how to build a 9 figure with scott cullather

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How To Build A 9 Figure + Digital Agency with Scott Cullather

Phillip

I’ve always been fascinated by the question of why some digital marketing agencies struggle to gain traction and success, often struggling to break through the noise of endless global competition, while others seem to grow into six figure, seven figures, eight figures and beyond, enterprises. Let’s face it. If you’re launching or running a digital marketing agency in 2020, the competition can seem fierce. There are more so-called digital agencies now than ever before in the history of the industry. And every year, more and more enter the market place.

So, whether you’re an agency that’s focused on live events, digital advertising, brand storytelling, or something completely unique, in this episode of Innovators, where your future is now, we’re going to be joined by the CEO of INVNT, Scott, who has successfully grown his agency into an international juggernaut with offices in eight countries around the world, and with revenue almost topping nine figures; that’s 100 million dollars per year.

So, if you’re the owner, or if you work at a digital marketing agency, or you’re a brand interested in learning some of INVNT’s secrets when it comes to live event brand storytelling, then sit back, relax, and let’s get started.

To get started, I decided to ask Scott how he first got interested in starting a digital live events marketing agency, to begin with.

SCOTT

Yeah, yeah. It’s an interesting story, actually. So, I kind of grew up in the live event space. My father was the 13th employee at an agency called Jack Morton, which is now owned by Interpublic Group. So from the time I was a very — at a very, very young age, four, five years old, I was tagging along with my dad as he was designing and producing. Back in those days, they called it industrial theater, which was basically, you know, live events brought to audiences of corporations and trade associations in a creative fashion.

And so, I got the bug at a very, very young age. I graduated from high school, went to the University of Richmond, graduated with an economic and business degree, although I always had this sort of creative sense about me. And two years after graduating, I went to work for his agency. He had left Jack Morton and founded an agency called Williams/Gerard, which unfortunately, is no longer in business. And I started off with that agency and went up through the ranks over about an 18-year period, during which time I was transferred to New York, which I am now living in. And I was the vice president and general manager of their agency in New York. And so, I’ve really had this idea of live events and experiences in my blood since I was born.

PHILLIP

One of the things I noticed as I listened carefully to Scott was his lifelong passion for live events and marketing. Perhaps this, combined with his own intuition and natural passion for being daring, as he calls it, was partly behind the global success of INVNT. I decided I wanted to find out, so I asked Scott what his number one piece of advice would be for digital agency entrepreneurs and managers on how they can be more successful with their companies and within their roles.

SCOTT

Well, I think first and foremost, it’s about telling your story. You know, nothing works and brands and organizations don’t communicate and effectively engage their target audiences without the right story. And so you’ve got to make sure that you have that, sort of, single organizing principle around what the story is. Then you need to understand who you want to communicate to. So, you know, what are the demographics of that audience? And, what do they like and what do they dislike. And so, that gives you some understanding of what that storyline will be.

And then you’ve got to figure out the mechanism by which to communicate that story. And for us, we’ve been very fortunate with our business because we’ve actually grown up in the live event space, which interestingly enough, is kind of in a collision with the digital space right now. Because if you look at the global population, over half the world’s population is made up right now of millennials and Gens. I think the statistics are that almost 5 billion people or a half the world’s population are made up of those two demographics. And they want one thing more than anything else. They want a shareable experience.

And so, for us, that means a live event that is combined with digital technology. And so, if you have the right story, you understand how to communicate to the audience, and you can create some sort of a shareable experience, you can create a sticky engagement that creates a — like a love affair between a brand or an organization and its key target audiences.

PHILLIP

I just love how Scott said that. By creating a relevant story, communicating it well, and creating truly shareable experiences with your target audience, you can create sticky engagement, allowing you to create a love affair between your brand and audiences. Doesn’t that sound like something worth sticking around for?

So, at this point, I decided to ask Scott to share how he incorporated these insights into his own agency and select clients.

SCOTT

So we specialize in bringing stories to life for our clients and our customers, and we do that through a variety of different tools in our toolbox. One of them is live events. One of them is digital experiences. One of them is branded environments. And another one is we just have acquired a organization called Folk Hero, which is really interesting because they are a C-suite brand communications agency. And so, the focus of everything that we do is around storytelling. And so, we go to our clients and our customers and prospective clients and customers, and we want to try and find out what their goals and objectives are, who they want to communicate to. And then we craft disruptive messages that are on brand, on point, all that sort of stuff, but that are disruptive and that are going to stick.

If you look at it, statistically, you know, human beings are bombarded by over 20,000 messages a day. So in order for a brand to effectively communicate and create real ROI, we need to help them tell stories in a way that’s unique and that’s disruptive, but at the same time, is on brand and on message.

PHILLIP

One theme that continued to arise during our segment together was this idea of how important brand authenticity is when it comes to marketing. But let’s listen in as Scott explains the term citizen journalist, which I love, and how it speaks, in my view, to a much broader movement, and how younger consumers are starting to make purchasing decisions around the world.

SCOTT
We have a term that we like to use at INVNT called citizen journalists. And we actually believe that citizen journalists are more valuable than a paid spokesperson. So, for instance, if you, Phillip, were at an event and you socialized it amongst your social platforms, that’s actually more meaningful to people who are in your network of social platforms than some celebrity who socializes it, you know? Because, again, it goes to speaking authentically to those consumers or those customers.
PHILLIP
I decided, at this point, to shift gears and ask Scott about another term of his that I like called the chief experience officer, and why, according to him, every CEO is about to experience a wave of disruption, unlike anything they’ve ever witnessed before.
SCOTT

Yeah, so in our opinion, there’s a new CEO in town or there should be. If you think about, again, going back to the point that I made about the digital spending economy being a trillion by 2030, businesses and brands and organizations are spending an enormous amount of money on these activations, which cross these different platforms. And so, the thing that they don’t have right now, generally speaking, most of them don’t, is somebody that is in charge of these experiences.

And they’re not just live experiences, they’re experiences of any kind. And to us, it’s much like the HR head was 15 or 20 years ago, there wasn’t one. You didn’t have a human resources person that reported in to the CEO or the COO. That HR person reported in to some senior VP which is a, you know, lofty position. But now, the HR title sits at the C-suite table. So in our opinion, this chief experience officer or the new CEO for progressive companies and organizations that really want to create this emotional connection with their brands, between their brands and their consumers or their customers and their products and their customers, and they’re going to invest the kind of money that they’re investing, they really need somebody in the C-suite that is sitting upstairs, designing the strategies, rolling it out through the organization, making sure it’s effectively activated through the organization, and that it’s pulled through to the consumer or the customer. And we think that the progressive companies are going to start creating this new position called the chief experience officer.

PHILLIP
As we all listen to this, I bet we can imagine the benefits our organizations would receive if the consumer experience was understood and incorporated at every level within the organization. The companies that get this, Amazon, Google being really good examples of this, are experiencing monopoly profits that are probably very enjoyable. Scott also told a cautionary tale of what the dangers brands would face who fail to put the consumer experience first, at the heart of everything they do.
SCOTT
I don’t know whether it’s a digital versus analog story, or whether it’s a scale story. You know, I’m a huge advocate of scale breeds mediocrity. And the larger you get and the more commoditized you get, the more democratized you get, the — I don’t want to say the lazier you get, but maybe the less risk-averse you get. And so, you stop doing the things that you did at the beginning that got you to where you are today. And so, therefore, I don’t know whether it’s a digital or analog kind of problem or challenge, or whether it’s an actual scale challenge and problem.
PHILLIP
Now on the topic of achieving eight figures plus status as a digital agency, I was curious how Scott managed to, not only create a successful digital marketing agency, but to scale it with multiple offices around the world. So I asked him what advice he had for other entrepreneurs looking to do the exact same thing.
SCOTT
Yeah, so, I think be daring, first and foremost, be daring. You know, one of the biggest things that small entrepreneurial businesses are challenged with is their competition because they’re going up against larger agencies or organizations or companies that have a reputation. And customers or clients are going to say in their minds, “Why should I choose you over my incumbent company that I’ve been working for for 10 years or 15 years or whatever, and they’re proven, they have the financials, they have the insurance, they have all the things that I need?”

So the way to change that perception is to be daring. Regardless of what your product offering is, you’ve got to be bold and you’ve got to stand out, because the general customer or consumer isn’t going to make a change, unless there’s an incentive for that. Now, a lot of startups will go to the opposite value proposition, and they’ll dive on price. And I actually think that’s a mistake, because you can’t compete with the larger organizations on price. Like, I can’t compete with Amazon, nor can many of the retailers, right, because they’re so big, that they have the advantage of scale. So, price, I think, is the wrong value proposition. So I would say be daring.

Number two, I think that you have to create a footprint for yourself that makes you look bigger and stronger than you really are. So one of the things that we did very early on, is we invested in PR and marketing, and we invested in doing things that got us exposure. So, and there’s a lot of inexpensive things that you can do: apply for awards, industry awards, go to speaking engagements, get on Philip Lew’s podcast, you know. There’s a lot of different things that you can do to actually increase the footprint of what you really are in order to gain attraction. So, those are the first three things that I would suggest.

PHILLIP
So be daring, and never underestimate the creative potential of the human mind. I like that. At this stage of the interview, Scott and I started talking about the importance of working on your business as opposed to only working in your business. Let’s listen in.
SCOTT
Working in the business is actually doing the things that matter to the success of a project or a product or an account. And that means things like, you know, designing and producing, or overseeing the architecture of a particular product or widget or whatever. Working on the business is more about broadly overseeing a general team of people that are doing those things that work in the business. And so, one of the hardest things that my wife and I found at our company in 2008 — She’s Kristina. She’s — Kristina McCoobery. She’s our chief operating officer. One of the hardest things that we had to do was shift from working in the business to working on the business. And there’s a few things that I think held us back for a little bit, and are probably landmines for many, many entrepreneurs.

The first is cost. So, when you start your own agency or start your own business, you’re doing everything. You know, we were the CFO of the company. We were the chief operating officer. We were the CEO, we were the executive producers, we are the graphic designers, we are the creative directors. We did at all. So, and we had to because we had no real resources, and much like any other entrepreneurs. So, there comes a point where, as an entrepreneur, if you want to grow or if you want to build a sustainable, scalable business, you have to make an investment in resources that will allow you to move away from working in the business to working on the business. So that’s one thing.

The second thing is our expertise. You’re eventually going to outgrow — the business, as you continue to scale, will outgrow your ability or your expertise. And so, by demand, you’re going to have to find people that are better at right what you used to do than what you can do now. And then so that’s a must.

And then the third thing is ego. Entrepreneurs say, “I have a pretty healthy — I have a healthy ego. We have healthy egos.” You’ve got to check your ego at the door and let other people take responsibility, take control, give them autonomy, let them have a certain level of decision making, if not a lot of decision making in the business. And that means that you’ve got to set your ego on the table, you know. And it’s even 12 years into this and, you know, we’re almost a 100 million-dollar business, you know, we’re in five different countries. We have to check our egos at the door all the time because we have an amazing team of people that can actually do the job better than we can do. We just have to let them do that.

PHILLIP

As the interview ended, I began to realize that with Scott, the more he spoke, the more I seem to learn. And at the heart of his success, it became apparent to me that hiring great teams and thinking of your company as already being a large enterprise was at the center stage between event and all the rest. After the interview, Scott and I finished the segment by speaking about the idea that a moment of certainty will never come. So sometimes, the best thing you can do is simply take action in the present moment in the direction of your goals.

And as we wrap up this segment of Innovators, that is ultimately my message to you, the listener. Regardless of the size of your company or what your ultimate goals may be, there is no such thing as certainty, only opportunity, so seize it. Seize it now.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Innovators, where your future is now. To learn more about Scott and INVNT or to book his agency to do brand, storytelling, and live events, make sure and check out his website at www.invnt, I-N-V-N-T, www.invnt.com.

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ABOUT PHILLIP LEW

Phillip Lew is the host of Innovators, a podcast audio experience that decodes the mysteries of exponential technology and the coming singularity. Phillip Lew is also the CEO of C9 Digital — the #1 firm specializing in building dedicated Philippines-based teams for clients across 9 core industries.

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