CEO Roundtable: Marketing, ad firms grapple with shrinking client budgets, far-flung creative teams

BOULDER — Marketing and advertising firms lean heavily on their creative instincts to help their clients stand out in crowded marketplaces. But how do these firms foster creativity in the current COVID-19 environment that restricts opportunities for collaboration?

That issue and others related to staffing, shrinking clients’ marketing budgets, and the role of advertising in shaping the cultural narrative were those discussed Tuesday by Boulder Valley area industry leaders during BizWest’s virtual Advertising, Marketing and Public Relations CEO Roundtable.

“I’m impressed with how quickly people jumped into being energetic about working remotely,” Vermilion Design + Digital LLC CEO Bob Morehouse said. But, he added, “Personally, it’s not as satisfying. It feels like I’m disconnected from our creative team more than I’d like to be. …Our culture was built around bumping into each other, being in the same room brainstorming and sparking together.”

For Kimberly Mallek, design and creative director for The Brand Chefs, “the creative process is such an open dialog.” 

Projects launched while teams are spread out are “not feeling as thought out or inspired. It’s feeling kind of labored right now,” she said.

To bring employees together and inspire creativity, Morehouse holds regular outdoor meetings on the company office’s lawn. 

Room 214 Inc. founder Jame Clark said his team gathers to whiteboard ideas in a large, open room while wearing masks and social distancing.

Boulder-based advertising firm Teem is bringing employees together to carve pumpkins as a group.

“We’re all missing those little points of connection that are organic and fun,” Teem CEO Trish Thomas said.

It’s not just client-facing operations that are disrupted by COVID-19, but internal corporate functions as well.

Spending hours each day on video conferencing platforms isn’t proving to be the most effective way to develop a strong company culture, Avocet Communications CEO Lori Jones said. 

“We’re all really over it at this point,” she said of Zoom meetings. 

Echoing her sentiment, People Productions CEO Don Poe noted that “there is a lot of webinar burnout” going on. That’s especially tough for marketing companies reliant on revenues from clients who pay them to host those webinars.

Hiring can be tough to achieve remotely, but ad firms are embracing this new reality.

MAPRagency CEO Doyle Albee was among the roundtable participants who said he’s onboarded a new, fully remote employee during the coronavirus crisis. 

“Eighteen months ago, I would have said [hiring a remote worker without meeting in person] is untenable, and I’d never consider it.”

But the new reality “has certainly opened me up to a permanently remote employee,” he said, adding that he doesn’t “want a completely distributed team, but some kind of hybrid could work.”

Parallel Path CEO John Kadlic agreed that times like these often require taking risks and stepping outside comfort zones.

“We’re using this moment to experiment and try some things that might stick or might fail,” he said.

Moxie Sozo CEO Evan Faber said the COVID-19 crisis is forcing leaders at his firm to re-evaluate the role of the physical office space. 

These internal discussions “might change how we’re looking at things” in terms of whether to continue to focus on hiring local talent or expand searches to include those working remotely in other parts of the country, he said.

The COVID-19 outbreak hasn’t been all bad from a human resources perspective. 

“The [talent] pool is much greater, and we’re seeing top-class talent that we’re trying to scoop up” as agencies on the coasts have cut staff, VoCo Creative managing partner Juli Dimos said.

What’s undeniably negative for the industry is the shrinkage in clients’ marketing budgets as a result of the overall economic downturn. 

“People are very hesitant to commit to a lot of money” to advertising, especially startups, Mallek said. 

But firms that don’t pull back and “decided to invest in the future … have really been able to maintain a strong hold on the market and even leapfrog their competition,” Jones said. 

With the economy in crisis, culture wars at a fever pitch and the election less than a month away, advertising firms are taking a more critical look at how they influence the narrative and tenor of these national discussions. 

“What kind of responsibility do we have as an agency to create a positive shift in culture?” Faber asked rhetorically.

“It’s good for a brand to sometimes stand out, polarize and have an opinion,” Faber said. But it has become increasingly difficult for marketers and their clients to balance taking a stand for what’s right with the ability to appeal to an ever-divided customer base that seems mostly uninterested in civil discourse.

© 2020 BizWest Media LLC

BOULDER — Marketing and advertising firms lean heavily on their creative instincts to help their clients stand out in crowded marketplaces. But how do these firms foster creativity in the current COVID-19 environment that restricts opportunities for collaboration?

That issue and others related to staffing, shrinking clients’ marketing budgets, and the role of advertising in shaping the cultural narrative were those discussed Tuesday by Boulder Valley area industry leaders during BizWest’s virtual Advertising, Marketing and Public Relations CEO Roundtable.

“I’m impressed with how quickly people jumped into being energetic about working remotely,” Vermilion Design + Digital LLC CEO Bob Morehouse said. But, he added, “Personally, it’s not as satisfying. It feels like I’m disconnected from our creative team more than I’d like to be. …Our culture was built around bumping into each other, being in the same room brainstorming and sparking together.”

For Kimberly Mallek, design and creative director for The Brand Chefs, “the creative process is such an open dialog.” 

Projects launched while teams are spread out are “not feeling as thought out or inspired. It’s feeling kind of labored right now,” she said.

To bring employees together and inspire creativity, Morehouse holds regular outdoor meetings on the company office’s lawn. 

Room 214 Inc. founder Jame Clark said his team gathers to whiteboard ideas in a large, open room while wearing masks and social distancing.

Boulder-based advertising firm Teem is bringing employees together to carve pumpkins as a group.

“We’re all missing those little points of connection that are organic and fun,” Teem CEO Trish Thomas said.

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