The intersection of strategic planning and digital design for CEOs
Julie Bauer joined The CEO Forum podcast in 2018 with Robert Reiss to discuss the importance effective brand strategy has on a company’s future growth.
* Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Robert: Hi, this is Robert Reiss with the CEO Forum and we’re here with Julie Bauer. And how are you, Julie?
Julie: I’m very well. Thank you.
Robert: Julie is not just the CEO of Grok, which is a top advertising firm, but also the founder. And later in the interview, we will talk about that. Right now, we can talk about all these awards and top accreditations you have and Inc. Magazine, but tell everyone what is Grok? (00:32)
Julie: Grok is an interesting company, because I think our industry is an interesting right now. So, when we founded the company nine years ago, I would say we were a fairly traditional advertising agency. Fairly traditional advertising agencies are out of business today. Grok is a company that really sets out to help our clients, understand who it is they need to influence, who it is they need to convince to buy their products or services, and then we go about finding those people, identifying those people, and helping our clients succeed. That could be advertising, that could be branding. Today, that could be social media, that could be video. How you get to those people gets a lot easier once you know who it is you want to get too.
Robert: You’ve been a CEO twice – at Saatchi & Saatchi and Grok. Your real discipline is strategic planning and marketing. What you will do is you will take the CEO through this strategic planning process. We have a couple hundred thousand CEOs listening in. What can you tell them that they need to be doing in the strategic planning process? (1:47)
Julie: I think they need to be involved. We just recently did a rebranding for one of our tech clients. And the CEO was a new CEO, and I went in to him [and said], “It’s all good and well to have the CMO, the Head of Sales and some other operational people, participate in the branding exercise, but ultimately you are the vision of the company. That’s true for most companies. You can take the biggest companies in the world and the CEO dictates a lot of how you feel about that company.
Robert: So how do you find out what is systemically important to that CEO? (2:40)
Julie: We have a pretty unique process. When I left the big-agency world quite a few years ago, I had a consultancy before I started Grok. My consultancy really was a strategic consultancy. I brought that discipline to Grok. At Grok, we call it our GrokShop®.
Robert: GrokShop? G-R-O-K-S-H-O-P?
Julie: You bet. The GrokShop is a bespoke situation for every client. We have some discipline we take them through but really it varies every time we start engagement. It starts with going out and doing what we call our key stakeholder interviews. I sit with the CEO. I do all of these personally because frankly I think that’s why I think they hire us. I sit with them and I really try to understand what is in that CEO’s head. What does he want his company to be and where does he think his company can go. Then you start interviewing all of his lieutenants. It’s pretty remarkable because you can find the ones who are going to align with him and the ones who aren’t.
Robert: You find it immediately I bet.
Robert: I’m sure the CEO wants that information.
Julie: Yeah he does but I try not to be that transparent with it because as you go through this process, we just finished one recently, one of the people I thought was clearly not in his world, by the time six months had gone by and we finished the process, he was as big of a supporter and as part of that world as anybody else. Everyone gets in a room, we do a bunch of interviews, my team does a lot of desktop research to understand that particular company’s competitors, industry and how they operate, and then we interview these people and we bring them all here to this funny little agency in New York.
Robert: Cool New York City. Hip. Chelsea area.
Julie: You get them out of their environment.
Robert: And you eat pizza like you have here everyday?
Julie: We eat pizza here everyday. I don’t know why there was pizza here today. We have a couple of dogs here usually. We take these people who walk in dressed in suit and tie, and within about an hour the ties come off. The jackets go off, and they really start digging in and participating. All I am doing is facilitating at that point. What they’re doing is deciding what their company is going to be. How are they going to brand it? How are they going to market? And what is that distinct statement of fact that if I say what does your company do, everybody sings the same song.
Robert: So the key thing you’re looking for is what is the key fact that’s defendable.
Julie: Defendable and ownable. Ownable I would say is a bigger part of it actually.
Robert: How do CEOs institute that ownability?
Julie: I always say, it’s old, the fish rots from the head down. I find for myself that I’m tough. I know I’m very tough, but I am consistent. I think this particular CEO, it was his first time being a CEO, we actually became quite close through the process. And he is a very tough guy. He’s like, ‘Am I too tough,’ and I’m like ‘As long as your consistently tough, there’s nothing wrong with it’ because people know where you stand, they know what you want and they’re going to go get it. But be fair with them. You can’t be really tough one day and walk in the next day and be a softee. It just doesn’t work and it’s not as easy being tough, but I think employees appreciate it. They say, ‘I know where I stand. I know what I need to do to be successful here, and I know my marching orders. We work with a lot of different industries, we work with a lot of consumer goods and tech companies because they are smaller – 100 million-dollar companies. They want their IPOs in the next three years. We work with a lot of companies under private equity. They know they need to have a brand. I think the interesting thing for me compared to 20 years when I first started in the business, I think people know that branding means something today. Having a solid brand really has an influence on revenue.
Robert: How important is it for B2B brands to have a B2C presence? What is the key so people know who your brand is?
Julie: I think it’s equally important for a B2B company to have a brand as it is for a B2C to be honest. At the end of the day, if you are a business selling to a business, you are still selling to individuals. The other thing a strong brand does, is it allows to make mistakes. If you take the one we all like to use Apple … Steve Jobs made a lot of mistakes. He launched the LISA. He launched a lot of products that just were not great products. But because that was so strong, nobody remembers that. A strong brand gives you allowance. A lot of allowance.
Robert: What is one action, besides be involved, that CEOs could do to build their brands?
Julie: Be consistent. Brands are not built overnight. The ones that we all know, that did not happen overnight. Know that it is going to take time. Be patient and be consistent. You get tired of the message long before the person who is listening to it does. I know that’s an old adage, but that’s very true. Don’t get tired of it, be consistent and stick with it.
Robert: If people want to see your website, what is it?
Julie: Our website is groknyc.com.
Robert: And that’s G-R-O-K?
Julie: Yes, by the way that is a real word. From Strangers in a Strange Land for anybody who is a sci-fi person. It means to understand intuitively what makes people tick.
Robert: You were not only one of Inc.’s 500 fastest-growing companies, but they had a picture of you with the Empire State building behind you. You were like the cover story. How does somebody get that to happen?
Julie: I think it was a multitude of things. One of them was we were an advertising agency. You don’t see that in the Inc. 500. It’s all tech. Our industry doesn’t really chase revenue and doesn’t really pay attention to finance, and I do. We want to make money. We want to do really great work for our clients, but we are also very conscious of the bottom line.
Robert: What’s the secret within building a successful advertising agency from the ground up when so few people do?
Julie: Clients today want brains. They want brains and they want smarts. They don’t care if you have a fancy office. For the first three years, we worked out of my apartment. The clients would come to my apartment, and we’d have meetings there. One time, the head client of one of our clients said to me, ‘I need to call the CEO.’ And I had to put her in my bedroom. She walked out and said, ‘I think we’re paying you enough money. Go get an office.’ That’s when I broke down and got office space. I was pretty adamant. You don’t need office space. You just need to be smart. The clients need to see the value you are bringing them. They don’t really care where you work today.
Robert: Was there a mistake you made that you had to solve and somehow learned a lesson because of it?
Julie: There’s been plenty. The first time I got fired from a job was pretty devastating, but then I learned that that’s not a bad thing to happen to anyone, because you come out of it as a stronger person provided you don’t blame it on the person who fired you. Within Grok, we made a mistake. We made a miscalculation and we lost about 35-40% of our business a couple years ago. It was all in one client. The miscalculation was that we didn’t think it was ever going to happen and we weren’t planning for it. That’s stupid on my part. We’ve replaced it, and we’ve grown further beyond that. But we didn’t go out and tried to replace it whole. We replaced it with four different pieces of business. It forced us also to take a step back and say what other disciplines do we need to have in the agency to make us competitive? What other types of work can we pick up and do?
We’re doing a lot more branding work now than we ever did that may or may not lead to advertising. It may just lead to a new logo and a new brand for a small company. We’re doing a lot of digital now. We’re doing a lot of video content. I have brilliant young guys that sit over here and God knows how they do it. They create short-form films and we do that all in-house. We had a client that was an olive oil company. Once every month we close the office and the office became a kitchen. We made recipe videos. We did it all in-house. I’ve pretty much built an environment that says it can be done. I always quote one of my art directors because he is Brazilian. And every time I would say, ‘Can we do it.’ He would say, ‘Oh yes Julie. We can do it.’ It’s a get-it-done culture. We give you pizza, but get it done.
Robert: You can see when you come in that everyone is vibrant and really smart.
Julie: We call them our Grokstars. You come here. You guys are sitting here and can see it. You can’t hide. There’s nowhere to hide. Everything is open.
Robert: Even the office we are in is glass.
Julie: Yes, and that’s purposeful. Sometimes it’s a little noisy. Sometimes you have to leave to get away from it. We believe we hire young people who walk in and say, ‘This is great, because the CEO is going to see me work, see what I can do.’ That’s the environment we’ve built here. I’m very proud of the group of people we’ve assembled.
Robert: What have you learned from your tech experience and what piece of advice would you give an early-stage tech company looking to get bought or do an IPO?
Julie: It started when I was CEO of Saatchi San Francisco in the late-90s during the dot-com craziness. I worked with a ton of private equity companies and firms that were looking to get their IPO. I can almost read it immediately when you come in, because if their eye is so hard on the ball of the IPO and not building the business to get to the IPO, they’ll never get there. I’ll hear people say, ‘Well, we want to get to an IPO in 3 to 5 years.’ Those are the ones invariably who are ringing the bells in six months, because their focus is not the IPO, their focus is on the journey to get there. One of our clients, we just recently did that with. They had a goal of a 3-year IPO and we sat down in Wall Street and they were the second-largest tech IPO bell-ringer last year. And we did all the branding for them.
Robert: How do you create consistency with the brand when digital is changing so frequently?
Julie: Digital is quote “changing quickly.” Sort of. All the AI and marketing automation, all that really allows you to do is to get to more people quicker. To scale your message faster. You still have to put a message out there. I still have to tell you something. I still need to tell you who Julie Bauer is. It doesn’t matter if I’m telling a million people that or one person that. That message has to be resonant and consistent.
What digital is allowing for is just quicker, getting to more people faster. The one thing that is going to happen in the next couple of years, is a lot more discipline is going to go around digital. Right now it’s the Wild Wild West. You’ve probably been a victim of this. You go online and you shop for a pair of shoes and the next thing you know, Nordstrom is feeding you 62 ads on a pair of shoes you don’t want anymore. Now you’re just ticked off and don’t really want the shoes. It’s an environment I think is exciting and dynamic and here to stay for sure, but look at how it’s influencing politics, and everything else in our world. It’s a force.
Robert: Again your website?
Robert: And this is Robert Reiss on the CEO Forum and we’ve been speaking with Julie Bauer, the founder and CEO of Grok. This is where we speak to the people, the CEOs who have reinvented the fabric of America. Congratulations on your tremendous success and the great value you provide for your clients.
You can view the original article here (paywall).