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Expert Strategies for Thriving in the Competitive Advertising Space

In Conversation with Sara Helmy

For this episode of E-COFFEE with Experts, Ranmay Rath interviewed Sara Helmy, the CEO of Tribu Creative. A creative advertising and branding agency, located in San Antonio, TX. Sara shares insights into her journey and strategies that contributed to over a hundred industry awards. Discover the balance between strategic objectives and creative expression, and gain valuable advice for marketers navigating the evolving landscape. Dive into the conversation on entrepreneurship, building lasting client relationships, and Sara’s perspective on the impact of AI in the marketing industry.

The strategy side has to understand the value of creativity, make room for it, allow it, and know that good creativity is going to make their numbers strong.

Sara Helmy
CEO of Tribu Creative

Hey, hi, everyone. Welcome to your show, E-COFFEE with Experts. This is Ranmay here, and today we have Sara, who is the CEO and founder of Tribu Creative with us. Hey, Sara.

Hi, Ranmay. I’m excited to be here. Thanks for having me.

Lovely. Sara, before we move forward, why don’t you talk us through your journey, how you landed up in space and, how did you start Tribu Creative?

What has been you know, the journey of Tribu Creative so far and we’ll take it forward from there on.

Okay, that sounds great. I’m 36 years old today. Tribu was started when I was 22, so I was very young.

Oh, wow. Happy birthday.

Oh, thanks. but it’s October. Sorry.

Okay.

You said today, I thought never mind. Yeah.

No, it’s all good. But, I was 22 years old when Tribu started. So a little bit of it was like young. And naivety, I was very passionate [00:01:00] about marketing and where it was going. Digital marketing was it had been around, but it was emerging and it was at a very exciting time.

People were starting to look at, Google as a great place of investment. And I was young and so excited by all of this. I looked inside our hometown, San Antonio, Texas, and I didn’t see any agencies that specialized in.

Digital and branding, I’ve always loved creativity. So I thought, it would be cool. If there was an agency that was focused on both the creative aspects, design, and good branding, but also taking those things into the digital marketing realm, which is very measurable. I thought that would be great if we could build these tribes for our brands and do that with a lot of creativity, but be able to talk about and demonstrate our why, which digital avenue to do so much more.

And so that’s how the concept of Tribu was born. Tribu, like we were talking about earlier, means tribe and Latin and the whole idea is that we wanna use branding and digital marketing to build tribes for the brands that we serve.

How did you name it? Or what is the backstory of naming your agency as Tribu?

So honestly, we had no idea what we were going to name it. And we were just we were just going back and forth on the design side. We ended up in the most peaceful separation ever on great terms, but he and I were going back and forth and we were just putting names on an app kit, and he wanted Tribu.

And I, when I first heard the name was like, I don’t know, and when he explained to me that tribu means tribe and we could connect it to the concept of what we do, that’s when it started to feel very right to us. And that’s how we landed on the name. We felt that all the names we had come up with, that was the name that most accurately described what we did, but didn’t also sound very generic, like branding and digital marketing crew, so that’s how we landed on Tribu

Lovely. Lovely. And then, as you mentioned, you started it all at a very young age of 22, and now having earned over a hundred industry awards, right? Feel free to share some key strategies with us, with our listeners that you feel have contributed to such remarkable success in this competitive advertising and branding landscape.

Our industry in general is so competitive, and then within a span of last 14-15 years, getting so much recognition how could you manage it? Give us some tricks up your sleeve there.

Thank you. It’s only getting more competitive, right? But honestly, I think the best business strategies are simple ones, and a little bit of it is luck because when you’re 22, you believe everything. You have to do anything, but keep things simple. You don’t have enough experience. Yet to do it any other way. The awards started very simple.

It started as. It doesn’t matter what somebody’s paying you if they give you an update do your absolute best, right? To see less may be of the economics and to see more of the opportunity that someone’s trusting you with. When you’re young, you just meet opportunity with like complete excitement and you want to do your best with absolutely everything.

You’re not necessarily focused on resources and economics and does this make financial sense? We just gave our best to everything in the very beginning and we were very blessed then to get recognized for some of that. And that creates an addiction, when it’s working creates an addiction, so you want to do it more, a good addiction.

And so since then we’ve had this focus that the creative aspect of our business might not always make economic sense. Like you’ve got to let a true creative be creative. You want things to be excellent, independent of, whether it’s the biggest financial client you have or the smallest financial client you have, that creativity, we believe is very foundational and important.

So we devise processes inside of tribu. That removes resources and economics from the equation. Is this good enough to get out of tribu? We have a creative director whose goal isn’t necessarily to know how much resources are behind this thing that we were hired to create. His only job is to say whether or not it’s good enough to go out into the world.

And that’s how we’ve been able to keep that creative excellence. Inside of Tribu as we’ve grown. It’s not easy. There have been times when it’s been tempting for economic reasons, to pull it back but you can’t at the end of the day it’s more of a long-term view and strategy of if you have great work, the profit follows, right?

It’s a metric that determines value creation. So that’s how the awards came to be a little bit was luck and then it was born and then, of course, from early success, you want more, yes. And now we’re a little bit more grown up, so there’s a budget, of course, in place for the award submissions we will do annually and things like that to keep it up.

The other thing too, that’s important is not to ever become so obsessed with awards. I think agencies sometimes can be, it’s just about serving, the partner, or our client, but we call our clients partners. It’s really about just being creative for them and serving them to the best of our ability.

And if we do that well, where it follows, right? You end up with a portfolio of work that you look at and go, which we can submit. And that’s how it’s happened.

Lovely. And then, you and I know that it is so difficult. So, what are the challenges of running an advertising agency or marketing agency?

For all the entrepreneurs or budding entrepreneurs, trying to make a mark in the digital space, listening to us today. What is the piece of advice that you want to give to them if they, want to get into the space, build their agency, and, create a solid growth strategy or, grow a brand for themselves?

So what is that advice or what factors would want them to make, keep an eye for when they’re starting their, own agency?

I think there’s a couple. I’ll give two. One of them we talked about a little bit earlier around where it’s just like the specialization, the focus on what you want to do extremely well. That’s so important. Nobody can do everything. The reality is that we all have our strengths and I think early deciding what will be your strengths as an agency

And are those strengths valuable to a potential set of customers deciding that you want to own a strength or own a niche I think that is very important. Especially as our world gets more competitive. More people are playing in the digital marketing and branding space than have ever been.

Yeah. It’s about what you can do well, and there’s always deeper. There’s always deeper to go. There’s always more you can do. And there are always ways to get better at it. So I think having that focus. Is important, the other thing I think is, and this one probably everybody says, but it’s just so true is like surrounding yourself with really great people, really great talent, enabling them and trusting them.

You cannot, what’s the phrase you want to if? If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. If you want to go far, you’re going to need some great people around you that you can trust. And that is willing to carry big responsibility with you. And you want to grow those people and you want to serve those people.

You want to develop those people and you want to take care of them very well. I think our industry struggles with that a lot. We have very high turnover, and honestly, I can’t say that Tribu is perfect at it either, but it’s something that we work hard on is making sure that we’re like, taking very good care of our people and setting them up for success in full recognition that their success is our success.

You can’t do it alone. You gotta have good people around you. Those two I think are the primary. Yeah.

Yeah, absolutely

And I don’t know if that’s anything new.

Go for it.

Yeah. No worries. And then also, while it is important to, keep the lights on. And especially if you’re starting out but at the same time, it is also important to, like you mentioned, understand what is your niche, what your strengths are, what are your weaknesses, or, areas in which you’re not so good at saying no to, clients who are demanding for requirements, which is not a core strength or core expertise, you cannot do everything like you mentioned you cannot be good at, Everything like you mentioned.

Saying no to, clients for, more orders, fresh orders, or, more revenue, even if let’s say those are difficult phases for you, it’s very important because you are, you want to carve out a niche for yourself and you want to be good at what you’re doing and that is, that is gonna. Help you sell your brand more in days to come.

Early on, it is difficult to do that. we understand it, but at times you need to take that call to, just create, that niche or that space for yourself that, Hey, you know what? Sara is very good at digital creatives, right?

And let’s say, Ranmay is good at SEO, John is good at, let’s say, paid or PPC, right? So it’s important to say no or let’s say educate your clients to help them understand that it’s not only about saying no in terms of if you are good at it or not, let’s say even if you’re good at it, but the client does not need to spend on that particular thing at that particular moment, then also you’ll have to say no to, be transparent and honest with your client if they need it.

Need that particular service, even if you’re good at it, or if you’re selling it at that particular point in time or not. So those are things, which you need to weigh in terms of how you want to grow your business.

Totally. And in Tribu, and I’m sure this is true for every agency, You want to have your, you want to have your partners or clients for a very long time. Part of allowing that to be true is just being honest that they trust you when you say, do this, and I can do this.

And what are the things that they’re asking? Because it’s not necessarily about getting as much as you can from every single person you service. It’s about developing good long-term relationships. So that both sides truly feel like it’s an honest relationship. It’s a good relationship.

It’s built on trust and it can last. And those are additional to achieving big things together, which if you’re serving a client, I’m sure we all want to achieve big things for our clients and together. So I agree with that, I get it. There’s so much that’s been done.

As this is what I say to my team, your attention does not start after, onboarding or let’s say, six months down the line after your service, the client for let’s say a quarter.

Or a couple of quarters, after they have seen your service, your deliverables. No, the retention starts at the point in your sales guy, or, for an existing account, your project management. Folks have made that sale, if you’ve sold it, half your job of retention is done, right?

Because that is what they need. What you can offer. And you know that you gonna deliver as per their expectation. If those parameters are set on day one, right? Then retention, I’m not saying it will be a cakewalk. Yeah, you always face challenges operationally like we were discussing.

But yeah, life becomes easier, right? If you have set the expectations. The way it should be from day one.

Totally. And then something unconventional about Tribu is that we have a solutions department. So basically an agency with a sales department. Only I don’t like calling them a sales department.

We call them a solutions department because that is their job. It is not necessarily to go sell everything they can sell, but to set the expectations, make sure that the scope of work is the scope of work that the client actually, or the partner meets, and that’s their entire job.

Cause your relationships that start right last long. That’s how it goes.

Absolutely. Great. You are so passionate about, strategic creativity. So how do you strike a balance between creative expression, and strategic objectives in your campaigns?

And what advice would you want to give to the marketers listening to us, who struggle with, finding this balance?

I think let’s see, I’ll talk about how we do it at Tribu it’s both sides, the creative side and the strategy side have to learn to deeply respect one another.

The strategy side, the numbers has to just think of the strategy side as the numbers that you have to understand that the value of creativity, make room for it, allow it. And know that the way that good creative is going to serve them is it’s going to drive all their CPCs down all their CPMs lower like good creative is going to make their numbers strong.

But on the creative side. It also has a very purposeful reason that this Art or creative that they’re working on is being crafted and they have to understand that their creative isn’t just the art aspect of it. It’s also, will it meet the goal? And both sides have to have deep respect for each other.

It’s operationally difficult to do because the strategy side just wants to boost their numbers up. So they’re like, Hey, get me some ads, any ads. I don’t care. I just need them to say this so I can plug them in and let’s go. The creative side is waiting, I don’t have an idea yet. So both sides have to understand. You know the value of each they have to want they have to care about each other’s world. Respect each other’s differences and know how those differences, I think the advice to other agents I don’t know if I’m qualified to give as I work through the agency world myself would be that there has to be encouragement and allowance for both, and deciding if something is going to be creatively led or strategically led on a case by case in context is important,

because any great brand has both. They have aspects that are strategically led that are numerically driven, but they also have aspects that are creatively led. And that is meant to, I think I say it in marketing, hit the consumer more in the guts, create emotions, create feelings that just satisfy a human being at their core, so I just think deciding any brand image you know, is this going to be creatively led or is this going to be strategically led, and making sure that the team is on the same page and that they will share that. At times, things will be strategically led. At times, things will be creatively led, and being able to respect each other enough to let whatever should lead.

Absolutely. Lovely point there, Sara. Before we wrap this up, I want to ask you one final question, what is your take on AI and machine learning, it has hit our industry? It has been more than a year now. We all made our strategies and adoptions around it.

Where do you think are we heading with AI?

I honestly love it. I know that people are scared of it. Sometimes people say it’s going to, it’s going to take our jobs. I don’t think so. I think our job will become a lot prompting the AI, someone’s going to have to know how to use AI well, just because it can do a lot of what is currently being done by human beings.

This doesn’t mean that marketing is not going to be needed anymore. Someone’s going to have to learn how to deploy AI very effectively to be creative, to be strategic. And I do think that’s where our jobs are going. I don’t think our jobs are being taken away. I think resistance to AI is a problem. I think that will threaten the job.

I do think there needs to be some regulation around it. I don’t think that I can be blindly trusted. I think that you still need a human being to evaluate what AI has shared with you. Is this good? Does it meet the objective objectives of this brand? But it can help so much.

We use it all the time We’re using it at Tribu to help edit leaves and that makes something look like falls into a photo before we post it on Social, we’re using it to help organize marketing strategies. We’re using it to help us write blogs, to help us read things, to help us create explainer videos, I love AI.

I’m excited by it. I don’t think it’s the threat that everybody thinks it is. I. Technology scares everybody when it first comes out, but we always figure it out and we will figure this out too.

We’ve always done that, history is a witness to that. We’ve always done that, right?

Great. So it was lovely speaking with you and thank you so much for taking our time and doing this with us. Appreciate it.

Ranmay, thanks for having me. It was fun.

Great. Thank you.

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