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Creating a winning brand strategy

An Interview with Brian Town

Welcome to E-Coffee with Experts, an interview series where we discuss all things online marketing with the best minds in the business.

In today’s episode, we have Brian Town with us. Brian is the CEO of Michigan Creative, a creative problem solver and a true leader.

With over 10 years of experience, Brian with his creative agency, help business owners solidify their brand and get their message in front of the right people at the right time. Brian, with his problem solving attitude, is never scared to take risks and is always up for the creative challenge.

We like to think of a brand anthem as your Super Bowl commercial for your company. A potential employee, a customer, a board, whoever it is should be able to watch this brand anthem and understand who you are and get inspired because of it.

Brian Town
CEO of Michigan Creative
Hello, everyone. Today we have with us, Brian Town, CEO of Michigan Creative. Hi, Brian, how are you?

Hello, sir. How are you doing?

Doing well. Excited to have you. I love the work you do at Michigan Creative. Have been wanting to talk to a creative agency owner for quite some time now. It has been a lot of SEO talks in our last few episodes. I'm really excited to have you and thank you for taking out time.

Yeah. Thank you for having us on. We love talking.

Brian, before we start off with the main questions, it would be great if you could introduce yourself and your agency for our viewers.

Yeah. So, Michigan Creative, we’ve been in business about ten years now. It was officially ten years sometime in August. The start date is cloudy. We’re a full service creative agency. We like to call ourselves a creative agency or a problem solving agency. Of course, we are a full service marketing agency. We have 14 full time staff, and we really do just about everything from branding to websites, a ton of videos. We have two full time video producers and websites, digital marketing, graphic design and then project management. So really over these last couple of years, we’ve got into what we want to be and what we want to do. Now the question is, what do we do next? So here we are, figuring it out as we go. I started this company after a long career in education. On Friday I decided to resign, and on Monday I got an office in an incubator space and tried to figure it out from there. So here we are ten years later. We did something right. We made it.

Yeah. There's more to do. That's always the question, what next? So best of luck for that.

Thank you.

Right. Brian, you also have co-founded Able Eyes. Can you tell us more about it?

Yeah. I always look to find things. I think as an entrepreneur now as a CEO, what are some things that really make me go? I’m really glad I went down this path because entrepreneurship and business ownership is a lonely place, and it’s hard. I complain a lot about it, but there are also many great things. One of those great things is to have the ability to meet people like Megan and to be able to say, “Yeah, let’s do this.” So Megan came to me. Four or five years ago now, she was a high school vice principal, teaching in a special Ed school. Her job was eliminated. She was like, “What am I going to do?” She really had this connection with autism and people on the spectrum. She was talking to her husband about how to do something like this. I had known Evan through networking. He was a business owner as well. We had done some work together. He’s like, “Yeah, you should go talk to Brian.” That’s my favorite thing that people ever say about me is not necessarily that they want to come work with us, which they do. But it’s like, “Hey, I don’t know if he can help you, but it’d be a good conversation to have.” And I’m like, “Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s do this company together.” She runs the whole thing. I’m just a small part owner, but we built the website. It is a virtual tour company specifically targeted towards making spaces more accessible for people with disabilities. It’s awesome. I love it. We support her with our marketing, our website. We built her website, her logo and those kinds of things. I support her, but it’s all her for sure.

That was great to hear. Brian, as a leader, what would you say was your biggest learning from the pandemic?

Yeah. The best thing that came out of the pandemic. I think we were prepared pretty well because one of our core values is that every problem has a solution. There was that moment, I think where a lot of us leadership team and me included were like, ” What are we going to do? Oh, no and then, all right. let’s do this.” I think what really came out of that is with the people that we have, we are going to make it. The thing that really came out of it that was extremely good is I think a couple of things, number one, communication during any time is important, but communication when people are nervous or unsure is key. So I made it a point to have daily check-ins with our entire staff on Zoom. A lot of it was because we had lost some work. A lot of it was mostly me going, “Hey, guys, everything’s going to be okay. Here’s what I’m following. Here’s what I’m thinking and just letting them know that they were going to have a place to come back to, and they were going to have a place to continue to work.” We did have to lay some people off part time for a little bit, I think maybe two months, but just letting them know this is what we’re thinking about and I don’t think it’s going to be very long. So for us, it made us communicate better. We don’t do daily check-ins anymore, but we still do them twice a week. That was something we were not doing before the pandemic.

So I think for a lot of us, a lot of things have changed since the pandemic, and they have remained. We're still lucky to be in an industry where we were anyways open to remote working. In fact, for some of our teams, the productivity has increased working from home. So absolutely correct.

Yeah. I think another piece that came out of that was, we still have people today that live 3 miles or 2 miles from the office, and they just prefer to work at home. I think one, it’s given us more room in our office. Two, there are less distractions because we like talking to people. I think another really good story is we had a young man that was working for us. He had to move back to Virginia, and he was like, “Well, I just want to say thanks for all everything you’ve done and the time.” I’m like, “Well, you’re not going anywhere. You’re still going to work on our team.” I don’t think that without learning how to do this remote work for us, I don’t think we would have done that.

Absolutely. But having said that, I am bored of working from home. There's nobody else in the office. We have around three floors here, but I still come every day and just love it.

Also, I can’t do it. My wife and I are the same way. She can’t work at home, I can’t work at home. There’s too many other distractions at home for me. I think the biggest reason is I like to try to separate home from work the best I can.

Brian, from your experience, when you're starting off as an agency, what are the most easily forgotten aspects that actually should never be neglected?

Yeah. Love this question because my answer six, seven years ago would be different than it is today. So back then, I used to tell entrepreneurs and people to just do it. Go for it, start a business, make it happen. Now I tell myself, I don’t do that. But the things that I think we didn’t focus on right away number one, I always tell new businesses this is the only thing that matters when you start and for the most part is sales. Every single day, what are you doing to somehow increase the possibility of getting new sales? Whether that’s networking, whether it’s doing podcasts like this, whether it’s reaching out to somebody. At the end of the day, you could have a great culture, you could do great community service, you could do all these things, but if you don’t have sales, it doesn’t matter. So I always tell entrepreneurs to always focus on that.

Then the other thing I tell them is to make sure that you understand your finances and you have somebody to help you with that, because as a startup business, you are everything. So getting people on that team or outsourcing that work to people that are better and smarter than you, especially when it comes to the finances is super important. We didn’t do that very well in the beginning. Lastly, start thinking about your processes. It’s hard when you’re by yourself because you’re doing everything. So it’s just like I got to do it all, it doesn’t really matter. But, what happens when you have a new customer come in? What happens when they want you to do extra work? What is the process for that? What happens when the contract is over, what’s the process for that? So having those processes written down so that you can see when they don’t work and that way you can adjust and grow. Then when you start to hire people and bring people on, you’d be like, “here’s the process for how we do web development, here’s how we launch a project.” So it’s easier for you to onboard people as you start to grow.

Right. Talking about company culture, company culture is very crucial for all employees to understand. How do you foster it remotely?

Yeah. So I think company culture sometimes gets a bad rap. We talk about company culture. A lot of us, and I was guilty of this too, think that company culture is that we have fun at work and we go out and we do things as a company and all that’s great. However, I think company culture is really starting with your core values and understanding what those core values are. I think people don’t really understand how to write those core values. The core values should be written not about what kind of work you’re going to do at the company. The core values should be written about how you want to be as a person. Those core values cannot solely come from leadership. The best example I can give you of that is I was talking to a manufacturing client, and I’m helping him write his core values. He has some. He doesn’t love them, but he has a base. I said, “Well, look, for example, here it says that family comes first as one of your core values. That’s great, but do you require a lot of your employees to work overtime and double time?” He’s like, “Well, yeah, we have to.” I was like, “You can’t have family as a core value.” We had core values and we had a good culture, but it was just kind of there. We didn’t have any way to use it and support it and measure it. For a creative company, measuring sounds awful. But, our core values now are integrated in everything we do. It’s how we hire, it’s how we fire, it’s how we market. It’s how we solve issues. I, as a leader and my leadership team live by the core values. I think it’s one of the things that is created, the type of culture that we have.

I'm not sure if you have heard of the book Traction.

Yeah. We had Traction.

Oh, you did. We do traction as well. Since the time we have implemented traction, things have actually changed. So again, it starts with the values.

That’s where we got it from. We had a good culture and we had those core values. I did what I wanted. But until we did traction, we didn’t do anything with them. We didn’t have productive meetings whatsoever. We just had meetings because we thought we were supposed to have meetings. Now, we have our level 10 meetings on Thursdays. We get more done in an hour and a half than we did in months and months of meetings.

Right. I mean, earlier you just made lists of rocks, and now you exactly know what you need to do.

Yeah. There’s a lot of reasons why we’ve had such great success in the last two years, but I would say traction is a big piece of that.

Right. Again, as an agency, whether you are doing development, marketing, communication, it is like the core of client retention. I mean, how do you maintain strong client relationships? What is the advice you would like to give to new agency owners?

Yeah. So communication for us is always a breakdown. Almost every problem that I can think of both internally on our staff and with clients has been because of a communication error. It hasn’t been because they don’t like our work. It hasn’t been because they don’t like our employees. It’s simply because we didn’t tell them or give them the opportunity to tell us when things were happening or what the expectations were. So that’s one of the things that we have really pushed as one of our big interactions, as one of our rocks.

We wanted to make sure that customers before they said stuff like, “Hey, you know what, they build great websites or they do great videos, or they got us a bunch of leads,” I’d rather have them talk about, “you know what, they really over communicate. They’re really good at communicating, and by the way, their creative stuff is pretty good too.” Talking to my younger staff too is reminding them, number one, every problem has a solution. Clients, sometimes they are a pain. If it gets to the point where you don’t think that you’re probably the best person to solve a particular issue at the time, get me on the phone with them and we’ll solve it. Nine times out of ten, the clients are like, “Oh, yeah, absolutely, no problem.” One of the other pieces that we have to remember in this remote digital world is that picking up that phone call usually solves everything in a minute versus an email chain of 15. So, we always make it a point here. People know this about us as we pick up the phone. Whether you’re a new customer or an old customer, you can expect that we’re going to pick up the phone and you can get a hold of us.

The other piece with communication that sometimes I forget a lot, I have to remind myself, is we have to give customers space for us to listen. We have to listen more than we talk. Now, they expect us to kind of guide them, but especially in the beginning, we have to really let them and give them space to tell us what they’re thinking.

Yeah. Talking about communication, again, it something that happened organically. For me, what has changed, if I'm on the phone, nothing like that, but even now, when I'm sending an email, I have this Vidyard extension. So, I just create videos of me either with the screen share or just saying what I want to say, and I just send it out to clients as an email. It's easier for me and it's effective for the clients as well.

Yeah, it is.

Talking about branding. Brian, what does an ideal brand strategy look like?

Yeah. We just did a Vlog on this. We spend a lot of time talking about brands and get your brand right, and I think that’s all very important. I think there’s another piece that we don’t talk about very much in there is what are the messages that you want your brand to communicate? Especially in today’s digital world, with all the ads that we see, and I try to tell customers this a lot, we can get your brand so that it’s in a brand standard guide. It all looks the same across every different social channel and on the website and video. That part is relatively easy. A lot of companies don’t do that very well, and that’s pretty easy. Getting a brand strategy guy together and getting everything to look the same, that’s not too bad. But it’s that next piece that we find that clients have the most challenges with is, they know what they’re good at. They already know. They do it all the time, but they’re not very good at telling people who don’t know about them what they’re good at. They’re just not. Sometimes they just do social media to do it or they’ll do a video just to do it. What I think our superpower is getting them to tell us what they’re really good at and then putting together those one or two on brand to sync messages. We want people who are their avatar or their exact customer, we want them to see an ad and go, “finally, we’ve been looking for this company forever.” If we can do that, the digital will be easy, the graphic design will be no problem. Everything else kind of falls into place once we get those key messages down about what are you going to do to make my life better. That’s the key. It’s not that they can’t do it, but sometimes they say to us like, “Hey, look, that’s why we hired you because we’re not creative.” I think a lot of people aren’t creative, or at least they don’t think they are, but they don’t have time to give themselves to do that because they’re so busy in the day to day. That’s why it’s nice for a company like ours to go in there, listen and then put a creative spin on it, and we’re off and running.

Talking about videos, how important is a brand anthem video?

Yeah. I love brand anthem videos. One, they’re my favorite thing to do because they’re not your typical interview videos, which we still do. We have brand anthems that we created for customers, probably four or five years ago now that they still use every day. They make you look cool. We do a lot of work in the manufacturing space. You can think of a brand anthem. You’ve all seen them. We don’t know what they’re called, but we like to think of a brand anthem as your Super Bowl commercial for your company. A potential employee, a customer, a board, whoever it is should be able to watch this brand anthem and understand who you are and get inspired because of it. We did one for a magnet manufacturing company that distributes magnets. They make things with magnets, super cool! But, it’s your typical Michigan manufacturing plant. It’s a little dark, it’s a little dirty. But, man, you watch this video and you’re like, “Oh, my God! That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” I mean, it really is. The stuff that they’re doing is fascinating. I like it because you can use that for multiple different things. At the end of the day, does anybody want to hear you talk about how cool your business is as it is, not really. I mean, they don’t. Of course, you’re going to say good stuff about your company. That’s what film and cinema has always been about. We want to inspire people, so we’ll add some cool music and some cool shots and some really nice voice overs, and you get something.

Right. When you're making marketing videos, is there a thumb rule you follow on how long the video should be?

Yeah. Short as humanly possible, because our attention spans are so bad right now. There’s use cases for everything. We still have customers who were doing quotes for that said, “we need a five minute video,” and I’m like, “No, you don’t, because no one’s going to watch it.” If it’s a training video, that’s totally different. If it’s a video that you’re showing at a conference and you’ve got 150 and 200 people sitting in a room to watch it, you can make it a little bit longer. Our Max is 90 seconds.

If you’re doing something that’s an advertisement, 15 to 30 seconds is all you got. People are going to be sitting on their couch, scrolling through Instagram and Facebook, and if they see a video, that’s a minute and a half, they’re not going to watch it. It’s too long.

What are the best practices of creating a persuasive video that prompts action?

With about every video we do, you have to start with a script and you have to start with a plan. You can call it a storyboard. I think the biggest thing is understanding at the end of the video, what do you want people to do? What action do you want them to take by the end or sooner of that video? Coming up with those ideas, if it’s just to inform and to let people know your brand, that makes it a little bit easier. But, I think starting off with that script and that plan with the video is going to really make a big difference. Then you know what you’re supposed to be doing, when you’re shooting it, when you’re editing it, and then where you put it.

When should one rebrand?

That is a very up in the air question. We are going through that discussion right now. I think it depends. A rebrand is a big decision. We’ve got a client right now that we’re actually kind of up in the air to decide if it’s time to do that. So when you’re rebranding, you have a couple of different options. You have three, in my opinion. You can keep the same name, and you just upgrade, modernize your current logo. I think that’s a pretty easy one if you’re unsure. We’ve run into some logos that are pretty 1980s, but they’re not going to change their name, so we kind of modernized that logo. But a full rebrand, if you’re going to change the name or even if you’re going to keep the name and come up with a brand new logo is something that either has to be a really bad logo, or you’re going to have to say, it’s got to be a good ten years before you’re even thinking about that. It depends on the type of company that you are in. At the end of the day, if you’re a smaller company that hasn’t done much marketing in the past, you don’t necessarily have brand recognition, at that point, it doesn’t really matter. I also tell people we overthink it a little bit. We’re like, “oh, man, we can’t rebrand now, we got to change this and this.” It’s really not that big of a process depending on the size of the company. I don’t know what a good time line is. I think that’s going to really depend on who it is and what they’re trying to accomplish with it.

Hubspot says a website with a blog attracts 67% more traffic as compared to a website without blogs. How to plan, structure and promote your blog for traffic? Any best practices for creating an editorial calendar?

I can break SEO down for you, and being an SEO guy, you’re going to appreciate this. But SEO on its basic level is Google looks at your site and says, “Hey, this company does this. This company does landscaping in Lansing. Do they talk about landscaping successfully on their website?” If the answer is yes, Google is going to say these guys probably should be ranked higher than someone else. They keep their site updated with new and fresh blogs and new content that’s relevant, and it also is not like SEO crap-a bunch of landscaping Lansing words in there. It’s actually relevant, readable content by humans. That’s what Google wants. That’s all it is. There’s things like security and mobile friendliness and speed and all that other stuff, too, but at the end of the day, if you’re writing really good content about what you do consistently on your website, that’s what Google likes the most and how you do it.

Writing is very difficult. Writing is difficult even for some of my staff. We have to sometimes make them do it. The easiest way to take off the pressure a little bit is to just create and make it easy on yourself. Create a six month content plan, and just say, “Hey, what are we talking about in January? What are we talking about in February, March, April, May, June, July, and so forth,” so that you have some sort of idea of what each blog is going to be on a weekly or biweekly basis. Creating a simple content calendar will take a lot of pressure off and then also divide and conquer.

We do a really good job of their own marketing here. We have 14 staff members and everybody’s responsible for writing one blog a month or one blog a year. Sometimes some people write two, that’s it. If you’ve got a large staff, start asking questions like, “Hey, in January, we’re doing something on mobile and SSL, would you be able to write me a 500-word piece on three things to look at for your website?” Most people are like, “Yeah, I can do that.”

Right. Talking about content, what are your thoughts on using content generators?

Yeah. I like content generators if and only if it is relevant content for you, number one. Number two is, if you’re going to have some responsibility on your own, I don’t think that you can have just content generators solely. I think you still need that voice. I think they’re really nice to find things that you can outsource, so that at the very least, you’re going to have good content on your site that if for some reason you have a busy week and you can’t get to it. But, I think they’re great as long as you’re still providing some of that content, especially as the owner or one of the leaders. Your customers want to hear from you. Content generators are really nice because you can always know that no matter what, you’re going to have fresh content on your website.

Driving engagement with an increasing number of channels available to connect with customers seems like a challenge now, how do you tackle that?

Pick one, that’s what I always tell. They’ll come to us and say, “Man, we got to be on this. I hear TikTok is the place to be now. I hear there’s Twitter and we can do videos and stories.” I’m like, “Hold on a minute, let’s do one really well. Let’s create enough content and pick one where we think our audience is. Let’s do that one first. Let’s really knock that out of the park.” Once we do that, then we can decide “All right, let’s take this content and share it on Instagram too or let’s do that and then have a strategy for LinkedIn as well.” But, unless you have a huge budget and staff there’s just no way that you can successfully tackle all the different ways. So another suggestion would be, when you pick one, do it really well. Make sure that you have exactly what you want to say on that. You could do Facebook really well, but if you’re not saying anything that resonates with your potential customers, then you might as well not do it.

Right. I know this is your second podcast of the week, so how do you see podcasts as a marketing strategy?

Yeah. So I love being on podcasts. Except for this, I did one yesterday or the day before yesterday. It was a good one, and from a really reputable person that’s a business coach, has a great network. It gives me instant credibility, like, “Oh, man, he was on John’s podcast.” For me, it’s great. I think the other reason is that it’s free content. Right now, I’ve already shared it on all of mine. I’ll do the same thing with yours. It’s just great content to have out there. We had a podcast that we did called Business Machine. We’re slowly reworking to do that again. There are so many podcasts. I think before you start a podcast, you have to really decide why you’re doing it. If it’s simply because, “hey, I like doing podcasts. I’m passionate about what I do. I want some great content for my site.” I’m like, “Great do it.” But, if you’re there to say, “Look, I want to make money doing my podcast. I want to bring in leads and use it as a lead-gen for my podcast, that’s great, too.” Those are two totally different podcasts with two totally different work ethics. If you’re going to do it just for fun and talk to great people like you and have other marketing agencies on, then it’s great. It’s really not a ton of work. It’s just time. But, if you’re really going to use it as a business tactic and as an income generator, you’re going to have to really get somebody to help you do that. Then you have to be consistent, right? Everybody and their brother right now has a podcast.

Right. How about LinkedIn? How does your LinkedIn outreach look like? Any best practices?

Yes. I love LinkedIn. I think it’s one of those things that’s overlooked a lot. Many of our clients are not doing a great job on LinkedIn. For me as a CEO, that’s where I become that market leader. I use LinkedIn to show people that I know what I’m talking about in marketing. Also, we have a company page for LinkedIn as well. If some of the agencies that are out there start to look at some of your customers, my guess is they’re probably not going to have a LinkedIn business page. They just don’t. A lot of people are not using LinkedIn as professionals, either. I think it’s such a great place for you to what I call street cred. When people want to know about Michigan Creative and who we are, a lot of them are going to go check us out on LinkedIn. They’re going to check me out on LinkedIn too to make sure that I have done this for a little bit. I think it’s important to have your creds updated there. Also, I think it’s a great way for me when I do sales. I will go look at people’s LinkedIn just to see what connections we might have, to see what schools they went to, to see if we have any connections, just things that I can talk about that helps me in my sales efforts. I get a ton of spam on LinkedIn, too.

Yes, everybody does. Brian, one valuable tip that you would like to give to our audience that they could use and benefit from?

Yeah. I think the best thing you can do for your business is really come up. It doesn’t have to be with us, but it can be with just your staff. Really come up with that brainstorming messaging day. Have a day where all you’re talking about is what is your company’s message? What is it that you hear? Ask your salespeople this and ask your project managers this when you do something special for the customer, what do they say to you like, “Oh, my gosh. I’m so glad we found you. Oh, my gosh. I can’t believe that this is perfect.” Then also, what do you hear? Are your customers pains? The best way to sell is to show how you can solve customer’s pain. So start making a list of all your customers’ pains that you have solved, that you solve every single day because other customers have the same pains and then pick some messages that you think are going to resonate with other people that you haven’t done business with yet. That will be a fun day, and I think it will also increase your business.

Absolutely. Well, Brian, thank you so much for your time today. It was fun having you.

Yeah, Dawood, thank you very much. This is awesome.

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