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From Graphic Designer to Agency Owner: Chris Peer's Journey Unveiled

In Conversation with Chris Peer

For this episode of E-Coffee with Experts, Vaibhav Kakkar interviewed Chris Peer, President / CEO of SyncShow, an ROI-Driven Marketing Agency located in Westlake, Ohio.

In this insightful interview, Chris Peer, a visionary graphic designer, delves into the transformative power of design in the modern world. He emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between strategy and imagination, highlighting how a harmonious blend of the two drives success. Chris advocates for continuous learning and adaptation to new tools and technologies, underscoring the significance of attention to detail and its role in creating exceptional designs.

Watch the episode now for some profound insights!

In a rapidly changing world, design provides the anchor for meaningful communication.

Chris Peer
President / CEO of SyncShow

Welcome, everyone, to another episode of E-Coffee With Experts. And today we have Chris Peer. Chris is a very good friend and he’s the founder and CEO of SyncShow. Chris has also written a book, The Great 8 Pillars of Marketing. And that book is amazing. Welcome to the show, Chris.

Thanks, Vaibhav. Appreciate it.

Cheers, man. It’s really good to have you on the show. And we’ve known each other now for a couple of years. And I’ve been thinking to get you on this show. And today, finally, we get a chance to talk to each other about your journey and the various things you’ve experienced, and your book as well. Chris, you started as a graphic designer designing greeting cards, and then you moved on to running your agency. How was the transition? I would love to know the details of how you actually from being a graphic designer, and graphics artist to running your agency. How did that transition happen?

It was a lot of ignorance and arrogance, I think. I worked for American Greetings, designing greeting cards. What I learned in American Greetings as a side note is every greeting card has multiple people touch it. There are painters and artisans and hand letterers and lettering artists and finishing artists. I was not designing them from scratch. I was putting all of the artists’ work together so that they could be printed and adding some design components along the way. But as I was doing that, I always wanted to own my agency. I always really loved doing freelance work, and I just never had the wherewithal or the time to do it. And after my stint with American Greetings, I went on to work with Ernest and Young, and they owned an education and training division called Intellinex. And while there, I was a graphic designer there, building out adult training and learning programs. I became a project manager. And at the time, they had fallen on some hard times and I didn’t like the way the company was going and I didn’t like what they were asking of me and I just felt like I could do it better.

My wife had a great job and we had some infertility issues and we couldn’t have a baby. I’m like, All right, let’s start the company.

That’s going to be our baby.

I got one $6,000 client. This was 21 years ago. I quit my job and I said, if we don’t pay taxes by the end of the year, we can survive. I just started going crazy after that and putting my head down and working hard. Then ironically, three weeks after I quit my job, we found out we were pregnant with our first daughter. Oh, wow.

Nice.

She’s going to college in two weeks.

Yeah, nice. In a way, you had two wins, one for your company and one for your baby, right? Almost at the same time.

Yeah. Awesome.

That’s amazing. Chris, tell me, while growing up, did you ever think you’ll end up running an organization, you’ll end up running an agency, or a business? Did you ever have that thought?

No.

What a child were you? Were you very hardworking, mischievous? What were your traits back when you were growing up?

I think I was nerdy. I was always very young for my age. I always looked younger. I never played sports in high school and middle school. I didn’t play sports. I always liked creativity and being alone with myself and my thoughts. It wasn’t until college that I started to break out of my shell and joined a fraternity and became the house manager. Then I finally got some opportunities for some leadership, and I realized I enjoyed it.

If E and Y were going well with you, would you have continued to work there or do you think you would start your agency? What was the trigger point? Was getting frustrated at work at E and Y, was that your trigger point or something else which finally led you to, Okay, I have to do this? Take that call.

I think it was an accumulation of things. After college, all the jobs I had, I felt were my training to be able to start a company. I was thinking, I worked for a marketing agency. I was learning the business side of the world. I think if the experience at Ernst & Young had been positive and I had more growth opportunities, I may or may not have left. But when it wasn’t good, I wanted to pursue my passion.

The transition to your original question, it was tough.

Okay. It was tough. And SyncShow, What’s the significance of the name?

Ironically, the name was started by my business partner, my original business partner. We’re no longer partners now, but he came up with the name SyncShow, and it was the synchronization of the display of information. Back when he created it, it was a lot more like Flash animations and integrated video.

I was checking on the Web archive. You would do a lot of website flash and multimedia.

And we just didn’t want to change it after all these years because we got some name recognition now.

Yeah, absolutely. And for the first 10 years of your business, you started in 2002, and till 2012, you were running it with a partner. And then you had a pivot almost. You niched down, you changed your direction. So let’s talk about the first 10 years of your journey. What were the challenges? How was it growing the organization from zero to one? Back when you started, 2002, there were very few websites. The technology was HTML. I remember 2003 when I built my first website. I used the software called Dream Viewer.

Things have been evolving. What challenges did you face? What were the pivotal moments in the first 10 years of your journey? Then maybe we’ll talk about the second part of your journey.

Those years were tough.

When you start a business, I didn’t go to business school. When I started a business, no handbook says this is how you do it. At least there wasn’t back then. We did work for anybody that would pay us, any type of business, any size business, and any marketing project, whether it was branding or website development or you name it, we would take it, we’d figure it out, we’d do our best to do a good job. And over those 10 years, we didn’t make much money because we were making a lot of mistakes and hiring the wrong people and things like that. And I think it was at that 10-year mark, my business partner and I, had been investing in our technology and our content management system software.

I think a lot of agencies were doing that back then, but we thought ours was the best. Anyway, we had a client situation that happened, and they were on our software and we built their website on that software, and they moved off of it and went to a tool called HubSpot. And in 2011 or 12 when this happened, I had never heard of HubSpot. Yeah. Early days of HubSpot. We were arrogant and we’re like, Oh, they’ll come back. Six months later, they called us and they said, Hey, we want to talk to you about the website. I’m like, We laughed and we said, Oh, they’re going to come back. They don’t like HubSpot. I went and met with them and they never mentioned anything about coming back to our platform. They had another project. I said, How’s that HubSpot thing going? And they’re like, It’s amazing. It’s awesome. We love it. I drove back to the office that day and told my business partner we were no longer doing our software, we were going to become HubSpot partners. And he had a different dream and a different vision so we ended up parting ways. And now we’ve been our HubSpot Platinum partner, and we’ve been doing it for all these years.

I remember in 2017, I was at Inbound. This was in Boston. The valuation of HubSpot was, I think at that point, just touched a billion dollars. I And just yesterday or the day before, I was checking and now it’s $20 billion worth. They’ve done a tremendous job.

It’s a great platform. The ecosystem, it’s amazing. Okay, 2012, you decide to start being a HubSpot partner. You also decided into focusing on a few niches versus doing everything. How did that decision come into the picture?

When you’re doing business for everybody, and we had to do some personal introspection and say, What are we really good at? And who do we like working with? And I think that was the big piece of it. We worked with a lot of different personalities, some of them were great, and some of them were horrible. And I just feel like life is too short and we have a right to be happy. So we adopted a no-asshole policy where we don’t let assholes on our team as employees or work with vendors that are our clients.

Fair Enough.

We’ve fired some clients if they weren’t treating our team well. What we realized was the business-to-business companies that we worked with, especially in the industrial markets like transportation, logistics, manufacturing, distribution, and warehousing, were great people to work with. They’re just the salt of the Earth, really good people. And we had a lot of experience in those verticals, so we decided let’s just niche and focus on them.

What do you think makes certain industries, I mean people in certain industries good versus other industries not just, This is so intriguing, right? How’s that even possible? I don’t know. Certain professions make you more aggressive or more having more attitude. A lawyer would be like, Okay, I’m a lawyer. I win cases. I fight all day that becomes their personality as well. Or do you think there’s any other reason for this? I know this is a little bit off-topic, but just curious, what do you think?

No, I think it’s some of that. I think certain types of businesses they’ve got different pressures and stresses in their lives, which can change the dynamic. Certain industries are very steeped and knowledgeable in marketing, and they have very high expectations of marketing, and there’s a lot of pressure on their internal marketing teams to perform. So they’re always in a rush. They’re always very hyper-attentive to things. And with the industrial space, many of them haven’t done marketing and they haven’t invested in marketing and they trust you and they want to see you as a valued partner, not a vendor. And that was important to us. We didn’t want to be a vendor because we weren’t a take-orders group. We thrive when we can go in and help a company to grow by helping them craft better value propositions and putting together a whole ecosystem for their growth. Right. So that’s how it happened.

Fair enough. And it’s very interesting how you say it’s the people in that particular industry that led you to choose that industry as the industry you want to work with. It says a lot about you as a person and your core values. And I know you operate a lot by the core values. Would you mind sharing what your core values are in your business, which you practice, you preach within your team?

Yeah, sure. We don’t have specific documented core values.

We have an ethos that we go by. One is just to treat everybody with respect. See it, own it, do it is a phrase we use. Take accountability for your professionalism and your career. We try at Think Show to have more of an entrepreneurial mission. We used to have standard core values, respect, integrity, and dedication, and we just realized everybody says that stuff.

Yeah, that’s true actually.

We’ve transitioned more to descriptors of how we expect our team to support others on the team, our clients, and just do the right thing, even if it costs us money on your actions, those kinds of things

Okay, great. As an organization, how do you structure your organization? You’re the founder’s CEO, now the president. Underneath you, who are the people? How do you segment your organization into various departments? How has this evolved, maybe since we talk about the last five years, what exactly has changed in that particular area, the structure of your organization?

Yes, we just separate the company and really the two different halves. One is client services and one is non client services. So on the non-client services, we have operations and finance.

Then we’ve got HR recruiting benefits and education and training for our team. And then on the client services side, I think some of the bigger changes we’ve made as we’ve grown is we used to have one person overseeing all of the client services, all client strategies, and client relationships. Now we’ve got a vice president of client services who oversees all the operational infrastructure. So all our systems and processes, how we do work, efficiency, team utilization or billability, productivity. Then we also have a newer director of client strategy that roles about two years old, two and a half years. And that person is just responsible for the client’s strategic vision, client happiness, and client attention.

Nice.

Okay. And then we have the account managers that report up to that.

If we talk about the way you… Sorry, I’ll just cut this part. I lost my chain of thought. Chris, we met in Nashville a couple of years back, and I remember you being a little frustrated about the state of your organization. Then we’ve been talking and now I see almost a 360, 180 degree change in the way things are. You did a lot of right things in that period. Would you share with our audience, what those things, and what actions you took, which changed the direction of your organization from where it was to where it is right now? Your profits have increased, and your growth rate is up almost by I think 25%. These are great numbers. What changed between then and now?

When you saw me in Nashville, I was in a bad place. I was burnt out. I was very stressed out. We were just coming out of COVID. We had major employee retention issues. In 2021, we lost 52 % of our team. They resigned or moved on.

Wow, that’s a lot.

It’s hard to run a business when you’ve lost half your team and you’re replacing them and you’re spending a lot of money with recruiters and spending a lot of extra time training and bringing people on board. So I was in a pretty tough spot. Profits were down, revenues were stagnant, and we were very fortunate they were stagnant. What we did was we got serious and we said, Why are we doing this? What’s the why behind this? We love marketing, we love serving our clients, we love helping them grow, but if there’s no value back to us, it’s very difficult. So we realized that we had been losing profit margin year over year for probably three or four years.

We were bringing in a lot more revenue but making less money than we were three or four years earlier. This is ridiculous. So what we did, and this was last year, late last year, we put together a new strategic plan that said we’re going to focus on profitability, we’re going to focus on retaining our clients, great relationships, and treating this like a real business. And we implemented several things I’m happy to talk about. But yeah, the result is our profit margins have never been higher. This year, we’re doing fantastic above industry averages. And even though we planned for no growth, we’re seeing significant top-line revenue growths too, which weren’t planned, they just happened. So we’re very fortunate. We’re very blessed at this point.

What would be the top thing which perhaps played a pivotal role in the whole transition? You said several things. Maybe you can talk about one most important.

I think there were four. Real quick, I’ll go through them. One way we created an executive scorecard. Every week we meet, we follow the entrepreneurial operating system and that process for those that are familiar with that. So we meet every Monday in our L 10 meeting, and I implement an executive scorecard I did two things on that scorecard one, I made my VP of client services accountable for reducing our cost of goods sold. Those numbers were getting higher and higher every year and way above where they should have been. Number two is I made my directive client strategy accountable for client retention and client growth. And so he’s now seven months into the year and he’s very close to hitting his annual goal for client growth. So the most client growth we’ve ever had with existing clients. Those were two things. The third thing was we implemented utilization and time tracking.

We used to do it and we got away from it over COVID.

Sure. So did you do it yourself or did you get any external agency to help you? Do you implement the whole utilization or any software which enabled you to do it well?

Yeah, we switched over to ClickUp as our project management tool, and then we used an extension or a third-party software called Ever Hour to integrate for tracking hours. That’s been amazing. That whole process was a ton of work, but now we have insight as to who’s doing what and when and who has bandwidth. So that was important. And then the fourth thing is we just stuck to our budgets. We just looked at our team and said, I talked to so many other marketing agency owners and they focus on the top-line growth. And I talked to a couple of folks and they were like, Double our revenues but making less money than me. And I’m like, Oh, my gosh. If you just optimize, you can make a ton more money. Yeah, those were the four big things we did.

Nice. Chris, I read your book and it’s such a nicely written book for anyone who wants to do marketing for their own business. I think it should be the bible for them. What led you to write this book? What was the reason behind the actual initiation of writing this book?

I’ll share the long story because I outlined it in the book.

I hired a new VP of client services, John Dators, and he started asking some probing questions after he started working here. Are we getting these results for our clients? Are the case studies working?

10 X ROI, that’s insane. If you talk about it, yeah, I think he was not wrong. But if you talk about it to anyone, they’ll be like, Okay, that doesn’t sound right.

Yeah. We had one client with a 27 X ROI.

Wow.

We realized we were good cooks but didn’t have recipes.

We were winging it. We were just customizing every single client. The book was written, it’s not a how-to marketing book. It’s more about how to build your marketing infrastructure so that you can get a return on investment. We just incorporated all of the mistakes we’ve made and all the things that we found that did work and compiled them all into these eight different categories.

And out of the eight categories, which is that one particular pillar which you think if that pillar is done wrong, nothing else will work out. I know it’s like a car where all four wheels need to work together, but is there any one pillar that is the most critical of the pillar which people mostly do wrong?

Yeah, it’s pillar number two, value proposition, messaging, and branding by a long shot.

Talking about value proposition, every company is different. Even if you talk about just manufacturing companies, each one has a different value prop. So how deeply do you get involved with a client in figuring out their value prop, working with their teams one on one? And how do you scale such an offering? At the end of the day in an agency, you want to scale up things to a level where you’re repeating your processes and systems. How do you manage to do that?

Every company I’ve ever talked to if they want marketing or they want marketing help, it all boils down to one reason. They want more sales, either new business sales or growing customer sales. When you start having a sales conversation and how marketing contributes to sales, it changes everything. What we realize, and you mentioned manufacturing, a lot of the companies we serve are very commoditized. And so the only way a lot of them can compete is on price, which that’s a wrong place to be if you’re always competing on price because then you’re not making margins. So how do you charge more for your services or how do you get chosen more often? It’s your value proposition. But most companies, I’d say 95 % of companies, never craft a well-articulated and differentiated value prop. They don’t know how it’s very difficult. They tell a story, but their story isn’t unique. What we found is almost every company has a unique speak story to tell. We just got to figure out what it is. And so we start every engagement with value craft.

Making sure that we can tell a well-crafted story and then we work on the messaging and the branding to support that. And once you have that, then it’s okay. How do we take this to market? We have to do all your marketing, your website, and social media, which is that transition question you asked about how do we scale this? Well, if you buy a race car but never take it out of the garage, what’s the use of having it? You need to put gas in it. That’s how we scale it. And most of our clients are with us for multiple years, 3, 4, 5 years. We’ve got a client that’s been with us for over 10 years now. It’s an evolving process as well.

That makes me think about retention being such an important part of the whole agency, running your agency, retaining your clients, and especially in your book, you’ve talked about clients like Samantha, who is even after getting great growth, decided to leave because they had too much business. And sometimes clients leave for multiple reasons. So what were those things you do in your business which help you retain your clients and make them stay longer, and happier, especially now? Earlier, I could still feel, Okay, maybe you have your proprietary software which binds the client, but now this there’s nothing that is binding them per se. So what’s that binding force still? Because I know you’re able to retain your clients quite well.

Yeah. Number one, I think first it comes down to doing business with the right clients.

Enough yeah.

We have a saying that we repeat all the time here at SyncShow, and that’s just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. And we can do PR, but we shouldn’t. So we don’t do PR. So I think knowing where you’re really good and where you’re not is the first step. And then finding companies that value what you do and working with those kinds of companies is really important. And I think just being honest and open and if your clients know that you’re working hard to hit their goals, they appreciate that. And eventually, we’ll get there. We have one client right now, they had no ROI in the first year. They were a smaller retainer. It was a smaller engagement, but they also had zero marketing when we started. So we spent the whole year building the case. I think they might have a one-time ROI or whatever. They broke even. But we’re now seven months into the second year and they’ve got an 8 X ROI.

Far. So when you average it out, it ends up being like a 2 X ROI. But it just took some time to kick in.

And they were still convinced and confident in your ability to get them because moving on clients from first year to second year with zero ROI and still ensuring that they trust you, that I think you told the answer. It’s about the selection process of the client who you work with. Not everyone, but certain people where you can feel that, okay, these are the right people who will understand your ethos. That’s from there and that goes on. Talking about working with clients, an important part of the same is pricing. How do you price your services to ensure that you’re able to price it right, not something where the clients feel, okay, maybe they don’t value you because you’re too less? In fact, what is right in your opinion? What is the right price which an agency should charge? How do you go about pricing?

That’s a big question, Bye Bye. I think every business should be in business to make a fair wage. And if you can charge a premium for your services because you’re really good, then more power to you. So when we do our pricing, first we look at our costs. What are the costs that go into it? And then what’s a fair markup for those costs? And then what’s the ultimate value? So we do something I think that’s very unique. I think our approach to building out a repeatable marketing infrastructure and then servicing and doing the implementation work is very unique. Our client results show it, they prove it. Our focus on niche industries and being niche helps a lot. We price our services based on what we think is a fair price in the market that doesn’t overprice us, but we also test it from time to time too. Sometimes it’s just like when business is really good, maybe we get a new client opportunity and we charge more for a service than we did before just to see, can we charge this much? We have some strategy processes that traditionally have been loss leaders for us.

We lose money on them because we want to get a foot in the door or we want to win the engagement. Now, business is going well, you might be able to charge a little bit more for that and say, What if I doubled that price? Would people still buy? You got to test the market a lot. Sure.

Okay. You’re a big proponent of creative marketing, not whack-a-mole marketing. You don’t want people to just repeat. How do you make your clients understand? Because especially if they’ve been doing something and they’ve been getting some results by just repeating the things they’ve been doing. How do you change their mindset if they have a mindset of just numbers and scale because of numbers? Is there a methodology through which you approach that, or is it the eight-pillar approach that you talk about that makes them understand that it’s X and not Y, which perhaps will work better for them?

Part of it is the eight-pillar methodology, but nobody’s talking to me in my company unless they’re unhappy with their current situation. They’re either with a current agency and they don’t like that agency for personality reasons, or they don’t like the agency because they’re not delivering an ROI. Things are making sense to them or they’re new to this. When people hire us, it’s going to be more than $100,000 a year, sometimes much more. So it’s a big investment for these companies, so they want to do their due diligence. I think a lot of it is just saying, hey, one, we’ve got the industry niche experience. We know your business and your companies, your prospects, and how they make buying decisions probably better than you do. And I would say the number one thing that we walk them through is the reason that it’s not working is because they don’t have a marketing strategy. We’ve worked with hundreds of companies over 21 years, and not a single one has provided us with an existing, written, documented marketing strategy.

That’s such a big statement. Imagine the amount of scope which is out there for anyone who’s thinking perhaps starting an agency and that’s not just with, I think, marketing, with manufacturing as an industry, but multiple industries. I’m sure it’s the same scenario in every industry. People just don’t have a properly documented strategy. That’s if you think of it as such a big open area for someone who can do it right.

Yeah. And you got to do the strategy right. Just putting it on paper doesn’t mean it’s a strategy.

Oh, yeah.

Absolutely. But having a plan, and that’s what you mentioned, is whack mall-style marketing, otherwise, you’re just implementing marketing tactics, hoping it’s going to work.

True. Absolutely. Also, you talk a lot about working together with sales and marketing. Sales are the blood of the company, while marketing is the blood pressure. How do you get them together on the table and make them understand? Because I think that’s also a big part of the overall results because the end of the day it’s the sales that will sell and marketing, making them work together. Do you play a big role in getting them to work together as well as a part of their service?

It’s critical. In most of our companies, we are their marketing department. They may have one or two or three marketers on staff, but most of them don’t. We do everything on the marketing side, but we think of ourselves as presales. Our job is to help the company to drive more sales revenue, whether from existing or new business. And the salespeople want the commissions and they want to do their job because they want to be heroes. We do an extensive process. I just had a meeting this morning with a manufacturing company that said, we want to move forward with you. What’s the next step? And I said, before we even sign off on a proposal or do a contract, I said, I want to come out, I want to sit with you for two hours. I want to meet with your sales team and want to talk about how we can work together and see if it sounds like a good fit. So we’re going to walk through HubSpot and the CRM capabilities of it and lead generation and show them how the ecosystem works.

So that you know that it’s the right fit for you as well versus just them agreeing to work with you. The longevity and the retention, I think you’re right. It’s all connecting. It’ll start here. If you do this step wrong, you could have said, Okay, let’s sign the contract here. Here are the bank account details or whatever, and let’s start. But just you taking this first step, that extra effort of going there, working with their team, making them understand what HubSpot is, what you’re technology stack is, and then taking their yes will make sure that at the point, perhaps, where they’re not getting the results, you get that extra leeway of, Okay, we are together. We are working. We are in this together rather than them working as an agency. Okay, amazing. Chris, what’s your mantra and philosophy of life? Chris, as a person, where do you believe in? What’s your goal?

That’s a great question. I think in general, I believe everybody has a right to be happy. I pursue happiness at all costs. And so part of that is I want to pursue happiness in life and work. I also think my mantra or how I operate is thinking about my epitaph when I die, what people remember. I just want to be remembered as somebody honest, cared for, was a good friend, somebody that did what they said they were going to do, somebody that was trustworthy. And then I just like working hard and playing hard.

I like to be active and I like to accomplish things. Big dreams and big things happen.

Nice. Let’s have a quick rapid fire. What do you think?

Sure. We’ll try it.

What’s your favorite book? Favorite business book?

My favorite business book is The Boutique. It’s a professional services book. Fantastic.

Is there a CEO you admire or you’re following right now?

Not particularly. I do follow several thought leaders but they’re all over the place.

Nobody particularly. Okay. Favorite online tool to grow your business?

Hubspot. I think HubSpot.

I knew the answer to that. It is good to do with that. What’s your favorite pastime? Favorite hobby?

Fishing. I’m a big bass fisherman.

I know. Okay. What do you wish your 20-year cell knew?

If I could go back and tell myself 20 years ago, B, don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t stress over all these things you can’t control because I’m good at doing that.

It works out. Awesome. Chris, it was great chatting with you, talking to you. I think so many knowledge bombs you’ve thrown in the last 45 minutes. Thanks a lot for being on the show. It was a pleasure.

Thanks. I appreciate it. It was great to be here.

Thank you. Cheers.

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