selfish or doesn’t live up to the standards set for them. In these circumstances, you need to remember that it’s not their name on the door.
Don’t take it personal, it’s business — There was a time that Advantage was not chosen by a company that a friend of mine worked at. This wasn’t because of our relationship, but rather the company felt they could save money and do something better internally. You’re not always going to be the best fit for every opportunity, and that’s OK.
Never forget that people look up to you — Employees will come into my office and ask for advice. Sometimes I forget what the CEO title means looking from the outside in. It’s important to make yourself available for these questions as much as possible, and not overlook the fact that you’re leading by example.
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?
Multiple touch points and diverse marketing ecosystems. This means digital email, social marketing, traditional marketing, etc. Also, make sure the language you’re using at the point of sale is convincing for the people who are on the fence. What do you want to say to the person at the 23rd hour who is having second thoughts?
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Putting your customer first is the best way to achieve brand loyalty. Consistency, quality, and creativity are also important aspects to remember when it comes to the reputation of your brand. The best brands have an “it” factor, and strong differentiators that set them apart from competitors. Figure out what makes your brand special, then emphasize that in consistent messaging. Don’t market yourself as something you’re not — identify your target audience, and don’t try to be everything to everyone. You also need to show the value in your products or services. Create marketing materials that highlight how your products or services benefit the customer.
Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. 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?
One of the best ways to build a trusted brand reputation is to connect with your customer directly. This can be done as easily as creating customer feedback surveys. But it doesn’t stop there; you need to act on this feedback so that the customer feels that their opinions are appreciated and heard. Whether the feedback is positive or negative, take the time to respond, or even reward the feedback with incentives like percentages off of purchases.
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.
Again, this is where consistency, quality, engagement, and creativity come in. Meaningful and consistent content that promotes conversation and engagement through comments will be most likely to be prioritized through social media algorithms. Creating impactful content means using quality images and video. Your creative will have a direct reflection on your brand, so always make sure that your images are sharp and crisp. When drafting captions for this content, be sure to keep is concise, creative, and always proofread before you hit share.
Reviews and comments are inevitable — whether good or bad. Always be sure to delete anything distasteful, but always respond to reviews, especially a bad review. When tackling a bad review you need to make the customer feel heard. Listen, ask questions, and validate the customers feelings. Then you need to focus on solving the problem. Be confident that you not only understand where the customer is coming from, but also what you can do to make it up to them, and what they truly need in order to feel that the issue has been resolved.
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?
Too many people focus on dreams vs. a strategized business plan. If you become too focused on a big picture dream, rather than the little tasks that get you to that dream, you’ll end up spreading yourself too thin and being all over the place. Get focused and take it one step at a time.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. 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 always been involved in philanthropic efforts outside of my agency work. I currently volunteer my time across four boards amongst two organizations — Canine Therapy Corps, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Chicago. Eventually, I would love to start an organization that gives Inner-City kids internship opportunities. A lot of companies could give internships and exposure to Inner-City kids, and that could change their lives forever.
How can our readers further follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!