You don’t always win but you learn: our firm recently lost out on a big piece of business, competing against other major agencies around the country. But the experience of pulling together, giving it our all and coming close really energized everyone for the next opportunity.
As a part of our interview series called “How to take a company from good to great” we had the pleasure to interview Jack Miller.
Jack Miller is the founder and CEO of True Independent Holdings, a privately held, fiercely independent group of marketing companies serving clients across North America. True Independent Holdings invests in, and helps develop, other entrepreneurial marketing and communication companies with unique go-to-market strategies. TIH’s portfolio of firms includes some of the industry’s top experts who specialize in targeted marketing and media segments including the media planning and buying agencies True Media and True Media Canada, the programmatic agency Coegi, and the data analytics company RADaR.
Under Jack’s leadership and direction, the companies inside his portfolio have won numerous awards and been recognized for growth and leadership by Inc. Magazine, iMedia, Entrepreneur, Digiday, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, Agency Post, Forbes, and Bionic. In addition, Jack was personally recognized by the United States Small Business Administration in 2015 as Business Person of the Year and was a Midwestern Finalist for the Ernest and Young 2016 Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
Jack is a regular speaker in the subject of entrepreneurship, media, and marketing. In addition to his work at True Independent Holdings, he is the co-founder of a boutique software programming company and a commercial real estate development group. He serves as Chair of the Board of Trustees for Columbia Independent School, as an angel investor in the Centennial Investors Group, and on the investment board for the Missouri Tech Accelerator Fund. He has been married to his wife for 20+ years and together they raise their son and daughter.
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?
I think the media often glamorizes the life and lifestyle of an entrepreneur. What people don’t see when you start a business is the hard grind and sleepless nights that go on for an owner. When I look back to when I started the company 17 years ago, I think I’ve trained my brain to remember much more of the positive parts of the journey versus the negative. But there were a few sleepless nights at the beginning being the sole breadwinner for my family with two small kids and balancing the needs of the business with the needs of my family.
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?
Everyone makes mistakes — and we should let young entrepreneurs who are just starting out know that right up front. You don’t find your path without taking a few wrong turns, or doubling back to do something better a second time. That’s the most important takeaway in business, wherever you are on your growth curve. However, I’m proud of the fact that we have limited the number of mistakes we have made through the years because I’ve always sought good counsel from people who were subject matter experts in whatever I was dealing with. While I don’t have a board of directors at the company, I have certainly created an unofficial board of advisors that I rely on and meet with regularly to help me be proactive in navigating various situations.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Be honest, work hard, over communicate and innovate. Those are the principles that have guided us through our growth. We hang those principles on the wall and celebrate the fact that most decisions and challenges can be answered by applying one or all of those standards. I think that’s particularly important in the service industry. It can be easy to think of business as transactional. “We sell computers”, “we build homes”, “we bake cakes” or whatever it might be. But we’re not in the nuts and bolts or dollars and cents business. I learned a long time ago that you have to deliver really great service in whatever you do: be a partner, a problem solver, a go-to fixer or source of inspiration and ideas for your clients or customers. While all of the companies in our portfolio cater to various segments of the media or marketing industry, we want to stand out not just on what we do but how we do it. This concierge style of service inspires our team members to find additional ways to make the customer experience that much more enjoyable. We ask our employees to find solutions to our client’s problems, anticipate needs, and then bring the right set of answers to the table even if that means bringing in additional partners to provide a service that we don’t offer. We want this model to create truly exceptional experiences for our clients.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Pacing is critical. If you burn too bright too fast, you won’t make it and you won’t do your customers or your clients any favors either. Growing a truly great company isn’t a sprint. Business owners can be tempted to race off the blocks and race full speed for the finish line, head down. But give yourself room to rest, regroup and recover. It’s important to take vacation, let your mind reboot and get reenergized. It’s also important to read and be inspired by other people’s stories. But when I say it’s important to pace I don’t mean to just go slow. By all means take your brilliant or innovative idea and build an aggressive launch plan to bring your business to market but understand smart growth is better than just fast and furious growth. Smart growth is about learning from the journey: listening to your customers and clients and surveying them on your performance. It’s about having your head up to see what’s around the corner and being able to adapt the business to anticipate future trends and opportunities. I also believe it’s important to adopt a data-led approach to every aspect of your business and find the right analytics partner to really illuminate the path forward. What is your competition doing? What tactics, strategies and choices delivered the best returns? Quality, visualized data can be the backbone to real business success and can help inform leaders on the proper next steps to take.
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?
I could write a book on all of the people that have influenced me, inspired me, and counseled me along my journey. Some influences are profound, others are small interactions or acquaintances that I simply observe from afar. From my parents, teachers in school, my spouse and children to other business people and leaders…I think I’ve done a good job of curating the best advice and examples from a host of people along the way.
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?
There are a lot of companies that anyone would describe as good. They do good work, make good products and their customers or clients seem happy enough. In short we’d say they’re successful — demonstrating profits, growing in their industry and continuing to hire new staff as they do. But greatness isn’t the same as success. It’s not transactional or tied to a balance sheet read by an accountant or auditor. To be truly great a company must be three things, You have to have a welcoming and nurturing culture for your employees — an environment that helps them, of course, deliver excellence in their jobs and roles, but also encourages and supports them to grow as talented workers but also people. Second, being great is about doing things even when nobody is looking or perhaps even asking for: going the extra mile with a project to solve a client’s problem or an unexpected need — even if it’s perhaps outside of your agreed scope. Being an ongoing source of new ideas, inspiration and motivation for your customers. And lastly, it isn’t about money or success. Being a great company might start with leaders setting an example or mission goals, but it only happens when the collective spirit, efforts and initiative of the entire company are brought to bear.
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.
1. Who are we: what’s our mission as a business and how are we going to succeed? Then build the talent, resources and skill sets for each step of the journey towards your end goal. Too many businesses fail at understanding their USP and what they bring to their customers.
2. How are we different: do you offer a unique product or service, beat the competition on speed, pricing or quality? Is the way you service customers better than others, and do your customers know that. If not, show them in every aspect of the business.
3. Know your people: this can’t be emphasized enough. A company or business isn’t a thing. It’s a collection of people, talent, experience and energies brought to bear for customers or clients. Your team, their dedication, skill level, attitude and overall well-being and happiness is critical to business success and longevity so do everything you can to build their skills, reward their endeavors and recognize their unique contributions as much as you can.
4. You don’t always win but you learn: our firm recently lost out on a big piece of business, competing against other major agencies around the country. But the experience of pulling together, giving it our all and coming close really energized everyone for the next opportunity.
5. It’s all about reputation: you can’t, and shouldn’t, just market yourself to greatness. Becoming great is an incremental journey: doing exceptional work every day, every time; delivering even when it’s not expected; and focusing on work versus promotion to build reputation.
COULD INPUT STORIES HERE, BUT NOT CRITICAL.
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 all should have purpose as individuals — in life, at work, at home, and in our communities. And businesses are no different. But purpose can be many things. Are you going to fulfill a business mission and deliver services to customers who need help? Or is your mission something grander and even altruistic? That could mean allocating proceeds to the communities around your organization, or paid volunteerism across your firm to support a key cause or association. Having and articulating a purpose to everyone in your business helps create unity and a synchronized collective effort which can inform the way your teams perform in the work they do. It’s also really an expectation today that every organization that is able is a good corporate citizen: an involved member of the community, a good steward of the environment. For public companies, purpose may be aligned around ESG initiatives (environment, social and governance practices) that create strict procedures and protocols for things like C02 emissions, recyclable packaging and minimal environmental footprinting, as well as best practices for employees, workplace culture and every way you run your business. Even if your company isn’t public, these are the standards great companies hold themselves too. And it’s important to customers too. As Gen Z makes up more of the buying power mix, their motivations around cause-related issues are going to demand even more purpose and transparency from the brands they do business with.
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”?
Seek the advice of mentors: leaders who have been through what you’re experiencing and came back stronger. It will be both motivational and instructive. You also can’t grow, as I’ve said, without understanding and for that you need data points. Review what the numbers show you and work with your data-analytics partner to understand the triggers and levers for success or failure. Build a collective picture of the products that drive revenue, the ad campaigns or media vehicles that engage consumers or the business decisions that deliver the greatest returns. Then understand why are those tactics failing to deliver now? Chances are something’s changed — consumers are more price sensitive, your competition is eating into your market share, or something unknown is affecting growth. Analyze the data and set a new course. Sometimes, restarting the engine is about hitting reset — changing your marketing message, emphasizing a new value proposition or refreshing your brand. There are many reasons growth can stall but truly great companies understand that business is cyclical and arm themselves with the information, insights and strategic partnerships to help them make informed, data-driven decisions to get back on track. I think each of these suggestions requires working with outside experts. Don’t think that as a leader you alone have to have all of the ideas. Bringing in a smart marketing firm who has the ability to analyze your business from a different perspective can be powerful. Using a professional business coach from time to time can also help rewire your thinking as a leader to see the organization from a different angle.
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?
The first thing to remember during economic downturns of any kind is that it’s not going to last forever. That’s easy to say of course, but it’s true that over history the average recession lasts somewhere in the region of 10–11 months before the market begins to correct. The key to waiting out recessionary downturns and continuing to maintain or even grow your business is in demonstrating value. For those of us in the services industry that’s about helping clients find ways to grow, promote and market their businesses and bring solutions to challenges made worse by economic pressures. When your customers do well, you do too. Outside of the service industry, of course, businesses are constrained by materials, pricing and fixed costs. Making your brand, your product and your business a priority for customers who are making more selective decisions during tighter economic conditions is essential. Too many companies cut their advertising, promotion or marketing budgets in an effort to tighten the belt, but studies show — as far back as the great recession — that brands and businesses that stay visible and valuable come out of downturns ahead of those that “go dark.”
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
When people look at great companies they see a founder with a vision, or a body of work that sets the business apart from the competition. But the value of great managers can often be overlooked. These are specialists in their respective fields who may not be on leadership committees or part of the executive team, but the skills and dedication they bring to their roles every day really drive results for clients and customers. They show up every day and do the really hard work of working closely with customers to meet every challenge and solve problems. For excellent management of your company, look to these people — department heads, group directors, on-the-ground store managers and the like as the everyday face of your business and the engine for greatness.
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?
Getting the attention of customers and consumers is hard — especially in the digital landscape where there’s so much competition, noise and distraction. People spend two and a half hours a day on average scrolling social media sites on their smartphones, but marketers only have a second or less to grab attention and stop the scroll. The first step to conversion obviously starts with developing engaging content about your brand, your business or your products. Video is by far the most engaging content form for consumers “on paper” but businesses really need to understand their consumer media and purchase behavior to determine the best channels to find and then engage consumers. A good media partner can help you understand where and when your consumers are online and put together a channel and engagement plan to get your message in front of them. The best conversion strategies will then come from delivering the right content to the right eyes at the right time in the right channel. And for that we need data-analytics to inform programmatic digital ad buys that deliver real ROI.
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?
Think about the brands you (and many of us) love and trust. What do they have in common? Is it that they know implicitly who they are and make us aware of it? Apple. Nike. Coca-Cola. Or is it also that they have created emotional connections with their consumers. The experience of unboxing a pristine Apple product is a tactile, sensory moment. Nike’s excellence in apparel is undisputed but the brand is an incredible storyteller, spotlighting the inspirations and drive of everyday athletes to the stars we love. And Coca-Cola taps into a century of heritage nostalgia to connect with us. Consumer connection is critical to brand building but reputation as a trusted brand only comes from continuous excellence in your products and services. When a customer has a problem is it easy to get answers or help? Is support a seamless, painless experience that creates word of mouth among their friends and community? Assess every customer touchpoint from digital channels to front desks and ask the question: is this excellence in customer experience. In a post-pandemic world (for the most part) where consumers demand convenient, easy access to brands, products and information on the phones in their hand you must create great digital products plus all of the support structures behind the scenes to deliver the total experience.
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?
I told a story at our annual retreat in St. Louis, MO a few months ago, when we brought in hundreds of employees from our four agencies to discuss just this: the critical importance of customer service. The story goes like this. I was traveling on business and staying at the Ritz Carlton in New Orleans and was preparing for a series of important meetings the next day. I contacted the concierge to have my shirt dry-cleaned and pressed after my luggage got wet so it would be ready for the next day and thought little about it. In the morning, however, the shirt wasn’t ready or returned and the clock was winding down for my meeting. What I didn’t know was, in the meantime, the concierge realizing there was a problem with in house laundry services had taken it upon himself to go out, purchase a fresh new shirt for me and was on his way to deliver it in person to my room. That is something quite rare — anticipatory excellence in customer service.
It’s my goal that each of the True group of agencies — True Media, True Media Canada, RADaR data analytics and Coegi digital marketing — bring that same concierge style of service to all of our clients in everything we do. We’re delivering exceptional media and marketing strategies and not fresh shirts, but the output is the same: we need to anticipate client needs, help them sidestep issues and problems, and meet their goals every time. Leaders must do that too as they grow and scale their companies. It’s important to truly understand your client or customer — not just the brand but the person and the individual. Think about what success looks like for them and what you can do to help them succeed in their role and within their reporting hierarchies. Exceptional service is about elevating the end result but the entire experience to get there.
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?
Well first, really effective leaders know it’s OK to make mistakes. The expression fail fast became popular a few years ago: the idea of making a mistake and incorporating the learning from it into your business. That’s 100 percent valid for all businesses, but especially when companies are starting out. Making a mistake, taking a misstep or trying a strategy and failing can impart incredible learnings for leaders and their teams. When we don’t know what doesn’t work, it’s harder to understand the levers and the variables that bring real, lasting wins. Many leaders of new businesses set impossible goals for themselves, and their performance, for their staff and their bottom line. There needs to be pragmatism baked into early growth strategies: what can we achieve? What do we do well? How can we improve? Young companies move fast and have a tendency to test and measure less than mature organizations. I’d recommend anyone in charge of a company or starting one, should plan more, measure against goals, analyze what does and doesn’t work. Data-analytics as a tool and a service, that you may purchase for your business, is now mission critical to what my business does for clients, but it’s also increasingly essential to make any informed decision in a competitive landscape.
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. 🙂
The name of my business is True (Independent Holdings), and that’s not by accident. If I could lead a business revolution in authenticity, truth and openness in business (and in life), I’d be incredibly happy. What I mean by that isn’t just doing what you say, and saying what you do, as the expression goes. It’s about individuals and organizations embracing a new, open, collaborative way to work and live. Mutual, stated understanding and respect for each other as a baseline, regardless of skills, background or beliefs. We saw an incredible pulling together across the world during the early days of the pandemic, so we know it’s capable for us all to work together on common goals, to fix really big problems. It’s my wish that true understanding and true collaboration become the way the world works in years to come.
How can our readers further follow you online?
I publish regular trends and insights articles on media and brand communications to LinkedIn here.
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.